Princeton resident Erik Raahauge’s entry into military service during World War II came through circumstances brought on by Hitler’s invasion into Europe when Raahauge was a Danish Merchant Marine sailor.
Raahauge, 92, who is blind in his right eye and has only three percent vision in his left, told his story in a clear voice last week at his residence in the Caley House assisted-living apartments in Princeton.
Raahauge grew up in the Danish town of Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, facing the North Sea. Raahauge explained that the city was born in the 1800s when a port there was dug out of sand dunes. His parents were Alfred and Charlotte, and Erik had a brother Knud (now deceased) and has a brother Arnie, of Denmark.
Raahauge became a sailor like his father Alfred, who owned a shipping line that hauled freight, including coal, fruit and dairy products, to many ports. It was as a 20-year-old junior seaman on board a merchant marine steam ship named the Maria that Erik was introduced to America.
“Hitler was running all over Europe” at the time, Raahauge said, when he, Raahauge, was on a refrigerator ship loaded with plums, apples, peaches and pears from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The plan had been to ship the fruit to Bergen, Norway, in April 1940, but the ship’s captain realized he could no longer safely land in Bergen nor in many other European places because of the German advance. The captain, therefore, decided to pull into the nearest neutral port and that was Pernambuco, Brazil, Raahauge explained.
Brazil then contacted American authorities, Raahauge said, about a place to dock longer, and it was arranged for the ship to put in at New York and unload there.
Raahauge says he waved at the Statue of Liberty and said, “Hi, honey,” as his ship sailed past.
The ship had to anchor near Ellis Island and get medical clearance for all the people on board before it could go farther into the harbor. A doctor from Ellis Island, where immigrants would go for the required medical inspection, made things easier for the ship’s crew by going on board, Raahauge said. He remembers the doctor having the captain line up the men for the inspection, and all but one man were free to go ashore after the inspection. That man had contracted a disease in South America, Raahauge said.
There would be a delay before the ship could be unloaded and the crew members were told to find their own lodging, so Raahauge took a Greyhound bus to Racine, Wis., where Raahauge’s mother’s cousin Ann Jensen and Ann’s husband Art Jensen lived.
It turned out that Raahauge would not be going back on board the Maria and he waited out the next two years, biding his time in America before a significant turn of events would occur for him.
During those two years, he moved back and forth between two residences – staying part of the time at the Jensens in Racine and the rest of the time with a relative in Menominee, Mich. Raahauge said he talked to American authorities in Milwaukee, during this time, about his status and says he thinks that helped him. He explained that a number of Danish Merchant Marine sailors, who were stranded the same time in America because of the war, ended up being placed in jail after two years. It was not because they had done anything wrong, but it was just so they “could be interned,” Raahauge said.
He learned of this, he said, when he came home one day to the Jensen house from his job at an implement factory in Racine. Ann told him that the American immigration officials were not coming to get him like the other sailors, and then Ann handed him a manila envelope bearing the title, War Department of the United States.
“I said, ‘Whoopee, I’m in the Army now, not behind the plow,’” Raahauge recalls. After a stop at a military facility in Milwaukee, he went to Ft. Sheridan, Ill., where he was outfitted with what he called a “good looking American uniform.”
Shortly after, he was placed on a troop train in late July of 1942, bound for San Diego for basic training. “I had a wonderful time getting acquainted with the California weather,” he remembers of that time before being moved to Riverside, Calif., for advanced training in the “sand dunes of California, dodging rattlesnakes.”
He figures it was in late August 1943, when he was put on a Dutch ship with 1,500 men to sail to Australia for jungle training. He was next put on an American Liberty ship for a five-day journey to the southern point of New Guinea, where he said the Japanese had not yet advanced. The Japanese were on the rest of New Guinea and “our job was to drive them out of there,” he said.
Raahauge was part of a coastal defense, antiaircraft artillery unit, doing reconnaissance work to find the best positions to place the artillery guns to protect ports in case the Japanese should arrive there.
He remembers being on the island of New Guinea from about September 1943 until after Christmas and then moving to other islands in the area, including New Britain. The latter is the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua, New Guinea.
This was in about Easter 1944, he says. He recalled how he had night duty at that time, and one morning, when he was coming off duty, his company commander, an Army captain, asked him, “Raahauge, do you still want to go back to America?” I said, “Yes sir.”
He rode a troop ship from New Guinea to San Francisco, landing there in October 1944, and remembers missing his buddies that he had been serving with. After a short time in San Francisco, he was sent back to Ft. Sheridan, Ill., where he began a 40-day leave. His next job was working on a tug boat that broke ice in the New York harbor into the spring of 1945. After that, he was on a ship dispatched to South America to tow an American tanker ship from Brazil to Norfolk, Va. The tanker had been in some conflict with Nazi forces, according to Raahauge.
About Easter 1945, he used a 30-day leave to visit his relatives in Racine, and then in June 1945, while still in the Army, rode an American tanker, loaded with 11,000 tons of gasoline, from San Francisco into the South Pacific. The gasoline was unloaded in the islands of Saipan, Rota and Guam and then the ship started home when the war was over, August 1945. On the way back east across the Pacific, the ship made stops, including the Hawaiian islands.
He had hoped, during his stop in Hawaii, to locate the burial place of his paratrooper cousin Herman, who Raahauge says was killed on Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Raahauge did not have enough time to get to the burial spot. After Hawaii, his ship went through the Panama Canal and up into the Gulf of Mexico, docking at Alabama. It was there, he said, that a military person told him, “You can go home, Erik,” marking his separation from active military service. By then, he had become an American citizen through service in the U.S. Army, he said.
He spent six months in Racine and then went back home to Denmark to tell his parents about his American citizenship.
One of his attractions for returning to America was a woman with some Danish background, named Edna, whom Raahauge had met at a Danish Brotherhood dance in Racine. They became engaged in 1947, and married on Jan. 3, 1948. The couple had three children – Sonja, Ron and a baby John who lived only hours. Sonja lives in the Spectacle Lake area east of Princeton and Ron lives in New York.
Edna passed away on April 8, 2004, and Erik Raahauge now has five grandchildren, including Jen Barnwell of Princeton. He also has six great-grandchildren.
Raahauge worked as a commercial painter, wallpaper hanger and plasterer until he retired at age 62. He lived his postwar years in Racine until 2004, and then traveled back and forth between his son in New York and daughter in the Cambridge-Princeton area, until settling at the Caley House in Princeton this past Jan. 4. He was injured from falls in mid-2011 and had strokes later that year, according to his daughter Sonja.
Raahauge made 11 trips back to Denmark, since growing up there, the last trip being in 2005, when Sonja accompanied him.
Raahauge, reflecting on his thoughts at the time when World War II broke out, said he was not optimistic about the world’s future back then. “Starting with the (Japanese) bombing of Hawaii…and when the Germans were in Denmark, I thought I would never make it home again,” he said.
Raahauge said he envisioned that the Japanese and the Nazis would come to “rule the world,” and added, “Thanks to the American boys, that never happened. The Nazis were made to kneel for peace and so were the Japanese.”
“I think it’s fascinating,” Raahauge’s granddaughter Jen said about her grandfather Erik’s experiences during World War II.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate what he did.”
He hadn’t been part of the United States for very long, yet he fought for it, she said.
“After I became a citizen,” Raahauge said, “it dawned on me, there was a whole lot (that) by the faith of God, everything would come to peace and man would live in peace. It was not that way in the early ‘40s.”
The events of that time, he says, were “enough to kill all my dreams that would take place,”
Sonja, who assisted with getting her father’s story out, said he is “very proud to be an American, but equally proud to be from Denmark.”