Detained for Impersonating an Officer

Benjamin B. Ferencz

It was not immediately clear to me where my new official assignment for the War Department would take me. The International Military Tribunal trial in Nuremberg against Goering and leading Nazi defendants had started with Robert Jackson’s opening statement on November 20, 1945. At that time, I was already on my way back to the States, following a slightly unauthorized detour to Switzerland. I knew very little about the IMT trial; but I knew a great deal about the U.S. Army War Crimes Commissions at Dachau where German prisoners of war were being hastily condemned. I had no idea that Col. Telford Taylor, one of Jackson’s chief assistants, was about to be promoted to Brigadier General and begin a dozen proceedings in Nuremberg designed to expose the entire panorama of Nazi criminality. By March 1946, with the IMT trial well under way, Taylor was in Washington trying to hire staff to help with his unprecedented new responsibilities. He called on Mickey Marcus to help with the recruitment.

Marcus was born in Brooklyn and received a free West Point military college education. He had been a boxer and was known as a shrewd and tough cookie—my kind of guy. “Benny,” he said, “you’ve been there, you’ve seen it—you’ve got to go back.” Marcus suggested that I have a word with Taylor.

Of course, I first checked on Taylor’s background. I learned that he was a Harvard Law graduate with a distinguished career in public service. It was no surprise that he had also checked on my credentials. He referred to a letter of recommendation from Harvard Professor Sheldon Glueck, for whom I had served as research assistant, and who was regularly consulted by the War Department as an expert on war crimes. Taylor had also uncovered some of my military records that, understandably, caused him some concern. He noted that my army file indicated that I was occasionally insubordinate. “That is not correct, Sir,” I replied.” I am not occasionally insubordinate. I am usually insubordinate.” I explained that I did not obey orders that I know were manifestly stupid or illegal. I remarked that I had been checking up on him too and I didn’t anticipate that he would give such orders. Taylor tried to conceal a smile. “You come with me,” he said, firmly. By March, 1946, I was on my way to Nuremberg.

The official tailor in the Pentagon outfitted me with my new uniform that the War Department required be worn by all Americans serving in occupied Germany. It was the standard U.S. Army officers garb with green gabardine jacket and pink trousers. Of course, it had to be shortened to fit me. Four small golden stripes were sewn on the sleeve, as required, to show that I had served two years in combat. Instead of metal bars on the shoulders to indicate rank, the uniforms for Taylor’s staff had a cloth patch sewn on the arm to identify them as members of OCCWC—the new Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes. No one in Germany had ever seen such an insignia.

About two dozen new OCCWC recruits set sail from New York harbor with tearful wives and girlfriends waving at the pier. The journey on the U.S. troop transport was uneventful. The OCCWC rookies who were not busy throwing up became fast friends starting on a new and challenging adventure. Once disembarked, we all proceeded by train from Bremerhaven to our destination.

Nuremberg had been a picturesque city. Courtesy of the allied air forces, it had been converted into a pile of rubble. Part of the old stone courthouse had been repaired for use by the International Military Tribunal where Jackson and Goering would soon be sparring. The Grand Hotel had been partially reconstructed for use by transient officers. It was there that we were lodged to await further instructions.

Not one to sit around doing nothing, I soon decided to explore what was left of the town. Dressed in my new uniform, I hopped on a rickety street car, and crossed the bombed-out city to the suburb of Fuerth and began my walking tour. I had not gone far before being halted by a Military Police jeep occupied by a Lieutenant and driver. “Let me see your pass!” demanded the officer. I explained that I had none. He eyed me suspiciously. Then came the order, “Get in, you’re under arrest!” I was happy to oblige since I was tired of walking and I anticipated some merriment. At M.P. Headquarters, a Captain told me that I was being charged with the crime of impersonating an officer. That was more than ridiculous, it was an insult! I suggested, firmly but gently, that the Captain phone the Nuremberg area commander, who had welcomed the group on our arrival, and inform him that an arrest had been made and Benny Ferencz was in custody. He did so with some pride. Almost immediately, the dazed Captain began to sputter frantically. All I could hear was, “Yes, Sir; yes, Sir; yes, Sir; sorry, Sir. Sorry, Sir.” The embarrassed Captain personally escorted me back to the hotel, apologizing all the way. Some people, when given power, seem to forget about the presumption of innocence. In the army, the higher the rank, the stronger is the presumption of guilt.