Sunday, January 10, 2010
I was a Jewish boy fighting against an enemy I knew, an enemy that was responsible for arresting, deporting and killing my people. Refugee soldiers who were drafted or volunteered fought against the Nazis with fervor, because they were our hated enemy and were responsible for us losing our friends and relatives in concentration camps, through terror and beatings long before the ovens came. I still had vivid memories of Kristallnacht a few years earlier in 1938 and the pleasure most Germans got out of burning synagogues and businesses, dragging Jews through the streets. Fighting the Germans was very deep for me; I wasn't going to give an inch ...
But one story that is not so pleasant for me to tell occurred when we were attached to an outfit comprising some real fuck-ups. One night two Germans came out of nowhere with their hands up and surrendered to me. I was on guard duty at the time and couldn't leave my post. So GIs from this unit said, "Hey, you got two 'Heines' there? Don't worry, we'll take them back for you." So, they took them back under guard, but five minutes later I heard two shoots and saw the same GIs walking back toward me with smiles on their faces. "Sorry, they tried to escape and we had to kill 'em". That really bothered me.
Once when we were all the way at the Mosel River facing a very tough SS outfit, my IPW was attached to Patton's Third Army. We were at division HQ when Patton had a meeting of his noncoms. He stood on top of a tank, and among other things, he said to pep the guys up over there: "and as far as those damn interrogators are concerned, don't take prisoners! Shoot the bastards!" I'll never forget that. It was typical Patton.
For the most part, prisoners were in shock. One moment they were surrounded by their buddies, the next moment, they would be hit in the head, or stabbed, or a bullet would strike them in the leg and they'd fall down. Now what?
One story that never leaves me is when I knelt down to a POW who had a piece of shrapnel in his partially shattered leg. It must have been horrendously painful for him, and he muttered a few words to me: "Comerade, gib mir Deine Hand" (Give me your hand, Comrade). I gave him my hand, he did his best to muster a grin and I could just feel that by holding his hand I had helped. And that was wonderful in itself. He did his duty. He tried to fight for Adolf Hitler, and it didn't quite work out.
For the most part I was gratified to see captured Germans. I've always said there is no one who rules as harshly and no one who crawls so low as the Germans in victory and defeat. But I didn't have rage. I just felt that they had stolen my country away from me, they had forced my father to go to some crazy place called Palestine, and I knew we couldn't let these people run the world, that's for damn sure....
One day, we were expecting a truck load of about fifty POWS from Lieutenant Michael's group. More than an hour later, there was no truck and no prisoners. I took one of the CIC fellows with me in the jeep to trace the route. About halfway, two hundred or so feet from the road, I saw an awful sight- fifteen dead POWs obviously all shot with machine guns. Some of them were even stray civilians. That happened sometimes when soldiers rounded up POWs an suspected that certain young types had thrown away their uniforms and picked up civilian cloths. Unless we cleared them, they were treated as prisoners But what on earth had happened here?
Apparently a bunch of new soldiers who had never seen combat were to guard the POWs on their route from the collection point to our camp. Apparently they "borrowed" the submachine guns from our three guys down there and just decided to kill these Germans. In a pocket of one of the dead men, I found a letter to his wife about how happy he was that this mess was over and soon he would be home. My God, what a horror that was. That was not war, it was murder. We decided that something should be done. We had the names of the soldiers who did it and the guns, and we forwarded a full report. In short, the judgment came through as case dismissed because of insufficient evidence. What they were really saying was that the 13th Armored Division was ready to go home and this would unnecessarily delay their departure.
...The 88s were terrifying German weapons because they were used point blank on us, instead of on airplanes. Seeing a kids next to you fall, wounded, or killed was a terrifying experience. I cannot begin to explain the rage I had when seeing German soldiers come out with white flags after an ambush. Needless to say, there were times when we did not take prisoners...
I had a unique experience in Solingen where a German lady came to our command post and told us that a German general was hiding out. The captain said," Lieutenant Winsam, Sergeant Miller, Baum, go and get him." We surrounded the house. There was this middle-aged man, and I started questioning him. In an almost defiant, arrogant manner, without getting up, he said "Ich bin General Gustav von Zongen."
Without delay I told him, "Hand Hoch", pointed my rifle at the son of a bitch, and he turned ashen white. Then I told him, "Ich bin ein Deutcher Jude." ( I'm a German Jew), and this man was in an absolute state of terror. He could not believe that one little yid should get him out of five million GIs. A rifle pointed at an arrogant officer becomes a powerful persuader. It was a good feeling...
After the completion of the Ruhr campaign, we were sent to southern Germany and started moving in the direction of Czechoslovakia. We encountered a concentration camp called Flossenberg and liberated one of the smaller camps of that facility. We saw scores of dying, starving prisoners. It was terrible, and the stench and odor of death, I will never forget.
There were also well-fed prisoners who had on the same inmate uniforms. I unsuccessfully tried to communicate with them in German; one kid in my company spoke Russian and Polish to them and they did not understand that either. We could not figure it out. My captain decided to strip them down and discovered that they had their blood type tattooed under their arm, which was customary practice among SS troops. They went into the mass graves and helped dispose of all the corpses, but they did not last to face a war criminal trial. The justification for their demise was that they switched uniforms, which under the Geneva Convention is a punishable offense. They remained in the pits with the corpses.
It felt damn good to interrogate Nazis, especially when we had a pistol (usually one of their Lugers) in a holster on us. We knew that the average German soldier just followed orders, so getting information out of them wasn't difficult. Name, rank and serial number didn't mean much to them, so if we could put them at ease, it usually worked to our advantage. With SS and officers, however, it was drastically different; we had to be rough with them, psychologically (and sometimes physically) and threaten them with everything under the sun. One more than one occasion we would say, "If you don't talk, we are going to put a bullet in your head." With one guy, we had him dig his own grave, measure it, and then made him lie in it before bringing him back to the interrogation table. During one interrogation, I let my anger fly when I knocked a Sturmhauptfuhrer's teeth out. I was stupid for not wearing a glove, because I hurt my hand.