If you ever feel tempted to wallow in self-pity, or feel like complaining about your unfairly brutal day or week or month, you could gain some valuable perspective from a man like Ralph Osterhoudt Sr., a 91-year-old World War II vet from Hyde Park, New York.
He can tell you what it felt like to be shipped out on Christmas Eve, 1944, with 6,000 other soldiers and no idea where he was heading or if he’d ever see his friends and family again. “You were homesick, you were seasick, you were cold and tired and hungry, and the fear never goes away,” he remembers. He can tell you about long train trips through Europe in cattle cars, on their way to battle, where he and his fellow soldiers had only a few bales of hay to sit or sleep on, but decided instead to “pick it apart and stuff it in the cracks of the car to keep the snow from coming in.”
He can tell you about fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, which Winston Churchill called “undoubtedly the greatest American battle” of World War II. “I was attached to General Patton’s 3rd and 7th,” Osterhoudt says. “We took orders from him.” Those orders involved firing a 240 mm Howitzer M1, the Black Dragon, the most powerful field weapon at the time. It helped liberate the town of Bastogne, Belgium, from Nazi Germany. “We were blowing up the bridges and stopping the Germans from coming in,” he says.
“That’s what war does to you. It makes you a little less human.”
In your imagination, it may sound incredibly cool and bad-ass, like something from a Hollywood war movie. But for Osterhoudt, the memory is anything but pleasant. “It was horrible,” he tells us. “We were cold, scared, living on k-rations, melting snow on the jeeps for water, and watching your buddies blow up all around you. You can’t know what that’s like until you experience it, to be around that much death.”
Osterhoudt received the distinguished Croix de Guerre medal for his bravery and heroism, but when he talks about that famous battle in Belgium, it’s less about bravery and more about the horrors he witnessed. “I was in a jeep with five other guys and we hit a mine,” he says. “The jeep blew up into the air. The driver and myself, we were thrown from the jeep, and my buddy, my best friend at the time, he burned up.”
Osterhoudt’s voice cracks as he recalls the details, and it’s clearly still a painful memory for him 73 years later. “These guys became as close as family to you, and then you lose them. When you see a friend, somebody you care about, burn up in front of you, the skin melting off their bodies, that image goes with you to your grave.”
It’s easy to talk in platitudes about courage and overcoming fear, but it’s quite another to hear stories from a man who’s shown more courage and overcome more fear than most of us will come close to experiencing in a lifetime. How did he do it? How did he put on a brave face while surrounded by so much death and destruction? “It’s horrible to say, but when you see some guy’s head get blown off, there’s a part of you that’s grateful because it wasn’t you,” Osterhoudt tells us. “That’s what war does to you. It makes you a little less human. But it also makes you realize that everything that happens just boils down to luck. I’m not alive because I was smarter than my buddies. The only reason you’re still walking is you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the guy next to you was.”
More than just an acceptance of fate, Osterhoudt realized that he had a job to do, and nothing was going to stop him from doing it. “I kept thinking about my family, and how much I didn’t want those Nazi bastards in my country,” Osterhoudt says. “I don’t want them marching through my hometown. It made me sick to my stomach. So as bad as it got, if watching my friends die or getting myself killed is what it took to keep those evil Nazi scum out of my country, then so be it. Tomorrow you’re going to be dead anyway, so try to make today count for something.”
Osterhoudt may be in his 90s, but he doesn’t act like somebody who’s been alive for almost a century. He has a few theories on how he stays so youthful, driving his own car and living in his own house when most people his age are in nursing homes. “I never smoked, never drank, never touched fast food,” he says. “I was brought up on a farm in the 20s and 30s, and all we ate was what they call ‘organic food’ today. My mother used to can anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 jars of fruits and vegetables, and the only thing in there was water. We didn’t even know what preservatives were.”
“I kept thinking about my family, and how much I didn’t want those Nazi bastards in my country.”
He also credits his vigor with an active lifestyle. He keeps busy with everything from playing paintball with his pals at West Point, and on August 26, he’ll participate in the upcoming Spartan Military Sprint. (“I’m not crawling through mud,” he says, “but I’ll be there. I’ll be part of it.”) Over the past several years, he’s travelled the world on cruise ships, visiting every place from Paris, France to Montreal, Canada, the Caribbean to Mexico.
He travels with a female friend, a 38-year-old senior sergeant who he calls his reason to live. “If you have a reason to live, you’re going to keep going,” he says. “That’s what she does for me.” He loves pointing out the age difference between him and his female travel companion. “How the hell did a 91-year-old guy end up traveling the world with a girl who’s 38 years old?” Osterhoudt asks with a chuckle. “I don’t know, but it’s worked out all right for me.”
As rich and full as his life is today, thoughts of World War II are always with him, a reminder of how far he’s come. Not long ago, he visited the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. “I wanted to visit my buddy’s grave,” he says, his voice cracking again. The conversation drifts back to the Battle of the Bulge, and the scared, frozen U.S. soldiers who weren’t about to give up. “We were not as equipped as the Germans were,” he said. “They had better guns, they had better tanks, they had better supplies, they had better clothing, they had better everything.”
So how did American troops persevere in the end? “We were just better,” Osterhoudt says.
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