CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif.–World War II veteran Henry L. Ochsner, who served with the 101st Airborne Division from the D-Day invasion at Normandy through the capture of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” alpine redoubt, has died. He was 96 years old.
Ochsner, who died Sept. 7, was known to many friends and family as “Len.”
In recent years in the Antelope Valley, he emerged as a living symbol of the spirit of “The Greatest Generation” of World War II veterans, named by author Tom Brokaw from his book of the same name.
On Sept. 19, 2017, Ochsner, wearing his World War II “Ike” Jacket and 101st Airborne baseball cap, was decorated at Los Angeles National Cemetery with the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed by the government of France. Christophe Lemoine, Consul General to France in Los Angeles, presented the medal to Ochsner and nine other veterans who gave “extraordinary service.”
“You left your homes and families to liberate us,” Lemoine remarked. “France will never forget you.”
After the war, he joined millions of returning veterans and worked as a truck driver with a superior safety record, and for many years in aerospace until his retirement. With his wife, Violet, he recently celebrated 72 years of marriage. He died at home, with family, from complications of age.
Ochsner served in the 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” Exploits of the division and one of its most famous units were recounted in the Stephen Ambrose book, which became the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks miniseries for HBO, “Band of Brothers.”
What soldiers of “Screaming Eagles” division achieved and sacrificed has been recorded in countless films and books, including “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Longest Day,” and “A Bridge Too Far.”
Ochsner’s combat began with the D-Day invasion. In the pre-dawn hours of D-Day, Allied forces dropped 13,000 paratroopers into Normandy, with more than 100,000 the seaborne forces of Operation Overlord coming up through the beaches in the early morning hours and into the days that followed.
“I didn’t think we were going to get out of there alive,” Ochsner remarked many years later. “It was terrifying.”
Ochsner also participated with the division’s airborne landings in The Netherlands, the ill-fated “Operation Market Garden” mission to press through the Netherlands to the Rhine River in an effort by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery to end World War II in Europe in 1944. Allied airborne forces, thousands, landing by parachute and glider, arrived to meet fierce resistance, including heavy armor, fielded by crack Nazi troops. The war in Europe would continue into May 1945.
Ochsner served throughout the campaign to liberate Europe, including the historic siege of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne was encircled by Nazi forces during the Battle of the Bulge during the coldest winter in Europe in 50 years.
The California City man reminisced in interviews that he joined a buddy who used a light Army truck to break into a Belgian wine cellar, and they carried bottles of wine and spirits to share with troops.
“We’d give ’em a bottle, and tell ’em to stay warm,” Ochsner said.
At one point in the Bastogne siege, Ochsner said he failed to start a Jeep in the extreme cold weather, with the engine going “ugh … ugh … ugh,” and jumped away from the vehicle on a warning from a buddy with a German 88 mm round whistling in that destroyed the vehicle. With a piece of shrapnel lodged in his boot, he said, “That’s as close as I came to a Purple Heart.” He said he dressed the small shrapnel wound himself, “a scratch,” he said.
Often identified as one of the “Band of Brothers,” Easy Co. of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Ochsner actually served with 321st Glider Artillery, which fought side-by-side with the storied unit, all the way to Berchtesgaden, the “Eagle’s Nest” mountaintop residence maintained by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the Bavarian Alps.
The rank, “Knight Of The Legion of Honor” is the highest award bestowed by France, and was originated by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It is awarded to World War II veterans “in recognition of their heroic actions and precious contribution to the liberation of France during the war.” Additionally, Ochsner was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (as unit), the Europe-Africa-Middle Ease Campaign Medal with four battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Belgian Fourragere, a ceremonial rope worn from the shoulder on dress uniform awarded to units that distinguished themselves.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, World War II veterans are dying at the rate of more than 320 a day. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 500,000 remained as of September 2018.
Ochnser was born in Feb. 2, 1923, in Hellgate, Mont. He married Violet Jenson, “the love of his life,” on March 5, 1947, in Seattle, and is survived by her, and four daughters, Susan, Jacqueline, Sandra, and Lenelle; also two granddaughters, Ashley and Tamara. Funeral plans are pending.