- In October, 1944, at age eighteen, I
was drafted into the U.S. army. Largely because of the "Battle of
the Bulge," my training was cut short. My furlough was halved, and
I was sent overseas immediately. Upon arrival in Le Havre, France, we were
quickly loaded into box cars and shipped to the front. When we got there,
I was suffering increasingly severe symptoms of mononucleosis, and was
sent to a hospital in Belgium. Since mononucleosis was then known as the
"kissing disease," I mailed a letter of thanks to my girlfriend.
- By the time I left the hospital, the
outfit I had trained with in Spartanburg, South Carolina was deep inside
Germany, so, despite my protests, I was placed in a "repo depot(replacement
depot). I lost interest in the units to which I was assigned and don't
recall all of them: non-combat units were ridiculed at that time. My separation
qualification record states I was mostly with Company C, 14th Infantry
Regiment, during my seventeen-month stay in Germany, but I remember being
transferred to other outfits also.
- In late March or early April, 1945, I
was sent to guard a POW camp near Andernach along the Rhine. I had four
years of high school German, so I was able to talk to the prisoners, although
this was forbidden. Gradually, however, I was used as an interpreter and
asked to ferret out members of the S.S. (I found none.)
- In Andernach about 50,000 prisoners of
all ages were held in an open field surrounded by barbed wire. The women
were kept in a separate enclosure I did not see until later. The men I
guarded had no shelter and no blankets; many had no coats. They slept in
the mud, wet and cold, with inadequate slit trenches for excrement. It
was a cold, wet spring and their misery from exposure alone was evident.
- Even more shocking was to see the prisoners
throwing grass and weeds into a tin can containing a thin soup. They told
me they did this to help ease their hunger pains. Quickly, they grew emaciated.
Dysentery raged, and soon they were sleeping in their own excrement, too
weak and crowded to reach the slit trenches. Many were begging for food,
sickening and dying before our eyes. We had ample food and supplies, but
did nothing to help them, including no medical assistance.
- Outraged, I protested to my officers
and was met with hostility or bland indifference. When pressed, they explained
they were under strict orders from "higher up." No officer would
dare do this to 50,000 men if he felt that it was "out of line,"
leaving him open to charges. Realizing my protests were useless, I asked
a friend working in the kitchen if he could slip me some extra food for
the prisoners. He too said they were under strict orders to severely ration
the prisoners' food and that these orders came from "higher up."
But he said they had more food than they knew what to do with and would
sneak me some.
- When I threw this food over the barbed
wire to the prisoners, I was caught and threatened with imprisonment. I
repeated the "offense," and one officer angrily threatened to
shoot me. I assumed this was a bluff until I encountered a captain on a
hill above the Rhine shooting down at a group of German civilian women
with his .45 caliber pistol. When I asked, Why?," he mumbled, "Target
practice," and fired until his pistol was empty. I saw the women running
for cover, but, at that distance, couldn't tell if any had been hit.
- This is when I realized I was dealing
with cold-blooded killers filled with moralistic hatred. They considered
the Germans subhuman and worthy of extermination; another expression of
the downward spiral of racism. Articles in the G.I. newspaper, Stars and
Stripes, played up the German concentration camps, complete with photos
of emaciated bodies; this amplified our self-righteous cruelty and made
it easier to imitate behavior we were supposed to oppose. Also, I think,
soldiers not exposed to combat were trying to prove how tough they were
by taking it out on the prisoners and civilians.
- These prisoners, I found out, were mostly
farmers and workingmen, as simple and ignorant as many of our own troops.
As time went on, more of them lapsed into a zombie-like state of listlessness,
while others tried to escape in a demented or suicidal fashion, running
through open fields in broad daylight towards the Rhine to quench their
thirst. They were mowed down.Some prisoners were as eager for cigarettes
as for food, saying they took the edge off their hunger. Accordingly, enterprising
G.I. "Yankee traders" were acquiring hordes of watches and rings
in exchange for handfuls of cigarettes or less. When I began throwing cartons
of cigarettes to the prisoners to ruin this trade, I was threatened by
rank-and-file G.I.s too.
- The only bright spot in this gloomy picture
came one night when.I was put on the "graveyard shift," from
two to four A.M. Actually, there was a graveyard on the uphill side of
this enclosure, not many yards away. My superiors had forgotten to give
me a flashlight and I hadn't bothered to ask for one, disgusted as I was
with the whole situation by that time. It was a fairly bright night and
I soon became aware of a prisoner crawling under the wires towards the
graveyard. We were supposed to shoot escapees on sight, so I started to
get up from the ground to warn him to get back. Suddenly I noticed another
prisoner crawling from the graveyard back to the enclosure. They were risking
their lives to get to the graveyard for something; I had to investigate.
- When I entered the gloom of this shrubby,
tree-shaded cemetery, I felt completely vulnerable, but somehow curiosity
kept me moving. Despite my caution, I tripped over the legs of someone
in a prone position. Whipping my rifle around while stumbling and trying
to regain composure of mind and body, I soon was relieved I hadn't reflexively
fired. The figure sat up. Gradually, I could see the beautiful but terror-stricken
face of a woman with a picnic basket nearby. German civilians were not
allowed to feed, nor even come near the prisoners, so I quickly assured
her I approved of what she was doing, not to be afraid, and that I would
leave the graveyard to get out of the way.
- I did so immediately and sat down, leaning
against a tree at the edge of the cemetery to be inconspicuous and not
frighten the prisoners. I imagined then, and still do now, what it would
be like to meet a beautiful woman with a picnic basket, under those conditions
as a prisoner. I have never forgotten her face.
- Eventually, more prisoners crawled back
to the enclosure. I saw they were dragging food to their comrades and could
only admire their courage and devotion.
- On May 8, V.E. Day, I decided to celebrate
with some prisoners I was guarding who were baking bread the other prisoners
occasionally received. This group had all the bread they could eat, and
shared the jovial mood generated by the end of the war. We all thought
we were going home soon, a pathetic hope on their part. We were in what
was to become the French zone, where I soon would witness the brutality
of the French soldiers when we transferred our prisoners to them for their
slave labor camps.
- On this day, however, we were happy.
- As a gesture of friendliness, I emptied
my rifle and stood it in the corner, even allowing them to play with it
at their request! This thoroughly "broke the ice," and soon we
were singing songs we taught each other or I had learned in high school
German ("Du, du liegst mir im Herzen"). Out of gratitude, they
baked me a special small loaf of sweet bread, the only possible present
they had left to offer. I stuffed it in my "Eisenhower jacket"
and snuck it back to my barracks, eating it when I had privacy. I have
never tasted more delicious bread, nor felt a deeper sense of communion
while eating it. I believe a cosmic sense of Christ (the Oneness of all
Being) revealed its normally hidden presence to me on that occasion, influencing
my later decision to major in philosophy and religion.
- Shortly afterwards, some of our weak
and sickly prisoners were marched off by French soldiers to their camp.
We were riding on a truck behind this column. Temporarily, it slowed down
and dropped back, perhaps because the driver was as shocked as I was. Whenever
a German prisoner staggered or dropped back, he was hit on the head with
a club until he died. The bodies were rolled to the side of the road to
be picked up by another truck. For many, this quick death might have been
preferable to slow starvation in our "killing fields."
- When I finally saw the German women in
a separate enclosure, I asked why we were holding them prisoner. I was
told they were "camp followers," selected as breeding stock for
the S.S. to create a super-race. I spoke to some and must say I never met
a more spirited or attractive group of women. I certainly didn't think
they deserved imprisonment.
- I was used increasingly as an interpreter,
and was able to prevent some particularly unfortunate arrests. One rather
amusing incident involved an old farmer who was being dragged away by several
M.P,s. I was told he had a "fancy Nazi medal," which they showed
me. Fortunately, I had a chart identifying such medals. He'd been awarded
it for having five children! Perhaps his wife was somewhat relieved to
get him "off her back," but I didn't think one of our death camps
was a fair punishment for his contribution to Germany. The M.P.s agreed
and released him to continue his "dirty work."
- Famine began to spread among the German
civilians also. It was a common sight to see German women up to their elbows
in our garbage cans looking for something edible -- that is, if they weren't
- When I interviewed mayors of small towns
and villages, I was told their supply of food had been taken away by "displaced
persons" (foreigners who had worked in Germany), who packed the food
on trucks and drove away. When I reported this, the response was a shrug.
I never saw any Red Cross at the camp or helping civilians, although their
coffee and doughnut stands were available everywhere else for us. In the
meantime, the Germans had to rely on the sharing of hidden stores until
the next harvest.
- Hunger made German women more "available,"
but despite this, rape was prevalent and often accompanied by additional
violence. In particular I remember an eighteen-year old woman who had the
side of her faced smashed with a rifle butt and was then raped by two G.I.s.
Even the French complained that the rapes, looting and drunken destructiveness
on the part of our troops was excessive. In Le Havre, we'd been given booklets
warning us that the German soldiers had maintained a high standard of behavior
with French civilians who were peaceful, and that we should do the same.
In this we failed miserably.
- "So what?" some would say.
"The enemy's atrocities were worse than ours." It is true that
I experienced only the end of the war, when we were already the victors.
The German opportunity for atrocities had faded; ours was at hand. But
two wrongs don't make a right. Rather than copying our enemy,s crimes,
we should aim once and for all to break the cycle of hatred and vengeance
that has plagued and distorted human history. This is why I am speaking
out now, forty-five years after the crime. We can never prevent individual
war crimes, but we can, if enough of us speak out, influence government
policy. We can reject government propaganda that depicts our enemies as
subhuman and encourages the kind of outrages I witnessed. We can protest
the bombing of civilian targets, which still goes on today. And we can
refuse ever to condone our government's murder of unarmed and defeated
prisoners of war.
- I realize it is difficult for the average
citizen to admit witnessing a crime of this magnitude, especially if implicated
himself. Even G.I,s sympathetic to the victims were afraid to complain
and get into trouble, they told me. And the danger has not ceased. Since
I spoke out a few weeks ago, I have received threatening calls and had
my mailbox smashed. But its been worth it. Writing about these atrocities
has been a catharsis of feeling suppressed too long, a liberation, and
perhaps will remind other witnesses that "the truth will make us free,
have no fear." We may even learn a supreme lesson from all this: only
love can conquer all.
- Reprinted from The Journal of Historical
Review Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 161-166.
- From Stephen R.
- I heard this kind of story repeatedly
in the late 1940's. Some were much worse as to numbers involved. I was
super patriotic, and told a kid his relative was a liar.
- One Sunday, he came to my house and got
me, and I heard a drunken discourse from his mothers'scarey boyfriend
whohad been a GI guard. He became hysterical talking about burying 100's
per day. I have no doubt this was true. He was with some kind of roving
death squad. They arrived at the German POW camps late in 1945, took selected
prisoners from shelters to open fields in mid-Winter. And watched them
in shifts until they were dead. >