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Tillman's 100th birthday marks one man's life, and a generation of service

Reaching the 100-year mark is obviously a milestone in and of itself.

But not everyone is feted with the sort of grand, two-day celebration that marked the centennial of Lutherville resident and retiredU.S. Army Corps of EngineersCol. Erland Tillman.

Not only was Tillman joined by family members from as far away as Sweden and Norway; he was also presented with a medal from the Minister of Defense of the Czech Republic for his role as commander of the U.S. Army 322nd Engineer Battalion of the 97th Infantry Division during the liberation of Czechoslovakia in the final months of World War II.

At a celebration last month at the Brightwood Retirement Community, Tillman also received kudos from theU.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he served from 1939 through the war years until his retirement in 1965. During those years, he taught at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

But for Tillman, a member of the American Public Transportation's Hall of Fame, the honors did not end there. His 100th birthday bash also included salutes relating to his nearly 30 years in the private sector. During those years, he worked as a lead project engineer on San Francisco's Bay Area Transportation System, and later as a consulting engineer with the Chicago Area Transit Authority, the New York Transit Authority and Maryland's Metropolitan Transit Administration.

He continued working as a consulting engineer well into his eighties.

These days, Tillman, who was born in Minnesota in 1912 and earned his degree in civil engineering at Rhode Island State College in the late 1930s, speaks faintly but with a tone of deliberation and authority.

His tall, slender form; direct gaze; and calm, straightforward manner still convey the incisiveness and self-discipline of an engineer and a career military officer.

"We all thought that was pretty tremendous, for me to get to 100," he said with a soft laugh.

"It was great having everyone together here (for the celebration)," he said with a smile. "They all said, 'We wouldn't do it for anybody else, but we'll do it for you.' "

His medal from the Czech Republic was personally presented to him by Czech Republic Military Attaché Col. Miroslav Suhaj at a birthday dinner at Brightwood.

"That was a surprise," he said. "But I think my nephews might have had something to do with that."

Russell Tillman — the colonel's nephew who lives in Vicksburg, Miss., and more or less followed his uncle into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 30 years ago — said that over the decades, the colonel has been the glue that holds their extended family together.

"It really goes back to my uncle's mother, who immigrated to the United States from Sweden by herself at a teenager, but always kept strong connections with her family back in Sweden," said Russell Tillman, who has fond memories of the frequent visits he and his brother made to Tillman and his late wife, Lynn, who died in 2001.

Many of Russell's memories have to do with the colonel's world travels. Erland Tillman's war-time and peace-time military assignments took him to nearly every corner of the globe at one time or another. And throughout his life, he and Lynn traveled extensively for pleasure.

Erland and Lynn Tillman had no children of their own, but Russell and his three older brothers seemed to fill that gap.

"I remember whenever they came back from a trip, my uncle would always sit us down and show us his slides, from Turkey or someplace far away, and we were just spellbound," said Russell Tillman.

When the colonel was 91, he made the last of several visits to Sweden, his mother's homeland.

"He went with my brother and me, and we visited all our cousins over there and we had a blast," said Russell Tillman. "That (family) glue has even stuck with my generation. It's got a lot to do with why we had such a big turnout for my uncle's 100th birthday celebration."

Towson resident and retired U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Bruce Hirshauer missed Tillman's birthday celebration due to illness. But he would have loved to have been there. As the official historian of the U.S. Army's 97th Infantry Corps, Hirshauer — who has a PhD. in history from Johns Hopkins University — met Tillman years ago in the course of his research. The two have since become good friends.

"He's a great guy. Extremely competent and extremely bright," Hirshauer said.

Tillman's contribution to the Allied war effort during the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket, in March 1945, is chronicled in G.I. Stories — http://www.lonesentry.com/gi_stories/index.html — a series of booklets first published by Stars & Stripes in 1944 and 1945:

"Back at the Sieg River, the 322nd Engr. Bn., commanded by Lt. Col. Erland A. Tillman, Fort Collins, Colo., undertook the tremendous job of building an adequate number of bridges to accommodate the flow of supplies and reinforcements across the river."

The story details how the unit, with the help of two others, constructed seven bridges and repaired several others critical to the movement of troops.

"Engineers also were faced with the task of clearing mine fields," according to the G.I. Stories account. "At times, they fought as infantrymen to accomplish their mission.

"As the 97th moved onward to the Bavarian forest in April 1945, and prepared for the invasion that would liberate Czechoslovakia, they stumbled on Flossenburg, a notorious SS concentration camp and forced labor center where many of the Third Reich's political prisoners, including the Lutheran clergyman and outspoken anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed."

Tillman still has vivid memories of that grim discovery nearly three-quarters of a century later.

"We went into one of those camps, all right," said Tillman, himself the son of a Lutheran minister, in a half-whisper. "The people there were in bad shape. It was shocking, it really was. You wouldn't believe it if you saw it."

Hirshauer said the strength and stoicism that got men and women like Tillman through the war is what sets their generation apart from many of us who have followed.

"It's an honor to know the man," said Hirshauer of Tillman, the admiration and reverence palpable in the tone of his voice. "People who know him love him."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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