While they live only two miles apart, Bluffton residents Karl Olsen and Bill Eisenhart have never met.
But there’s a good chance Olsen heard Eisenhart’s B-17 roaring overhead as the pair battled their way through Nazi-occupied France — Olsen from the ground and Eishenhart from the air.
The men, both highly decorated World War II veterans, will get a chance to shake hands and swap stories when the French government awards them with the Legion of Honor on Friday.
The award, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is France’s highest honor.
Six veterans from the Carolinas will receive the medal at at a ceremony Friday in Columbia — a better-late-than-never thank you for helping liberate France more than 70 years ago.
Col. William E. Eisenhart, 8th Air Force, 303rd Bomb Group, 359th Squadron
Eisenhart was born in 1920 in Akron, Ohio, and like so many other young men living in that part of the country at that time, he took a job at a local rubber company after finishing Kent State University.
He hit the road as a traveling salesman. The perpetual motion of the job suited the curious and energetic 20-something well.
But after a year or so, he was promoted, which meant he was pulled off the road and saddled with a desk.
“I was unhappy being confined to a job inside the (rubber) plant,” Eisenhart said last week from the Sun City home he shares with his wife, Penny.
So, in March of 1942, he strolled down to the local military recruiter and joined up.
Eisenhart went to mechanics school for the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor to the U.S. Air Force.
He showed promise beyond repairing planes and was quickly enrolled in pilot training.
“Six months later, I was flying,” he said.
He was assigned to the 303rd Bomb Group — affectionately nicknamed the Hell’s Angels — and by 1943, he was flying bombing runs over Europe.
His first targets were Nazi forces and infrastructure in occupied France.
“A lot of what we were doing was aimed at delaying the movement of (German) troops,” Eisenhart said.
As American forces began landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944, he piloted missions in support of the invading troops.
“Specifically, these D-Day (bombing runs) were behind the lines of the Germans, who were moving people into the area to fight the oncoming invasion,” Eisenhart said.
Eisenhart — now a 96-year-old father to four, grandfather to 11 and great-grandfather to three — flew 42 missions during the war, dropping 500-pound bombs on targets in cities all over France and Germany.
During a 1943 air raid on Schweinfurt, Germany, his B-17 bomber was hit by enemy fire, destroying one of its four engines.
The engine “was smoking and burning oil was leaking from there,” Eisenhart said.
“It’s the unknown that really gets to you,” he said.
The known wasn’t much better.
“I know we were scared to death.”
He piloted the damaged plane out of formation “and joined a group behind us for protection.”
Eisenhart, his crewmates and the hobbled B-17 made it to safety in England, but “it wasn’t a fun mission at all,” he said dryly.
“You were scared, but you had to do the job. The United States airmen just did the job — and I was one of them.”
Eisenhart left the military in 1945, returning to Ohio and the rubber plant.
But the military wasn’t finished with him yet.
In 1948, he was recalled to active duty, this time to serve in the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command.
During the years surrounding the Korean War, Eisenhart was “in the intelligence business.”
As the Cold War ramped up in 1960s, he was put in the pilot’s seat.
“I was back in the bombing business,” he said, this time in the cockpit of a B-52.
One mission involved a series of 24-hour long flights during a particularly infamous 13-day stretch in October of 1962.
While President John Kennedy was locked in a staring contest with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Eisenhart was circling the globe in a plane armed with a nuclear bomb.
“There were quite a few B-52s in the air just making circles, ready to drop nuclear weapons,” he said. “I was in Boston refueling when they reached an agreement and Khrushchev pulled back. That was a relief.”
Soon after, Eisenhart started flying bombing runs over Southeast Asia.
He was in his mid-fifties.
“I might have been older, but I could still fly,” he said.
In a move that mirrored his younger self, Eisenhart flew in 43 missions during the Vietnam War — one more than he flew in World War II.
Eisenhart left military life for the last time in 1977.
He settled in Florida, where he “played a lot of golf, fished and had a pretty good time.”
Two years ago, he and Penny moved to Bluffton, where they continue to enjoy retirement.
Pfc. Karl W. Olsen, 134th Infantry, 35th Division
As a child, Karl Olsen never thought about becoming an American soldier.
He never even thought about becoming an American.
Olsen was born in Denmark in 1923.
As Hitler’s forces invaded his homeland in 1940, the teenager ran for his life and soon found himself on a ship bound for New York.
“I had no contact with Denmark or my family when we got to New York. Hitler had taken the country,” Olsen said last week from the couch in the living room of his tidy Sun City home.
“I couldn’t go back; I was stuck,” he said. “... and I didn’t speak a word of English.”
So, what was a young man stranded in a strange land with no money and no plan to do?
“I went to Florida and became a lifeguard,” Olsen said.
But his days of soaking up the sun poolside were short-lived.
“Pearl Harbor got bombed,” he said. “Then I knew I had to join the Army. All the boys left (to fight in the war), so I knew I had to go.”
There was just one problem: The U.S. Army wouldn’t allow Olsen into combat because he wasn’t an American citizen.
“So, they made me a citizen (on a military base) in Birmingham, England,” he said.
The newly minted American linked up with an infantry unit bound for occupied France.
By that time, the Nazis had killed two of Olsen’s brothers and likely many more extended family members in Denmark.
That made the fight personal.
By taking the battle to Hitler’s forces in France, Olsen felt he “was able to get even with a few people.”
Olsen took a Nazi sword home as a prize. He also tried taking a German soldier’s gun with him, but a commanding officer wanted it for himself.
Olsen fought his way through Europe between 1943 and 1945 and satisfied his thirst for revenge, but the fighting took a toll.
“I got through it without a scratch,” but there were emotional scars, he said.
“I will never forget. (The war) is always on my mind,” Olsen said. “When I first came home, I had dreams a lot about the war. But those wore off after a while.”
After the war, his second trip from Europe to America dropped him in the same place as the first: New York.
Olsen settled on Long Island and raised three kids. He has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
After 33 years working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Olsen followed his daughter, who moved to South Carolina after getting married.
He has spent the past two years in Bluffton, where, unlike the Northeast, “there’s no snow or anything like that.”
Proud but humble
Both Eisenhart and Olsen are bringing entourages of friends and family members to Columbia for Friday’s ceremony.
Olsen’s son, also named Karl, said he is extremely proud of his dad for “all he went through.”
“I love him and all veterans, because if it wasn’t for the sacrifices he made, we wouldn't be free.”
Penny Eisenhart echoed that sentiment.
“These men gave everything for their country,” she said. “I’m just so proud and happy they’re getting the recognition they deserve.”
Olsen and Eisenhart see themselves differently, as two men who did what they had to and who, in the process, managed to save the world.
Like most members of the Greatest Generation, they do not see themselves as great men.
When asked how he will react when he receives the award, Olsen responded like the military man he once was.
“I’m going to salute (the French government and military officials) and say, ‘Viva la France.’ ”