By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
CAIRO — Ralph Osterhoudt was one of the first 32 Americans to enter the gates of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp and saw sights he will never forget.
“It was terrible, terrible, terrible,” Osterhoudt said. “There were three buildings. People would come in on a train and every person on it — kids, older people, women — were told to strip and take off all their jewelry and put it in a pile. They were told they were going to get a shower — there were things in the ceiling that made it look like a shower, but they were gassed.”
Osterhoudt served in the U.S. Army in heavy artillery, under General George Patton, including in the Battle of the Bulge. To this day he still has three scars from three different battles. But he says he will never forget the things he saw when he entered Auschwitz.
“I saw a pile of ears with earrings on them — if they didn’t take them off, their ears were cut off,” Osterhoudt said. “There was a pile of fingers — if they didn’t take off their rings, their fingers were cut off with hedge shears.”
It is those memories that keep Osterhoudt going to every veterans’ event he can find — to tell his first-hand account of World War II and what he and his fellow service members experienced.
Osterhoudt was the honoree at this year’s Let’s Ride to Benefit Our Veterans motorcycle run last Sunday, now in its third year. Last year’s event drew 136 riders, but this year torrential downpours were forecast so turnout was lower than expected, with about 30 motorcyclists participating.
The route was shorter than usual, too, about 65 miles in total, due to safety concerns with thunderstorms and heavy rains expected. Normally a 130-mile route through Greene County and the mountaintop, this year’s route was shortened to traveling from the Red Rooster Bar and Grill to Prattsville and back.
The group raised just under $2,000 for the day, organizer Melissa Buffett said.
Osterhoudt rode in a Ford Fairlane as the guest of honor. Even at 97 years old, he continues to spread the word about the war and its innumerable tragedies.
“You can find me at almost any veterans’ event, from New York City to Albany. I’m here to remind everyone of that time in history. If I wasn’t here, maybe there wouldn’t be a person here that remembers World War II, but I’m here so they will remember it.”
He wants his fellow service members who did not make it back home to be remembered always.
“I’m doing this for the guys that didn’t make it because otherwise they will be forgotten,” Osterhoudt said. “Thousands of 18-year-old guys — people don’t know it, but half of them froze to death. They died because they froze. We can’t forget about them.”
Osterhoudt is a highly decorated veteran, having earned three Bronze stars, the Purple Heart and the French Medal of Honor.
Melissa Buffett, the motorcycle run’s organizer, said proceeds from the event will go to the group Mended Swords, a nonprofit organization that aids veterans. Buffett launched the motorcycle run three years ago.
“I am fanatic about veterans and this is something we need to do as a community,” she said.
Taryn Purro, owner of the Red Rooster Bar and Grill on Main Street in Cairo, each year lends a hand by donating the use of her restaurant and food for the event.
“Helping veterans and people in the service was really big for my father and it’s just something we have always supported,” Purro said. “Veterans are the ones who always put the people of this country first. They give us our freedom and they make the ultimate sacrifice. They leave their friends and family, and sometimes they lose their lives. They put all of us first.”
The motorcycle run drew numerous veterans and family members of veterans, like retired Cairo police officer Tom Plank.
“My father was a WWII veteran,” Plank said. “Veterans, especially from World War II, are near and dear to my heart. My dad was a vet and he fought for our country.”
Greene County Sheriff Peter Kusminsky turned out to show his support and said remembering veterans is important.
“We need to never forget the sacrifices that veterans made to ensure that we continue to enjoy the rights that we have,” Kusminsky said. “It’s extremely important that we never forget them and that we continue to honor them.”
Army National Guard veteran Mike Dunker helped organize the run.
“Once I found out that we were doing this for Ralph — I’m a vet, my father is a vet, so this is important to me,” Dunker said. “These people have died for our country and [Ralph] survived. Because of all of them, we are living free.”
Pastor Anthony Covino recited a prayer before the motorcycle riders took off on their route.
“The lives of our nation and preservation of this great country wouldn’t happen without our veterans,” Covino said to the group assembled in prayer. “I feel in my heart that they don’t get enough recognition, enough support, so if we can come together like this, whether it’s a large group or a small group, I’m sure it means a lot, especially to those who are here today who have served. I thank you for your time and the sacrifice that you made for your country.”