- 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 chased away.
- 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.