Meeting at the notorious “bloody” Omaha beach here along the coast of northern France, two former enemies talked about what happened 70 years ago in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Invited by a group of European historians, James “Pee Wee” Martin (left in above photo), a 101st Airborne Division veteran, joined Erich Bessoir, a former soldier of the German Waffen-SS, for dinner and a stroll down memory lane here, Saturday.
Bit by bit, the two men began telling their stories through an interpreter in a busy restaurant along the shoreline their countries bitterly sought to control decades ago.
A member of the Hitler Youth, Bessoir said he was called up for service with the active Waffen-SS in 1943. After basic training and advanced weapons training that qualified him as a motorcycle reconnaissance soldier (Kraftrad-melder), he was forward-deployed to the area near Caen, in anticipation of an allied attack.
“It was known that the invasion would come some day,” Bessoir recalled. “But when exactly, no one knew,” he said. “But we were ready and forward deployed. We didn’t have regular duty anymore. We took care of equipment, listened to music and always thought that ‘It could really stay this way.’ But then came the 6th of June and then the fun ended.”
The alarm came at 2:30 a.m., rousing Bessoir and his comrades from their sleep in the private residences they were quartered in. Within 20 minutes, his troop was ready and moving to Lisieux.
“That was the beginning of the battle for us, and on June 7, we had our baptism by fire,” he continued. “So out of troop movement, we were directly sent into combat. And that’s where we suffered the first casualties.”
Martin, who recently completed yet another parachute jump at Utah Beach at age 93, landed in Normandy as part of the massive injection of troops from the air. While Bessoir and Martin didn’t fight in the same area and never exchanged bullets directly, the two Soldiers shared similar memories — albeit from different perspectives.
“Paratroopers also landed in our area,” Bessoir said as he recalled the chute canopies in the sky. “I saw with my own eyes how there must have been a miscalculation and they jumped straight into our positions. Sadly, this was terrible for the poor guys on the chutes. In the big picture, however, in our section we didn’t much fight with paratroops, which is a good thing, because they were tough opponents.”
Making up for loss of air superiority and resulting lack of surveillance from the air, Bessoir was tasked to carefully approach enemy lines, and to report back on enemy location and movement.
“We just never knew where the enemy was positioned,” he said. “We had no intelligence from the sky. We just had to slowly drive up and find the contact with the enemy.”
Martin and Bessoir sat together until nightfall, exchanging stories of the men they served with, lessons learned and names of places both recognized. Yet again, Bessoir was seeking contact with the enemy — not under fire, but over a cup of coffee. This exchange, he said, was something he actively began seeking as he got older.
“I perceive the friendships that were created as a great wonder — and a gift,” Bessoir said. “Four years ago, I began to seek contact with my former enemies. I was then invited by a British veteran club to join a conversation and a memorial at the Soldier’s cemetery in Bayeux. Since then, I’m permanently in contact with them. I simply searched for, (what we call) ‘reconciliation over graves.'”
Aware of the cruelty of war, Bessoir said, he thought he would forever be perceived as the eternal enemy among foreign veterans and citizens — until he actually began conversations with those whose forgiveness he didn’t hope for.
“I have talked to a Canadian, and in the conversation I said ‘Well, you know, we have been enemies, once,'” he recalled. “He only said, ‘No, we were never enemies. Enemies, those were the governments.’ That stunned me. From this point on, I made more and more contacts. And I’m happy to be back in Normandy this year.”
While American veterans like Martin proudly wear their distinct veteran ball caps emblazoned with their campaign ribbons and are welcome as returning heroes, Bessoit returns to Normandy as an indistinguishable tourist. But when asked, he said he is honest about his past and has been welcome by the people of Normandy, despite his history as a soldier of the occupation.
“The people, in the towns where I was quartered (during the war) have been wonderful,” he said of his visit. “I was welcomed everywhere with open arms and that made me very happy. You can see that, slowly, after 70 years, the people understand what war means: War means suffering for the Soldiers and the population. And that must never happen again.”
Old grudges have to be left to history, Martin said, and the focus needs to be on future generations and new connections.
“The war is over,” Martin said. “Terrible things happened on both sides and the French suffered terribly. We know that. But at some point you gotta realize that we live in this world with each other.”
Looking out over the hills behind Omaha Beach, where German Soldiers fired upon allied landing forces, Martin said that war is not between the people fighting, but is caused by those in leadership.
“I think the Germans did everything they possibly could to atone for what they did during the war,” he said. “And you have to realize that the people at the higher end, who started this evil, they’re gone. The new generation of Germans are not that way.
“Governments come and go, and they do things we don’t like,” he added. “But our friendships between people are forever. I feel very strongly about this and I’m glad that this (meeting) is happening now, so that we can lay all of this to rest and be friends.”
By Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel