Despite all the globe-hopping and monument seeking, the best aspect of travel is the people we meet along the way. They’re the ones who provide us the stories that make travel a more enriching experience.
This came into sharp focus at a recent Airbnb stay outside El Paso, Texas. Our host Carey casually mentioned that his father is a D-Day veteran who happened to live up the street. Not only was his father a D-Day veteran, he was one of the Pathfinders, the paratroopers who were dropped behind enemy lines the night before D-Day and later made famous in Band of Brothers. They were the sharp end of the spear and the precursor to today’s Special Forces.
As a student of military history who absorbs anything about World War II I couldn’t resist. Meeting a D-Day veteran has been a dream of mine but many veterans are reluctant to relive their wartime experiences so I nervously asked, “Would it be okay to meet him?”
“Oh sure,” Carey replied, “he loves talking to people.”
The next day we met former First Sergeant Maynard “Beamy” Beamesderfer, a veteran of not only D-Day, but also Operation Market Garden (depicted in A Bridge Too Far) and the Battle of the Bulge. Beamy was a sort of Zelig of World War II European battles.
He’s 89 years old now, but still retains the upright posture and quick-wittedness that enabled him to survive a war where most of his unit was wiped out. Along the way he earned several Purple Hearts and was a POW for a week before escaping.
He grew up with his lovely wife Mimi in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I asked if they were childhood sweethearts to which Mimi quickly replied, “Oh no. He was four years older than me and kind of bossy. I was scared of him.” Well she finally tamed him.
In true heroic veteran style, Beamy was matter-of-fact about the rigors of war that he and his fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles, endured. When his unit, the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, took off for the D-Day mission (after two false starts because of bad weather) each of the paratroopers was burdened with 90 pounds of equipment including: explosives wrapped around their legs, extra ammunition and food supplies, in case the seaborne invasion failed and they became stuck behind enemy lines.
“We were hoping that wouldn’t happen,” Beamy said.
If you’ve seen classic D-Day film “The Longest Day” you’ll recognize the object in the center of this photo. It’s the clicker the Pathfinders used to identify themselves after they landed.
During Operation Market Garden Beamy and a group of fellow soldiers were captured by the Germans.
“They were tired and never searched us,” Beamy said. “We carried banjo wire with wooden handles on the end, one night when they were sleeping we were able to overcome them and escape.” For their efforts, on the way back to the frontlines they were mistaken for German troops and shot at by U. S. troops.
During a much-deserved rest in Paris the German counter-offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge began, it was Germany’s last gasp at victory. Enduring frigid conditions the 501st went back into the maw of battle.
“It was the coldest winter ever recorded in Europe,” Beamy recalls. “We couldn’t wear our overcoats because they were too bulky to fight in.”
The unit held its position but lost so many soldiers that it was disbanded. Beamy himself was severely injured several times, his whereabouts unknown to the point that his mother was notified that he was missing in action.
Beamy leafed through his well-read scrapbooks where he maintains a history of his unit, noting photos of his fellow soldiers. He also pulled out a military map of the D-Day invasion and pointed out in exquisite detail where he landed and how his unit achieved their objective of capturing a canal lock. It was hard not to marvel at the courage it took to land behind enemy lines to support an invasion that may, or may not, have succeeded.
Beamy says, “We were just teenagers. We thought we could do anything.”
Part of Beamy’s impressive collection of military unit patches.
Today former First Sergeant Beamesderfer is an active member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association in El Paso, Texas. Their business card is the only one I’ve ever seen that included “Bar Open” hours on it. Although as Mimi told us, “He doesn’t even drink or smoke. During the war he did pretty well trading his cigarettes.”
It’s said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day, a cadre of oral historians that are irreplaceable. Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, if you can, seek out these last living monuments to the Greatest Generation. For me it was an unforgettable experience.
My heartfelt thanks to Mimi and Beamy Beamesderfer for sharing so much of their life experiences with us.
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