Farewell Artillery, Hello General Patton

Benjamin B. Ferencz

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!