Unable, as we currently are, to come together to observe Memorial Day, we pause this week to remember one of our local veterans, the late U.S. Army Col. John Wessmiller of Chatham, whose story of bravery and sacrifice inspired us when we first learned of it years ago. A gentle man — polite, charismatic and of clear thought even in his old age — Col. Wessmiller served the country he loved with distinction. Reprinted below from a 1998 edition of The Chronicle, his story is one of many tales of strength, perseverance and bravery that came from local men and women who served in World War II. On Memorial Day five years ago, he was present at the dedication of the town’s World War II memorial near the rotary; he died two years later.
Today, 80 years after he was drafted in the service, Col. Wessmiller’s story still resonates, as we face the uncertainty and sacrifice of life in a pandemic. Put in a seemingly hopeless situation, he stayed cool, persevered and ultimately prevailed.
The date is June 17, 1944; the place is a winding dirt road outside Barneville-Carteret, Normandy, France. John Wessmiller was, at the time, a lieutenant in the battle-seasoned 9th Infantry. The tightly-knit group had been trained at Ft. Bragg, and went on to serve in Africa and Sicily. The division had landed at Normandy on D-Day less than two weeks earlier, and the allies were beginning their thrust into mainland France. Because inexperienced divisions flanked the 9th Infantry, its leaders tried to push inland at a rapid pace.
“We moved fast,” Wessmiller recalled. “Faster than we probably realized at the time.”
The division commander wanted to set up an advance command post, and assembled a reconnaissance team of mostly high-ranking officers in a small convoy of five Jeeps. The group set but at high speed into the rural French countryside. It was a situation that made Wessmiller uneasy.
“I had a feeling that we were not going where we should go,” he said. “I didn't have a map or anything, but I have a pretty good instinct for direction.”
Wessmiller, who was in the second Jeep, blew his horn to stop the column, and tried to persuade his colonel to reconsider. “I didn't get too far,” he recalled. “We got back in the Jeep, and we went again. I passed an anti-tank gun — one of our own — and I recognized it, so I beeped the horn again.” The column stopped, and the colonel asked Wessmiller to ride with him up front. So Wessmiller left behind his beloved sergeant and his driver, with whom he had served in many other campaigns. It was the last time he would see them alive.
With Wessmiller now in the lead Jeep, the column raced ahead at 40 miles per hour. Sure that the enemy could be nearby, Wessmiller asked permission to retrieve his weapon from the second Jeep. “The colonel said, 'naw, Wess, don't you worry about it.' He said, ‘I'll take you to Berlin.’ And as he said that, he drew his .45 out of his holster and he cocked it.”
As he uttered those words, the convoy rounded a bend in the road, and encountered a division of at least 50 German soldiers walking at them.
“Of course, they were an experienced division, and they scattered like flies,” Wessmiller recalled. “I saw a big 76-millimeter anti-tank gun which was emplaced. I saw the German pick his head up — I'd recognize him today — and I knew he was going to shoot.”
As Wessmiller dove out of the moving Jeep, the Germans opened fire, quickly killing everyone in the vehicle. The Americans were outnumbered three to one.
“There were automatic weapons on both sides of the road, and they all started sweeping back and forth,” Wessmiller said. In the confusion, Wessmiller crawled along in a ditch and made his way over a hedgerow, with bullets snapping over his head. Miraculously, he made his way inside a French house.
“I shouldn't have lived; there's just no question,” he said. “There was enough fire that it should've killed everybody in the whole area.”
With enemy troops swarming around the house, an exhausted Wessmiller knew that he had to disguise himself quickly. He took off his uniform shirt; underneath, he was wearing a cable-knit sweater that his mother had sent him. He had long since lost his helmet, and after untucking his pants from his boots, looked the part of a civilian. But with no knowledge of the French language, Wessmiller knew that he had little chance of survival if confronted.
Leaning against the wall in the house was an old bicycle, with two flat tires. “I got on this bicycle, and rang the bell — I still have the bell — singing 'Au Clair de la Lune' as loud as I could sing,” Wessmiller said. “And as I got out, I saw the Germans. They were less than 75 yards on the right; the Jeeps were in flame.” Wessmiller gaily weaved his bicycle back and forth across the road, making his way to safety. His adventure was far from over.
“Remember, I was dressed as a Frenchman,” Wessmiller said. “I got closer to that anti-tank gun I was telling you about, and suddenly, out in the middle of the street is an American sergeant with his M-1 rifle lined up on my chest. I yelled, ‘Don't shoot! Don't shoot!'" The soldier held his fire.
Two years later, Wessmiller came face to face with that sergeant at a reunion. “He said, 'You don't know how lucky you are.’ He said, ‘My corporal and I flipped a coin as to who was going to shoot you.’”
Once safely back at division headquarters, a dazed Wessmiller called in artillery fire "to get back at the damn Germans." He was convinced that he was the only survivor of the attack, though he later learned that one of the five jeeps had made a successful getaway.
But Wessmiller's daring escape was very nearly for naught. The next day, an enemy shell fell on his encampment, killing nine men and wounding 29. The shell landed very close to Wessmiller; the noise blew out his eardrum, and he suffered powder burns on his hand. A one-inch piece of shrapnel lodged itself in Wessmiller's shoulder, where it remains today. Badly injured, he was evacuated to the beach and flown back to England, where he remained hospitalized for the rest of the war.
Memories of that day are still fresh and painful. Now the only living survivor of the attack at Bameville, Wessmiller was still troubled by the incident in 1994, when he wrote a letter to the mayor of Barneville to try and locate the man whose bicycle he stole. “Maybe my conscience was bothering me,” he said. The search was successful, and the Frenchman remembered the incident well. “He was thrown in jail by the Germans because he stole a German bicycle, thinking that the Germans had stolen his. Fortunately, the Frenchman spent just one day in jail before the Allies liberated the area. But he had a scare, I’m sure of that.” Wessmiller sent the man money to pay for a new bicycle, and the gesture was widely covered by the French press. Wessmiller felt that he had finally closed the book on that part of his life.
But in 1996, he read an article in the 9th Division reunion newsletter, from a Dr. Henry Goodall, seeking information about a Major named Blanchard. Wessmiller recognized the name as one of his buddies who had died in the attack at Barneville. Wessmiller and Blanchard had something else in common: they were the only two officers in the division who had married British girls shortly before the Normandy invasion.
When Major Blanchard died, his wife was expecting a child. She was overwhelmed with grief over the loss of her husband; she had already lost a previous husband, a father, and a brother in the war. “And the loss of her new husband, Major Blanchard, brought a blank down on her,” Wessmiller explained. When she married for a third time, she gave her son his stepfather's last name, wishing never to revisit the painful past. “I understand it fully,” Wessmiller said.
“So the son grew up knowing absolutely nothing about his father. He didn't even have a picture.” That son, Dr. Henry Goodall, set out to learn more about his father, and attended nearly every reunion of the West Point Class of 1941 to try and learn the circumstances of his father's death. Wessmiller answered Goodall's request, and invited him to Chatham. Goodall made the trip from England, and spent three days here last year, “during which time, I was able to tell him all the circumstances of the death of his father,” Wessmiller said.
Goodall was saddened that there was no formal memorial to the men who died in the attack at Bameville, so he began a long process of working with French government officials to have a suitable structure built. Using Wessmiller's detailed directions, Goodall was able to locate the exact spot of the attack, and the arrangements were made to acquire the land and build the memorial. Goodall had hoped that Wessmiller and his wife would travel to Barneville for the dedication on June 17, but the two now have mobility problems that make the trip impossible. A friend and neighbor even offered to pay for the trip, “He did everything to try and convince me to go, but there's just no question. I couldn't go,” Wessmiller said
The dedication drew hundreds of spectators, and was covered live on French television. The stone structure features American and French flags, and the insignia of the 9th Infantry unit. Wessmiller's son, Raymond, read his father's words at the dedication.
“In the completion and dedication of this memorial, we witness the undaunting spirit, determination and devotion of a son for his father,” the younger Wessmiller told the assembly. “Dr. Henry Goodall, for an entire generation, has pursued the course, by numerous crossings of the ocean, writing reams of correspondence and regular attendance at the West Point Military Academy alumni reunions, all in the effort and in order to determine the location and circumstances of his father's death. Finally his search has ended and he is here to commemorate this memorial in memory of his father and the fellow officers and men who died on this site, that fateful day on 17 June, 1944.
“The men who died here were seasoned, experienced veterans and close friends. In Africa, they participated in the defeat of the German Afrika Korps, as well as routing the German army out of Sicily. They were, indeed, combat veterans. Like their fathers before them, most left their homes, families and country as citizen soldiers. Their mission was clear and their cause, just: to fight for their country, their allies, and to restore freedom and liberty to the world, then, in its darkest hour. In doing this, they sacrificed their lives. Lest we forget, it is fitting that this day we pay tribute and honor their sacrifice. May God bless them and grant the peace they fought for.”
Col. Wessmiller ultimately did return to France, as part of a 2014 trip organized by his friend Peter Polhemus. He visited the memorial in Barneville-Carteret to honor his fallen comrades and gave a short, rousing speech before being named honorary mayor of the town.