Retired Clovis police Capt. Drew Bessinger has learned far more about his father in death than he did during his life.
Frank Irving Bessinger was an Army medic in the 83rd Infantry Division in World War II when he was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He died in 1971 at age 47 when Drew Bessinger was 13. His likeness and story are now seen in a German prison camp, a place he rarely talked about.
Drew Bessinger never heard his father say much about the war. More of those conversations were reserved for his older brother, Craig.
In April, Drew Bessinger, 58, attended the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of his father’s prison camp, Stalag X-B, in Sandbostel between Hamburg and Bremen, Germany.
The camp has a museum, and exhibits display one war prisoner from each allied country. Frank Bessinger represents the United States.
“I knew that he had been a POW, but it really wasn’t a thing that was discussed openly in the house,” Drew Bessinger says. “He spoke about it one time giving a speech and that was the first time I heard about it. I was probably 9 or 10; it was the first time I really heard him acknowledge this.”
Frank Bessinger entered the Army in early 1942 and served as a medic until being taken prisoner on Jan. 12, 1945. Drew Bessinger, who also served in the Army, still has the telegrams saved by his aunt that told the family Frank Bessinger was missing at the end of January 1945 after a battle at Langlir, Belgium.
Another six weeks passed — unimaginable today with social media — before the family learned he was alive. Short-wave radio listeners from Massachusetts, New York and Canada sent postcards to the family in New Jersey in March 1945 saying they heard Frank Bessinger’s name mentioned on a Radio Berlin broadcast. The official word that he was “allegedly still alive” came the next day.
The British liberated the camp April 30, 1945, and their accounts of the conditions were chilling.
In the prison camp, Frank Bessinger lost about 40 pounds. When he arrived home unexpectedly, family members didn’t recognize him.
“The British said that there was just a stench,” Drew Bessinger says. “There were dead people all over the camp. One of the guys who described it said you couldn’t get that smell out of your nose.”
Frank Bessinger sent a postcard to his family saying he was with Allied troops and was in a hospital. He was treated for a shrapnel wound and jaundice. In the prison camp, he lost about 40 pounds and when he arrived home unexpectedly, finding family members in a local tavern, they didn’t recognize him.
He had walked in overjoyed to see them, Drew Bessinger says, and then yelled out an exuberant “‘Hey!’ And they said, ‘Who are you?’”
His father needed time to readjust and had bouts with what is today recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He went to college and became a special education teacher in New Jersey. Drew Bessinger doesn’t remember his father being home very much.
In 2008, as he started learning more about his father’s past, Drew Bessinger began sharing pictures of his father’s war relics with the prison camp museum curator.
In 2012, he got an email from the curator, who had found a World War II drawing of his father that said “Frank Bessinger from New Jersey.”
The curator also asked Drew Bessinger about donating some Western Union telegrams and a Nazi armband. The curator said the museum planned exhibits displaying a person from each nation imprisoned there. Frank Bessinger became the American representative.
In 2013, Drew Bessinger was in Germany to see the exhibit unveiled. He made a return trip last month with his son, Christopher Bessinger, 32, of Clovis. In his trips he met former prisoners of war from the camp, but none who knew his father.
“I’ve given up hope I will ever find a personal account of someone who knew my dad even though I’ve put stuff out there. I had been chasing a ghost.”
Still, the questions linger. Drew Bessinger wants to know what his father saw as a medic and in the prison camp. That would help answer questions about the war, the Battle of the Bulge and the changes he personally encountered when he returned home.
“If I had a wish list, I’d like to have a beer with my dad and find out what happened.”
Drew Bessinger says he is proud his father represents thousands of Americans who were imprisoned and millions of Americans who fought in World War II.
Schoolchildren and tourists are frequent visitors to the museum and his father, a teacher in life, is part of a teaching moment more than 40 years after his death.
“When I see it, I think, ‘Here you go, Dad, people will know now.’”