While on my vacation up in Ashaway, RI, I came across these newspaper clippings about my first cousin twice removed, Charles A Erbig (1915-1942,) who died in the service of his country. Sadly, this story is probably similar for many other families. Charles had died but it took many long months for the family to be notified that missing in action really meant that he had died. I’ve seen movies about Japanese prisoner of war camps, but can they really compare to the reality of what Charles lived through? It seems unlikely.
Charles’ father was my great grand-uncle, William Edward Erbig (1888-1961.) Charles, like so many of the Erbigs, was born in New Jersey (probably Jersey City.) The family shows up on the 1920 census in Jersey City, but by 1930, they had already relocated to Ashaway, RI to join the rest of the Erbig clan.
In 1937, Charles is mentioned in an article in the New London Day for his being a witness to a friend’s accident.
The Day (New London, CT) 9 Apr 1937
Paper Distributor Badly Hurt:
Reaching over the rear fender to take a paper from the rumble seat, Ellsworth Hall, 21, of Ashaway, who was delivering papers in White Rock, Westerly,fell from the running board of a friend’s automobile yesterday morning and was critically hurt. Hall was delivering papers in Main street,White Rock, at 9:30 o’clock, on the running board of a roadster operated by Charles A. Erbig, 22, of Box 99, Ashaway, who told police that as the car passed Spring Brook road, he felt a shifting weight on the car’s springs and looking back, saw Hall sitting in the road. Erbig told police that before he could reach the man, Hall got up and staggered to the roadside, where he collapsed. Erbig and Alexander Dinwoodie, 16, of West Street, Ashaway, a passenger in the car, placed Hall in the machine and drove to the hospital. Dr. Michael H. Scanlon and Dr. Linwood H. Johnson found severe head injuries and cuts on both hands. Hall was unconscious for more than three hours. Hospital authorities said this morning that his condition was slightly improved although his name is still on the danger list. Erbig was questioned at police headquarters by Police Chief Robert Kessel, Sergt. LeRoy H Norman and Patrolman Benjamin R Vredenburg of Westerly and Inspector Walter F. Kendall of the state motor vehicle department. He was released to appear again if summoned.
According to the enlistment records I found on Ancestry.com, Charles enlisted in the military a full year before WWII began:
US World War II Army Enlistment Records: (ancestry.com)
Charles A. Erbig … Birth year: 1914 … Born in: NJ … Residence: Washington Co., RI … Enlistment Date/Location: 23 Sep 1940, Providence, RI … Brance: Air Corps, Grade: Private … Terms of Enlistment: Enlistment for the Philippine Dept … Education: 3 years high school … Civil Occupation: Semiskilled inspectors, n.e.c. … Marital Status: Single, without dependents … Height: 64, Weight: 118
Sadly, he would be dead less than two years later. Here’s the first article I found:
Dies in Jap Prison. Cpl. Erbig, Ashaway boy, died of malaria in a Japanese prison camp July 25, 1942, the War Department recently informed his father, William Erbig of 6 Palmer Street, Ashaway. He was with the Air Force at Nichols Field in the Philippines when the Japs attacked Pearl harbor. Hew as reported missing in 1942 and his family last heard from him in a letter dated Dec. 6, 1941.
For those of you a little foggy on your history, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the day after they last heard from Charles, December 7, 1941. Wikipedia had this photo from 1941 of Nichols Field where Charles was stationed:
From what I read online, it seems relations between the US and Japan had been in a downward spiral since 1940 and the US was beginning to position troops in their general vicinity. Charles’ placement in the Philippines was part of that prelude to war.
Here’s the longer article on his death:
Ashaway Boy Dies in Jap Prison Camp – Charles A. Erbig was reported missing in Action in 1942 – Unheard from since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department announced yesterday that Cpl. Charles A. “Tuffy” Erbig, 31, son of William Erbig of 6 Palmer Street, Ashaway, died July 25, 1942 in a Japanese Prison of War Camp as the result of Malaria.
A volunteer in the Army Air Ford, Cpl. Erbig was at Nichols Field in the Philippines when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. His family last heard from him in a letter dated Dec. 6, 1941, just one day before the attack. Since then they had received no word from him and in 1942 the War Department announced that he was missing in action.
After three years and six months of hopeful waiting the War Department yesterday confirmed Mr. Erbig’s fears that his son was no longer alive in the following telegram: “Am deeply distressed to inform you reports just received state your son, Cpl. Charles A. Erbig, who was previously reported missing in action, died July 25, 1942, in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, as a result of malaria. The Secretary of War asks that I express deep sympathy in your loss and regrets that unavoidable circumstances made necessary the unusual lapse of time in reporting your son’s death to you.” The message was signed by the acting adjutant general of the army.
Erbig, an outstanding baseball player and all around athlete in Ashaway, volunteered for the army in 1939. He was with the air force in the Philippines when the situation in the Pacific became tense. After the Japs took the Philippines he was never heard from again and the government listed him as missing in action in 1942, but never was notified that he was a prison of war.
He was a prominent baseball player with Ashaway and Bradford in the Twilight League, being chosen twice as the outstanding third sacker in the circuit. He was also an amateur boxer and a fine golfer.
Erbig was born in Hudson City, N.J., May 26, 1914. He moved to Ashaway when only a youngster and was educated in the Ashaway Schools. In addition to his father he leaves his stepmother, Mrs. William Erbig, a brother William Erbig Jr., and Arm transport pilot in China and two sisters, Mrs. Ada Church of 41 School Street, Westerly and Mrs. Elizabeth Kenyon of West Street, Ashaway.
Here’s the best picture I have of the Twilight League Charles played with. It’s not very high res, so I apologize in advance. Charles is kneeling in the front row, the second from the far right.