The first time Chief Master Sgt. Richard Ortega ever saw a French beach, he was gasping for air more than 100 feet from shore as bullets whizzed by in the darkness and sliced into the stormy sea.
It was June 6, 1944, just past 4 a.m. as a flotilla of 16 boats full of soldiers opened their front-loading ramps like a curtain at a horror film.
Many of them didn’t even make it that far. Seconds before opening the front hatch, the landing craft carrying Ortega and 33 fellow riflemen hit a mine, tearing the front into shredded metal as half the soldiers flew in pieces into the dark water. It all happened in an instant, but has stayed with Ortega for more than 60 years.
“The people in front of the boat were torn apart,” Ortega said. “Most of the people in that vessel were either dead or wounded. I was at the back of the boat, so I was lucky.”
Luck is a relative term when given Ortega’s deference. The Winter Park resident may be the most repeatedly wounded man to ever leave the battlefield alive. Hit by bullets and shrapnel more than a dozen times in 56 days and nearly losing an arm and a leg, he returned to the fray over and over again, becoming something of a quiet legend in the process.
“He’s got the second-most medals to Audie Murphy,” Paul R. Bertram, Jr. said at an Armed Services Day event honoring Ortega and dozens of other soldiers on May 21. In the years after the Nazi surrender, a few heroes earned fame, while others, like Ortega, quietly pressed on.
Hero in the shadows
After the war Murphy, the jockey-sized soldier, became so famous for enraged, devastating attacks on German soldiers that he starred in box office hits about his own life. He became a national hero overnight, earning every medal the military can give, and going on to star in 44 movies in the next 20 years.
Hidden in the fog of war and the shadow of another soldier’s fame, Ortega quietly earned seven purple hearts, four bronze stars, two silver stars and a slew of other medals for bravery on the battlefield.
His first purple heart didn't take long. He was already shot the moment he stepped onto Omaha Beach in France. But he kept fighting anyway, as fellow soldiers fell to the ground around him.
“I’m very proud of him,” Ortega’s wife of nearly 60 years, Wynelle, said.
But the tenor of nostalgia escaping the smiling, affable Winter Park man paints a picture more like a day at the beach than the bloody front lines of one of the deadliest battles in world history. Ortega’s words flow as an eerily calm reverie from a man baptized in the horrors of war, yet happy to be alive.
"We did what we had to," Ortega said. "A lot of us never came back."
Now the memoirs of the second-most-decorated man in WWII have taken to the printed page. An almost-cinematic detail flows from Ortega’s new book “My Hero…My Dad”, charting a dangerous path on the front lines. From the beaches of the Normandy invasion, across France to the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany, then taking to the air over North Korea as he flew in bombers, his memoir puts the finishing touches on some of the most dramatic moments in American military history, including the dropping of the first atomic bomb.
And it’s all written from Ortega’s notes from the battlefield, put on the page by his daughter, Rachel Ortega Bateman, who wanted to tell her father’s tale.
It was a project that took more than 15 years to finish, starting in the mid 1990s with interviews, locked away in Bateman's study.
Bateman, who had known her dad as a school teacher at Colonial High — his second career — all of her life, was shocked by the story she heard.
"It seemed like it was out of a movie," she said. "He brought over just piles of documentation because the story was so incredible."
That story told the account of a top level sniper and rifleman who cut across the front lines over two wild months in the biggest battles of the war.
"As it started unfolding it just blew me away," she said. "It was just unbelievable, event after event after event."
But after putting together something she called more text book than novel, she had it edited down to hook readers. Then she showed it to her father for the first time.
“When she presented it to me, I was flabbergasted,” Ortega said. He had told his story to family and friends, but didn’t expect to see it in print.
A famous story
But in some ways that story already has its own fame. Ortega’s E-Company, one of the most famous of the D-Day invasion, had its own TV mini-series, HBO’s “Band of Brothers”.
But Ortega’s story goes even farther, stretching across the globe in war zones over the course of three decades.
It all started amid angry waters of the war’s most famous invasion, as one of the most famous battle-trained infantry regiments in the war landed on a beach that would soon become synonymous with the beginning of the end of the Nazis.
Carrying more than 50 pounds of waterlogged equipment when he hit the water, Ortega stripped off his clothes, food and weapons to keep himself from drowning as he swam toward a cliff full of German machine guns.
It was the beginning of the most ambitious assault in the war. In more than 800 years of attempts, no invasion across the English Channel between the United Kingdom and France had ever been successful. In order to win WWII, “D-Day” would have to be the first. It would be a crucial turning point in the war, but also one of the most deadly.
“The closer we got, the more firepower they were dropping,” he said. Bombs exploded 50 feet overhead, raining shrapnel down on soldiers. The moment Ortega stepped onto the shore, blood flowed from his right foot. His boot had been cut in half by a bullet, which passed through his foot on the way.
“Everybody was praying,” he said. “Kids were calling ‘mother’ as they laid there.”
He would leap from bomb crater to bomb crater, eventually reaching the German machine guns and beyond, as E-Company tore its way across France.
But 56 days into the fighting, he nearly lost his right arm in a battle and was hospitalized for more than nine months from multiple injuries.
Almost immediately, he began training as a bombardier and instructor, flying across the world.
“I calibrated the bomb sight on the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima,” Ortega said.
He would fly more than 10,000 hours in bombers during the Korean War and beyond, eventually transferring to training bombardiers full time before retiring in 1970, 30 years and two military branches after he began his career.
In the spotlight
With the passing of Armed Forces Day and the coming of Memorial Day, Ortega is back in the spotlight to tell a story from more than half a century ago.
“We have to remind people of their sacrifices,” Ortega said of those who died on the battlefield.
The churning water still laps the shores of Normandy, where Americans fought more than 60 years ago. For many, that beach was their graves, Ortega said, though the waves have long since washed away the blood, the bullets and the bomb craters.
Now, Ortega said, he has a job that’s even more important: preserving the memory of those who gave their lives on a sandy shore thousands of miles away.
For more information and to purchase “My Hero…My Dad: Echoes from the Battlefield” by Rachel Ortega Bateman, visit www.myheromydad.com