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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 farm.

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 nerve-wracking.

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 leave.

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 again.

Both are blessed by family.

Freeman retired from an aerospace company in 1986, has two children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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

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