Los Altos resident Chuck Ohman returned to Normandy, France, this week to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The 94-year-old veteran served the United States in two of the most notable battles of World War II. His deployment with the 299th Combat Engineer Division of the U.S. Army dropped him onto the front line during both D-Day (June 6, 1944) at Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945) in Belgium.
Yet Ohman does not consider himself a hero.
“There was a job to do – it was my job to do,” he said. “There are heroes. Heroes are (those) who sacrificed themselves to (save) somebody else. … Those are unusual, but to me, they are the heroes.”
For a long time after the war, Ohman maintained relationships with his fellow soldiers. However, he finds the reunions, which take place in New York, where the men are originally from, difficult to attend these days. Still, he has taken trips with Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that transports veterans to memorials in Washington, D.C., and other places that pay tribute to their sacrifice, as recently as 2015.
In 1972, Ohman visited Normandy’s Omaha Beach for the first time since the war. His emotions were strong, he admitted, but people have varying reactions when returning to a place where they witnessed such carnage.
“I was totally unequipped,” he said. “When you’re in the military, there’s always (somebody) ordering you to do something. At Omaha, it was totally chaotic. … When I got to the landing, all I saw was dead bodies floating around me.”
Ohman was 19 years old when he was ordered to jump ship from a vessel with a young naval commander who refused to land beachside. After wading through water up to his shoulders, Ohman said he reached land and rushed to a “telephone pole,” a slanted post the Germans installed to deter enemies from landing. As soon as he tried blowing it up with a detonator, Ohman was hit immediately. Shrapnel lodged in his right arm rendered it paralyzed.
Ohman was fortunate enough to find cover and make it through the night. Many of his comrades did not. That includes some buddies now laid to rest in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial that adjoins the Omaha Beach landing site.
“When you get to the sea and you (find) that cemetery … boy, there are crosses all over the place,” he said. “When I went back to my original unit, I was not sent back to my (commander) anymore. … When I found him, he said there was an 85 percent loss (of life).”
Despite the suffering he experienced as a result of D-Day, Ohman has one happy memory from the invasion: the calm after it was over.
“For a night, I laid there,” he said with emotion in his voice. “It was so beautiful. Omaha Beach was quiet. I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing there – no planes, no fire of any kind.”
Ohman’s night of peace occurred after a staff sergeant threatened to shoot him with his .45 if he didn’t flee. Even with a bum arm, he regrouped and found 1st Infantry Division men scavenging for safety. An officer demanded they dig; he followed those orders “tout de suite,” just as he did the staff sergeant’s.
His memories, still fresh, make events feel like they happened “a couple of years ago,” Ohman joked. He vividly recalled lying in the sick bay of a military hospital as his arm healed and having a Purple Heart medal just casually tossed onto his cot. Once he made a full recovery, Ohman trained as a radio operator and with the Second Armored Division joined efforts in the Battle of the Bulge. He was injured there as well and received another Purple Heart.
After attending the German surrender ceremony in Potsdam in May 1945, Ohman’s tour was over. He was later honored with two President’s Unit Citations – one for each battle he helped the Allied forces win.
Life after war
Ohman discovered the challenge of returning to civilian life once he returned to his native New York to live with his uncle while attending Syracuse University through the GI Bill.
He soon met his future wife, Anka, a harpist with the Phoenix Symphony. Ohman transferred to Arizona State University to follow Anka on her own tour. They later settled in California and taught at City College of San Francisco. They raised a daughter, Melissa. Anka died in 2013.
These days, Ohman keeps busy by making patterned quilts, reading and taking care of his finances with help from software programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel.
Last week, just before he departed for Normandy, Ohman handed over his itinerary, including dates he would be gone, who he would be with and where he would visit.
Ohman plans to visit his niece Barbara, for whom he has prepared an entire sheet of information about his military service, accompanied by a picture of women’s signatures Ohman collected when on leave in Paris in 1944. Ohman has no pictures of himself from D-Day, but he kept the note.
“I told her I have to show her my ‘autographs,’” he said, his eyes sparkling with a youthful gleam.