The 75th anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne (and airborne) operation in the history of our time on Earth, is just around the corner, less than two weeks after Memorial Day.
Anyone born, say, after 1990 has little, if any, knowledge about what happened as the Allied nations, spearheaded by the United States and Britain, joined to storm the Nazi-held coastline of Normandy, France.
The goal was ambitious: To liberate a suffering humanity from the dark and sinister tyranny of the Third Reich.
Some younger people will remember Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which should have won Best Picture in 1999. Newer viewers can take it in on the big screen at Cinemark next month, under Fathom Events. My ticket is for June 7, one day after the June 6, 1944, date of the 75th Anniversary.
In about three weeks, over in Normandy, it will be the farewell tour for many of the D-Day veterans who are near 100 years old, or just past. They survived one of the greatest and most terrible days in world history. In a way, “Saving Private Ryan” revived a nation’s memory of its Greatest Generation.
The crusade, in the best sense of the word, would end less than a year later, on May 8, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Adolf Hitler’s war machine and his death by suicide in a Berlin bunker. It was an ignominious end for the architect of the Holocaust. All decent humanity breathed a sigh of relief.
When Henry Ochsner of California City arrived in Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division with D-Day under way, there was no time for a sigh of relief.
“You just had to keep your head down and do your job,” he said.
Ochsner, a retired aerospace worker who is at home in Lancaster or California City, will be honored on May 25, at Arcadia County Park, by Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
He fought from D-Day on, through Holland, Bastogne and all the way to Hitler’s mountain redoubt, “The Eagle’s Nest.”
Ochsner, 96, recalls how light the armament was for the 15,000 paratroopers and glider-borne troops streaming into Normandy on the “Day of Days.”
Originally trained as glider artillery, he can recall the intricacies of lashing 75-millimeter rubber-wheeled small cannons into gliders, little more than winged crates towed into the angry skies over the landing zones on tie lines cut loose from C-47 Dakota “Skytrain” transports — the military variant of the Douglas DC-3.
“The knots we used were simple, so that you could let ’em loose as fast as you could,” Ochsner said. “Square knots, mostly.”
Many gliders crashed or were torn to pieces by obstacles that the enemy planted across farmer’s fields. He remembers the inscription on one of them.
“It said, ‘Look Herman! No motor!’” A reference to Hermann Goering, chief of the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe. Those airborne troops — what a bunch of cut-ups.
While Ochsner and his brothers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions were busy dodging shot and shell just inland from the invasion beaches, the Allied naval armada put down covering fire for the seaborne troops. Lancaster resident Art Ray was on the guns aboard the cruiser USS Quincy, just offshore from Omaha and Utah beach.
“The USS Quincy was a good ship,” Ray said, noting it was a cruiser named for Quincy, Mass. Ray is a frequenter of Coffee4Vets at Crazy Otto’s on Tuesdays and looks almost 20 years younger than his 95 years.
Working as the editor at the Valley Press, I had the privilege of interviewing several D-Day veterans since departed, including 82nd Airborne paratrooper John Humphrey and retired Quartz Hill High School football coach Lew Shoemaker, who waded ashore with “The Big Red One.” He skipped the Spielberg movie about his exploits.
“If you’ve been there, why would you want to see it in a movie?” he asked. “You may not believe it, but if you’re getting shelled, you can actually breathe dirt, for a while.”
That was the cost of freedom 75 years ago. You were scared half to death. The noise and smells were gawdawful. And to stay alive, you might have to breathe dirt. They can’t put that in a movie, and “Saving Private Ryan” was a very good one. But if you were there, you might just skip the movie.
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. He served as a paratrooper in the Cold War and went to Iraq as an embedded journalist covering local National Guard troops for the Antelope Valley Press. He works on veteran and community mental