stories 10 - 23
1943 - 1946
PREPARING FOR WAR
When Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941, I tried to enter military service where I might do the most good. 15 months later, having graduated from the Harvard Law School, the U.S. army accepted me as a Private in the artillery being trained for the invasion of France. My military career was distinctive without distinction; my travails in the army are here described.
preparing for war
THE WAR YEARS
My war years were a combination of bizarre comedy mixed with gruesome tragedy. It was only when we were entering Germany that my experience as a lawyer and expert on war crimes was put to use. Some incidents described herein will indicate what it was really like to be a war crimes investigator in World War Two. After three terrible years, under circumstances that were rather unusual, I was honorably discharged as a Sergeant of Infantry, and awarded five battle stars on the day after Christmas 1945.
getting home as a stowaway
advancing into germany
an entertaining tale
trials by u.s. military commission
investigating concentration camps
looking for hitler and looted art
starting a new life
STORY 10 : getting into the army
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy,” I was sitting at my desk in a small attic room that I shared with another Harvard Law School student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were stunned by the radio report that Japan had launched a massive attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor. Almost immediately, students from all over the University assembled in Harvard Yard in a rally of solidarity and support for our government. Everyone I met was ready to enlist in defense of our country.
Hitler had already conquered most of Europe. His murderous blitzkrieg had spread eastward as he and his allies declared war against the United States. I wrote to the War Department and suggested that I might most effectively be used in the intelligence services. Since my French was pretty good, I thought I might be dropped behind the lines in France. I could probably get by on my skills in Hungarian, Yiddish, and possibly German, and had gotten a 98 on my high school final exam in Spanish, which embarrassed my teacher at Townsend Harris who had wanted to flunk me. Soon the disappointing reply came back from Washington saying that no one could serve in the intelligence services who had not been a U.S. citizen for at least 15 years. My citizenship was derived from my father’s papers issued in 1933. An inquiry with the army paratroopers was brushed aside with the observation that because of my size and Bantam weight I might more likely go up than down. As subsequent events would prove, the army never did recognize my hidden talents as a parachutist.
It was near the end of the first semester and I had won a scholarship for the excellence of my exam in criminal law. The Dean, James Landis, addressed a letter to my draft board noting that I was a student of promise and requesting that I be allowed to finish the term. I presented the letter to the Clerk of the Draft board in the Bronx where I had been registered. He queried me briefly and said there would be no problem in deferring my induction. When the term was over, I packed up my books and went home, expecting to enter the military service shortly. But the summer passed and there was no call. My mother strongly urged me to go back to school to continue my education. I didn’t want to reject her earnest appeal. I was her only son. “If they need you,” she said, “they’ll call you.” Her logic was impeccable. I went back to school.
Back in Cambridge, I continued my efforts to enlist in a military service of my choice. My roommate, Austin Graham, was accepted as an Ensign by the Navy. Although I had qualified as a Red Cross lifeguard, despite my inability to float, the idea of drowning at sea did not particularly appeal to me. Because of my size, I was sure the Marines wouldn’t take me. Joining the army lost its attraction when I considered the war wounds described in Eric Remarque’s great book All Quiet in the Western Front, which had made quite a profound impression on me. The Air Corps, on the other hand, had great appeal. The uniforms were nice, and as a popular song said, I would “wear a pair of silver wings.” Most attractive was their slogan, “Your first mistake will be your last!” That was a nice, quick, and clean way to go.
My love affair with the Air Corps was not mutual. No matter how I tried, they wouldn’t have me. First, I was too short to become a pilot—they said I wouldn’t reach the pedals. For similar reasons, they wouldn’t even take me as a navigator. That was very fortunate for them since I have a terrible sense of direction and if they ordered me to bomb Tokyo I might have been lost over Berlin. When they later lowered the height requirements, I still couldn’t qualify. One of my eyes missed one of the letters on the 20/20 line. An optometrist suggested that I try eye exercises such as following the point of a moving pencil for hours. When my classmates observed my peculiar gyrations in class, some wondered whether I had been studying too hard and had gone out of my mind. The exercises didn’t help; on my next physical exam for an assignment for pilot training, my left eye missed two letters rather than one.
Noting my disappointment, one of the examiners offered me the name of someone at the Boston airfield who could help me become a pilot. I found the gentleman and sure enough, he said he could fix it. He pulled out some papers and said, “Just sign here!” Now, if there is one thing you learn at Harvard, it is not to sign anything without reading it first. The paper would sign me up for training as a Glider Pilot. I didn’t know what a Glider Pilot was. When he explained, I respectfully declined his kind offer. I consider myself a patriot, but if I am going to fly, I want a machine that can go up and not merely down. When, on D-day, I watched from the beaches at Lands-End in England and saw the hoards of little gliders being pulled by aircraft to be dropped over the Normandy beaches, my admiration for glider pilots was unlimited. But, very frankly, I was glad I wasn’t one of them. About 70% of them became war casualties.
My studies during the last two years at law school suffered from the anticipation that I would have to leave at any moment. I didn’t even buy the expensive law books that I couldn’t afford. My primary focus was on trying to get into military service where I could do the most good. I was not a militarist but I was eager to do my share in the war. The thought that others might risk their lives for me, while I remained at home, was not something I could live with. I was waiting for the draft call that never came. My mother kept up her reassurances, “If they want you, they’ll call you.”
As soon as I graduated from Law School, I went back to my draft board in the Bronx. I explained that I had been given a brief deferment to complete the semester and I hadn’t heard anything since. The clerk, who looked familiar, said he would send me my induction notice the next day. I thanked him and left the room. When he followed me toward the elevator, I got a bit apprehensive. “Ferencz,” he said, “How did you do in law school?” I replied that I had done all right. “Do you want some more time to take your bar exam?” he asked. I was really uncomfortable. I noted that I could take the exam while I was in the army. Then, as we stood alone in the hallway, he explained. He told me that he had been a Yale Law Student when World War I broke out. He had enlisted in the air corps and had been a bit of hero, but had lost a leg in combat. I had barely noticed his limp. He told me that he had never been able to return to his legal studies and had regretted that all of his life. When he saw me come in to the draft office and saw the letter from the Harvard dean, he decided that he would not let happen to me what had happened to him. So he had held my file until I became a lawyer. I expressed my appreciation, and never saw him again. The stranger who had quietly taken me under his wing certainly changed the course of my life. Was Fate saving me for something else?
STORY 11: basic training
No sooner had I graduated from the Harvard Law School than the U.S. Army, in its infinite wisdom, made me a buck private in the artillery. I was assigned to be a typist in the supply room of a battalion being trained for the invasion of France. I never did learn how to type or how to fire a cannon. My prior education had taught me that “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including among these are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This sacred declaration seems to have escaped the attention of the War Department. American officers paraded under a different banner, “Rank has its privileges!” My military career was distinguished primarily by my determined drive to defend the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In defense of equal rights and the pursuit of happiness, my primary adversary was not the German army, but the U.S. Army bureaucracy.
From March to September 1943, I was a guest of my country in Camp Davis, North Carolina. It appeared that the basic lesson of basic training was to teach adults how to distinguish the right foot from the left. We were required to spend hour after hour marching around in the hot sun listening to a stupid Master Sergeant bellowing, again and again, “Turn right, turn left, column right, column left....” I decided to assert my endowed right to liberty and refused to march. I explained to the drillmaster, a massive brute from Texas who boasted of beating his wife, that close order drill was invented by the Romans for a reason that was valid in medieval times. Those on the right of a marching unit carried their shields on their right arm, those on the left carried shields on their left and those in the middle held their shields overhead. Thus, like a modern tank, they were protected on all sides against the spears that might be thrown from an enemy on a hill. I pointed out that we were not likely to encounter spears thrown from a hill. A solid block of American footsoldiers approaching the machine guns of an entrenched enemy position would be mowed down if we did what he was training us to do. The “Sarge” listened with obvious contempt and retaliated by declaring war on me!
He stuck a pencil on the top of my head and screamed, “Your (expletive) hair is too (expletive) long. No higher than one inch, soldier!” Being an obedient fellow, I promptly went to the barber and ordered that my head be shaved clean. I then went to the medics and inquired whether I could risk marching around in the hot sun with a completely bald scalp. I noted, truthfully, that I had tried that once as a teenager and the result was that my cranium swelled up like a pudgy balloon. The doctor, a Captain, agreed that marching under such conditions might cause a fatal sunstroke. At my request he wrote out an order that I was not permitted to march outdoors until I recovered a full head of protective hair. I thanked him profusely for his great medical acumen and marched out singing in loud military cadence, “Left right, left, right... left, right....”
The next morning, when we were summoned to our usual “parade of the wooden soldiers,” I brandished the medical captain’s prescription in the face of the blustering Sergeant. “OK you (expletive) wise guy,” came the shouted retort, “I’ll fix your (expletive) wagon!” Since I didn’t have a wagon and it didn’t need repair, I guessed that the burly bully had something else in mind. In short order, I was subjected to a special assortment of tortures designed, I guess, to make a good soldier out of me. I brushed the wooden barrack floor with a toothbrush, wiped out the toilets, stepped into and cleaned the stinking greasepits, and scrubbed the pots and pans for the officer’s mess. When I was through it really earned the name “mess.” The utensils were even more grimy and greasy than when I started. I explained, apologetically, that my hands were not used to near-boiling water and my tender skin could only tolerate lukewarm immersion. I was relieved from duty as an incompetent dishwasher. Since they couldn’t fire me, a host of worse chores became my daily bread. As long as it was work that was useful and necessary, no matter how dirty the job and how malicious the assignment, I served my country without complaint. But things like chopping down trees and planting them around the sandy barracks and tearing them up again as soon as an inspection by a commanding officer was over was the type of revolting stupidity that encouraged me to revolt.
Fortunately, some relief was at hand. As a supply clerk, one of my more useful army duties, surprisingly, was to order supplies. One of my first requisitions was for the official rubber stamps needed to authenticate every military action. I was directed to request one such seal for the battalion commander and one for the company commander. Since it was such a vital instrument, I thought it might be prudent to request an extra one as a reserve. For safekeeping, I kept it in my own pocket. I would sooner have parted with my rifle. The official stamp and an extra book of blank passes became an instrument of justice. When all the officers and the Sergeant had left the camp for the weekend, a line formed around my bunk. My buddies knew that a pass from Benny, validated with the official seal, would get them past all of the MPs. I was simply demonstrating the equality of all men as guaranteed by our noble constitution. There was no limit to my patriotism. I also tried to be kind and charitable whenever it appeared that those virtues were being neglected by the U.S. military or justice was being unfairly denied.
Part of our basic training required us to jump over a big hole filled with mud. One guy from the Bronx, “Prince the Klutz,” landed in the muck every time. He was given three minutes to reappear in clean uniform and try again. How he was expected to improve during that interval escaped me. Each time, Prince tripped. He finally collapsed on his face in the mud. The sadist Sergeant laughed with glee at the helpless and exhausted private. For appearing in a soiled uniform, the “Sarge” directed that his victim be confined to barracks until he could perform the feat that physically he was simply unable to perform. There was a risk that he would be shipped out to war without any chance to see his family again. The extra official seal and pass book made it possible to assert the principles of fairness and justice that made America great. I saw to it that Private Prince got back to the Bronx in time to say good-bye to his dear mother.
My battalion, along with many others, was being trained to make a landing on the beach of a secret foreign shore. We were transported by truck to a barren coast near Carolina where our mission was explained. We were expected to go ashore under enemy fire and could expect enemy tanks to descend upon us and try to drive us from the beachhead. We were to defend ourselves by digging a deep hole in the sand and jumping into it so that we could not be seen by the gunners on the tank. We were reassured that the treads of the wide tanks would pass right over the hole and we would remain safe from harm. We were informed that the underbelly of tanks carried no armor so we could blow them up from below with a hand grenade that we were all expected to carry. I must admit that the idea of training to become a suicide bomber on the sands of Carolina was not particularly appealing.
Infantrymen carried a small shovel but I was expected to dig my hole using only the aluminum plate of my mess kit. I never learned how a dig a hole in law school and I was really no good at it. I had dug only a shallow grave when I could hear the rumbling of the training tanks that were descending upon us. I don’t think I am a coward but I recalled that “retreat is the better part of valor.” Under the circumstances, I concluded that it would be prudent to just stick a big branch that I found on the beach, into the unfinished hole and run like hell. From a safe distance, hiding behind some hedges, I observed what would happen to my branch. Sure enough, the tanks came rolling and one ran right over my spot. It stopped as if to look for me and then turned slowly grinding its treads into the soft surf. My branch was buried forever. If I had stayed there, as instructed, there would have been be no more Benny.
You may ask, “Where was poor ole Prince, the Klutz?” Well, he was with us when we were being trained to board the big ships that had to carry us to the foreign shore and then unload us into small landing craft that would dump us on the beach, where we were expected to dig a hole and pray. A big rope net, thrown down the side of the heaving ship, was to serve as the ladder to the bobbing landing craft below. My anxious friend was near me as we descended the ropes, carrying all our gear. As might have been expected, Prince couldn’t hold on. If he had landed in the water he would have sunk like a rock. He probably couldn’t swim either. He was lucky to have landed on his back in the tiny landing craft. I later learned that he survived and received a medical discharge. Justice triumphed again.
Of course, as soon as I found myself in the artillery, I applied for admission into Officers Candidate School. When I was summoned to appear before the OCS Board, I was surprised to see that its Presiding Officer was an old friend who had sat next to me at Harvard. He was then known as Major Hickman, a West Point graduate who was sent to law school by the army. In those days we exchanged notes. He was now on his way to becoming the Judge Advocate General. We expressed mutual joy at finding each other again. He assured me immediately that my application would be approved. I heard nothing further until we were ready to sail off to war.
One day when I was on leave, thanks to my own official pass, I visited an army detention center. I was not trying to survey my future home, but merely keeping up with my studies on crime prevention. Based on my observations, I wrote an article on “Rehabilitating Army Offenders” that appeared in the prestigious Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology on November 1943. The author was identified as Corporal Benjamin Ferencz, 115th AAA Gun Battalion, U.S. Army. The commandant of the Detention Center sent a request to my Battalion Commander asking if I could be transferred to his unit where expert help was badly needed. I learned of the request and the answer at the same time as I received news about my application to go to Officers Training School.
It was December 1943 when the sadistic Master Sergeant called me into his office with a happy sneer. “Well,” he said, “we’ve finally received orders to ship overseas. I’ve been holding some papers here that may interest you. I see you want to be an officer. I also see that a request has been made to transfer you to another outfit. All transfers are now prohibited.” He tore up both papers before my eyes and tossed them into the trashcan with a flourish. “The only way you’ll get out of this outfit is in a box!” A few days later, we sailed off to war.
Story 12: Mutiny on the HMS Strathnaver
The name of the ship was the Strathnaver and before being conscripted for war service as a troop transport, she had sailed the Indian oceans as a passenger liner. Now she was commanded by British naval officers and staffed by an Indian crew. Cabins above deck were reserved for officers. The rest of the ship was jammed with Yanks being transported to an unnamed secret destination. The 115th AAA Battalion, assigned to the galley area far below deck, was allowed up for air for one hour a day. The rest of the time was spent crouched on the floor of the galley, sitting on hammocks that were unfurled at night to serve as sleeping quarters. The mesh nets were hooked to supports that enabled five or six hammocks to be stacked from floor to ceiling - one man per hammock. If the soldier in the net above was heavy, some part of his anatomy was bound to rest on the man below. I scurried for the hammock on top.
A row of long tables served as eating space when the hammocks above it were not in use. The food was quite interesting. I had never seen anything quite like it before. The usual repast of frankfurters had an olive green color to match our uniforms. I don’t think they were really moldy, they just looked and tasted as if they were. A bucket full of them was placed on each table to be divided among about a dozen GIs. There was a canteen on board where soldiers could buy a coke or American candy bars. That source of nourishment ran dry after about two days at sea. Crates of wholesome food could be seen through the locked gates of the storeroom near the galley. But that was “off limits” and reserved for the officers. Enlisted men who could afford it turned to the black market run by the cook. A baked potato would go for only a quarter but an apple pie cost as much as five dollars.
Our First Sergeant, it turned out, was not cut out to be a sailor. After a day of bobbing in stormy seas he turned a sickly green to match the frankfurters. He lay on the floor moaning and leaning his head into a bucket before him. Every time the ship heaved, so did he. I am not one to bear a grudge; it’s true that I hated him for his mean and vicious tricks but it nearly (but not quite) broke my heart to watch his agony. So, out of my spirit of loving kindness, I offered to get him some more frankfurters, or maybe even a plate of nice greasy pork chops. Each time I mentioned food he seemed to retch some more. So I kept mentioning different delicacies, like baked reptiles or Chinese fried dog, to see if I could find one that might tempt him. No luck. After a while, as I was nearly running out of my list of exotic edibles, he slowly raised his head and snarled, “You little (expletive), I swear I’m going to kill you!” No matter how hard you try, there is just no pleasing some people.
During our hour-long daily march on deck we could peer into the officer’s mess. Since “rank has its privileges,” the British naval officers and U.S. commanders of the American units on board were dining on fresh fruit, salmon, and steaks. This crass discrimination soon gave rise to rumbling in the ranks. The discontent about the food began to spread. We had on board members of the 101st Airborne Division, known as some of the toughest men in the army. They were used to real American food, not British cooking, and they were men of action. One late afternoon, the 101st took flight and landed in the galley. As one of the ship’s half-naked Indian crew members was carrying a crate of oranges on his shoulder up the ladder, a paratrooper was waiting at the top. “I’ll take that,” said the husky soldier, pushing the Indian down the steps with his paratrooper boot. That was the signal. Paratroopers swooped down like the screaming eagles on their insignia. The doors to the storerooms were broken open. Crates of oranges and apples were lifted wholesale and hauled away. Within minutes, everything edible had disappeared. The mutiny on the Strathnaver was over without firing a shot.
As a Harvard lawyer, I of course knew that mutiny was a crime and that pirates and their accomplices usually walked the plank. In fact, the British and American officers didn’t know how to react. They were responsible for the food and for an accounting of what happened to it. An investigation would reveal the abuses to which the enlisted men were subjected daily. Hanging Americans from the yardarm might make a bad impression. So they decided that it would be best if they absorbed the cost and remained silent. One might conclude that justice triumphed or that justice did not triumph, depending upon the eye of the beholder. That’s what makes the legal profession so fascinating. My own view was, and is, that the rule of law must be upheld. My only complaint was that I found it quite difficult to sleep in my hammock which was filled with apples and oranges of mysterious origin.
Our ship was part of a convoy of many ships being escorted across the Atlantic. We were being tracked and followed by German submarines. Naval escort vessels kept circling our ships as we zigzagged slowly across the vast sea. Each night, guards were posted all over each ship to keep an eye out for German periscopes or lights. Guard duty usually lasted four hours. The old guard was then replaced by fresh soldiers covering the same vantage point. By the time we sailed, I had been promoted to corporal and my elevated rank imposed certain duties that I was able to avoid as a private. When my turn came as Corporal of the Guard to post the new sentinels, the corporal who had posted the prior guards accompanied me to be sure that each of his men would be properly replaced. As every good soldier knows, leaving your post without being relieved is punishable by death. Well, I may have mentioned before that I have a very bad sense of direction; on a ship it’s even worse. I didn’t know my starboard from my port or that in the navy, the head was a toilet. They didn’t teach me that at Harvard. It was a stormy night and my men had been placed in every nook and cranny of the rolling ship. I posted 24 men but when I returned with the new replacements all I could locate were about 15. For all I know, the missing guards may still be waiting for me impatiently on the Strathnaver. I guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a sailor.
Story 13: England as a Staging Area
As night was falling on December 16, 1943, the HMS Strathnaver pulled into port. We soon learned, to our surprise, that we were in Liverpool, England. We disembarked and boarded a train that took us to Manchester. We left the train in darkness with each man carrying all of his equipment on his back. After dragging a mile or two that seemed like ten, we plodded through the entrance of what had been a large amusement park. By the dawn’s early light I could make out a large marquee saying “Bellevue.” I immediately recalled the hospital in New York by that name, which specialized in treating the insane. I felt homesick. We had come to the right place.
Our accommodations were rather improvised. Soldiers in British uniforms directed us to our new abode. It had previously been the elephant house; the prior residents had left us some evidence of their presence. The floor was covered with piles of straw, mostly clean. The British, speaking a foreign tongue they called English, pointed to the straw and seemed to be saying something obscene. It was only when they handed out empty sacks that I understood where we were expected to stuff the straw.
As far as I could figure out, our mission in the Manchester staging area was to wait. We were well trained to do nothing. There was no prohibition against the pursuit of happiness. Bellevue’s surroundings included several pubs and a dance hall. The lovely lassies of Manchester, whose husbands were serving overseas, had been encouraged to raise the morale of the visiting “Yonks.” They performed their patriotic duties in a variety of ways. There were dances every night and morale was high, even if morals were low. A major problem soon arose. The British girls had never known about racial discrimination. White soldiers from the South had heard that “all men are created equal” but they insisted that some were more equal than others. If an English girl started to dance with a black soldier a violent brawl was sure to erupt. It got so bad that blacks, who were segregated in separate companies, were confined to barracks on those days that only whites were allowed to go into town. Before leaving barracks, every man was searched to see if he carried a hidden knife or bayonet. I didn’t realize when I joined the army that the first war I would witness would be between black and white American soldiers.
One evening, I was assigned to do routine Military Police duty at the Bellevue pub. I was given a brassard with the letters MP that I could wrap around my arm. I was assured that it was just a formality since nothing ever happened. I was sitting quietly at the pub when all hell broke loose. It looked like a scene from a John Wayne movie. Chairs and bottles were flying in all directions. Two burly American soldiers were punching each other furiously while a crowd of other inebriates jumped into the fray. Being the military authority in charge, I immediately retreated to the adjacent Ladies Room (not to be confused with the WC) and hid under a table. The two drunks who started the fracas were thrown into the back yard to sleep it off, and things simmered down. I was never one to shirk my duty, and I approached them cautiously and managed to get their names. When my tour as temporary MP was over, I wrote a detailed report on how I had heroically quelled a riot in the Bellevue pub. I thought I might get a bronze star or maybe even a silver star. But I was only a corporal, so I got nothing.
Manchester, like all of England, was completely blacked out at night to avoid being targeted by German planes. The V-2 rockets being perfected by Hitler’s prodigy Werner von Braun (who later was treated as an American hero) had not yet been able to reach much past London. Our antiaircraft guns were useless. But American soldiers are noted for their ingenuity as well as their patriotism and they figured out something that might help win the war. They would work hard to raise the morale of the suffering British public. Unfortunately, most British men were serving overseas. The forlorn females were home alone, in the dark, and in need of consolation. I was consoled by letters and photos from my pinup girl Gertrude, back home in the Bronx, who anxiously awaited my return. Bellevue was surrounded by a tall brick wall. Every night, by moonlight, one could detect that every few yards, pressed along that wall, was an American soldier wearing a heavy woolen coat wrapped around someone to shelter them from the cold. Lonely ladies of Manchester were being consoled. For obvious reasons, they all hated to leave the friendly people of Manchester.
Our next move was south toward Salisbury—much closer to the French coast we were expected to attack. The flat plain seemed a good place to assemble the countless tanks and armored vehicles that would be needed for an invasion of Europe. My tent was literally pitched against one of the famous prehistoric rocks at Stonehenge. One morning at daybreak, I was awakened to find my tent surrounded by a circle of people chanting in white robes. It looked more like the Ku Klux Klan than the German army, but I grabbed my rifle anyway. It turned out that they were harmless pilgrims come to celebrate at what they believed was an ancient religious shrine
The accommodations there had not been renovated since the stone age. No lights, no heat, no running water—no nothing. The plain was made of solid chalk, as I can attest from the latrines I dug there. I recall the resourcefulness of a G.I. who had an open trailer attached to his jeep. He had pinched a spigot from a brewery somewhere and he plugged it into a hole he bored in the bottom of his trailer. He collected rainwater in the trailer and then lit a fire under it. The genius had invented a way to have a hot bath where there was no plumbing. Hot water on tap! Since he was a friend of mine, he allowed me to put my helmet under the beer spout and he would fill it with “slightly used” hot water. Sometimes he gave me a pint even before he had taken his bath. The warm water was always good for a sponge bath and even for washing socks. Getting the sequence right was important.
In the distance stood the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, which I visited repeatedly to study its beautiful architecture. Not far away was an old English nobleman’s castle. I don’t remember his name but he was noble in spirit as well as title, and I shall never forget his kindness. In the basement of the castle he had built a row of about 6 bathtubs. He would invite the Yanks to come by truck and “have a wash.” Since fuel and water were limited, only a few inches of water were available for each tub. Praise the Lord—whatever his name was. He was a real English gentleman!
One day, while doing my routine filing of army regulations, I came upon an announcement that a special club was being formed to allow distinguished English gentlemen and American gentlemen to come together socially and thereby strengthen relations between the two armies. “The Churchill Club” would meet in the Dean’s Yard of Westminster Abbey in London. Since no American could get into London without having a confirmed place to stay, I immediately applied for membership in the Club. Upon seeing my application, my company Captain also applied and then the battalion Colonel, who had to approve the applications, did the same. I soon received my membership card. Neither the Captain nor the Colonel received any reply. I volunteered to go to my Club in London and find out the cause of the unfortunate and inexplicable delay. I received a legitimate three-day pass to enter the forbidden city.
There were about a million Yanks in London at that time. The common joke among British men was that “the trouble with the Yanks is that they are overpaid, overfed, over sexed, and over here.” I proceeded to “My Club” where I presented my membership card and was greeted with the icy stare of a British doorman. The luxurious surroundings, tapestries and old paintings on the walls, fine rugs, and paneled walls were just like in the movies. I never saw such opulence before; not even at home in The States. I was escorted to the bar where a number of high ranking British and American officers were strengthening relations. No one spoke to me until a British Colonel with a flowing mustache, and a swagger stick under his arm, asked contemptuously, “Corporal, where is your officer?” I said that I was there alone. In England, every college graduate is automatically entitled to officer’s rank. In both the English and American armies fraternization between officers and enlisted men is prohibited. I was the only enlisted-man visible. No officer in the Churchill Club ever deigned to engage me in conversation. I thought of the American Declaration of Independence that it was self-evident that all men are created equal. Obviously, that does not apply when one puts on a military uniform. I was not cowed or impressed by high-ranking snobs. I left and never visited the Churchill Club again.
Story 14: Preparing for War
My brief sojourn in London was not a happy one. I wandered around the rainy streets trying to identify landmarks described in a little guidebook I carried in my pocket. I visited the criminal court, but the judges and bailiffs, in contrast to the bellowing heard in New York tribunals, spoke in such a whisper and such a strange tongue that I understood practically nothing. A brief trip to see the nearby beach at Brighton was even more depressing. The beach was completely covered with barbed wire and steel barricades designed to thwart any possible German invasion. When I bounced a ball back to a little girl playing near the strand, her mother pulled her away quickly. I guess she feared I was a German spy. If I approached a young lady with a request for directions, she reacted as though she was being targeted for an imminent attack. I finally found shelter in a building run by the Red Cross where I was allowed to sleep on a blanket on the floor of a crowded gymnasium. After my London sojourn, I was almost eager to get back to the greater hospitality of my barren stones at Stonehenge.
The men of the 115th were assembled on the Salisbury Plain, and a General explained our mission. We would hit the beach after the engineers had cleared the mines and barriers under the water. A battery of men would go ashore with barrage balloons that would be released with hanging cables to intercept low flying enemy craft. Our battalion would go ashore and set up its guns to shoot down high flying German airplanes that were expected to attack the men on the beach. Not to worry. Our secret radar would see the planes coming and our new remote control devices would automatically fire and destroy all enemy aircraft as soon as they came within range. In fact, as we later discovered, it didn’t quite work out that way. The Germans had better radar, and they dropped aluminum foil and silver covered pigeons from their incoming planes to blur detection by our radar and targeting by our guns. Those on the beach were like sitting ducks. But that was to be known only later. Sorry about that, boys.
The 115th was designated as a “mobile” battalion. Within 15 minutes, the whole outfit, guns and all, had to be able to start rolling. We frequently moved from one staging area to another, closer to our planned point of embarkation. This gave me an opportunity to see different parts of England, since I could explain that I needed to travel to a distant depot to pick up battalion supplies. (Which was usually true.) Since I had to drive on the wrong side of the road (as was the British practice), and all road signs had been removed to foil invaders, it was always a hazardous undertaking for me. Occasionally, I must admit, in the course of my duties I would go astray. Attribute this to my poor sense of direction.
One day, my former roommate at Harvard, who had become an Ensign in the Navy, got word to me that he wanted me as his best man. His wedding was to take place in a few days in the port city of Plymouth. How could I refuse the request of a naval officer about to go off to war? Of course, I got lost along the way. When I asked for directions, the typical response was, “Oh, that’s simple. You go to the turnabout at the bottom of the hill till you see an elm tree next to a big oak, and then you turn two miles before the church. You can’t miss it!” They underestimated me. When I finally reached Portsmouth, my buddy had already been wed and was called back to his ship in the harbor. I didn’t miss much. His bride was a beauty who, it soon turned out, wanted either a widow’s pension or a passport to America. He survived the war and they were promptly divorced in New York. The beauteous bride went off to Hollywood as she had planned. My roommate was one of many soldiers who learned to their sorrow that marriage in heat or haste can be a hazard of war.
It was not that I neglected my official duties as a supply sergeant to go sight-seeing around England—quite the contrary. I was known as a guy who could always get the job done. When, for example, practically all of the battalion field stoves failed to function, I discovered that it was usually only one particular part that was defective. The manufacturer, no doubt with connections to his congressman, was located near Kentucky. All broken stoves had to be shipped back there for repairs. It was estimated that it might take six months. I tracked down the freight cars full of broken field stoves waiting on a siding in England. With the use of a screwdriver, I quickly cannibalized the broken stoves, collected bags full of useable replacement parts, and returned to base in triumph. Without a functioning stove there could have been no hot meals on the battlefield. To think—they didn’t even give me a medal.
My most heroic achievement was when I was responsible for “wiping out” a whole battalion. It is not modesty but delicacy that gives me pause in telling the story. Since we were ready to invade France, and that was on the other side of the English Channel, the army figured out that we would have to cross a body of water. Being very meticulous and cautious planners, they concluded that all needed supplies had to be sealed in waterproof containers. That was done. There was no problem until we ran out of vital supplies and we were still on shore. In short, when the invasion was delayed, we desperately needed toilet paper. But it was all safely packed up, sealed, and stored in the bottom of the boats waiting in the harbors. What to do?
Calls to all the warehouses and supply depots in England were to no avail. No toilet paper on hand anywhere. Even the Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper (not the flag, thank God), were all gone down the clogged drains. The situation called for creative imagination. My superior officers told me a thousand times that I was not supposed to think. They insisted that I was in the army. All I had to do was to obey. Nevertheless, the evolutionary urge to use my little gray cells could no longer be repressed. This was urgent, this was an emergency, this was WAR!
From my vast army experience as an unskilled typist, I knew that the army would never run out of typing paper. The second sheets, disguised under the name of “manifold,” were used for carbon copies. Their thin and delicate texture was also suitable for other purposes. There were plenty of manifolds around and I raced out to get them. Then I found a butcher company that had big cleavers. I persuaded a few husky butchers to demonstrate their skill and they hacked each pack of manifolds into four squares with two strong whacks of a meat cleaver. With a truckload of improved toilet tissue, I returned to base in triumph. My whole battalion was saved from a fate worse than death. My rank wasn’t high enough for me to qualify for any special commendation.
Gradually we moved closer to the beach. At the very tip of England, at a place called Land’s End, our battalion was standing by for the long awaited invasion. I recall the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 that would become famous as D Day. I was on guard duty, as usual. I watched the sky turn black with planes. Many of them dragged one or two gliders behind them. I knew that the ships that I had seen clogging the harbors all along the British coast had set sail for the beaches of France. The tension of the waiting, the excitement of what was happening, and the knowledge that we were finally engaging a hated enemy caused a surprising sensation to rise in my breast. I let out a loud cheer. I wanted to be with the invading force.
Story 15: The Liberation of France
The time finally came for the 115th to shove off for France. The new headquarters company commander was an engineer from New York. He was one of those “seven-week-wonders” who had been rushed through Officer Candidates School to emerge as a Lieutenant. He inspected his company before boarding ship. He took a few of us aside. We were ordered to remain behind. To me he said, “We won’t be needing typists for a while. We’ll call you when we need you.” Those were the exact sentiments expressed by my dear mother when she urged me not to enlist.
Several days passed before I was notified in the holding area that I was to rejoin my outfit. I boarded the crowded landing craft and we zigzagged along the English coastline before starting a dash across the choppy channel heading for France. When we neared the French coast, the boat circled around and around in the turbulent seas. The vessel was navigated by an English sailor. The passengers were a bunch of seasick Americans in full battle gear. When the order to land finally came, the small craft raced toward the shore of what we later learned was “Omaha Beach.” The steel ramp at the bow was dropped into the water’s edge and the men tumbled out. For most, the water came no higher than their knees. For me, it came to my waist.
It so happened that at just about that time, the skies opened up in pouring rain. It was as though the heavens were weeping. The beach was fairly cleared by that time. There were plenty of sunken vessels around, but no bodies visible on the sand or in the water. I learned that the 115th was encamped on top of a ridge overlooking the sea. I made my way up the slippery hillside and reported for duty. I was immediately seized by a friend of mine, a HQ sergeant named “Starchy” North who was in a large hole manning a .50 caliber machine gun. “Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said, “I’ve been manning this (expletive) gun all by myself, and I need help.” So I jumped into the hole next to him, and we peered out together over the surrounding pile of sand that had been dug from the hole. “The Krauts may try a counterattack from the sea,” he said, “Watch out for them. I’m going back into that field to check out the farm houses for snipers.” He left, and I looked at the gun, and I looked at the sea.
Now, I must admit that I had never in my life fired a .50 caliber machine gun. I thought it might be prudent to figure out how it worked. The big bullets were already strung into the breech, and I managed to locate what seemed to be the trigger. I pointed the weapon toward the sea and fired. A fiery arc reached across the ocean and I could see the mark of the tracer bullets hitting the water. I knew that I could defend the mainland if the Germans attacked in a row boat. If their guns could outreach our .50 cal’s, I would be a dead duck. Fortunately, I spotted “Starchy” coming back. He wobbled a bit, but seemed cheery. In his hand he waved the remains of a bottle of Calvados, a local brew that looks like water and acts like rocket fuel. Suddenly, “Starchy” snapped to rigid attention, his heels clicking together, and his body falling like a felled tree, face down into the dirt. I wondered if he had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and was killed. I rolled him over. He was not dead—only dead drunk! The perils of war.
One of the most gratifying experiences of my life was to feel the gratitude and warmth of the French people who were liberated from German occupation by American troops. They cried and cheered when U.S. tanks rolled into town. They raced after every vehicle handing out flowers and wine to every soldier they could touch. In return, the doughboys tossed packs of cigarettes and candies to the welcoming crowds. It was a heartwarming and emotional demonstration of the value of freedom—which Americans as well as others too often take for granted. I have never forgotten it.
An illustration of that spirit can be found in the story of what happened in Luneville, a small city southwest of Paris. General Patton’s tanks had entered the town and the German army had retreated to the nearby woods. Their “Panzers” had a grater range than the American guns and they continued to fire into the town with impunity. I was posted to guard a bridge near the center of town and to stop civilians from trying to cross under enemy fire. Suddenly, a girl of about 20 appeared on a bicycle. I stopped her and warned her that the bridge was under attack and was not passable. Despite shells falling all around, she ignored the danger and tore away, saying she had to get home. By chance, I met her again the next day.
We were billeted in a barrack that had just been evacuated by the German army. Directly across from our Kaserne was a small building that doubled as a school house and residence. The girl taught kindergarten there, and lived with her father, a professor at the University of Nancy. When she passed by my post as a guard at the gate of the Kaserne, I recognized her and scolded her for having run such risks the day before. She apologized and, since I spoke French, she invited me to celebrate “liberation day” with her family.
The following evening, I came as their guest, carrying as many delicacies as I could borrow from the company kitchen. I was puzzled by the large hole that went right through the house. The father explained that as the German army was retreating, he fired at them with an old rusty machine gun he had hidden in the cellar. The “Boche” took a dim view of that and fired back with the artillery shell that missed his head but pierced his home. That explained the unusual ventilation.
“Luneville Liberation Day” was a festive occasion. “Papa” had caught a rabbit and even had two eggs. There were flowers and wine and fruits and my U.S. army rations for the hosts. We sang French songs and offered toasts for the Allied armies. As we neared the end of festivities, the Professor went down to the basement with a shovel. He dug up two boxes. One was filled with French coins. The Germans had ordered all metal to be turned in to be melted down for munitions. The Professor had collected as many coins as he could. Instead of turning them in, he had buried them in his cellar. His act of sabotage cost him his money and might have cost him his life.
The second box contained two bottles of champagne. We went back upstairs and broke open one of the bottles. We drank a toast to the Americans and to the liberation of France. The second bottle, he said, would be put back in the box and returned to the cellar. It would only be opened when, and if, “le petit Benjamin” came back after the war. Of course, I returned and we all shared the last bottle of champagne together. It touched my heart.
Not every story had such a happy ending. I recall the breakout from the beachhead at Normandy after the American army was pinned down for weeks. We had control of the air, but the Germans were strongly dug in at St. Lo, where all roads crossed. No advance would be possible without breaching that strongly fortified barrier. One day, the 115th was ordered to move to the outskirts of St. Lo and be ready to roll. Soon, the sky was darkened by long waves of our “Flying Fortress” bombers as far as the eye could see. The massive bombs fell like heavy hail soaking the city below. Although I must have been several kilometers away, the ground shook so fiercely that I could not stand. We all lay flat and watched as St. Lo was pummeled into ruin. When the order came to “Start rolling!” our trucks and guns could find no road; and no house or building was left standing. The French city of St. Lo was reduced to a pile of rubble. I still wonder how many innocent human beings lay buried beneath those smoldering ruins.
On one of my trips around the countryside, I visited the Chateau at Blois, featured in one of my guidebooks. While admiring the grandeur of the building, I heard shots being fired in the courtyard. I peered around a wall cautiously and saw what appeared to be German soldiers firing rifles toward a field. A closer look revealed that beneath those German helmets were civilian Frenchmen, wearing FFI brassards identifying themselves as members of the resistance French Forces. They had donned helmets taken from Germans and were firing at a distant German artillery encampment. It was obvious, even to me, that the Germans were outside the range of the old rifles held by the courageous resistance fighters. Meanwhile German mortar shells kept exploding in the courtyard where they were hiding and where I was studying the architecture. Fortunately, some American jeeps were patrolling the area. I alerted them to the situation. They signaled the air corps and it didn’t take long before the problem was solved. It was Auf Wiedersehen to the German gunners!
Story 16: Advancing Into Germany
If young men are to be trained to kill on command they must first by taught not to think. Countless times, when I politely let it be known to my army superiors that I thought a military mandate was particularly stupid, I was screamed at with the warning, “You’re not supposed to think!” I must confess that I found that very difficult to do. It was not that I was trying to outsmart anyone, it was all a matter of self-defense. A rational human being whose mind is under assault can be expected to react to retain his freedom of thought, if not his sanity. The first article of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right of every citizen to “petition for a redress of grievances”—my right to complain is protected by the U.S. Constitution! He who commands me not to think is challenging my rights as a citizen and should beware.
There were many times in my undistinguished army career that my patriotic fervor was aroused. The usual official response to my effort to improve the army was, “Let’s court martial the (expletive)!” Since my commanding officers in the artillery usually lacked the rudiments of legal education or human intelligence, they never succeeded in their ambition to send me to prison forever. A few examples will illustrate my point.
It is well known that the U.S. Army is not the greatest haberdasher in the world. Raincoats start at size “Extra Tall.” My body ends at size “Extra Short.” For me, this actually turned out to be an advantage. One rainy day, I was standing guard and reading one of the Pocket Books distributed by the Red Cross to keep soldiers from going mad. Along came a vehicle clearly marked as a General’s staff car. It might have been the mighty Patton himself. I quickly waived him through into the camp area. I even remembered to salute. I was therefore surprised when, shortly thereafter, I was summoned to appear and answer the charge that I had been seen sitting on duty in violation of sacred army regulations. No threat was made that I would face a firing squad but a court martial was assured. Calling upon my legal acumen, I demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that while I was wearing my army raincoat it was utterly impossible for anyone in a passing vehicle to detect whether I was sitting or standing. Case dismissed!
That raincoat proved very handy on other occasions. I recall a time when I was required to stand guard duty on the German border in the freezing cold. I can think of more entertaining things than crouching immobile for four hours in the snow on a dark and stormy night peering into the darkness for any sign of enemy movement or to see if I could spot someone trying to kill me. I wore every bit of clothing the army supplied. I also carried a canteen and wore a cartridge belt. Using an old ration can containing some gasoline, I started a fire in the can on which I placed my canteen cup half filled with water. From my cartridge belt I withdrew not a bullet that could take life, but something to save a life—especially mine. Half of my cartridge belt was loaded with bullion cubes borrowed from the kitchen. Drop the cube into the water and what have you got? Hot chicken soup! As far as I know, there is no army regulation that prohibits drinking hot soup when you are freezing. Lighting a fire on a dark night in face of the enemy is another story. For that you can get shot from both sides. My good old army raincoat came to the rescue. I wrapped it around myself and around the can of burning fuel. No one could possibly detect any sign of life or light. I certainly would never have done anything to endanger my comrades. Since no one was the wiser, I was not even threatened with a firing squad. If I had not acted in my own self-defense, I probably would have turned into an icicle.
One day we were surprised to receive an unusual shipment of Scotch. The commandant declared that each officer was entitled to one bottle. Each enlisted man was rationed to one tablespoon poured into his mess cup. When one of the officers, a friendly chap, Captain Sloop of North Carolina, accidentally shot himself in the toe, all further distribution of liquor to the enlisted men was immediately halted. This failure to provide equal treatment so violated my sense of justice that I promptly sought ways to correct the imbalance.
We were encamped not far from a town where I had noticed an ice cream parlor. I had located the owner who explained that he couldn’t produce ice cream because he lacked the necessary sugar and vanilla bean extract. I recalled that our supply room had boxes of genuine “Imitation Vanilla Flavor,” and one tablet could produce a gallon. We had plenty of sugar. I borrowed an adequate supply of both and made a deal with the dealer. I gave him the missing supplies in exchange for which he could keep half of what he produced. I wanted enough to feed a battalion of 1500 men. In due course, I loaded a truck and delivered gallons of delicious sweet vanilla ice cream to each of the four companies of the 115th. It was a very welcomed touch of home. My instruction to the cooks was that every enlisted man would first get a good portion of the treat and the rest could then go to the officers—one tablespoon at a time.
I was not a man to be soon forgotten. To maintain the morale of the troops, the bulletin board carried an announcement that Good Conduct medals had been awarded to the men. The list of those so decorated was the complete roster of every man in the battalion. Only one name was crossed out, in bright red ink. It was mine! It was my proudest moment. I was curious to know what I had done to earn such a rare distinction. I called upon the captain and told him that I was flattered to be singled out, but I would be grateful for an explanation. His reply was, “The Colonel remembered the incident with the cooking.”
You see, not too long before the posting of the awards, the colonel had posted a different bulletin on the board. “There shall be no more individual cooking in the area!” That mandate had been prompted by the fact that many soldiers had, from time to time, managed to acquire some fresh eggs from local French farmers. Like my ice cream, it was a relief from the canned goods and powdered stuff that passed for army food. In due course, the bivouac area was intermittently strewn with egg shells. But, after all, we were at war, we were a rapidly advancing outfit, and the shells were biodegradable. The Colonel may have wanted to impress General Patton with his neatness but he sure didn’t impress me. So I exercised my constitutional rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I persuaded some French friends to get me a raw chicken in exchange for more glamorous edibles. I borrowed potatoes and pots from the kitchen, set them up on a field stove in the supply tent and began to cook a chicken supper to which I invited three of my enlisted men friends. The meal was almost ready when the captain passed through the tent but said nothing. A few minutes later, he came back and said we were all to report immediately to the colonel. No sooner did we appear, salute and line up before the commanding officer than he began his tirade. “Did you men see that sign about individual cooking?” Realizing what caused us to appear, I promptly said, “Sir, these men were my guests. They had nothing to do with it. The responsibility is all mine.” “Good” he said, “the rest of you are dismissed.”
Then he began to work me over. “Do you know what it means, soldier, to disobey an order in time of war?” “Yes, Sir” came my meek reply. “I’m going to make an example of you, soldier! You have defied my orders for the last time.” I began to wonder if he planned to shoot me. “I am going to have you court-martialed to teach you what it means to disobey a commanding officer in time of war!” I replied softly, “I wouldn’t do that, Sir, if I were you.” “Why not?” he bellowed. “Well, Sir,” I replied gently,” I would never disobey your order at any time. The order said ‘No individual cooking.’ You could see from my guests, who would be witnesses, that it was group cooking—and that was not prohibited.” There was silence. He seemed to be thinking over what I said. It finally sank in. He turned red, then white, then blue. A real patriot. Then he screamed at the top of his voice, “Get out of here! Get out! Get out!” I ran. And that’s how I lost my Good Conduct medal.
Story 17: Farewell Artillery, Hello General Patton
During combat, the army did not have much use for lawyers. They didn’t quite know what to do with me, even after they had studied all of their manuals on how to torture the enemy. This gave rise to a relationship that was not known as mutual love. It would more appropriately be described as mutual hate.
Let me make clear at the outset that I much admired the ingenuity of the American GI. When we landed on the beaches in Normandy, our Sherman tanks were stopped in their tracks as they tried to mount the high hedgerows. The unarmed underbelly of the tank was thereby exposed to the Germans concealed and waiting on the other side of the earthen mound. Many a tank crew was roasted before some inventive farm boy, who was used to tractors, came to the rescue. By welding segments of steel railroad tracks along the sides and front of a tank it was converted into a big pitchfork on wheels. It cut through the massive mounds as easily as picking up a pork chop. Another farm boy attached long steel chains alongside of the front wheels of a tank. As the armored vehicles rolled forward, the chains lashed forward and beat the ground ahead of it. Hidden land mines were thereby exploded in front of, rather than under, the tank, and we could advance. God bless Americans!
This is not to suggest that everything done by the U.S. Military was a product of pure genius. The opposite was often the case. I do not know how many German planes were shot down by the .90 mm cannons of the 115th Gun Battalion, but I do know that when our gunners hit a plane, it was usually British or American. Of course, the Air Corps had devised a foolproof system to prevent that from happening. Allied planes were supposedly all equipped with modern techniques to identify friend from foe. By pressing the daily code into the “IFF” system (for some mysterious reason the Pentagon always prefers to talk in acronyms), a signal was sent to the ground to show that it was not an enemy plane. As might have been anticipated, the new secret system didn’t work very well. Either someone forgot the code, or entered the wrong numbers, or forgot to activate the defensive gadget, or it was rendered nonfunctional because the plane was limping home from a mission where it was hit, or any of many other similar accidents that might have been anticipated. I learned that anyone who relies on a “foolproof system” is a fool.
When a plane came within reach of our radar, our gun batteries automatically went into “remote control.” The Germans had learned to fool that foolproof system by dropping strips of aluminum foil. Our radar and guns would pick up the decoy and shoot in all directions—except at the target. An unsuspecting allied plane had no such complicated defenses as a piece of aluminum paper. They were like sitting ducks as our guns fired as they had been programmed to do. Allied aircraft, often returning still carrying bombs or ammunition, were blown to smithereens. Our tracer bullets reaching for the planes, and the ensuing “fireworks” that exploded into the sky left a painful image in my mind.
Those of us who were not manning the guns fanned out over the terrain desperately and hopelessly searching for survivors. I carried a cardboard carton into which I sadly placed pieces of a finger or a clump of hair that might help to identify a human body so we could notify the next of kin. I don’t want to be considered unpatriotic and I hope I will be forgiven, but “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” evoke memories I would rather forget. Like many veterans of war, I never go to any celebrations where fireworks are featured.
I do not really believe that all army officers are ignorant, mean, and rotten. But a Warrant Officer named Harvey Bligh, temporarily assigned to our HQ, fully deserved all of those titles. Our first encounter was when he mistook me for his personal valet. He directed me to find a cleaner for his trousers whose front had been badly stained during his previous night’s festivities. I told him politely that it was not in my job description. He later ordered me to dig a foxhole for him, get his bedroll off the truck, and assemble his tent. I replied, “Yes, Sir.” What I was thinking was even more succinct. I found his heavy bedroll and unfurled the wide strap that held it together. I gently pulled it off the truck and dropped it in the mud. Could I help it if the ground was soft and covered with grease from the guns and vehicles? I then dragged the heavy load to the hole I had dug. I upholstered the mess with a layer of soft mud and then pushed the grease covered pack into the morass. When the Warrant Officer returned he let out a wild scream and began to curse me furiously. I explained quietly that the bag was too heavy for me to carry but I always tried my best to carry out his orders.
Mr. Bligh sought his revenge soon enough. One night he was on duty in the HQ barrack and I was the orderly. “O.K. soldier,” he said, “sweep the floor.” I did. “Do it again!” came the command. I did. “You’re a Harvard man,” he said, “you can do better than that.” I did it again. “OK, Jew Boy, do it again!” After repeated goading I had about reached the limit of my endurance. I was sorely tempted to use the broomstick in ways he never intended or desired.
In the next letter home to my sweetheart, I reported in detail about my heroic restraint. I knew that the mail would be censored and I waited to deposit it in the outgoing box until there would be a Captain on duty whom I knew to be a decent chap. The Captain, named Klatte, copied the address of my “intended” and sent her a letter. When she received an official communication from an unknown Captain of the 115th, she feared it was the standard notification that I had been killed in action. She wrote to me that she nearly fainted. She was relieved that it was not condolences over my demise but only condolence for the abuse I had so bravely taken without striking back. The kind and considerate Captain was truly an officer and a gentleman; he left the 115th by volunteering to command a battalion of black soldiers.
By the time we approached the German border, reports of German atrocities were widespread. President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and Marshal Stalin issued joint declarations promising that the Nazi leaders responsible for these terrible crimes against humanity would have to stand trial before an allied court. One day, much to my surprise, I was called in and handed an order saying that Corporal Ferencz was being transferred out of the 115th AAA Gun Battalion and assigned to the Judge Advocate Section of General Patton’s Third Army HQ. I was very happy to say goodbye to the artillery. What brought about this sudden attack of sanity on the part of the army, I may never know.
I suspect that following the Allied Leaders Declaration, the army brass in Washington turned to a Harvard professor for help. Professor Sheldon Glueck was the most eminent criminologist in America. He was writing a book on war crimes, and when I was his research assistant in 1942, I had summarized every book in the Harvard Law Library that related to war crimes. We remained in contact, and I believe that he gave my name to the army when they turned to him for help.
En route to my new assignment, I spent some days in a town near Luxembourg. I was billeted on Adolf Hitler Strasse, and the army canteen was right across the street. Crowds of hungry looking kids carrying tin cans would wait outside and beg for food. The GIs customarily poured their coffee and uneaten food into a garbage can for burial. I arranged to have the children come with two clean cans for leftovers. The soldiers readily agreed to pour leftover coffee into one can and leftover food into the other. The hungry children were able to take some food home for parents who had just been freed from Nazi domination and who were too proud to beg. An easy way to “win the hearts and minds….”
When I reported to the Judge Advocate Section of Third Army in Luxembourg around December 1944, I was greeted by a Lt. Colonel Joseph who confirmed that my name had been forwarded by Washington. He said that they had received orders to set up a war crimes branch. In the course of his normal military duties, the kindly officer had never been trained to deal with foreign persecutions and similar crimes against humanity. He asked in all seriousness, “Tell me Corporal, what is a war crime?” My hour had finally come!
Story 18: An Entertaining Tale
It is axiomatic that the dirtiest jobs in the army are assigned to the man of lowest rank. "Rank has it's privileges" is a sacred slogan. Since the Judge Advocate Section of the US army is populated by officers and I was only a lowly corporal, it was inevitable that the honor of cleaning the officer's toilets was granted to me. Let me be clear; I never objected to doing any job that I knew had to be done by someone but I also sought means to convert adversity to opportunity. And so it was when I encountered Marlene Dietrich.
We had fought our way into Germany and General Patton's Headquarters was located in a large building on the outskirts of Munich. Troop morale was sustained by occasional visits from famous Hollywood performers who came to cheer up the boys at the front. One morning, I was surprised to learn that Marlene Dietrich was to pay us such a visit. When she appeared on the floor where I was doing valued latrine duty, she was shown to a room that had a real bathtub . I was instructed to see that her bath was not disturbed. After waiting a reasonable time,- to be sure that she was at least in the tub- and eager to do my duty, I simply walked into the room where she sat calmly immersed only in her splendor, "Oh, pardon me Sir", I said, as I beat a hasty retreat.
I stood guard at the door until she came out. I apologized for the intrusion. She smiled and said she enjoyed my calling her "Sir". We both laughed and she asked where I was from etc. When I explained that I was a Harvard lawyer she was amazed at my assignment as an orderly and invited me to join her at the luncheon planned by the officers. Since fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel was prohibited in the US and British army I suggested that she might describe me as an old friend from her home town (Europe) and insist that I accompany her. And so she did. My legal training came in handy.
I sat opposite her at lunch an she gave me her calling card which also bore the title of her latest film DESTRY RIDE AGAIN! She rather hinted that she would rather chat with me than with the dozen officers who sat around the table. But when the lunch was over, she went to the end of the table to thank General Patton who then escorted her away.. "Rank has its privileges.".
Story 19: Trials by U.S. Military Commissions
Christmas, 1944, was celebrated at General Patton’s HQ in Luxembourg, and of course, we received the mandatory Christmas rations for the boys overseas. As we shaped up on the chow line, our mess plates were filled with slabs of cold turkey. That introductory repast was immediately buried to keep it warm under a pile of cool mashed potatoes. The yellow sweet yams were smothered in cranberry sauce. The entire mound was then drowned in a brown substance called gravy, into which was thrown a generous mixture of hard candies and assorted nuts. The nutritious and supposedly delicious pyramid was then crowned with a big cigar plunged into the top of the pile. The army would go to any lengths to make us feel at home.
The Germans were not quite as festive. Much to the surprise of the Allied commanders, the Nazis had launched a major counter assault through the Ardennes forest, hoping to cut off all access to our supply ports in Belgium. German soldiers wearing U.S. uniforms had misdirected U.S. forces and soon units of the 101st Airborne Division found themselves encircled in a trap at Bastogne in Belgium. When the Germans called upon the U.S. Commander, General McAuliffe, to surrender, he instead acquired world fame with his audacious one word retort, “Nuts!” As should have been expected, the somewhat puzzled Germans continued to hammer the beleaguered American troops. Foul weather prevented our air corps from coming to the rescue. Patton gave the order, “Every man who can carry a gun, get going to Bastogne! Now!!” That included me.
As we raced north to the front, I was jammed into an open truck crowded with other shivering soldiers preparing for what became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Bits of paper were stuffed into the barrels of our M 1 rifles to keep out the snow and pouring rain. We were warned not to leave the vehicles since all roads and adjacent areas had been thoroughly mined by the meticulous Krauts. I learned an important lesson: never piss against the wind or you may get it in the face.
Before we could reach our destination, the weather cleared and the air corps went to work. By the time we arrived, Bastogne was totally destroyed. The Belgian inhabitants who survived were dazed and desolate. Their homes were in ruins. German prisoners of war were being transported to the rear. There was total chaos in the battered city. In a bombed-out basement, some of the guys from Patton’s HQ found what they thought were cases of wine. To me it tasted like vinegar. Victory had to be celebrated. A few hungry young Belgian ladies eagerly accepted the invitation to join in the festivities. A party was arranged in the pitch black cellar that was gaily decorated with an American flag on the wall and U.S. army blankets on the floor. The weary soldiers drank the vinegar to lift their spirits, and they did whatever they could to console the ladies in their hour of need.
When we returned to HQ in Luxembourg, we heard rumors that American soldiers captured in the town of Malmedy had been brutally murdered by their Nazi captors. There was no time to delay for legal considerations. With our flank secured, Patton’s tanks continued their relentless drive eastward in pursuit of German forces retreating back to their homeland. Intelligence sources reported to HQ that Allied flyers that were shot down, or who parachuted into German territory were being systematically murdered on the ground. That was clearly a crime in violation of the laws and customs of war. It was time for the U.S. to respond to the breach of international law.
The Judge Advocate Section of Third Army Headquarters at that time consisted of about five Lt. Colonels led by Colonel Charles Cheever, who was required to have legal training. Their normal duties consisted of sitting in judgment at courts martial when U.S. soldiers were accused of violating the military manual proscribing impermissible conduct. The typical charge was desertion, absence without leave (AWOL), attempted rape, robbery, insubordination, and similar offenses. Officers could be charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer,” the exact meaning of which was unspecified and officers were usually acquitted. Judges, Prosecutors, and Defense Counsel were all officers appointed by the Commanding Officer. Such proceedings frequently lasted no more than a few minutes.
I soon made it clear to my Lt. Col. that if we were to cope with the incoming reports of war crimes, it would be necessary to find men who had more familiarity with law and the type of crimes that were being committed against American soldiers. It did not take long before reinforcements arrived. I was in my office when a soldier appeared and saluted. He was completely covered with mud and had a rifle slung over his back. “Private Jack Nowitz, reporting Sir,” he said. “Sit down, soldier,” I said, “I’m only a Corporal, and you don’t have to salute me. Who are you?” It turned out that he was a Yale law graduate, had practiced law in Connecticut, and spoke several languages. He was told to be under my direct command, and I was the only on who had any idea about what he was supposed to do. His past military service had focused on digging ditches for the Corps of Engineers.
As reports began to pour in about the murder of allied flyers by civilians on the ground, Corporal Ferencz, assisted by his able comrade Private Nowitz, sprang into action. After some initial joint investigations, we each took different routes. A typical investigation began with an intelligence report that a U.S. flyer or flyers had been captured on the ground and had then been beaten to death by a German mob. I would proceed by jeep to the scene of the crime, summon the Burgermeister, or police chief, if one was around, and order that all civilians within a hundred yards of the scene be assembled. The only authority I had was the .45 caliber gun around my waist and the fact that the U.S. Army was swarming all over town. Under such circumstances, Germans are very obedient, and I do not recall ever encountering any resistance.
In a typical easy case, the assembled witnesses would be told, with help of a commandeered “interpreter” that they were to sit down and write out an exact report of what had happened. The form I had prepared began with a declaration, in German, that the witness swore to tell the whole truth under penalty of death. (This became known as “the Ferencz Miranda Rule.”) After listening to the English translation of a dozen or more of such affidavits, there emerged a clear picture of the event. I knew exactly by whom, when, and where the crime had been committed and usually where the dead bodies might be found. I would then return to HQ and write a full report. It gave a complete description of the crime, the laws of war that were violated, the name and addresses of the important witnesses (whom I had placed under “house arrest”), and the name of the criminal suspects whose names were put on a list of persons wanted for immediate apprehension and trial. But cases weren’t always that simple.
If I knew where the body was, it would be important to get photos and positive identification. The victim would often be in a shallow grave. I was never any good at digging. I did not dare to use a pickax lest I be unable to distinguish it from a stab wound or bullet hole. So I devised my own technique. If I could locate the cadaver by digging with my hands, and tie a rope around at least one ankle, I could attach the other end to the jeep and slowly extract the body with fingerprints intact for positive identification by the Quartermaster corps that was summoned to remove the dead soldier. Under these very difficult circumstances I tried to treat the deceased with every possible respect. This somber duty has always laid heavy on my mind, and I was always grateful that I was only the investigator, and not the victim.
Sometimes the results of my investigations were surprising. I recall the case of three flyers shot down and killed on the ground by a mob. The criminals had the usual excuse that they were acting under orders from Berlin to treat all bombardiers as war criminals. I tracked down the names and identification numbers from Gestapo records in the area where the crimes occurred. I then discovered that the flyers had been dumped in a hole at the edge of the local cemetery. I had to threaten the warder with having him dig up the entire cemetery before he would reveal the burial site. I washed the bodies down with pails of water and found the ID numbers of two of them on the inside of their fatigues, as required by the army. The third person was completely naked. He had a crew cut and looked like a typical American boy. I reported to the Adjutant General that he could notify the next of kin that the three men had been murdered and their bodies found.
Several months later, when the perpetrators of those crimes were on trial before a Third U.S. Army Military Commission, I learned by chance that the dead flyer who was naked with no ID, was in fact, alive and well in the United States. I suggested that he be interrogated to see if he had some clue regarding the misidentified third man. I never found out the answer. It taught me to never again rely on circumstantial evidence—and I never did.
It was spring of 1944 and the German army was on the run. The front was moving very rapidly. Patton’s tanks kept rolling as Allied troops kept battering their way toward Berlin from all sides. The freezing German army had surrendered at Stalingrad. It must have been obvious to all Germans that the war was lost, yet they fought on, frantically hoping their Fuhrer would save them. “My country, right or wrong” was a recipe for disaster. The day of reckoning was rapidly approaching.
At Third Army HQ, reinforcements began to arrive for the new War Crimes Section of the Judge Advocate’s Office. Three qualified enlisted men, none above the rank of Corporal, joined Private Nowitz and I. A Warrant Officer, Morris Wright, who had been a good lawyer in Atlanta before he entered the army as a Private, also joined the staff. Two Dutchmen, Jan Fenijn and Jan Black, were to serve as interpreters. Five new officers, Majors and Lt. Colonels, were also assigned. Almost all had been tank commanders, and now were suffering from what appeared to me to be alcoholism or shell-shock. They were sent to the JAG non-fighting unit as a substitute for standard “R&R” (Recreation and Rehabilitation). Some of them were usually sober enough to sign the reports prepared by the enlisted men.
A message was received from the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) that a captured American airman had been killed on the ground by an enraged mob in the town of Gross Gerau near Frankfurt. I was assigned to investigate. It was a typical “murder of Allied flyer” case. Two days after an Allied bombing raid, an American plane had been hit, and one of the crewmen who parachuted out was captured and then bludgeoned to death. One of the witnesses described how her own daughter had repeatedly beaten the flyer on the head with a shoe. She said she had tried unsuccessfully to call off her daughter, since that was no way for a German girl to behave. I located the daughter. She was an attractive young woman who explained through her tears that during the bombing raid her two children had been killed. She admitted that in her grief and rage she had joined the mob. It seemed that the fatal blow had been struck by a local fireman using a crowbar. Since the woman seemed remorseful, I simply placed her under house arrest. The truth is, I felt sorry for her. Then I went out to get the fireman who had boasted to the crowd that he loved being covered with American blood.
When I banged on the door of the fireman’s home, a woman answered. Her husband, she said, was not there and she didn’t know where he was. I searched the house. He was gone. “Do you do his laundry?” I asked. “Of course,” came the proud reply. She admitted that she had washed the shirt soaked with American blood. I took her sworn statement and the shirt as evidence. Several months later, as I was preparing to leave the army, I dropped in at the Gross-Gerau war crimes trial being conducted by a Third Army Military Commission. Among perhaps a dozen defendants, I recognized both the fireman and the pretty young mother whose children had been killed in the raid. The fireman was sentenced to death. When the young woman’s sentence of two years imprisonment was announced, she fainted in the prisoner’s dock. I asked the medic who came to her aid whether she was OK. He said she was fine, but she was pregnant from one of the U.S. solders assigned to guard her. Strange things happen in times of war.
Not every German deserved to be treated as a criminal. It was raining when we entered the bombed out city of Frankfurt. My jeep skidded on a pile of rubble and brushed against an old woman who jumped out of the way. She was moaning bitterly as I picked her up. There was no apparent injury and I asked her, in broken German, whether she was hurt. She dusted herself off but her tears continued to flow. I asked her gently if I could help. “I cannot find my husband,” said the old lady. She explained desperately that they had been together when the bombs hit and she feared he might be buried under the rubble. I put her in the jeep and took her to the military government office where a “missing persons” list was being compiled—they might have some information. I left her in the long line of other anxious old ladies also waiting and searching. Whether she ever found her husband I will never know.
Intelligence reports had started to come in that some of the advancing troops were running into large groups of starving people being guarded by the SS. When I reported to Lt. Colonel Joseph, I was surprised to see that he wore a brand new set of shining eagles on his epaulets. “Corporal,” he said to me, pointing proudly to his shoulder, “I know that my promotion is due largely to your work. In appreciation, I am promoting you to Sergeant!” He then reached across his desk and handed me a set of three new stripes. The Colonel had come up in the army the hard way, and for him it was a crowning moment. Being promoted meant nothing to me. “Sir,” I said, “I’m sorry, but as you know, I have been trying to do my job without wearing any insignia or reference to rank. If it be known that I am only a sergeant, I will be unable to do the things that must be done. My only wish now is to get into the concentration camps that our army is liberating. Major war crimes are occurring and I know how to prove it. These stripes would only be a handicap.” At that point I slowly dropped his gift into the wastepaper basket. I could see that he was stunned. After some reflection, he promised to give me a free hand to pursue my goal. I’m sure that he never forgave me. I don’t blame him. I owe him an apology.
A large war map on my wall tracked the advances of our army and the location of known Nazi concentration camps. My assignment was to get into the camps as soon as possible and assemble whatever evidence was needed to prove beyond doubt the nature and extent of the atrocities committed. I knew that I would have to rely on help from the advancing troops. I therefore typed out an official authorization saying that I was entitled to interrogate any suspects, enter any premises, and do all things necessary to carry out a war crimes assignment. All units and commanders were directed to give me every possible assistance. It was signed “On behalf of the Commanding General” well known to all as the ferocious Patton. I then found an officer to sign it. I think he was sober at the time. To make it even more impressive, I stamped “Secret” at the top and bottom. Officially classified as a Jeep driver, I had the front of my vehicle painted in bold letters with the German words “IMMER ALLEIN,” meaning “always alone,” as I prepared to pursue Nazi criminals single-handed like the Lone Ranger.
Story 20: Investigating Nazi Concentration Camps
Nazi camps were identified by the name of their location and the nature of their mission. Official correspondence was filed under a code that identified both the town and function. Some were work camps (Arbeitslager), some were general concentration camps (KZs or Konzentrationslager). To make sure there was no mistaking their function, some were clearly labeled “Extermination Camps” (Vernichtungslager). Orders to all camps came from the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin.
It must have been around April 1944 when Third Army HQ War Crimes Section received a report that a tank battalion had stumbled upon a scene of horror. It was in a small town called Ohrdruf. Hundreds of dead bodies, naked or clad only in tattered rags that looked like pajamas, had been found in a large area encircled by barbed wire. Many others seemed to be on the verge of starvation or death. I hopped into my jeep and raced to the scene. Signal Corps photographers were already there. A medical unit was administering first aid. I collected photographic evidence from the signal corps and continued to search for more proof of what had happened. Very few of the survivors were in condition to report coherently. The SS guards had fled before the advancing American army. I learned that Ohrdruf was only one of many Nazi slave labor camps in the area that were controlled by the main camp at Buchenwald. I took off for Buchenwald, near Weimar.
The Buchenwald concentration camp was a charnel house of indescribable horrors. General Eisenhower himself had shown up to view the incredible scene of death and inhumanity deliberately imposed by the Nazis on helpless civilians. He noted that American soldiers could now see why they had to leave home to fight in Germany. These scenes have been adequately depicted in media reports and histories, and do not need painful repeating here. There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes investigator of Nazi extermination centers. I still try not to talk or think about the details.
I went on to investigate many concentration camps, and they were all basically similar: dead bodies strewn across the camp grounds, piles of skin and bones cadavers piled up like cordwood before the burning crematoria, helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, TB, pneumonia, and other ailments, retching in their louse ridden bunks or on the ground with only their pathetic eyes pleading for help. Few had enough strength to muster a smile of gratitude. My mind would not accept what my eyes saw. It built a protective barrier to enable me to go on with my work in what seemed an incredible nightmare. I had peered into Hell.
My first target on entering a Concentration Camp was always to secure the records of the camp. In the “Schreibstube,” the camp office, I located the “Totenbucher,” the death registries recording the names of inmates who had perished in the camp. After each name, a date and cause of death was given. The reasons stated were obviously fictitious. There would be pages listing the same excuses: typhoid, or the popular “auf den flucht erschosssen”—shot while trying to escape. The most accurate English translation of the causes of death would have been just plain “murdered.”
Correspondence between Berlin and the KZ auxiliary camps showed how many prisoners had arrived on which transports, from which countries, where they had been re-routed for labor, and how many had been returned to Buchenwald or Auschwitz to be “eliminated” when they were no longer fit for work. There was plenty of evidence available to prove beyond doubt that atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in the camp. Lamp shades made of human skin, to please the SS Commandant’s wife, Ilsa Koch (later tried and convicted as “The Bitch of Buchenwald”), was only a sample. I took back with me two small black shrunken heads with full manes of human hair still on the scalp. The press, of course, widely distributed the photos, reporting that they had been prisoners in Buchenwald, whose shrunken heads were kept by SS officers as ornaments. Proof that crimes had occurred was only the beginning of my task. To prosecute the offenders, you must know the identity of the perpetrator and he must also be in custody. There must be a court competent to try the accused. Until all of these vital components are in place, you cannot have justice. All you have is endless rage and sorrow.
One of the inmates who worked in the Schreibstube at Buchenwald, approached me soon after I entered the camp. I believe he was a French national who had fought in the Spanish civil war. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. He then led me to a spot near the electrified fence that surrounded the KZ. He dug up a small wooden box, which he handed to me. The SS men in the camp had formed a club where they could come and drink their beer and frolic. Each had a membership folder showing his photo, date of birth, home address, and similar personal particulars. Every attendance at the club was marked by placing a stamp on the back page. When the folder was filled, a replacement had to be issued. My anonymous inmate friend had to prepare the new identity document. Instead of destroying the old ones, as directed, he secretly hid each one. He must have known that every time he did so he was risking his life. His “gift” to me was priceless evidence in identifying perpetrators and accomplices. His outstanding courage marked the faith, shared by many other suffering victims, that there would one day be a day of reckoning when justice would be done.
On my way to the next liberated camp, I met some advance units of the Red Army that had occupied a German house. Soviet troops were closing in on Weimar in Eastern Germany. I was immediately embraced and pushed into a celebration already in progress. A glass of what I suppose was Vodka, or gasoline, was thrust into my hand. Everyone was stomping and dancing joyfully. A burly Soviet soldier, with pants stuffed into big black boots, grabbed me, lifted me off my feet and started swinging me around the room. It was only when I was put down that I realized that my dancing partner was a woman. The Soviet Army included females as well as males, but it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. One of the Russian soldiers asked me what I did in the American army. I told him I was a war crimes investigator. I explained that I tried to get evidence of what the SS did. “Don’t you know what they did?” he asked. I said that, of course, I did. “So why are you asking them?” he said quizzically. “Just shoot them!” In later years, when it became clear that we could never try more than a very small sampling of the criminals, and that almost all would escape punishment, I often thought of the advice I got from the simple Russian soldier. Being a lawman, I couldn’t accept it, but I often wondered if he was right.
German resistance was now crumbing. The British were moving down from the North, the Americans from the West, and the Soviets from the East. Patton’s forces swept South to Bavaria and set up Headquarters in Munich. I was running back and forth from the field to deliver my reports to the JAG office; and would then rush off toward other concentration camps that were being liberated. From time to time, I would follow a trail of inmates’ bodies in the woods—those who had been hounded out of the camps and killed along the way when they could not keep up with the forced escape march. On May 1, 1945, I found myself witnessing a celebration in a Nazi concentration camp. I think it was at Flossenberg near the Czech border. A big wooden tribune had been erected in the center, with painted portraits of Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. The liberated inmates were all lined up in national groups to march in a traditional May Day parade. There were Czech flags and Polish flags and Russian flags and French flags, but I noticed one particularly emaciated group assembling without any flag. I asked one of the inmates who they were. “Oh,” he said, “those are the Jews.” Jewish inmates, who had no national flag, were segregated out—even in liberated concentration camps.
The camp at Mauthausen in Austria was particularly brutal. Slave laborers were being worked to death in a large quarry. Those who could no longer carry the heavy stones were simply thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below, where piles of human bones were drying in the sun. Disease was so rampant that it was always dangerous for me to spend a night in a camp. I drove to nearby Linz, a beautiful city on the Danube. I found an apartment that I learned was inhabited by a Nazi family and ordered the occupants to get out. I moved in with a few buddies. The dresser drawers still concealed old Nazi flags and song books. A portrait of Adolf Hitler adorned the walls—but not for long.
The next morning, before returning to the camp, I emptied all of the clothing in the closets of our now partly demolished apartment and put them in my jeep to deliver them to near-naked Mauthausen inmates. That evening a young woman who had been the previous tenant came knocking at the door. She wanted to know if she could take out some of her clothing. I said “Help yourself!” When she looked at the empty closet she began to howl in German, “All of my clothing has been stolen! My clothing has been stolen!” I was in no mood to be called a thief by any German. I told her she could go with me and we could get her clothing back. I grabbed her by the wrist and half dragged her down to my jeep. I told her that I had taken her clothing to Mauthausen and distributed them to ragged and starving females who worked in that death camp. She could come with me and ask them to give her back her clothes. Her howls were even louder than before. I said I would only release her if she told me that her clothing was her gift to the camp survivors. It didn’t take her long to agree that it was a gift and not a theft. With a brusk word of thanks, I drove off to another camp.
In another nearby camp at Ebensee, slaves were used to dig large chambers out of the granite mountain as underground workshops for the aircraft industry. I directed a group of passing Germans to help bury the bodies of inmates strewn along the campgrounds. There, some inmates caught one of the SS guards as he was trying to flee—judging by the violence of the assault, he may have been the camp commandant. First he was beaten mercilessly. Then the mob tied him to one of the metal trays used to slide bodies into the crematorium. There he was slowly roasted alive, taking him in and out of the oven several times. I watched it happen and did nothing. It was not my duty to stop it, even if I could have, and frankly, I was not inclined to try. There seemed to be no limit to human brutality in wartime. I headed back to Munich to write my reports. They would serve as the basis for later war crimes prosecutions. I was grateful that the war was coming to an end. I learned that there never has been, and never will be, a war without atrocities. The only way to prevent such cruel crimes was to prevent war itself.
Story 21: Looking for Hitler and Looted Art
My next target would be the principle criminal, Adolf Hitler, who was suspected to be hiding in his “Eagles Nest” on top of the heavily fortified and unreachable Alps in Berchtesgaden. Before embarking on my somewhat far-fetched trip from Munich to apprehend the German Fuhrer, I thought it prudent to equip myself with a trailer to carry my equipment and provisions. I had noted that the army Chaplain had a two-wheeled trailer that was seldom used. I called upon him and explained that I was about to embark on an important secret mission and the loan of his unused cart for about a week would be much appreciated. After some hesitation, he gave me his blessings. I hooked the trailer, clearly marked with two crosses on the mudguards, to the back of my jeep, and rode away cheerfully. My first stop was a courtesy visit to the concentration camp at nearby Dachau. That charnel house had been liberated by the Seventh army and was outside my jurisdiction. I did not tarry long but simply observed the chaos and suffering. I had bigger fish to catch.
The war was not quite over, and U.S. sentries were posted at various points along the highways. By waving a piece of paper at the guards, my jeep was always allowed to pass without question. I stopped in several small towns where I thought it would be useful to collect cameras, binoculars, guns, radios, helmets, daggers, and similar paraphernalia that the Germans were required to turn in for security reasons. I piled these carefully into my borrowed trailer and covered them with a tarpaulin. Law enforcement was, after all, my thing.
Berchtesgaden lies a few miles south of Salzburg. It is nestled amid high mountains that seem to reach the sky. The Berchtesgadener Hof was the elegant hotel frequently used by Hitler and his guests. Towering above the town is the Zugspitz, the highest mountain in the region. It was there that the SS built an impregnable fortress for their Fuehrer. The “Eagles’ Nest,” as it was nicknamed, could only be reached via a steep and heavily guarded winding road. The 101st Airborne didn’t bother using the road. They just pounded the whole mountain and then dropped in by parachute. They beat me to the punch by a few days.
I began my ascent up the long, winding road, heavily pock-marked with deep bomb craters. When I had borrowed the Chaplain’s trailer, I had not mentioned that I had no experience whatsoever in driving with a two-wheeled carriage behind my jeep. En route to pay Hitler a surprise visit, I was surprised to learn that when I wanted the trailer to go to the left I had to turn my steering wheel to the right. And vice versa, or something. I never could get the darned thing to behave. Being a man of considerable ingenuity, I solved the problem. I unhooked the trailer and pushed it into the woods adjoining the road, then instructed the American sentry standing nearby to keep an eye on it. With my jeep liberated, I quickly reached the top of the mountain where Hitler was reported to have his hideout. All I got was a magnificent view. Peering out of the Fuehrer’s verandah was like looking down on the world. I could understand why a person standing on the Zugspitz could be overcome by an attack of megalomania.
My job here was to find documents and other evidence of crime. I began to search the many file cabinets around, and quickly learned that the creative GIs of the 101st had been using the second drawer up from the bottom of the cabinets as very convenient toilet seats. The files within were now unusable as evidence of Nazi crime. The SS guardhouses in the woods had also been thoroughly vandalized. There was nothing left for me but to descend the mountain and report my failure to HQ. When I reached the point in the road where I had left my borrowed trailer, it was gone. I inquired of the sentry, who explained that some of the boys from the 101st had spotted the unguarded cart and had taken it with them. There is no limit on how sacrilegious some people can be. The Chaplain’s trailer had disappeared, along with all of my loot and equipment. What next?
I returned to base and sought out the friendly Chaplain. Father, I said, “I need guidance.” “What is it my son?” came the kindly reply. I explained that I had been out on a mission and I had lost my rifle. “That can happen” said the Padre paternalistically. I told him that I had also lost all of the souvenirs that I was bringing home to share with my comrades. He assured me they would understand. Then, even without entering a confessional, I confessed: “Father, I also lost your trailer.” Suddenly the milk of human kindness seemed to dry up in his bones. My Chaplain was no longer the forgiving type.
Charges were prepared accusing me, of all people, of losing or stealing government property. Before the legal proceedings could begin, I pointed out that I could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the property in question had belonged to the U.S. Government when I had it, and that it belonged to the U.S. Government when the 101st took it. There was no showing that it had left the hands of U.S. Government at any time, or that it had ceased to be property under the control of the U.S. Government or its agents. If the sentry was negligent in allowing the trailer to be removed, it was all the fault of the sentry and his superior officers who had command responsibility. They might be court-martialled for dereliction of duty. In the face of such awesome Harvard logic, the charges were dropped.
We received reports that Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin. Someone must have tipped off Hitler that I was after him; or the Russian troops pounding on his bunker door may have had something to do with it. I regret therefore that I cannot report my personal victory against Germany’s Fuehrer, and must settle instead for a tale about a missing trailer.
A more interesting assignment concerned Nazi plunder of the leading art treasures of Europe. We had received a report that a major war crimes suspect had been apprehended and was being held in the German prison at Wurzburg. His name had been listed in the Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects. The CROWCAS list had been assembled by refugee lawyers who had escaped to London but maintained contact with the underground resistance in the countries overrun by the Nazis. The name of the suspect was Karl Haberstock, an art dealer alleged to have been the main culprit in what was probably the biggest planned looting in history. My orders were, “Go get him!”
Wurzburg sits in a valley, and as I approached in my Jeep, I could see and smell the smoke of the still-burning city. It seemed that the tall apartment houses in the center were still standing, but as I got closer, it took on a ghostly appearance. I could see right through the windows in the heavy stone walls. When the city had been surrounded by U.S. tanks, the Nazi Gauleiter was ordered to surrender. He replied defiantly, “We will fight to the last man!” The Air Corps was summoned. Being obliging fellows, they plastered the city with incendiary bombs. Every roof that was hit exploded into flames. The hot phosphate fire then moved down each flight, burning everything until it reached the ground. Anyone left in the buildings was roasted.
I located Haberstock in the basement of the still-smoking city jail. The Gauleiter had disappeared. Ironically, Haberstock’s villa on the hill was untouched. I declared the villa to be an Investigation Center, and moved in with my prisoner. I knew it was the Nazi leader’s home when, in the garden, I found a fresh grave marked with his son’s name and the inscription “Fallen on the Russian front.” I respected the gravesite. I filled my jeep with supplies from the nearest quartermaster depot; a local winery added crates of sweet “Bocksbeutel” wine, for which I promised the U.S. would pay. I validated the receipt with the most trusted American name—George Washington. A friendly Fraulein who spoke English was stopped on her bike and hired as a typist/translator. I picked up the chef from Wurzburg’s most prominent hotel. When I reported to HQ, they said they would send over a Major to take charge. He was a nice fellow, but the only thing he took charge of was the pretty secretary. Rank has its privileges.
Haberstock turned out to be a grandfatherly type. He talked proudly about having been chosen by Hitler himself to select only the finest works of art suitable for a new museum that was planned, in Linz, Austria, to honor the Fuehrer. He could describe fine paintings in all the private galleries and museums in France. He admitted that he had taken the best paintings, but pointed out that they had all been paid for by checks drawn on the Bank of France. It was almost as good as signing “George Washington.” To encourage him to talk, I plied him with that sweet Wurzburg wine. I sipped along until I lost consciousness. It reminded me of my Passover in Hell’s Kitchen. He was slapping me gently on the cheek as I lay under the table. We resumed the interrogation the next day. He gave me the names of others involved in the art transfers. They were hiding out, along with Haberstock and his wife, in a little village in Bavaria. I closed shop in Wurzburg, got into my trusty Jeep and headed for the castle of the Baron von Poelnitz, tucked in the woods in Amberg, not far from the city of Bamberg.
As we drove through the rusty castle gate, a cry went up, “He’s here! He’s here! He’s alive!” The jubilation was not for me, but for the sight of their dear Karl who had left for Wurzburg on business about two weeks earlier and hadn’t been heard from since. Learning of the total devastation of that city, they had reason to believe that he had been killed. His old wife burst into tears of joy when she spotted her smiling husband. After the initial celebration had stopped, my prisoner pointed to me with pride. “This man,” he announced, “saved my life. He took me from a burning prison, fed me with foods we had not seen in years, and now has returned me to my family and friends.” Thereupon, the well wishers pounced on me with wild hand pumping and back slapping. His wife grabbed me and gave me a big hug and a kiss. I tried to beat them off, shouting for them to remember that I was the Siegermacht, the conqueror, and they were the defeated enemy and they should behave as such. They were so overjoyed that I don’t think they believed me.
I checked out the premises that had once been a nobleman’s castle. The best room in the crowded home was the master bedroom that I immediately requisitioned for myself. The master, the “Herr Baron,” was out. I knew that he had been a Major in the SS and an accomplice to shipping paintings out of Paris. In his closet I uncovered a hunting rifle. I also found a prosthesis for one leg. I soon located the limping Baron, and placed him under arrest. Hidden weapons were prohibited. I took him to the prison in Bamberg to be held pending further investigation. When I offered him a cigarette, he scornfully declined. German royalty does not accept cigarettes from American soldiers, especially one who looks like a Jew. I told the jail-keeper that if the Baron was not there when I returned, the jailor would take his place. I never returned.
Life in the Schloss was rather unique. Mornings were spent questioning those who had been in the art “business.” Afternoons were spent searching places where they might have hidden stolen paintings. At tea time, we assembled in the dining room where we sat around a large table while old “Tanta Thea,” who had been a Baroness, poured tea from a samovar. Since food was rather scarce, I managed to scrounge a big box of U.S. army hot dogs that was very well received in the land that gave us the frankfurter. Much to my chagrin, I was referred to as “Our dear American God.” My mother would have been proud; providing I didn’t tell her that my fans were all German.
My investigations didn’t amount to much. Haberstock was only an accomplice, and the others in the Schloss were even less important. No big fish, as far as I could see. Several weeks later, I was summoned by my Colonel and ordered to proceed to Alt Aussee in Austria as a follow up on my investigations. The Major who had been with me in Wurzburg led our team. The U.S. Army had located a salt mine filled with art treasures stolen from all the occupied countries of Europe, and we were to check it out.
A safe house had been set up by the area commander in a villa owned by the German tobacco tycoon Reemtsma. I was one of the first to arrive. I found a small room and tossed my duffle bag on the bed as a sign of possession. I surveyed the house and when I returned to my room, I found that my bag had been put in the hall and a seaman’s bag had been put in its place on the bed. Being a lawman who believes in justice, I thereupon removed the seaman’s bag and dumped it in the hall. Pretty soon, I was accosted by an officer in naval uniform. I learned later that he was a Commander assigned to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). He had been a curator at the Fogg Museum in Boston and was considered a great art expert. Standing on a landing several steps above me, he glowered down at me and said, “Soldier, get your bag out of there! That room belongs to my ensign!” Now, any man who tries to bully me is a man looking for trouble. “Sir,” I said sweetly, “I am here to help carry out a policy proclaimed by the President of the United States. I was in that room first and I intend to stay there.” “That’s an order!” barked the naval Commander, as he put his hand on the pistol attached to his belt. “Sir,” I said slowly and with less sweetness, “I do not obey illegal orders. And certainly not from the Navy. If you want to give me an order, just send it up the chain of command to the Secretary of the Navy, and then down via the Army, and I’ll consider it. And, Sir, you’d better take your hand off that gun.” I then snapped opened the holster on my .45. I hadn’t attended all those cowboy movies for nothing! The Commander was completely flustered. He found the Major, who had been my buddy in Wurzberg, and complained. The Major advised him to follow my advice. I think I found another room for the ensign, or might even have shared my room with him. I just didn’t like being pushed around.
Alt Aussee is one of those beautiful little Austrian villages, surrounded by lakes, green trees, and snow covered mountains. It also has an old salt mine that provided sustenance for many of its citizens. The cold and moisture of a functioning salt mine is ideal for storing paintings—particularly if there is a war in the neighborhood, or they happen to be stolen. Five big caverns in the mine were filled with priceless art stored on rows of wooden shelves. Hitler had given the order that if Allied forces approached the mine, it was to be blown up, paintings and all. It was clear that Der Fuehrer was a real art lover!
Fortunately, the Austrian engineer who ran the mine was not enthusiastic about losing his livelihood and maybe his life. He secretly arranged to defuse the large bombs that had been placed in each of the caverns. When an American tank column approached, he sent word alerting them to the priceless cache hidden in the town. The paintings were saved. The naval officer was supposed to figure out who the owners were so the paintings could be returned. I was supposed to figure out who the thieves were so they could be tried.
I had entered the Army in order to do my part. I heard the war was over. We had won. All I wanted now was to go home..
Story 22: Getting Home as a Stowaway
When I returned to the War Crimes Section from Alt Aussee, I found that Colonel Joseph, who had handed me my Sergeant stripes, had been shipped home. I reported to his replacement, a new Lt. Col. He seemed a nice enough fellow until he informed me that, as his last act, Col. Joseph had left strict orders to have me busted back to Private. I guess that my old Colonel never forgave me for having dropped my new Sgt. stripes into his waste paper basket. “On what grounds, Sir?” I inquired. “You’ll be charged with being AWOL.” “Sir,” I replied. “I admit that I have been Absent Without Leave many times, but during the week in question, I was on assignment in the field and then I had to take care of my vehicle, my laundry, and other approved responsibilities. And I can prove it.” “Very well,” said the new Lt. Col. “I guess I’ll have to make it an Administrative Reduction.” I noted that he couldn’t do that without a hearing before a Board of Officers. He was very accommodating. He summoned two Majors sitting in the next room, informed them that I was being reduced to Private and asked if they agreed. In the army you don’t disagree with an officer of higher rank.
The wrath of Ferencz was upon him. “That may pass for an Administrative Hearing here,” I said, “but it will never stand up on appeal. I will show that this war crimes section is staffed by officers who are totally incompetent to do the duties required of them. I was given a free hand to investigate war crimes and the officers simply put their names to my reports. I don’t care about rank but I am prepared to fight for truth and justice.” The Lt. Col. looked disturbed. Slowly, he put the papers back in his desk drawer and said he would look into it.
Then a very strange thing happened. The finger of Fate that had repeatedly been pointed in my direction started to act again. It reminded me of the days when the draft board held my file until I finished law school, and again when I was ordered to wait on the British shore while my artillery outfit was landing in Normandy. Now I received a personal letter addressed to Sergeant Ferencz, and signed by General Betts, the Commanding Officer in charge of all war crimes matters. He said he knew of my work and would arrange for my transfer to higher HQ if I wished. Army regulations prescribe that all official communications must go through channels in the chain of command. Being a very law abiding soldier, I promptly arranged to have the missive placed in the mailbox of the new Lt. Col.
I was soon summoned to appear before the Lt. Col. He handed the letter to me. I opened it casually and read it quietly. “Well,” he asked,” “what are you going to do?” I answered his question with a question. “What about that Administrative Reduction?” “Oh, that,” he said, “forget it!” He took the papers from his drawer and tore them up. “Well, Sir,” I said, “the truth is that I am no more eager to do higher HQ’s work than I am to do yours. It is now December: the war ended half a year ago. I have earned enough combat points to be discharged. All I want now is a few days leave and I want to go home.” He thought for a while then replied, “Put in for your leave.” I refused the offer to be made a commissioned officer. (My pal, Corporal Nowitz, accepted a similar offer, and two years passed before he got out as a Captain. We remained friends nevertheless.) Before my leave papers could come through, I was transferred to a staging area near Paris where soldiers were being assembled for shipment home.
There was no telling how long it would take to deactivate millions of soldiers. Crowded tents were loaded with impatient GIs lying around in a massive field outside of Paris waiting and waiting. The only recreation was to listen to loudspeakers blaring Bing Crosby singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays!” It was a real provocation. The final blow to my morale came when it was announced that officers who had not taken their leave would be paid for it. Enlisted men would get nothing. “T.S.” was the abbreviation for the unmentionable army expression confirming that it was a Tough Situation. I remembered my constitutional right to fight for equality and the pursuit of happiness—I decided to take my leave and then go home.
I devised a foolproof plan. Acting on the implied authority of my Lt. Col., who told me to put in for my leave, and with the help of my personal official stamp, I presented the required document. I figured that if I should be accused of being AWOL, I could show that all of my absent time was covered by official orders. Being a cautious person, I had a fallback position. Officers who would have to testify against me would be discouraged by my making plain to them that their own departures might be indefinitely delayed. I was confident that justice would prevail, even if the army might take a different view. What could go wrong? I soon found out!
My vacation in Switzerland was great. Having filled my enormous raincoat pockets with bags of U.S. army sugar that was thoughtfully placed on our mess tables for use by the GIs, I was able to barter the scarce commodity for Swiss francs. I was 25 years old and had never visited Europe outside of my army experience that, as far as I could tell, was never intended to be a tourist vacation. I hitchhiked around Switzerland, slept in the overhead luggage rack of a train heading for Italy with a gang of smugglers, sent picture postcards home, and generally did things designed to help me forget the war before I returned to what I hoped would be a happier life. After 10 days, I headed back to the camp outside of Paris to await my transfer home. When I got there, I discovered only warm coals in the stove of what had been my tent. The unit to which I had been attached for demobilization was gone.
My army experience had taught me that under such circumstances, all unclaimed equipment would have to be turned in to the Quartermaster. I found the officer in charge and told him, with my usual truthfulness, that I had been on leave and my unit had left unexpectedly. “Is your name Ferencz?” he asked. With some hesitation, I replied “Yes, Sir.” “Some GIs who shipped out yesterday brought in a duffle bag filled with stuff and said you’d probably be back. It’s there in the corner.” I thanked him and asked if he could provide me with a jeep so that I could catch up with the missing unit. He said he couldn’t do that but he knew that the outfit was scheduled to sail out of Cherbourg on the Queen Mary. I grabbed my recovered bag and hit the road. As I was hitchhiking my way toward the French port I learned that the Queen Mary had sailed. That’s the army for you —they didn’t even wait for me! On further reflection, it occurred to me that it might not be such a good idea for me to proceed to Cherbourg. Someone might have left word to have me arrested on sight, since I happened to be AWOL.
Being a flexible person, and not wanting to inconvenience the officers in Cherbourg, I immediately shifted course and headed in another direction. The nearest port that I thought might be more accommodating was Antwerp, in Belgium. I hitchhiked there without too much trouble. Being a law abiding soldier, I promptly reported to the commanding officer. I explained, in my usual forthright and honest way, that I had been on leave in Switzerland when my unit departed unexpectedly and they had sailed off on the Queen Mary without me. Could he help me rejoin my outfit? “No problem,” said the officer, a man after my own heart, “just get on board.” So I mounted the gangplank of a battered Liberty Ship called the Fitzhugh Lee as it embarked for the good old U.S. of A.
The embarkation officer who had authorized me to board the Fitzhugh Lee even put my name on the passenger list. I therefore would not qualify as a genuine stowaway. Sneaking aboard an army troop transport would be illegal, and I certainly would not want to do anything unlawful. Since no one on the “Liberty Ship” knew my identity, the sea voyage back to America offered a rare opportunity for me to exercise the liberty I had been denied since I set foot in the American Army. I found a quiet and comfortable bunk near an unused stairwell and settled down to recover from my three years of travail in the service of my country. Every 20 minutes there was an announcement on the ship’s loudspeaker: “Sergeant Ferencz please report to the orderly room.” I didn’t feel any compelling need to respond. No one would doubt that my duties in the artillery impaired my hearing. But I am not a slacker, so I procured a broom that I could swing into action in case any officer came along to disturb my tranquility. If I saw anyone coming, I swept the floor furiously. Fortunately, that was not very frequent. Not wanting to wear out the paint, I settled down to study Leo Tolstoy’s famous tome War and Peace. I felt I owed it to my country and the world.
Others on board occupied themselves with such educational pursuits as playing craps and cards, or betting on which player would win. I learned in Hell’s Kitchen never to gamble. Yet, infected by my entrepreneurial spirit, I took some time out to earn some money to supplement the generous army pay that kept me impoverished. In my youth, I had taken up magic as a hobby. When I practiced my legerdemain on my mother, she was very impressed. Her invariable retort was, “You should make money with such tricks.” A boy should always listen to his mother. The time had come.
One of my sleight of hand feats was to shuffle a deck of cards and then tell the viewer to tell me when to stop. Looking only at the back of the deck, I would immediately identify which of the 52 cards it was. Being a professorial type, I offered to teach other soldiers how to do this trick if they would swear never to reveal the secret. I noted that the performer would then be able to bet with suckers that he could call the card. He could get rich. No previous experience was required. Even idiots could learn how to perform this miracle of magic. In fact, idiots were preferred. My charge, for revealing this priceless feat and giving the necessary instruction, was a modest $50 cash. I sold the trick to as many idiots as I could find. There was no shortage in the army. (If you want to know how this trick was done, please send a certified check to my home address.) By the time we approached New York, most of the soldiers on board were broke. A few were rich. I didn’t do too badly.
I knew we were approaching port when new uniforms were distributed to all. The old ones were piled up neatly and dumped overboard. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone caught a shark wearing a U.S. Army jacket.
The New York Times regularly reported the arrival of troop transports with the names of all soldiers on board. When the Queen Mary, on which I had originally been scheduled to sail, came into New York harbor, all members of my unit were listed—but no Benny. It was not unreasonable to fear that I was dead. Fortunately, a day earlier, my sweetie (to whom I have been married for over six decades so far) received my postcard saying that if she didn’t hear from me for 10 days not to worry since I was on leave in Switzerland. If she didn’t hear from me for 10 years, not to worry since it meant I was in jail. What was she to think through her tears of anguish, but the worst? But it seemed that Santa Claus was coming to town—a few days before Christmas 1945, the Fitzhugh Lee landed. I had sent a cable announcing my arrival. My mother, stepfather, and sweetheart were waiting to greet me in joyful reunion at the pier.
The men from my troop transport were assembled in Fort Dix, New Jersey. They were arranged in packets of 100 to be processed for their discharges. We were told that there would be no work on the Christmas holiday and that my packet would get out on December 26th. Reinforced by my faithful “official” stamp and pass book, I promptly took off for home. I didn’t want to bother the army with burdensome formalities. We had a very joyful reunion at home. December 26, the day after Christmas, I returned to Fort Dix to be released as promised. I learned that the packet to which I had been assigned had been discharged on Christmas Day. The army is sometimes not very reliable. I persuaded the authorities to process me as a “Packet of 1”—something previously unheard of. After checking my tonsils and other parts, I was declared physically fit to leave. There was one little problem. None of my personal files were on hand. They probably were waiting for me in Cherbourg.
I managed to explain to the army officers in charge that I was obviously an American soldier. They cross-examined me and I guess they concluded that it would be in the interest of the United States Army to get rid of me. The main discrepancy regarded my Good Conduct medal. They refused to believe the truth that I was the only one in my battalion who was stricken from the list. They insisted on showing it as an award. I received an Honorable Discharge as a Sergeant of Infantry. The certificate bore the disclaimer, “Soldier discharged on his own affidavit. No records available.” The paper listed the battles I participated in, from the beaches of Normandy, though the Maginot and Siegfried Lines, across the Rhine at the Remagen Bridge, and the final “Battle of the Bulge” at Bastogne. I was awarded five battle stars pinned on a ribbon. A letter signed by the President of the United States was part of the farewell package. The facsimile signature of Harry Truman assured me that “a grateful nation” appreciated my service to my country. I was glad that I had been able to do my share. I was never able to accept commands I knew were unreasonable or to allow my mind or spirit to be broken by blind obedience. The truth is that the three years I spent in the U.S. Army in World War Two was the most miserable experience of my life. Never again did I want to witness such horrors. My determination to try to prevent war became inexorably embedded in my psyche.
Story 23: Starting a New Life
The war was over. It was time for me to try to seek a new life. By that time, Gert and I had known each other for about ten years. Having been raised in poverty and having endured the divorce of my poor parents, I always felt that I could not ask anyone to marry me until I was able to support a family. There were about ten million soldiers recently arrived back in the United States, and they were all looking for a job. I was one of them. I had a Harvard law degree and was admitted to practice law in New York, but for the previous three years of my life, I had done nothing to prepare me for any useful civilian role in the field of law. One day, while strolling along Fifth Avenue in New York City, I had a chance encounter of an old Harvard Law School friend, Murray Gartner, who, on graduation, had obtained an appointment as a Law Clerk to Justice Robert M. Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson had taken leave to serve as Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg. In the conversation, I described my army experiences working on war crimes, and thought no more of the subject.
It came as a surprise when, shortly thereafter, I received a telegram from the Pentagon which began with “Dear Sir.” No one in the army had ever called me “Sir” before. I was invited to come to Washington, at government expense, to be interviewed for possible employment. Was it fate at work?
When I arrived at the War Department, I was greeted by a feisty Lt. Colonel named David Marcus, who said, cheerfully, “Call me Mickey.” There was an acute shortage of lawyers who knew anything about war crimes trials, and the army was desperate. “Benny,” he said earnestly, “we want you to go back to Germany. We’ll make you a Colonel.” I thought he was kidding. I replied that the only time I would go back under military command would be if our country declared war on Germany again and we were losing. Mickey made a counter-offer. He offered me a “simulated rank” equivalent to a full Colonel with all of its privileges, yet I could remain a civilian employee who could quit at any time. He was a good salesman.
The only “girlfriend” I had was Gertrude, and I felt strongly that we had much in common and she would make a fine partner. I knew her father, Sam Fried, who was the brother of my stepmother, whom he frequently visited. Sam, formerly known as Shulem Fried, was Jewish tailor from Transylvania. Around 1923, he had scraped up enough money to buy one ticket to the United States to seek his fortune in “Der Goldene Medina”—the golden land of promise. In 1936, Shulem came back to visit his family in Satu-Mare, Romania. His cautious and religious wife was not ready to uproot herself and her two children to depart for a strange and distant land. On his wife’s urging, Shulem took his 16-year old daughter Gizi and they sailed to New York together, hoping that the other family members would soon follow. They disembarked from an old Polish liner, the “Batory” which docked on August 1, 1936. Shulem was now called Sam, which was an abbreviation of Samuel, which may have been a transliteration from his Yiddish name. Gizi, being a child of superior intelligence, simply called him Papa.
As soon as I had been employed by the War Department, I phoned Gertrude, who had been patiently waiting for me all these years, and asked her how she would like to go to Europe for a brief honeymoon. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “this is so sudden. I’d love it!” I took the job. We were married in Tanta Chava’s living room. Only a few family members were present. (The rabbi who performed the ceremony also happened to be the Chaplain for Sing Sing Prison.) I saw the Army’s offer as a chance to celebrate a joyous honeymoon and balance some of the injustices of having been abused for three years by officers who insisted that “rank has its privileges.” I would discover, as I often did in life, that things don’t always work out as planned. My wife and I would return from our “European honeymoon” some ten years later with our four children born in Nuremberg. But that’s another story.