Standing on Utah Beach 70 years after the Normandy invasion, almost 70 years after he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest, Peter Hirschmann was startled to see a life-sized statue of a soldier carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle — the same machine gun he had carried into battle.
“Only one person in every squad of 12 carried it because it was kind of a heavy thing,” he said.
Hirschmann, now 90, visited Normandy for the first time in July, on an excursion from Paris with his wife, Merle. They live in Maplewood.
The statue — and the gun — connected Hirschmann immediately with his own wartime experience. While still in a staging area in England before going into battle, he received a letter from his father. “He wrote to me that he wishes he could take my place,” recalled Hirschman, his eyes welling with tears. “He told me that he personally always lived by the Latin saying, ‘Per aspera ad astra,’ ‘Through hardship to the stars.’
“I carved it into my BAR weapon.”
Hirschmann grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, fled the country after Kristallnacht in 1938, and ultimately settled with his parents in Newark. In 1943, he joined the U.S. army as an 18-year-old.
Hirschmann can pinpoint on maps exactly where he was captured, and he keeps books on hand showing the course of his unit, the 310th infantry, 78th division. He was captured on the first night of the Battle of the Bulge, after heavy snowfall, after his unit had taken Kesternich, a German village near Belgium.
“It was totally quiet,” he said. “We were dug into foxholes for the night. Then orders came down that we be given rest from the cold and wetness and that we were to find shelter in the basements of nearby farmhouses.”
He went into one such farmhouse, he said.
“The Battle of the Bulge began at that point. German soldiers were throwing bombs into the farmhouses to bring us out.” He left his gun in the basement and emerged, into the hands of the Germans.
“But ever since, I’ve been wondering what people thought when they found the gun with that inscription,” he said.
He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. As he detailed in an interview with NJJN in 2009, he was liberated in May 1945 by the British. He would eventually become successful as a real estate broker involved in the sale and leasing of industrial properties.
The most moving part of his trip to Normandy, he said last week, was the response of strangers who noticed the medals and ribbons he wore on his cap, including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and POW medal. “I was approached repeatedly by families expressing their gratitude,” he said, tearing up as he told the story. “People would just come over to me. A family of eight with a woman the age of my daughter came over. The woman, pointing at my hat, said, ‘My father was a veteran too, and I thank you very much.’ One after another they lined up and shook my hand. It was so moving.”
Later, on Utah Beach, he shared his story about the gun. “Other people came over. They wanted to hear my story. They asked to take a picture with me. It was amazing,” he said.
Even his tour guide, Francois Gauthron, joined in. “He pointed to children playing on the beach,” said Hirschmann, “and he said, ‘These little children are able to play on Utah Beach because of you, and they don’t have to speak German today.”