June 6 marks the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, one of the great turning points of World War II, when Allied forces first gained an all-important beachhead in continental Europe. While the four Kern County residents profiled here do not represent a complete list of every local who participated in that great battle, it is a representative list.
All four of these military veterans are also veterans of Honor Flight Kern County, a nonprofit organization that flies hundreds of aging vets to Washington, D.C — all expenses paid — where they participate in a whirlwind tour of the great war memorials in our nation’s capital.
Thanks to Honor Flight for supplying most of the photos and biographical information that follows.
John Grenek grew up in Minneapolis, Minn. In 1940, just out of high school, he joined the Minnesota National Guard. After World War II broke out he entered the Army. He took basic training in Claiborne, La., then transferred to Fort Dix, N.J. It was from there that he was shipped to England in January 1942. As part of the first group of Americans to arrive in England, Grenek was attached to a British Army regiment.
A broken ankle from a training exercise forced Grenek to spend a few months recuperating at a hospital in Dublin, Ireland. Once healthy again, he was attached to the 48th Replacement Unit with the 29th Infantry Division and landed on the 3rd or 4th wave on D-Day.
Grenek fought in several more battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. He received five battle stars for his service.
One day at the American Red Cross in Birmingham, England a pretty English girl named Jane caught his eye. He married that girl on March 6, 1945, brought her home, and the couple have remained together for more than 70 years.
Grenek attend the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.
Eighteen year old E.T. Roberts from McCalester, Okla. was drafted into the Army in 1943. He took basic training at Walters, Texas, where he became a champion boxer.
Roberts was shipped to England where he trained 17 months knowing he would eventually take part in the invasion of the European continent. That invasion would later be known as D-Day.
In early June 1944, Roberts personally witnessed General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech to the troops before the invasion. The soldiers boarded the landing crafts on June 5, however the weather prevented a landing. They stayed in the boats until the morning of the 6th. Armed with a flamethrower and fighting nausea from the choppy seas, Roberts and the other members of C Company from the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division approached Utah Beach under heavy fire in the second wave at about 8:30 in the morning. Due to the flamethrower being so heavy, another soldier was to carry Robert’s pack containing nine days of provisions and some personal items including a picture of his mother. Roberts and his buddy planned to meet after they made it onto the beach, but Roberts never saw that soldier or his belongings again.
On the morning of June 6, Roberts stepped off the landing craft and into the strong current, expecting to touch bottom. Instead, he sank below the surface. He knew the only way he would survive would be to drop the flamethrower. As he surfaced in the water he realized it was red with blood. More than 70 soldiers came ashore from that landing craft. Roberts was one of only seven who survived that longest of days. Roberts went on to fight in many more battles including St. Lo, Brest, and the famed Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded at St. Lo and received a Purple Heart.
Knoxville, Ill.-native Keith Bratton was only 22 when he entered the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet in April 1943. He took preflight training in Santa Ana, flight training at Eagle Field in Dos Palos, Calif. and advanced training atLemoore Army Air Field, where he learned how to fly the B-25, B-24, and B-17 bombers. Upon completion of flight training, 2nd Lt. Bratton was sent to England in February 1944 and was assigned to the 392 Bomber Group as a pilot of a B-24.
On the morning of June 6th Bratton started towards Normandy with his bomber group but soon developed an engine fire. He realized he would never make it and had to abort the mission and turn back to England. By the end of the war Bratton had completed 31 missions over Europe, bringing his crews home safe.
Bratton was recalled to service in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War, this time into the U.S. Air Force. He flew C121 four-engine transport planes between Japan and Korea carrying everything from cargo to wounded soldiers, often landing at Korean MASH units.
Later he was stationed at various bases involved in missile duty in Washington, South Carolina and England. He completed his career in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base, retiring as a Lt. Colonel in 1969. He was awarded 37 medals and commendations including the Distinguished Flying Cross and a five-cluster Air Medal.
A native of Seattle, Henry Oschner was drafted into the Army in 1943. He underwent combat training at Roberts, not far from Paso Robles. By 1944, he was in England, training as part of a glider crew. But during a training flight, the pilot came down between two trees, ripping away both wings and part of the tail. Not long after that incident, Ochsner volunteered to be a paratrooper.
Ochsner became a member of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, later known as the “Band of Brothers,” one of the most storied units ever to do battle during World War II.
In spring 1944, rumors were rampant among the troops stationed in England of a massive plan to establish an Allied military beachhead in Europe. Then one night in early June, the orders came in.
Packed into a C-47 transport plane Oschner and company took off at 3 or 4 in the morning. They were among thousands like them in other planes, crossing the English Channel to face Nazi troops for the first time.
As the planes reached the coast of France, they began taking flak from German ground positions.
Finally, when the green light came on, the men jumped into the dawn morning light. But they were well off-target.
When Ochsner’s hit French soil, he was not far from Sainte-Mère-Église, a village located several miles from the unit’s intended drop zone.
By the end of the day, and at a cost of many thousands of lives, the Allies had established an all-important foothold in Normandy, a slice of land and sea that would allow for the liberation of Paris, and ultimately, the defeat of the fascist Third Reich.
But for Henry Oschner, the war would slog on for many more months. He would go to the Netherlands and Belgium and the ultimate prize, Germany. Now a resident of eastern Kern County, Oschner and his wife, Violet, celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary on March 5.
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