Our Greatest Generation heroes are moving on

by Dennis Anderson, special to Aerotech News
When I started work as a newspaper editor in the Antelope Valley more than 20 years ago, it was easy to call a World War II veteran to get an opinion on how the world was moving.

Right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I picked up the phone and called several World War II veterans, including Skip Lippert and Ken Creese, both Pearl Harbor survivors. Creese, a longtime aerospace worker and Little League coach, had even been national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

Another of my “Go To” calls in my contact list were the D-Day veterans. One was Lew Shoemaker, a longtime Quartz Hill High School teacher and football coach, who waded ashore with the “Big Red One” on D-Day, and scarcely lived to tell about it.

One thing he told me, “You may not think so, but if there’s artillery you really can breathe dirt, for a little while.”

Our “High Desert Hangar Stories” bard, Bob Alvis, similarly had a long contact list of World War II heroes, many of them air crew from the flak-filled skies of “Twelve O’Clock High,” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” Which was to say that the Flying Tigers of the air war in Europe and the Pacific were so phenomenal, that Hollywood has never stopped making movies about them.

One of them, Bill Clutterham, a B-17 pilot who was in the air the day the first A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was a chaplain in the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He also comforted a young Marine returned from Iraq who was shaking with combat trauma, and Bill gave him a bear hug so warm that the combat vet snapped out of it, tears in his eyes, and hugged right back.

That happened about 15 years ago at one of the “Pride of the Nation” dinners honoring veterans and hosted by Lancaster High School students in retired teacher Jamie Goodreau’s history classes. Her history was living history. But it would be hard to do today.

We are losing the Greatest Generation, and are the poorer for it.

Just this past week we lost Sir Tom Moore, the British subject knighted by Queen Elizabeth. As he approached his 100th birthday, he raised nearly $40 million for the U.K.’s National Health Service by doing what he did as a soldier in World War II, putting his stride into “forward march” mode, and walking laps in his yard. It was good for a knighthood.

“Captain Tom” as he was known, as British armor officer fought the Japanese in the China-Burma-Indian theater. He marched right up to his 100th birthday, delighted that he made the century mark. He succumbed to COVID-19 on Feb. 2, 2021.

Of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, about 324,000 are still with us. They are leaving us at the rate of nearly 300 a day. The data is gathered from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which is a partner with the Smithsonian, and is a national treasure itself. Among its statistics are that 34,000 of the surviving WWII U.S. veterans reside in California.

If we wonder why, it is because so many Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines passed through our once Golden State, appreciated the weather differences from their homes in the Midwest, the East and South, and decided to come back and make a go of it. And, they did.

So, along with losing Sir “Captain Tom” Moore, we bow to the inevitable. When we lose a World War II veteran, we also must take into account that most of them came home, worked hard, played by the rules, and raised families.

I miss the friendships I made with the World War II cohort, and treasure the ones I still have.

The first time that I met Henry Ochsner was in January 2015, and it was just in time for a youngster like me, as Henry was born in 1924.

The reason for the Saturday morning drive out to California City was a news tip that he was a D-Day veteran of World War II, and more than that, he was a member of a storied unit of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

Henry had a story to tell. Younger friends helped him manage a return to France, to Normandy, for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.

What a celebration it must have been. And what friends Henry made along the way. Because of his combat service with the Screaming Eagles division, he was seated at a dinner with the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, “and some other nice fella. They said he was a singer.” Turned out the nice fella was Bruce Springsteen, the Boss.

Unless you are a World War II history buff, or a semi-regular traveler to France, you might not know the month of May until late in the month of June, transforms the entire province of Normandy southwest of Paris into a kind of historical Mardi Gras. The reason is simple. More than 75 years later the people of France, generations of them, continue to celebrate their liberation from the Nazi tyranny of the Third Reich.

One of the engraved quotes on the walls of the museum at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach exudes, “The Germans are gone! Out in the streets, there are only Americans!” What a lovely sentiment to a time when it was known that we would fight for the freedom of others.

Troops from all across the NATO countries gather, with many of them who participated as nations from the forces of liberation. Canadians, Britons and Scots, Australians and New Zealanders, and Belgians, and Norwegians, and troops from the Netherlands — and descendants of the Free French, the ones who never surrendered to the Nazis, but carried the fight back to them.

You can be in a French town like Ste. Mere Eglise, the first such town liberated by the Allies on the morning of D-Day, and there will be dancing in the street. There will be active duty troops in uniform, and so-called re-enactors, tricked out in the vintage combat kit of World War II. The town church still has effigy of a paratrooper who got hung up on the steeple, Staff Sgt. John Steel. Somehow he survived “The Longest Day,” and was portrayed by Red Buttons in the film classic of the same name.
On the morning of D-Day, my fast friend, Henry, was among the 13,000 Americans arriving by parachute and glider, flying through steel waves of anti-aircraft fire, with Axis troops on the ground spraying the night skies with lead as the advance guard of the D-Day invasion dropped from the sky. They were from the 82nd Airborne Division, also the British Airborne, and Henry’s Division, the 101st.

A few hours later the seaborne troops from other historic divisions like “The Big Red One” and the 4th Infantry, “Ivy Division,” and others came wading ashore in the face of murderous machine gun and artillery fire. If you want to see something disturbing, see “Saving Private Ryan,” or the first couple of hours of “Band of Brothers.” It is less entertainment, than as sobering a couple of hours of cinema history as you are likely to view. But it will give a faint idea of what these young men achieved.

When I met Henry, what was so interesting was that he was not living in the past. He was proud of what he and his battle buddies achieved. What made him happy was that he was with his bride, Violet, who smiled warmly as we sat together and chatted about the long-ago war. And he was happy to be with “his girls.” Three were living with, or nearby, Lenelle, Sandy and Susan, and Jackie, the fourth, was in Seattle.

Born that day was a fast and enduring friendship because we held common history as Army members of the Airborne fraternity, and we shared ideas on how much we loved our grown kids. Henry met Violet just a year or two out of the Army in a Seattle diner. Henry cajoled his sister, one of Violet’s sister waitresses, into accompanying them on a date to a dance.

Before we lost Henry in September 2019, he was decorated by the government of France, awarded that nation’s highest medal, the Legion of Honor, bestowed on WWII veterans who served in what’s known as “The Liberation.”

This past week, we lost Violet, about the same time we lost Sir “Captain Tom” Moore. Violet, who was 92, was no less a part of that legacy. She and her D-Day veteran husband Henry were two loving, gentle, strong people, people who went on to work hard, behave well, and raise a great family.

The Rev. Ron Sparks of California called their passing “a great loss,” and he never spoke truer words. They were emblematic of what has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation.”

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army paratrooper veteran, he deployed with local National Guard troops to cover the Iraq War for the Antelope Valley Press. He works on veterans and community health initiatives.

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