If you ask Fritz Hessemer about his life, he says he’s been lucky – lucky in two ways. He’s had the kind of luck that left him the only survivor of a World War II squadron, but he’s also had the kind of luck he calls the meeting of preparation and opportunity.
The Rehoboth Beach resident recounts his life in great detail. It’s a narrative highlighted by moments he calls unique experiences – the blind date on which he met his wife, the Boca Raton palace in which he was billeted as an officer, a wedding feast served on metal mess-hall trays.
The son of German immigrants, Hessemer says his parents insisted he and his siblings be bilingual. They had to speak German at home. “For every American word we used, they docked us 1 cent from our 15-cent allowance,” he said.
“He thought we should not lose our German culture because he knew and my mom did that we would pick up the American culture without a problem,” said Hessemer, who still counts the way Germans do – thumb first.
Hessemer’s father Paul, an architect, became an officer in Germany’s equivalent of the National Guard. He spent two years in Poland in World War I. “Mostly in mud,” Hessemer says. His father nearly died from typhoid fever. Following the war, Germany was plunged into an enormous economic depression. “It makes this so-called recession look like a Sunday school picnic,” said Hessemer, recounting that his father would be paid but by the time he made his way to the store, prices had soared so high he could buy only a loaf of bread.
With a wife and two children to feed, Paul Hessemer learned a German-owned firm in the United States was looking for German architects. He left his family behind, moving to Pennsylvania to work as an industrial architect for a company that made seamed stockings. The company had factories in Milton, Lewes and Rehoboth, Hessemer said.
When Hessemer was 2, he arrived at Ellis Island with his mother and sister, to join his father in Pennsylvania. He contracted German measles on the voyage, so his family was afraid they would all be turned back because of his illness. “When it was our family’s turn, I just ran off down the gangway. The medical officer never looked at me, or so the story goes,” Hessemer said.
Back together in the United States, the family faced the Depression, but it wasn’t easy. “We had tough times,” Hessemer says.
His father worked in Washington, D.C., on housing projects for the Roosevelt administration before the family returned to Pennsylvania.
At home, the family would sing German folk songs to Paul’s piano playing, Hessemer said.
“My father was always interested in music, especially the music of J.S. Bach,” he said. “Dad liked Bach’s music and, like all German fathers, he thought the kids should learn to play an instrument.”
Hessemer tried the piano but became so frustrated with the instrument he burned the piano book. His father knew his son was interested in mechanics; typical of Hessemer’s luck, his father suggested Fritz take up the flute.
He still keeps his grandfather’s flute, a style made in Germany in the 1860s, in his living room, and he still uses sheet music his grandfather sent him to play Bach sonatas. “This has been a hobby, on and off, my whole life,” he said.
In 1938, Hessemer traveled to Germany, using money inherited from his grandmother. “Under Hitler, we were unable to withdraw money from Germany,” he said. The family decided to split the inheritance money and each of them would use it on a trip.
He visited Austria, Innsbruck and Berlin. While in Salzburg, he passed a playhouse and decided on a whim to walk in. In a jacket, khakis and no tie, he felt like an outsider when he walked into the black tie event, but again his luck would prevail. He would hear Ezio Pinza perform what is considered one his most famous roles, singing with German soprano Elisabeth Rethberg in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Returning to the United States after his trip, Hessemer took up an apprenticeship as a toolmaker machinist. He alternated classes at technical school and work in a factory. “You can do and make things, not just know something,” Hessemer said. As an indentured apprentice, he earned a quarter an hour the first year and 28 cents an hour the second year.
When he finished the apprenticeship, the military draft was under way. He learned Penn State had a program in which men could enlist in an Army Air Corps reserve program, allowing them to continue courses until they were called up. Hessemer was advised the war would probably be over by the time the 50,000 men in the program were called up. He enlisted.
Around the same time, his parents moved to Bethlehem, Pa., but Hessemer’s service number was still associated with their old address. “I neglected to change the address to Bethlehem. I should have, I later found out,” Hessemer said.
He had gone to visit a friend when his parents telephoned to tell him he had been put on active duty and was late reporting. It was a fortuitous visit, because while he was there, Hessemer was set up on a date with his friend’s sister, Betty Smyser, just home from the Academy of Fine Arts, where she won a scholarship to tour Europe for three months, impressed Hessemer.
He had to report for duty, but he sent her a postcard before he left. He still remembers the address. “One hundred fifty letters later and four dates, we were married,” he said. “No kidding.”
After initial training, Hessemer returned to classes at Penn State, where he worked as an usher for the school’s concert series. As luck would have it, he ushered a performance by Rachmaninoff six months before the composer died.
Hessemer remained in school, working toward his engineering degree. He boarded with a widow, trading yard work and housework – cleaning out ashes and adding pea coal to the boiler – in exchange for a room and two pieces of pie a week.
In February 1944, he was sent to Tennessee for further training. After taking an aptitude test, he was listed as suitable to be a pilot, but he opted to become a navigator and began training in Louisiana.
During training, he was called before an officer who said he would need to provide proof that he was an American citizen, because as a military officer he would have certain law-enforcement powers.
Hessemer’s father would not turn over his son’s citizenship papers, because the family had only one copy and was not allowed to make photocopies. Hessemer had to travel home, pick up the papers and deliver them to a local Reserve Officer Training Corps officer, who would vouch for their authenticity. It was on the way home that he visited Betty and asked her to marry him.
When he graduated his training program at the top of the class, he was again given a choice: navigator on a team replacing one shot down over Germany, or radar training.
He opted for radar training. “Maybe I wasn’t that patriotic, but I didn’t want to get shot up, and even more so I didn’t want to bomb my German relatives,” he said.
During his training in Boca Raton, Fla., Betty joined him at the base, and they were married.
His wing was then assigned to the Pacific Theater. They bombed Japan, and he flew in the last mission of the war, Aug. 14-15, 1945, eight days after the first atom bomb was dropped.
After the war, Hessemer enrolled in Johns Hopkins, where his father was a professor. He and Betty found a home with a proper place for Betty to work on illustrating children’s books. “Her career was important too, not just mine,” he said.
In the years after the war, Hessemer had several careers – he counts nearly a dozen from his first job selling newspapers as a child. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he began working for a firm that built and installed hydroelectric turbines. He continued working as an engineer and manager until 1975, when he came into conflict with company management and was let go. “It was the best thing that ever happened,” he said.
In 1968, the family had purchased a house in Rehoboth Beach as a summer home. After his job change, they decided to move permanently.
Hessemer worked first for the Townsend poultry company, supervising construction of a hatchery, then at Delaware Technical & Community College, where he presented seminars about energy.
He later joined the fledgling Delaware Energy Office, which conducted energy-use audits for small businesses. He retired in 1986.
Since then, he has worked as a court-appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children.
He continues to play music and has also filled his home and the homes of his three children with more than 70 pieces of Shaker and Early American furniture he builds from kits and finishes so they look like antiques.
Hessemer also built a harpsichord from a kit Betty gave him as a Christmas gift in 1971, carefully staining it to give it an antique finish. He doesn’t play the harpsichord, but he recruits other musicians to play it, recording each visitor’s name on a meticulous list. The instrument he built was once used at a reception on the lawn of the Zwaanendael Museum.
A man approached Hessemer and praised the instrument, commenting that it must have been 200 years old.
For Hessemer, it was a high compliment. “He was the director of the Smithsonian; he’s seen hundreds of instruments,” Hessemer said.
Today, Hessemer enjoys walking on the Boardwalk with his wife Betty, with whom he has been married for 66 years. “Every day I wake up and she wakes up beside me, that’s a good day,” he said.