Remembering Normandy

D-Day veteran Vern Ollar muses over the pitons and snap-ring he used to make the 900-foot final climb while training to land on Omaha Beach. Since revisiting Normandy on the 70th Anniversary, he is able to tell about that day and the months that followed.

Vern Ollar’s parents lived in Rock Island, Ill., but since on July 26, 1921, the town had no hospital, so he was born in Moline. “It was called the quad cities, and was on the Mississippi river.”

He says he played football at Rock Island High School. After graduation he went to work at the Rock Island Arsenal. “I was called a ‘hooker.’ The actual job title was ‘crane follower,’ and I watched out where the hook went.”

In June of 1942 he married Jayne Thomsen, and they had a daughter, Judith. He says “When Judith was 11 months, I got my draft notice. I could have had a deferment, both because I was working at the Arsenal, and because I had a daughter. But my father fought in WWI, so I just didn’t tell anyone either of those things.”

He says he completed basic combat training at Camp Siebert, Ala., then was sent to Louisiana for more training. He was assigned to B Company, 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion.

“We had the 4.2-inch mortar,” he said. “It comes in three parts. The tube weighs 105 pounds, the bipod 53 pounds, and the baseplate 175 pounds. They gave us two handcarts for mobility, one for the mortar and the other for ammo. The advantage of a mortar is that it fires at a high angle, and can hit targets on the other side of a hill. And we could haul it where field artillery couldn’t go.”

He says, “Our amphibious training was in Florida. They would bring us in from the ocean, and drop us off in the water. We had to get everything onto and across the beach. Then we went to West Virginia, where we learned to haul the carts up and down mountains.

“One day they came around looking for volunteers for rock-climbing school. When we asked what we would get, the answer was ‘hot meals.’ We were eating K-Rations, so that sounded pretty good. Frank Solik and I went. They taught us to climb up sheer cliffs using rope, pitons and snap-links. Out of the eight in our class, six ‘froze’ on the rock while climbing. Frank and I finished the final climb, then ate our hot lunch with our feet dangling over the 900-foot drop.”

Ollar says after training they were given a furlough. But their pay hadn’t caught up, so they had no money. They managed to hitchhike to a Western Union office, where their families could send them $100. They split up there, and each went home.

They met up with B Company at the port of embarkation, he says, and boarded an English liner, the Capetown Castle, which took 13 days to reach Liverpool. The unit was stationed near the town of Pinkridge, population 900, and spent the winter practicing with the mortars.

He says, “The forward observer would radio the target coordinates back to us. A guy behind me would calculate the mortar settings on his slide rule. I was the gunner corporal, so I would enter the settings in the mortar sight, then make sure all the bubble levels were centered. Then we would drop a shell down the tube and duck. A 4.2-inch will fire a couple of thousand yards, and we got to where we could drop a shell in a barrel.”

Then it was June, and Ollar says they moved to the staging area. “There were 20,000 troops there. We got all our equipment in shape to go, and packed up the mortars for shipping. Just before we boarded, they gave us one night in town. They told us to talk about Calais. We didn’t know if anyone was listening, but with that many people, someone would hear. It was part of the diversion.”

He says they boarded the ship on June 2, and found their mortars secured on deck. “It was storming along the whole coast. We spent three days and nights down in the ship, and never saw daylight. Then, the night of June 5, we shoved off.”

Across the channel they were loaded into an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel). He says it was a small boat, holding only his squad and their mortar and ammo. At H-Hour plus 45, they headed in.

“We were on the right flank, coming into the beach, and I was looking through a little port in the ramp. All of a sudden I saw we were heading right for a Teller mine, a German-made antitank mine fixed to a pole in the water. I yelled, “Mine!” as loud as I could. Despite riding in on the tide, the coxswain stopped the boat and backed out. Then we went down the line of mines, looking for a way in.

“A shell hit the back end of our LCVP, disabling it, but we spotted a LCM which had dropped its load and was making its way out through a gap. It was a bigger boat, so we had to lift both carts over the higher rail. The LCM dropped us in eight feet of water, but we had rigged the carts to float, so we made it to the beach, then had to pull them down the beach back to the right flank, so we could support our assigned unit.”

Ollar says they were on “Dog Green” sector of Omaha Beach, supporting the Rangers taking Pointe du Hoc. As the Rangers moved forward, B Company had to crawl up the hill with their mortars and ammo to keep up.

“We were a bastard outfit,” he says. “We were one of three battalions on the continent, so whichever unit was at the point of the attack, we were supporting them. By the time we got to Saint Lo they gave us two jeeps and trailers, so we could move much faster. We followed the first unit through Paris, and ran into a German unit on the other side. D Company, the other unit in our battalion, followed the unit behind us, so they got the parade and the mam’selles while we dealt with the Germans.”

In September, Ollar says he was reassigned as a radio operator for Lt. “Ski” Rokowski, a forward observer. “I’m still not sure why I did that, particularly when I found out that it froze my rank as corporal. But Ski and I got along great, and I only had to carry the radio, which was lighter than the mortar.”

After France, Ollar says the 81st joined the 4th Division, swinging through Belgium and into the Siegfried Line, so they were also with the first unit to enter Germany. “I remember standing in the Hurtgen Forest, in pouring rain, trying to decide whether to sleep on top of my poncho to protect me from the wet ground, or under it, to keep the rain off. You choose between funny things like that in combat.”

He says when the war ended, the 81st Battalion was sent to Austria, and assigned to guard a camp of SS troopers. But then B Company was moved to a castle in Belgium. “It was fantastic, like in the movies, the castle of a Belgian noble. There were big vans in the courtyard, and a bunch of civilians. We found out they had developed a radar system to detect the location of mortars, so we spent two weeks helping them test it. It worked, and we were sure glad the war was over.”

Ollar says the 81st was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions on D-Day, then sent home on furlough in preparation for duty in the South Pacific. “But Frank and I had been with the unit long enough that we had 97 service points. We were given a temporary assignment with an 8-inch howitzer outfit, then discharged. So even though I was still a corporal, I got through the whole war without a scratch.”

He says in 2014, the French government awarded him their highest medal, the Legion of Honor.

When he got home, Ollar says he found himself with a wife and four-year-old daughter, and no job. “Everyone was hiring their nephews and cousins. But then I found out that Coach Scandlberry, from my football days, managed a John Deere plant. I ended up making parts, working with five machines, and earning $70 per week, which was more than my father was getting. I learned right away to build up a ‘kitty’ of extra parts, so if one of the machines went down, I wouldn’t fall behind. But the job had no advancement.”

He says his next job was through a friend of his parents, at a lumber yard. There he trained as a draftsman, and eventually went to a school in New Britain, Conn., to learn the hardware business. He ran the lumber yard’s commercial hardware department for three years, then was offered an opportunity to go in with three other friends in their business.

He says, “It was good work, but one day I got tired of their filing system. You couldn’t find anything. So I reorganized it. The secretaries really liked it, but when the boss came in, he didn’t. So in 1958 I went home to Jayne and told her, ‘I’m out of a job. I’m going to start my own company.’ Having learned from making parts, I had a ‘kitty’ put aside, and a good credit rating, and it was enough to begin.”

He says he built Ollar Hardware Co. Inc. to the point where he was selling a million dollars a year of locks, hardware, hollow metal doors, and acoustical ceilings. “We would bid on a hospital, and install locks that had great-great-grand-master key systems to control access.”

Ollar says he decided to retire in 1985, and sold the business to his four children. “I played a lot of golf, and Jayne and I became snowbirds, with a place in Mission. But she died in 1997, after 55 years of marriage. I bought a park model home, 12 by 34 feet, and set out to be a bachelor.”

But he says he was walking around the block one evening when he came across Diane King. She was standing at the end of her driveway with her bicycle upside-down. Ollar wandered over, and found her front tire was flat. He took it home and fixed it. He says, “Honestly, I didn’t have any designs. I was just being a good neighbor. But a couple of days later I found her with a flat back tire, and that started it. We ended up sitting on her patio talking, and she introduced me to elderberry wine. It was all very proper. At midnight she saw me off, but I had drunk enough wine that it took me a while to get home.”

He says they hit it off, and one day while they were dancing in his kitchen, he proposed. He says, “We had a surprise wedding. On Dec. 14, 2008, we invited our friends to a party aboard a Rio Grande riverboat, and showed up dressed for the ceremony. It was a good party.”

He says between them he has four children and nine grandchildren, and she has two sons and four grandchildren.

In February of 2011 they vacationed for a week in the Hill Country, staying in the Gruene Cottages in New Braunfels and touring all the small towns. He says, “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. On the border we had helicopters flying over shining spotlights in our yard. So in June of 2011 we decided to move. Diane is a real estate broker, so she knew how to look, and we ended up here.”

He says in 2016 he went on an Honor Flight for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. “I was still where I couldn’t talk about the war. But that day I stood on Omaha Beach and looked up the hill we had crawled up with our mortar. They had built a whole row of houses there. It broke something loose, and now I can tell about that day.”

He returned on the 75th anniversary, for a cruise from Amsterdam to Normandy.

Then, late in 2020, Ollar says he and Diane both caught COVID. “I was in intensive care for more than a week, and they didn’t think I was going to make it. But I’m a tough old bird, so I’m looking forward to celebrating my 100th birthday July 26.”

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