Bill O’Brien celebrated his 85th birthday recently with a tandem jump from an airplane at 13,500 feet. He hit speeds of 120 mph during the free-fall.
To the people who know O’Brien, a wounded infantry veteran of World War II who fought his way from France into Germany, there’s no doubting his courage.
Or his physical fitness. He earned 12 letters in sports — four in baseball, four in track, three in cross country and one in basketball — at Canterbury College, formerly Central Indiana Normal College.
That was a long time ago, but consider that he has been involved in league bowling for 68 years and had a high game of 247 last year.
Or his resolve. He is the former principal of Parrish, Palm View and Prine elementary schools, and served as supervisor of physical education for the Manatee County school district for more than 17 years.
Even though he retired in 1986, he still has a part-time job in the private sector.
Even with that impressive résumé, O’Brien’s daughter, Claudia Olivera, with whom he shares a home in the Casa Loma neighborhood south of Bradenton, was surprised by the jump.
“He doesn’t like heights,” Olivera said.
She found out about the jump after it was all over.
“I didn’t even know. He just came in the house and gave me a copy of the videotape,” Olivera said.
Not to discourage her father, but if he had first told her about his plans, she said she would have told him he was crazy.
O’Brien got the idea from a younger friend who made a tandem jump.
“I figured if she could jump, I could jump,” he said.
He made his own arrangements and drove to Zephyrhills, where a single-engine plane took several jumpers high above Florida.
O’Brien’ s only regret about the sky dive is that it happened so fast that he didn’t have time to appreciate it. And he just might do it again later this year.
Memories of war
The recent 65th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, stirred recollections in O’Brien about his own service.
He was a member of the 8th Infantry Division that went ashore at Omaha Beach in July 1944, several weeks after the invasion began.
“I was fortunate enough to be one of six out of the original 120 in my company still fighting on the front line when the war ended, even though I was wounded in action and buried alive in a foxhole as a result of the feared and deadly accurate German 88 artillery fire,” he writes in a memoir of his wartime experiences.
That duty took him from the hedgerows of northern France to the Hurtgen Forest in western Germany, across the Roer and Rhine rivers, finally linking up with Russian troops at Lake Schwerin in northern Germany on May 2, 1945.
He recalls that when his company crossed the Roer River at Niederau, it moved into enemy trenches and captured 23 German soldiers dazed by all the artillery fire they endured.
After crossing the Rhine, his company surprised a German guard at the home of the burgermeister (mayor) that was serving as a command post.
“We captured the entire group, without firing a shot, while they were eating their beef stew at the dining table. Needless to say, after completing the capture, we reheated the beef stew and had a feast,” he wrote.
O’Brien was wounded April 15, 1945, while riding atop a tank, as American forces pursued the retreating Germans.
“We’re going through this town and they were firing at us, and we were firing back,” O’Brien recalled. “I felt this sting in my leg, and a buddy said, ‘Look at your leg.’ It was full of blood.”
A German bullet had blown out a chunk of flesh about the size of a half dollar.
“I couldn’t believe it, it didn’t hurt that much,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t think anything about it.”
When a medic treated his wound, he said O’Brien could be medically evacuated.
But O’Brien didn’t feel he had been that badly hurt and refused the offer of a hospital bed.
“Just put it on the record,” O’Brien said to the medic, knowing that in addition to a Purple Heart, the wound would give him points to help him get home sooner.
Still active in area schools
O’Brien still occasionally goes back into the classroom and will talk about his wartime experiences with students.
He maintains a hardy zest for life, not surprising for someone who owns a highly collectible 1966 Mustang with wire wheels.
For the past 22 years, O’Brien has annually presented an award to the county’s top boys and girls cross country runners.
He also gives a Manatee Community College scholarship to a Prine Elementary School fifth grader each year. He chose Prine because as principal, he opened the original school many years ago.
The scholarship selection is based on grades and citizenship. The only requirement to use the scholarship is that the student must graduate from a Manatee County high school another seven years down the road.
When Linda Carol, senior secretary at Prine, learned O’Brien had recently gone for a free fall from an airplane, her reaction was a surprised and succinct “He did? He was just here.”
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.