Seventy years ago this morning, Dan Olney flew in a C-47 over the coast of Normandy, France. His plane was hit by German artillery and burst into flames.
Everybody bailed out, even the pilots.
“When my parachute opened, the Germans set off flares making us easy targets,” he told me. “I felt a painful impact in my back and thought I was going to be killed — but the bullet hit my canteen. I could literally hear the bullets.”
It was about 1 a.m., on D-Day and the 22-year-old Tucson High School graduate, a boxer and body-builder of note from the Badgers’ athletic glory days, was one of 170 paratroopers from the fabled 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles parachuting into hell.
“Twenty-eight of us made it,” Olney told me in his Beverly Hills, Calif., living room in 2007. “It was terrifying.”
Dan Olney was a Boy Before the War, part of Tucson’s greatest generation, growing up with the most notable names of the pre-War Tucson sports era: Enke, Batiste, Bland, Genung, Kellner.
As a THS senior, Class of ’42, Olney watched as the Badgers won state titles in basketball and baseball and began a 42-game football winning streak.
“Sports in Tucson then could be a bit overwhelming if you weren’t one of the top athletes,” he said. “But all through my life I’ve had so much pride. My hometown teams were the best. I took that with me.”
In 2007, I sat with Olney for about three hours, recording his boyhood memories from Tucson, from World War II and from his days as part of the Olney, Levy and Kaplan law firm of Beverly Hills. If there was a better story-teller, I want to meet him.
“Do you know I was in box seats at Dodger Stadium when Sandy Koufax pitched a no-hitter?” he asked. “I saw Maury Wills steal 100 bases. Oh, boy, I could tell you some stories.”
And so he did.
But I’m writing about Dan Olney not because of the Dodgers or his old Tucson High teammates, but because it’s D-Day.
He was the best friend of my late father-in-law, Ted Keil. They grew up selling blocks of ice door to door in the pre-AC days of Tucson. They were engulfed by World War II and sent to opposite corners of the world.
Keil was sunk on the cruiser Astoria at Guadalcanal, returned to earn a degree at the UA and become part of the athletic department’s day-to-day management. He lived to be 79. Olney, who was wounded in Normandy and later at the Battle of the Bulge, was awarded two Purple Hearts. He earned a law degree at USC, passed his bar exam in Arizona and lived in Beverly Hills. He died last Christmas.
I wanted to tell his story since that day in his living room seven years ago, but he always told me “stick to sports. I was just an old railroad attorney.”
Seventy years ago today, Olney was at the center of the most epic invasion in history. Do you know how he survived? Partly on the boxing skills he learned at the Tucson YMCA.
“We walked for 2½ days before we met our forces who arrived on the beach at Normandy,” he said. “We were surrounded. Some of us had lost our weapons when we jumped from the airplane.
“On the second day, two Germans surprised us in a hedgerow. They had their bayonets fixed. We started fist-fighting.”
I asked if he got hurt.
“They surrendered,” he said. “That’s all you need to know.”
A few days later, Olney got hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell (“ hit me right in the derriere,” he said.). His unit was not relieved for 65 days.
After surviving D-Day, Olney was among the first American troops to discover German death camps. He said it changed him forever.
“It justified why you were fighting,” he said. “It reinforced in my own consciousness why we fought. It made me determined to make something of myself.”
The old Tucson High Badger grew from a boy to a man during his days in the 101st Airborne. He took advantage of a free educational opportunity at Cambridge University in England, then used the GI Bill to enroll at USC and study law.
Over the next 60 years, he and his wife, Med, whom he met when she was a Cal Bears undergrad, raised four kids and enjoyed life in Beverly Hills.
Dan Olney was an American hero who grew up delivering the Daily Star every morning, Today, more than any other, I’m thankful he was brave enough to get in that airplane on June 6, 1944.