FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, I witnessed an atrocity: the deliberate starvation of German POWs by our own army. History, written by the victors, suppressed all news of this atrocity until James Bacque, a Canadian author, published his brilliant exposé, Other Losses. This book is a best-seller in Canada, a sensation in Europe, yet is virtually unavailable (censored?) in the U.S. Our major booksellers told me their distributors are not handling it. When I prevailed upon a small, independent bookstore to order direct from Canada, the publisher told them they would be the only store in New York State to carry the book. This in “the land of the free!”
Fortunately, Pat Buchanan called attention to Other Losses in his 10 January 1990 column. He wrote:
Conclusion: the U.S. Army killed ten times as many Germans in POW camps as we did on battlefields from Normandy to V.E. Day. (German POWs) had their rations cut below survival level until they were dying at rates up to 30% of exposure, starvation and neglect… Red Cross food trains were turned back and U.S. food shipments sat on the dock… One French officer said the U.S. camps reminded him of Dachau and Buchenwald… The book blames Eisenhower. “The German is a beast,” Ike had written… But that was not how the Canadians and British felt, who treated their prisoners justly… It was not the view of General Mark Clark, nor of… Patton… Ignoring the book is not enough.
Pat Buchanan’s courageous column inspired me to help end the cover-up of the atrocity I had witnessed. I wrote letters to several newspapers which were, of necessity, short and incomplete. Now I would like to finally free more of my painful memories, hoping to be heard, so that this will help us to acknowledge our share in the “banality of evil,” cleansing ourselves with the truth. Perhaps we, as a nation, may then put this behind us with some integrity and with some hope for redemption.
In October 1944, at age eighteen, I was drafted into the army while a student at the NYS College of Forestry. Largely due to the “Battle of the Bulge,” my training was cut short, my furlough cut in half, and I was then immediately sent overseas. Upon arrival in Le Havre, France, we were quickly loaded into boxcars and shipped to the front. By the time we reached it, I had developed mononucleosis severely enough to be sent to a hospital in Belgium.
By the time I left the hospital, the unit I had trained with in Spartenburg, South Carolina was so deeply into Germany that I was placed in a “repo depo” (a replacement depot) despite my protests. I then lost interest in which units I was assigned to because non-combat units were generally not respected. My separation qualification record states that I served mostly with the 14th Infantry Regiment, during which time I guarded prisoners of war and served as an interpreter. During my seventeen-month stay in Germany, I was transferred to other outfits also.
In late March or early April 1945, I was assigned to help 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 the S.S. (I found none.)
In Andernach, between 50,000 and 65,000 prisoners, ranging in age from very young teens to very old men, were crowded together in an open field surrounded by barbed wire. The women were kept in a separate enclosure which I did not see until later. The men I guarded had no tents or shelter, no blankets, and many had no coats. Inadequate numbers of slit trenches were provided for excrement, and so the men lived and slept in the mud and increasing filth during a cold, wet spring. Their misery from exposure alone was evident.
It was even more shocking to see them eating grass, sometimes throwing it into a tin can containing a thin soup. They told me they did this hoping to ease their hunger pains. Soon their emaciation was evident. Dysentery raged and, too weak and crowded to reach the slit trenches, they were increasingly sleeping in excrement. I saw no sign of provision for water, so the thin soup was their food and water for the day. Some days there was bread, less than a slice each. Other days there was nothing.
The sight of so many men desperate for food and water, sickening and dying before our eyes, is indescribable. Even now, I can only think of it momentarily.
We had ample food and supplies that could have been shared more humanely, and we could have offered some medical assistance, but did nothing. Only the dead were quickly and efficiently taken care of: hauled away to mass graves.
My outrage reached the point that I protested to my officers, but I was met with hostility or bland indifference. When pressed, they explained they were under strict orders from “higher up.” No officer would dare to systematically do this to over 50,000 prisoners if he felt he was violating general policy and subject to court martial. The term “war criminal” was just beginning to come into fashion.
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 repeated that 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 wires to the prisoners I was caught and threatened with imprisonment. I repeated the “offense,” and one officer threatened to shoot me. I naturally assumed this was a bluff, but I began to have some doubts after 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 more fully realized I was dealing with some 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 Nazi concentration camps, complete with photographs 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. At least, many combat soldiers told me later they would not have tolerated this, for they combined hatred with respect for a courageous enemy.
The prisoners I spoke to were mostly simple farmers and workingmen, as ignorant, albeit nationalistic, as many of our own troops. I heard many versions of “my country, right or wrong, my country,” which we still hear in our own country today.
As time went on, many of them lapsed into a zombie-like state of listlessness. Others, maddened by thirst, tried to escape in a desperate or suicidal fashion, running through open fields in broad daylight towards the Rhine to quench their thirst. They were mowed down.
Some prisoners were extremely eager for cigarettes, saying they took the edge off their hunger. Accordingly, some enterprising G.I. “Yankee traders” were acquiring hordes of wrist watches and rings in exchange for a handful of cigarettes or less. When I began throwing cartons of cigarettes to the prisoners to ruin this trade, I found myself threatened by rank-and-file G.I.S also. At least this taught me an indelible lesson: how wrong majorities and authorities can be.
A bright spot in this gloomy picture came, oddly enough, 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, being disgusted 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 to the graveyard. We were supposed to shoot escapees on sight, so I started to get up 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 cemetary, I never felt more vulnerable, but somehow curiosity kept me going. 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, moving erratically. 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, telling no one.
I left the graveyard as quickly as possible 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 often since, what it would be like to be a prisoner under those conditions and meet a beautiful woman with a picnic basket. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten her face.
While I watched, more prisoners crawled to and from the enclosure. I saw they were dragging food back to their comrades and could only admire their courage and devotion. As I walked back to my quarters at the end of my shift, a nightingale and I were singing – both felt a touch of spring.
(I originally did not intend to reveal the following incident, for it moves into a realm termed “mystical.” However, for me, it was an extremely significant experience, changing my life, providing a light no darkness can extinguish. It must he told, hoping it will foster understanding.)
On May 8, V.E.-Day, I decided to celebrate with some prisoners I was guarding who were baking bread, meager amounts of which 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 would be going home soon, a pathetic hope on their part. We were in what was to become the French Zone, and I later witnessed the brutality of the French soldiers when we transferred our prisoners to them for their slave labor camps (see below).
After chatting with them about the potentials for peace for the rest of our lives, I decided to risk a gesture of trust that objectively would seem foolish. I emptied my rifle and stood it in the corner. They tested me further by asking to play with it, and I agreed. Intuitively I felt I could rely on their sense of honor not to attack me, for they knew they too were being tested. 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 secretly baked a small sweet bread and insisted I take it, explaining it was the only possible gift they had left to offer. Expressing my gratitude with a lump in my throat, I put it in my tight “Eisenhower jacket” so I could sneak it back to my barracks. I later found an opportunity to eat it outside.
Never had bread tasted more delicious, nor conveyed to me a deeper sense of communion while eating it. A wonderful feeling pervaded me, gently opening me to an intimation of the Oneness of all Being. Through those prisoners I sensed the cosmic presence of what has been called the Christ, Buddha-nature, or, perhaps most aptly, the Ineffable: cosmically present, but hidden and apparently separate, until revealed in the wholeness of the giving of the self. Even within the horror humans had created, I was taught a path to redemption may open by taking a first, tentative step in the direction of love, understanding and forgiveness.
This above all the prisoners taught me: not only are we all potentially humane humans, there is divinity within us waiting for us to dissolve the defensive shield of ego. I was pleased to discover later the words of Matthew 25:34-46, expressing the potential within prisoners and all who are at our mercy.
Shortly after this experience I was plunged into even greater horror. Some of our weak and sickly prisoners were being marched off by French soldiers to their camp. The truck we were on first passed another truck picking up bodies along the side of the road, and then came up behind a slowly moving column of men. Temporarily we slowed down and remained behind, perhaps because the driver was as shocked as I was. The French soldiers were apparently incensed at the poor condition of our prisoners, not only for labor but for marching to another camp. Whenever a prisoner staggered or dropped back, the French clubbed him to death and then dragged him to the side of the road. For many, this quick death might have been preferable to their prolonged suffering. Even gas would have been more merciful than our murder by neglect in our slow ‘killing fields.’
When I saw the German women held in a separate enclosure, I asked why we were keeping them. I was told they were “camp followers,” selected as breeding stock for the S.S. to create a superrace. We provided them with tents but they were extremely hungry. I spoke to some and must say they were still spirited and attractive. However, I believe I was objective enough when I told all concerned that I didn’t think they deserved our treatment.
As an interpreter, I was able to prevent some particularly unfortunate arrests. One somewhat amusing incident occurred during a pre-dawn raid we conducted on a town to discover Nazis or arms. An old farmer was being dragged away by some soldiers, I was told he had a “fancy Nazi medal,” which they showed to me. Fortunately, I had a chart identifying such medals. He [that is, the farmer’s wife. – Ed. Liberty Bell] had been awarded it [the ‘Mutterkreuz’ (Mother’s Cross)] for having five or more 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 soldiers agreed and released him to continue his “dirty work.”
Famine was spreading amongst the 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, when 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 or an expression of helpnessness.
Although the Red Cross coffee and doughnut stands were available everywhere for us, I never saw any Red Cross in the prison camps or helping the civilians. While my girlfriend had all the ‘contraband’ doughnuts she could eat, most Germans had to share their meager hidden stores and wait until the next harvest.
This hunger undoubtedly made many German women more “available,” but, despite this, rape was incredibly prevalent and often accompanied by additional violence. I particularly remember a charming eighteen year old girl who had several unsuccessful suitors and was “just friends” with me, who had the side of her face smashed with a rifle butt and was then raped by two G.I.s. The casual shooting of German civilians also continued, usually by drunken soldiers who would tell of this as something amusing. All too many G.I.s gave the impression they were like animals released from cages, free to do what they liked because they were dealing with yet a lower species of animal, a reverse racism, inflamed by our propaganda. However, even the French complained to me that our rape and drunken destructive behavior in their country was excessive. When we had arrived in Le Havre, we had been given booklets instructing us that the Germans 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?, we might still say. The enemy’s atrocities were worse than ours. Certainly my experiences were only of the last phases of the war, when we were already clearly the victors. The Nazi opportunity for atrocities had faded and ours was unleashed. But we might have learned the simple lesson that two wrongs do not make a right. Perhaps we might even have broken the cycle of vengeful retaliation and unbridled hatred, fed by racism, that has plagued human history and blighted human potential all too long. Instead, we committed our own atrocities and now are clinging to a cover-up. That 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 kinds of outrages I witnessed. We can protest the bombing of civilian targets, which still goes on today. (I will never forget the sickly sweet smell of rotting human flesh rising from the shattered remains of the cities and towns I entered.) And we can refuse to condone our government’s murder of unarmed and defeated prisoners of war.
I realized it’s difficult to admit witnessing a crime of this magnitude, especially if implicated oneself. Even G.I.s sympathetic to the victims told me they were afraid to oppose so massive a policy that would surely seek to cover its tracks. I never heard this directly from an officer, but it was the belief of the rank-and-file G.I.s I spoke to that we were not to “talk” because, first, no one would believe us, and second, we would surely get into trouble. They all insisted it was better not to talk, and slowly I, too, realized it would be futile and dangerous. That is, until now, thanks to James Bacque and Pat Buchanan. This is not to say the danger has passed. Since I “spoke out” recently, my mailbox has been smashed and I have received threatening phone calls. But I believe it is worth the risk. Writing about these atrocities has been a catharsis of feelings suppressed too long, a liberation, and perhaps will remind other witnesses and citizens that “the truth shall make us free, have no fear.” And, in any case, “the truth shall out.”
We may even learn a supreme lesson from all this: Hate is self-destructive; only love can conquer and evolve all as One.
Martin Brech (Adjunct Professor,
Philosophy & Religion, Mercy College;
Ex-G.I., Finally Free)
SOURCE: Liberty Bell, July 1990