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On the beaches of Normandy, from a French child’s eye
- Updated: July 25, 2014
Ray Pessin now lives a quiet life in Williamson, but as a child, he recalls life near Normandy, France during World War II. He remembers life among both the occupying German and American soldiers that impacted his early days.
When stories were written about local residents who served in the U.S. Forces in Normandy on June 6, 1944 D-Day, Pessin had quite a different story to tell.
Ray grew up in France in the Town of Hauteville Sur Mer, just a few miles down the coast from Normandy. His mom and dad, Augustine and Claude Pessin, raised 6 children during the turbulent times of the 1940s.
In 1940, Ray remembers (at age 6), watching Germans come into his town – they came by bus and in horse-drawn wagons, not tanks. “I saw them coming into town in the wagons, and I thought of the pictures of western cowboys” Ray recalled.
At age 10, Ray and his family heard the planes, heard and felt the guns on the hills looking down on the beaches.
Ray and his brothers still played in the fields around his home, but the family told them, if you are out in the fields, and see a plane, hide…but if it is a U.S. Plane (the residents knew the difference, from the markings and the sound of the engines), you should wave your arms, so they know you are on their side, and not to shoot.
When Pessin recently read the story of a local veteran, Joe Main from Macedon, who returned to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he made it a point to contact Joe and his family to swap stories of that time in history.
So, how did Ray find his way to America? Ray, now a U.S. citizen, since 1978, recalled moving to the U.S. to be with his sister Jane. She had met a G.I. while working at a USO club in France and married him in 1946. But Jane had to wait 6 months before she could go to the States to be with him.
Ray followed Jane in 1952. He came for himself, but also because his sister was so homesick after she left. Ray was just 17, but had finished school in France (most students complete their schooling at age 14), and he came to earn a living and discover the U.S. He arrived on the Queen Mary, docking in the New York City, remembering the welcoming Statue of Liberty, which his home country had given to the United States as a gift. It made him proud.
Over the years, his brothers, Jean, Claude, and Eric, also moved to the United States. Ray’s older brother, Roger remains to this day in Hauteville Sur Mer.
His brother Eric, moved to Pultneyville. He arrived in 1959, and died in 2007. Jane, who was born in Paris, died in the Town of Gates in 1947. Ray married his second wife Kay in 1988.
In Rochester, when he first arrived, Ray began to earn his living by making truck deliveries of apples from local farms to distribution sites. At home, he and his sister concentrated on learning English, by avoiding speaking their native tongue.
Reminiscing, Ray tells of his time in France, during WWII. His father was a member of the French Underground and hid American soldiers and wounded GIs in the grease pits in the vehicle repair garage he owned.
Ray’s father had a radio and when wounded soldiers were found, they were sent to him to hide and hold until a doctor could see to them. Ray does not remember any of them staying
by and ask for help fixing their bikes, Ray’s father would refuse, but, to keep harmony with the Germans and not look like he was hiding anything, he told them that they could fix the bikes themselves in the garage. None of the men the elder Pessin hid were ever discovered by the Germans.
Ray recalls the bomb that injured him as a young child during the war. It was not a bomb dropped from a plane. It happened that he and a friend, playing near a pile of supposedly deactivated bombs in the town. had an adventure.
When they were playing one day, Ray and his friend found the tip of a bomb sticking out of the ice. The boys just wanted to know how big it was, so, they threw one of the “disarmed” bombs from the pile on top of it. It exploded, throwing both Ray and his friend a great distance away. Ray lost a finger and still has some shrapnel in his hip to this day. “I remember that I came to and I was bleeding and I noticed I was about 50 feet from where I had been. A passing bicyclist heard the bomb go off, found me, and put me on his bike taking me to my home, half a mile away. I spent a month in the temporary hospital.
“I also remember that one farmer found a large bomb and was afraid to move it, but my sister lifted it and took it to headquarters. Some other farmers found bombs which had come through their barn roofs, and added them to the pile in the town. Not all were apparently disarmed”
“There was a time when four German officers were killed one night as they tried to exercise their horses in the ocean. They were killed by the Resistance. Others came looking for them. They were also killed.”
Ray told of an island about 20 miles off the shore, where the Germans had a base. One night some Germans rowed over. When the Germans who were imprisoned in town after “D-Day”, heard the others arrive, they rioted and tried to escape. All the prisoners (300 or more) were killed by the French.”
Earlier, when the Germans still held the area, there were Russia prisoners too, who the Germans would train to shoot anti-aircraft guns at the Americans. “I was told that the Russians (called White Russians) tried to miss, or shoot just after the planes had passed. The Germans finally caught on and shot these men.”
Ray’s father had flown airmail planes for France in 1918-1923 during World War I. Later, when his dad, Claude, was 88 years old, and retuning to France from a visit to the U.S. a flight attendant found out he used to be a pilot.
She informed the pilot of the plane, who encouraged Mr. Pessin to join him in the cockpit and allowed him to fly the plane over the ocean for a while. What a thrill it was for him.
by Patti Holdraker