CALIFORNIA CITY — Get to 95, and pretty soon you are looking at a century. So, it was nearly a century ago, Feb. 3, 1923, that Henry Ochsner entered the world.
He was 21 years old when he entered France during the Normandy invasion that began on D-Day, arriving with about 20,000 other Allied airborne troops to begin the liberation of Nazi-occupied France.
As President Emmanuel Macron of France recently noted in awarding Ochsner the decoration for valor, Knight Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, Henry Ochsner was a child of the Great Depression, who left his home and traveled far to liberate not only France, but many other suffering countries and defend democracy itself.
Ochsner survived the Normandy invasion that started on D-Day, made it all the way to the siege of Bastogne on Christmas, 1944, and to Hitler’s Alpine mountain redoubt at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria when VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, was declared.
Hitler was dead by suicide in a Berlin bunker. Henry Ochsner, along with other members of the renowned 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” Division, was very much alive, and remains lively enough 74 years later.
At one of the Ochsner family homes in California City, friends and family gathered to wish Henry a nice birthday, along with his daughter, Sandra, who also had a significant birthday a week earlier.
On his birthday, he was able to reminisce about some real history of the storied airborne division that was made even more famous by historian Stephen Ambrose’s books, “D-Day,” “Citizen Soldiers,” and of “Band of Brothers;” then made even more famous by the HBO miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
At the Feb. 3 birthday party, Henry made acquaintance with a fellow “Screaming Eagle,” Michael Bertell of Lancaster, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Bertell, like Henry Ochsner, was a grunt infantryman, who also served at a place called Bastogne — only it was Fire Base Bastogne in South Vietnam.
“It was a place I got sent to, that I dearly wanted to leave,” Bertell recalled, remembering being sent out on patrol for weeks at a time in the jungles of Vietnam.
“I was asked, ‘How did you do that?’ The answer is simple. We didn’t have any choice,” Bertell said.
Henry Ochsner responded that it was much the same as his experience during the winter of 1944 in Bastogne.
Ochsner’s assignment to a unit that would become famous decades later was the result of a spot decision that was intensely personal. Ochsner was assigned to a Glider Artillery Battalion intended to enter Nazi-occupied Europe in a faintly controlled crash of those fragile winged personnel carriers.
“We were on a training flight, with the glider being towed on the line by the C-47,” Ochsner recalled. The twin-engine transports, known as Dakotas, were the military version of the Douglas DC-3.
“The (glider) pilot was drunk … we could see he’d been drinking when he lurched in and they closed the cockpit.”
When the tow line detached, the pilot said, “‘Well, I guess we’ll go down now.”
The glider overshot the runway in the English countryside, careened off the tarmac, and tore off its wings skidding between a pair of trees. The glider was wreckage, but the training continued until the airborne forces deployed for the invasion of Normandy.
“We kept training, packing Jeeps and little .75 millimeter artillery pieces into the gliders,” he said.
Bertell is a generation younger but met his own hell in Vietnam, shared with Ochsner that he made his own personal history buff’s pilgrimage to Bastogne in 2017, a trip born of reverence for his Airborne trooper comrades and predecessors.
The Vietnam draftee veteran met another ninety-something 101st Airborne “Greatest Generation” trooper at a reunion, Vincent “Vinnie” Speranza, author of the military memoir titled “Nuts!” That single word was the response of Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe to inform the Germans that there would be no surrender by the 101st Airborne Division encircled at Bastogne. Nuts. Leaving the Germans perplexed.
“That’s what McAuliffe said,” Ochsner said, nodding agreement.
Bertell found the pub-cafe-bar where Speranza scrounged a serving of beer in his “steel pot” helmet to bring to a buddy — and the buddy’s pals — in the field hospital a short distance away. Speranza returned several times to get several helpings in the steel pot, until a sergeant major chased Vinnie out of the field hospital.
Bertell attests that the pub-cafe is still there in Bastogne, nearly 75 years later, and they have a special drink called “The Helmet,” dedicated to Vinnie Speranza’s intrepid efforts to get his buddy a real drink. These days it is served in a commemorative ceramic helmet.
Ochsner recounted breaking into a wine cellar at Bastogne with a buddy and a commandeered truck, and distributing bottles to their buddies on their way out to the defensive perimeter.
“We were handing out bottles of wine, schnapps, champagne to anyone we passed, and said, ‘Stay warm.’”
The siege of Bastogne, broken shortly after Christmas 1944 with the relief by Gen. George S. Patton’ rolling, armored columns, happened during the Battle of the Bulge, and Europe’s coldest winter in 70 years.
One communiqué from the Screaming Eagles to the forces coming in relief was, “We are completely surrounded on all sides by the 10th SS Panzer Division … the poor bastards.”
Ochsner participated in the group — combined forces of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment – and the 321st Glider Artillery Battalion – that went on to capture Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest,” the dictator’s alpine redoubt, according to the official history of the 101st Airborne Division.
“The stories you hear are amazing,” said Ochsner family friend Kirk Milton.
Milton, getting ready to turn 50, with his wife Pam, accompanied Ochsner to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014. So did Susan Reep, the daughter of a renowned World War II combat artist. All attended the 95th birthday.
Ochsner blew out the candles on the cake brought in by his daughter Lenelle. Most of the Ochsners were in the room — Henry’s wife and bride of nearly 71 years, Violet —and daughters Sandra, Susan and Lenelle. Daughter Jackie called in from out of state.
“It’s all been very nice, thank you,” Ochsner said. “Make sure you take some cake with you.”