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Photo by Greta Sanderson/Times Sentinel
Zionsville Times Sentinel

On June 6, 1944, soldier No. 35562773 landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.

Dale Ottinger of Zionsville had just finished his U.S. Army Ranger training when the invasion was ready to start. His unit was transported from Liverpool to Portsmouth, England, during the day. By night, the troops crossed the English Channel, preparing to storm the beach, not knowing exactly what was ahead for them.

He clutched for luck a silver dollar given to him by his mother when he was born in 1922.

Ottinger, a member of the often immortalized 2nd ranger battalion, could only manage to say the troops were “scared to death” as he and the other members of his unit crossed the channel waiting for the fighting to begin.

At 6 a.m., the invasion started. His mission was to scale the cliffs on the beach and take out one of the Germans five 155 mm guns placed in concrete encasements at the top.

“It was so well built that the battleship Texas in the channel fired a 15-inch gun at it and couldn’t touch it,” Ottinger said. The only way to destroy it was to send in the infantry. Ottinger’s face showed the weight of his memories as the vision of that day flashed through his mind.

The sea was so rough that two of the 11 transports sank before reaching the beach. The remaining landing craft, which usually came up on shore, were forced to release the soldiers into water above their heads. Many men drowned before they fired a single shot.

Ottinger made it to the beach and started up the 10-story cliff. As if the climb wasn’t enough of an obstacle, at one point his rope was shot in half, plummeting him down to the beach.

“I just tied the two ends together and kept climbing,” Ottinger remembered. “You knew there was no way you could make it, but you keep trying.”

The unit finally reached its objective.

“We had to use hand grenades and finally got it knocked out, got inside, and there was no gun,” Ottinger said.

They noticed tracks out the back and found the gun two miles back in an orchard. After all that effort and loss of life, the Germans hadn’t yet set up the gun. Historians believe German Field Marshal Erwin Rummel, who was in charge of Normandy’s defense, ordered the guns moved on June 4.

Ottinger had gone five days without sleep, and 35 of the 186 men in his outfit were left alive.

TRAINING PREPARED

Ottinger’s journey to D-Day began Oct. 12, 1942, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He headed to Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana for 13 weeks of basic training. The camp is still used today, and members of Lebanon’s National Guard unit trained there before being deployed to Mozul, Iraq, where they still serve.

After completing basic, Ottinger said his unit moved to Tennessee for maneuvers. Two units were paired against each other and the winner walked 700 miles to Kentucky to be shipped out to California. That doesn’t sound like much of a victory, but the loser went back to Atterbury to repeat basic.

From Kentucky, Ottinger traveled by train to Camp Cooke in California.

“We didn’t even get off the train,” before it headed to New York — backwards — to prepare to join the war.

When Ottinger was drafted, he was a member of the 908th field artillery, 83rd infantry division. His job was to support the other men on the ground by firing artillery shells — 105 mm howitzers with accuracy within seven miles. His unit was soon deployed to the European Theater from Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.

AFTER THE BEACH

With just 19 percent of his unit left, “We really didn’t have an outfit,” Ottinger said. The rangers each went to different units, and Ottinger rejoined his Camp Atterbury Outfit.

As the war continued, Ottinger’s unit found themselves on the opposite side of the Mosel River in western Germany. The river was flooded and neither side could cross. They started singing “Lily Marlane,” with each side taking a verse — a sign of humanity in a brutal war.

“They didn’t want to fight any more than we did,” Ottinger said. All the while he rubbed the silver coin for luck.

As the holiday approached, his outfit was granted leave to spend Christmas in Paris. The 104th division came in as replacements. But they hadn’t even had time to complete basic training in the states, and the Germans knew the division was weak.

“They were overrun in a day after they took over, and we had to go back and retake and push on to Bastogne.”

At the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium, he also battled challenging conditions, as the snow was more than a foot deep and temperatures below zero, freezing his fingers, feet and ears. He dug a cave into a snowdrift and lit a candle.

“The candle would keep you halfway warm,” he said.

After surviving Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and three other major battles, Ottinger re-enlisted not once, but twice.

The first was with Russian soldiers, which took him to what was then Kiev, Russia, now Ukraine.

It was during his second re-enlistment that he received the physical wound that would join the mental scars.

“I feel it every day of my life,” Ottinger said.

He was driving a truck — taking Polish laborers from Auschwitz concentration camp back to Poland and picking up German SS officers and returning them to Germany for trial, 1,900 miles round trip — when he ran into trouble. As he was about to cross a bridge, a shell exploded in front of his 1939 Ford truck. Then he heard another behind him.

“I knew the next one would be right on me,” Ottinger remembered.

So he got out of the truck and hid underneath for protection, but he was still hit in the back with shrapnel. Wounded, he made it to a medic, who sent him back to find his own outfit. As he traveled the woods alone, he spotted another man, not knowing if he should shoot him or call out to him.

Then he spotted the white armband that was a sign of the Free French Underground. The man was Aril Bonjean, and he took him to his family’s farm. The Bonjean family hid him and gave him medical treatment. But shortly after Ottinger arrived at the town near Brussels, the Germans retook the town from the Americans. Ottinger hid in a manure pile in the barn for three days to avoid the Germans.

“They would have killed us all,” Ottinger said.

Although the war was full of bloodshed, Ottinger does have amusing memories. One is of his friend Neil Brooks, with whom he continues to stay in touch. Brooks’ vision is permanently impaired after a shell he was dismantling exploded, causing him to lose his hearing for more than eight months afterward.

Brooks, who is from Alabama, had never seen snow before.

“They made him the truck driver, and he couldn’t keep the truck between the fence posts,” Ottinger said with a chuckle.

During the war, he lost his mother’s silver coin three times. But he also found it three times. That’s the same reason he attributes his survival — luck.

“I just lost an awful lot of friends,” he said, overcome with emotion. As with many World War II veterans, the war is not something he talks about freely or often.

Home again

Ottinger eventually made it to a military hospital in Beirut, Germany. From there, he boarded a C47 airplane, with rivets halfway out. “Then you didn’t know if you were going to make that,” he said. He then came full circle to Camp Kilmer and Camp Atterbury in Indiana where it all started.

He came home to Zionsville and began building his life. He got a job at Rock Island Refinery on 86th Street, but the machines sounded too much like machine gun fire, and he had to leave. Eventually he worked for Pitman Moore, which became Dow Chemical, as an engineer. He also served as a volunteer fireman for 37 years.

His first “date” with his future wife Dorothy came when he asked if he could take her home after a Lebanon vs. Zionsville basketball game. The two were married Oct. 19, 1947, and will celebrate their 60th anniversary next fall. He has three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, with more on the way.

Ottinger doesn’t do anything special to commemorate Veteran’s Day. He has his memories and the pain in his back to remind him of war every day.

Zionsville resident Dale Ottinger was in the 2nd Ranger Division that stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day June, 6, 1944. This is his account of his experience during World War II as told to editor Greta Sanderson and on a videotape made in 2002 for his great-granddaughter’s school project.

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