CHATHAM – Seventy years after the D-Day invasion, retired Army Colonel John Wessmiller had the opportunity to return to the place where, as a young officer, he escaped a run-in with German soldiers that destroyed his unit, bluffed his way back to Allied lines and was serious wounded by an enemy shell. By visiting the Normandy countryside where the experiences occurred as well as the graves of his fallen comrades, he was able to put closure on an important chapter in his life.
A Chatham resident for more than 40 years, Col. Wessmiller almost didn't make it back to Normandy, but a group of friends rallied to raise the money and make the arrangements. The experience three years ago energized the then-95 year old.
“I think it had a major impact on the last years of his life, and that was wonderful to see,” said friend Peter Polhemus, who accompanied Col. Wessmiller on the Normandy trip.
Col. Wessmiller passed away Saturday surrounded by his family. He was 98.
“From the time I was a kid I would sit at the edge of my chair and listen to these amazing stories of heroism and fighting for freedom,” said Col. Wessmiller's grandson John Lawrence, a videographer who documented the Normandy trip. Seeing the places described in the story, filming his grandfather and the appreciative locals who came out to meet him, was a “very moving experience,” he said. His film of the trip, “Return To Normandy,” was shown at the Chatham Orpheum Theater twice to more than 300 people; he is currently completing the film before posting it online.
Col. Wessmiller grew up in Brooklyn and was drafted into the Army in 1940. Before his experience in Normandy, he served in the North African and Sicily campaigns and was on the staff of General George Patton. On D-Day, his unit, the 9th Infantry, landed at Utah Beach and was sent to set up an advance command post. The reconnaissance team of five jeeps headed into the rural French countryside but was ambushed by a squad of German soldiers. Col. Wessmiller dove from the moving jeep and was able to escape while everyone else in the vehicle was killed.
Finding his way to a house, he ditched his uniform shirt and took a bicycle, riding past the pursuing Germans singing “Au Clair de la Lune,” the only French he knew. He found his way back to the American line, but the next day a shell fell in the encampment, killing nine and injuring 29, including Col. Wessmiller. He was sent to England and remained in the hospital for the rest of the war; he carried a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder for the rest of his life.
In 1994 Col. Wessmiller was able to locate the man whose bicycle he'd taken and sent him money for a new one. In 2014, as preparations were being made to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he received a call from the White House asking if he would like to be among a group of American veterans of the invasion to accompany President Obama to the ceremonies in France.
“He was ecstatic,” said Polhemus, who met Col. Wessmiller at the Chatham Health Club, where they were both members. “He hadn't been back in 70 years; he was supposed to go 20 years earlier but his wife had gotten sick and he couldn't go.”
Unfortunately, those arrangements fell through. Polhemus could tell that Col. Wessmiller was devastated, so he began making some calls. Through retired Col. Ana Smythe, director of the Military Officers Association of America, and the Friends of American Veterans in France, a trip was organized, with Polhemus raising the money to cover the costs from friends and local businesses.
“It was probably the most amazing three and a half days I can ever remember,” Polhemus said of the experience. Col. Wessmiller was able to visit the graves of his fellow soldiers killed on that day in 1944 and say his goodbyes. The trip seemed to reinvigorate his grandfather, said Lawrence. Whereas he'd begun it using a wheelchair and walker, by the time he returned home he was walking on his own.
“The French were wonderful. They treated me like I was a king,” Col. Wessmiller told The Chronicle after the trip.
Col. Wessmiller spent his career in the Army, serving at numerous posts around the world. He was wounded three times and received two Purple Hearts, as well as many other decorations. He retired from the Army in 1962; he and his wife, Olivia, moved to Chatham from Groton, Mass., in 1972, said Lawrence.
“He was always so appreciative of everything,” Polhemus said. He and his wife would often take Col. Wessmiller out for drives on weekends to look at homes his company, Polhemus Savery DaSilva, was constructing, and the Colonel would often point out small details about the houses. “He was such an amazing, engaging man. I got much more out of [those visits] than he did.”
Lawrence said his grandfather spoke on the phone every night to his younger brother, Bob, about baseball and politics. He was an avid sailor – he won the Figawi Race in 1985 – had an eye for details and a knack for reaching out to others.
“He had a gift for knowing what to say at the right time,” he said. “He always knew what to say and when to say it.”
“He was larger than life,” said Polhemus. “We're going to miss him a great deal.”
Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11, at Nickerson Funeral Home on Crowell Road. A funeral mass will be held at Holy Redeemer Church Saturday, Aug, 12, at 10 a.m. Burial will take place at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where Col. Wessmiller's wife and son are also buried. See page 25 for a full obituary.