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WWII Vet Receives Highest Honor in Surprise Ceremony


By Cat Cutillo

Photo by Cat Cutillo

Albert Besser of Morrisville walked into Montpelier City Hall on January 7 expecting to attend an event for World War II veterans, not realizing he was about to be the guest of honor in a sophisticated ambush. To Besser’s surprise, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch presented the 94-year-old with the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA.

The former spy was outwitted by none other than his wife, Dr. Gretchen Rous Besser, who had secretly invited the 50 attendees and been working on the clandestine operation for six months with the help of Welch’s office.

“I saw a few people from Stowe and I thought, ‘Gee, I didn’t realize there were so many World War II veterans from Stowe,’ and then suddenly it dawned on me,” says Besser. “I was stunned. I really was.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow. During his service in World War II, Besser was sent with guerillas on spy missions behind Japanese lines in southeastern China. He was among the first Allied troops to enter Shanghai, even before the official armistice.

At 16, Besser signed up for ROTC as a freshman at Yale. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was called to active duty in 1943, when he was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program. To his displeasure, he was classified as an engineer.

“I tried like the devil to get out of the engineering program for which I had no aptitude or desire,” says Besser.

But the Army insisted they knew best.

“So one day I literally went AWOL,” says Besser, who says he slipped away from his platoon to join a new batch of candidates being tested for a foreign language program. He was about to be reported when a high-ranking officer interfered and asked what foreign language he was fluent in.

“And having two years of high school French, I said ‘French,’” says Besser.

Besser was tested, reclassified into the language program, and sent off to the University of California-Berkeley to study Mandarin Chinese for nine months, where he made a defining decision after being approached by a OSS officer one day.

“He asked, ‘Would you volunteer for hazardous duty?’ and I said ‘Sure,’” says Besser who is still in awe of his teenage mind.

“As my older self, when I look back I think I was crazy,” says Besser. “I didn’t ask him what kind of hazardous duty? Where?”

After arriving in Kunming in southwest China, Besser was sent to work with the guerillas who actively fought the Japanese.

“We did not engage in any fights, but we used them to spy on the Japanese-controlled cities. We sent them in. They came back with intelligence and at one point we did disrupt the bridge on one of their main transportation routes,” says Besser.

After the war, Besser chose to stay in Shanghai for six months and taught Economics 101 using a pirated edition of his college textbook.  He also had a personal mission he wanted to complete. For years, he’d been carrying in his wallet the names of some missing family members related to a friend of his mother.

“She said if he ever gets to China please have him look up my family. I haven’t heard from them since 1938,” says Besser.

Besser made it his mission to find a jeep and drive it to the Hongkou district.

“You would have thought I was General MacArthur the way everybody came out and hurrahed,” says Besser. Amazingly, he located the family. The husband had died just two days earlier, but the mother and two daughters were in good health. Besser gave them the rest of his K-rations and got word back to his hometown in New Jersey that he’d found them.

It was during his time overseas that Besser would unknowingly make his first impression on his future wife, Gretchen, who was visiting her new Wellesley College friend and future roommate at her home in New Jersey.

“We had this exotic Chinese tea that her brother had sent over from Shanghai. That’s the first I ever heard of my mate of 66 years,” says Gretchen.

After returning to the states, Besser graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law in New Jersey. He and Gretchen, a longtime ski patroller, author, and National Ski Hall of Fame inductee, built their home in Morrisville in 1966 and moved to Vermont full-time upon his retirement in 1994.

And despite the long-overdue recognition, Gretchen says her husband shies away from the heroic spotlight.

“You felt right from the start almost apologetic. Because Al felt he wasn’t a hero,” says Gretchen.

“There were so many returning veterans that I was just one of a whole group,” says Besser. “It was a good war of course. That was a good war,” says Besser. “There were the good guys and there were the bad guys. And I was very happy and proud to be a part of resisting the Axis. I really felt it was vitally necessary,” says Besser.

“It was a time when everybody was solidified and unified,” says Gretchen. “When people came back, they didn’t come back to a world where they couldn’t find a place. Everybody welcomed the soldiers and they returned to their families, and people were real heroes. But they didn’t talk about it,” says Gretchen.

“We were all on the same team,” says Besser. “In retrospect, I really feel very honored and proud.”