World War II etched in the mind
Two old friends will cap their Thanksgiving dinner
by sipping Calvados, a distilled apple brandy popular in the Normandy
region of France.
The drink evokes a shared time and place for Elmer C. Freeman, 397th Bomb
Group, 596th Bomb Squadron
and Filbert Martin of Maisoncelle, France, who spent a dangerous summer
together in 1944.
Freeman, 82, is a slight guy with a white beard and kind eyes. Martin, 81,
is more sturdy looking, with a prominent nose and chin. The men seemed at
ease with themselves and each other as they sat on Freeman's comfortable
sofa Wednesday, recalling how they became friends.
For much of 1944, both men worked for the Allied war effort during World
War II. Freeman was an Army Air Corps bomber pilot stationed in London.
Martin (pronounce mar-TEEN) was helping the French resistance from his
family farm in Normandy.
If not for near tragedy, the pair never would have met. On May 8, 1944,
Freeman's B-26 bomber was shot down about 10 miles from the Martin farm.
After freeing himself from the giant oak tree he landed in, Freeman
searched for help. By luck, he found some members of the underground.
Freeman slept in a barn for a few days before he was introduced to Martin
and his family, who offered longer-term housing at the farm. Raymonde
Martin, a tough, divorced matriarch, ran the household, which included her
sons Alfred, Ernest and Filbert Martin.
Outraged by the Nazi forces who had taken over their country, the Martins
aided the resistance by distributing weapons to underground fighters. The
family never questioned their decision to hide Freeman, Filbert Martin
said, even though the crime was punishable by death. They believed helping
Allied fighters like Freeman was akin to battling the Nazis.
Though the Martins didn't speak much English and Freeman spoke even less
French, they got along fine. In wartime, when supplies were short, they
never did without, thanks to dairy cows, livestock and apple trees on the
Freeman spent most of his two-plus months at the farm eating, exercising
and hiding from the German soldiers who occasionally drove near the
residence. He remembers his months on the farm as pleasant if occasionally
But as wartime life in an occupied country goes, everything was peaceful
until an afternoon in mid-July, when a group of German soldiers barged
into the Martin farm.
Raymonde Martin, fearless as always, met the soldiers at the front door, a
container of Calvados in her hand. She handed the soldier her Calvados,
bid him farewell, and slammed the door.
"My mother was a very strong woman," Filbert Martin said.
No soldiers returned that day, but Freeman knew it was time for him to
Within days, he made arrangements to leave for Paris. The Allies already
had invaded France, he reasoned, and the liberation of the city could not
be far behind.
Unfortunately, one of the resistance fighters he trusted for shelter in
Paris turned out to be a Gestapo mole. Freeman was arrested by the Nazis
just as the Allies started encroaching on the city, and he and the other
inmates were shipped by cattle car to Germany.
Before being liberated in May 1945 he was an inmate at Buchenwald, the
notorious concentration camp, and at another German prison.
Filbert Martin, who remained on his family farm, saw his country liberated
in September 1944.
Today, on a Thanksgiving almost 60 years later, the two men are together
Both are blessed by family.
Freeman retired from an aerospace
company in 1986, has two children, three grandchildren, and two
Filbert Martin, who spent his entire life on the farm in Normandy, had six
children and 11 grandchildren. His granddaughter, Sandrine Martin, a
flight attendant who speaks perfect English, accompanied him on this, his
first trip to the United States. She is also his translator.
After watching a little football today, the men will sit down at the home
of Freeman's daughter, Cathy Freeman, for a traditional Thanksgiving
dinner. Filbert Martin said he is looking forward to the sweet potatoes,
and to a little Calvados in his coffee.
This is the fourth reunion for the two men since that summer of 1944. Both
hope it will not be the last.
Nov. 27, 2003