OMAHA BEACH, France (Army News Service, June 9, 2014) -- 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, a 101st
Airborne Division veteran, joined Erich Bissoir, a former soldier of
the German Waffen-SS, for dinner and a stroll down memory lane here,
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.
James "Pee Wee" Martin, left, poses for a photo with Erich Bessoir
June 7, 2014, at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France. Martin met
Bessoir, a German World War II veteran of the Waffen-SS, to promote
understanding of former enemies and progressing international
friendships during the celebration of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. (Photo
by USAF Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel)
A member of the Hitler Youth, Bissoir 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," Bissoir 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 Bissoir 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."
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 Bissoir and Martin
didn't fight in the same area and never exchanged bullets
directly, the two Soldiers shared similar memories -- albeit
from different perspectives.
landed in our area," Bissoir 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, Bissoir 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 Bissoir sat together until nightfall,
exchanging stories of the men they served with, lessons
learned and names of places both recognized. Yet again,
Bissoir 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," Bissoir 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.'"
of the cruelty of war, Bissoir 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
"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."
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
"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
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.
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 USAF Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel
Army News Service
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