It took 70 years and a unique honor bestowed by the French Consulate to bring two aging American World War II veterans together in Sun City.
Karl W. Olsen and William E. Eisenhart were two of six Carolinians to receive the French Legion of Honor on March 11 in ceremonies conducted at the South Carolina State House in Columbia.
The Sun City Hilton Head residents met for the first time the evening before the ceremony at Eisenhart’s home on the north side of Sun City. The conversation was like most encounters between veterans, talking about where they were stationed, what they did.
Eisenhart, 96, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, and Olsen, who was a private first class in the U.S. Army, earned the medal for separate actions in France.
“I never had direct contact with the ground troops,” Eisenhart said. “We were brought from England to bomb ahead of the lines.”
Olsen, 92, who had the view on the ground, saw a lot of what was going on in the skies above him.
“We saw a lot of the dogfights above us,” said Olsen.
At one point, Eisenhart leaned over to Olsen and said, “I don’t want to do it again.”
To which Olsen replied, “Me, either.”
Olsen served with the 134th Infantry, 35th Division.
“I was in Nancy and took part in the battle for Saint-Lô, which was very important. Hitler gave orders not to lose it but we took it anyway,” recalled Olsen. “I was all over France. Then I was in Belgium, Holland and then Germany.”
Olsen was age 16 at the time, working as a galley boy on a Danish merchant marine crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Halfway across, the ship got word that Hitler took Denmark. That was also when he learned one of his brothers had been lost on another Danish merchant sunk by a U-boat.
Stranded in the United States, Olsen was drafted even though he had Danish nationality. He said the military wanted to put him in the Navy because of his merchant marine experience. By then another of Olsen’s brothers had been killed on a merchant ship sunk by torpedoes.
“I told them there’s no foxhole on a ship. Put me in the Army,” said Olsen. “But I couldn’t go into combat until I became an American citizen. They made me a citizen when I got to England.”
Eisenhart enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and went to pilot training to fly B-17s. When his unit reported to RAF Molesworth, England, he was a captain with the 8th Air Force, 303rd Bombardment Group, 359th Squadron.
He and his pilot, Capt. T.J. Quinn, flew about 13 missions over France.
“That led up to V-E Day,” he said, “and D-Day was the 6th of June and we had several missions on June 6 and 8 in support of ground troops during Normandy. That’s what this award is for.”
After bombing missions in France, Eisenhart’s squadron hit factories in Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Hamburg and Frankfurt. One mission he remembers particularly was over Schweinfurt.
“That’s the day we lost 60 airplanes and 200 crewmen. It was sad day for the Air Force,” he said.
Years later, he returned to Frankfurt as base commander and over time became good friends with many of the Germans who worked there.
Standing beside a photo of his younger self and his pilot, Capt. Quinn, Eisenhart said that out of the 10 crewmembers on his plane, he was the last survivor and he had been the oldest at the time – at age 23.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.