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A Growing Crisis
In January 1945, POW camps throughout Germany swelled from the Allied and Soviet POWs captured during five years of war. With the Russians overrunning Poland, the camps in the east were evacuated and resources, especially food and medicine, were scarce. Conditions went from bad to worse as thousands of men were forced into existing camps around Germany.
Despite its last-ditch offensives, Germany was finished and everyone knew it. But what would happen to the thousands of POWs and slave laborers as the war drew to a close? This question vexed the Allies repeatedly during the last year of the war.
The previous fall had been a frustrating time for the confident Allies. Hope had sprung that the war would be over by Christmas. The Rhine was within reach; so tantalizingly close. But it was not to be. Resistance stiffened at the German border. It was expected, but not to the extent they found. The large envelopments of the summer were gone; replaced by grinding assaults against a well-concealed enemy. And the weather was turning cold. Victory would have to wait.
The German attack in the Ardennes Forest, later known as the Battle of the Bulge, began on December 16, 1944, and surprised the Western Allies. As a result, they were slow to react and thousands of American GIs became POWs in the first week of the assault.
Many of the American units were new to the front line and their inexperience led to confusion all along the front. Even veteran units were full of replacements. It didn’t help the new arrivals were told their enemy lacked offensive capabilities. Over 20,000 GIs were captured during the entire six-week battle; a sobering reminder that the war was not over.
One of the hardest hit units was the 106th Infantry Division, which had arrived in the Ardennes just a week before, on December 9. By December 21, two entire infantry regiments and a field artillery battalion were cut off and captured; approximately 7,000 men. This cut the Division’s strength in half.
The remnants of the Division did regroup and fight bravely around St. Vith and into Germany. But the stain of that defeat was unfairly attached to the men for a long time.
Guests of the Third Reich
A large group of officers from the 106th Infantry Division ended up at a prison camp near the northern Bavarian village of Hammelburg, located about 75 miles east of Frankfurt. It was a converted military training complex and became known as Oflag XIII-B (Officers’ Camp 13-B).
After their arrival, the camp was almost filled to capacity. The overcrowded conditions made for grim prospects. The spirits of the men were in disarray too. After capture, depression and lethargy became commonplace.
The problems were not limited to the 106th. It didn’t help that officers from the 28th Infantry Division made up the other large portion of the Americans at the camp. They had been posted east of Bastogne and bore the brunt on the southern flank of the Bulge. The 28th ID had been decimated since arriving in Normandy in June and the Bulge was just another brutal round of fighting with very high casualties.
The senior officers captured from the 106th included a regimental commander, Colonel Charles Cavender (423rd IR), a field artillery battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Thomas Paine Kelly (589th FAB) and an infantry battalion commander, Lt. Colonel William Scales (422nd IR). Even the Division Commander’s son, Captain Alan Jones Jr., had become a prisoner.
Cavender was a career officer and West Pointer, who had seen action in World War I. Kelly, a Florida attorney in civilian life, had been separated from the rest of his battalion during the second day of the attack in an attempt to rescue one of his batteries.
His attempts thwarted, he linked up with the 422nd Infantry Regiment on the Schnee Eifel, east of St. Vith. After 4 grueling days, they all surrendered on December 19. A large portion of 589th did escape encirclement, but he would not find out the fate of many of his men until after the war.
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The defeat inflicted upon two regiments and other units of the 106th was devastating psychologically. Both the enlisted men and company-grade officers felt let down by their commanders, particularly Cavender and his staff. Creating a united front against the Germans was virtually impossible.
Cavender had also established poor relations with the camp commander, Generalmajor Gunther von Goeckel; declaring he would be tried as a war criminal after the war. Things became tense immediately. The burden of blame must have weighed heavily on him, and the stress made him overreact. Cavender’s counterpart with the 422nd, Colonel George Descheneaux, had been separated from the others after the surrender due to his poor physical condition.
At Hammelburg, it was the Serbs who were the longest-serving POWs, having been captured during Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. They helped the Americans enormously, offering them items from their Red Cross Parcels and other tidbits that they may have picked up while working outside of camp. The Serb doctors also worked tirelessly to aid American medical personnel.
Death was always hanging over their heads. Men died of pneumonia and other illnesses. On February 5, Lt. John S. Colman of the 590th Field Artillery Battalion (106th ID) died of pneumonia at the camp hospital. He was 35. Colman, a native of Pawling, NY, was the only American officer believed to have died of natural causes at the camp. But the small cadre of enlisted imprisoned in a nearby compound was hit hard by disease brought on by the overcrowded conditions.
Change of Fortune
In early March of 1945, two more officers arrived at the complex that would have a profound impact on the prisoners’ lives. Colonel John K. Waters and Colonel Paul T. Goode, with a group of about 1200 POWs, had been marched west from Poland as the Soviets overran Eastern Europe. They were then forced into crowded, miserable conditions at Hammelburg.
Goode, a regimental commander with the 29th infantry division, was captured in July 1944 at St. Lo in Normandy. Colonel Waters, formerly of the 1st Armored Division, had been captured during the Kasserine Pass debacle in February 1943, where Rommel’s Afrika Korps handed the Americans one of their worst defeats in history. Waters was noteworthy for another reason; he was the son-in-law of General George S. Patton.
Waters and Goode were both hard-driving West Pointers who were captured early into their combat careers. As a consequence, they decided to make their captivity a form of resistance. They were the highest-ranking officers at their compounds in Poland. Strict military discipline was enforced. The men had to shave and keep the barracks clean. Saluting all senior officers became mandatory.
It was the little things like maintaining your dignity which helped one continue to resist the despair of being a POW. Committees were formed, meetings held, and representatives picked for various duties. Some officers even began teaching classes on different topics.
Their system resembled the attitude of the British, whose discipline as POWs and daring escape attempts became legendary. Goode had even obtained a set of bagpipes from the YMCA to keep the men’s spirits up. Not all the men were enthralled with the sound, but they certainly appreciated his efforts.
Though exhausted and malnourished, upon arrival at Hammelburg, the two career officers began enforcing their ideas almost immediately. Colonel Cavender, the ranking officer, was quickly replaced by Goode, who established better relations with von Goeckel.
Goode and Waters were appalled at what had happened. Discipline had broken down amongst the 106th men since their arrival. They were disheveled and disrespectful. It got so bad, the younger officers refused to salute Colonel Cavender. Resentment was rife.
Restoration of Discipline
The changes helped enormously. Lt. E.V. Creel (590th FAB) stated that Goode and Waters made an immediate impact on the discipline of the camp. He called them some of the most impressive officers he had met during his time in the Army. The men appreciated their experience on how to survive as a prisoner and felt a renewed sense of camaraderie within just a few days.
Army discipline had been restored and they were now a cohesive force, with Goode their spokesman. All in the camp knew the Germans were finished; it was just a matter of time. The biggest concern was whether their captors realized the war was lost and could conceive of a future after the war.
By the middle of March, although things had improved, the camp was still a very dangerous place. Lt. Charles Weeks of the 423rd’s HQ Company was murdered by a guard. He had been late coming back from the latrine during an air raid, so one of the camp guards in the tower put a bullet in the back of his head. He was just outside the door of the barracks. Witnesses stated that he had been walking with his hands in his pockets.
Despite the danger of being shot, four lieutenants along with the Chaplain of the 422nd Infantry Regiment, Father Paul Cavanaugh, bravely ran outside and grabbed his body to render aid. Goeckel claimed it was a misunderstanding on the part of the guard. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Back in January, Lt. George Vaream, a member of the 106th Reconnaissance Troop, was shot and killed by a guard during another air raid in January.
Within the Allied High Command, rumors of horrific conditions for the POWs had been rampant for months. After the revelation of the Malmedy Massacre during the opening days of the Bulge, Allied officials came to believe that many long-serving POWs might be executed before Germany surrendered.
How many of the top brass believed this, no one will ever really know. Access to detailed intelligence reports concerning POWs was very limited at that time and who knew what is still a subject of debate.
For Patton, it became a pretext for a suicide mission miles behind enemy lines. So he selected men from one of his favorite units, the 4th Armored Division. The Division had gained a lot of notoriety in late December when it helped relieve Bastogne. It was full of veterans who had seen action since their arrival in Normandy.
Many were highly decorated, so it was no surprise that Patton called on them for his secret mission. It didn’t hurt that the Division’s CO, Major General Hugh Gaffey, was also a close friend of Patton’s and his former chief of staff. Patton was counting on the discretion of his friends to tamp down any controversy afterward.
With very little time to prepare, Captain Abe Baum, the 37th Tank Battalion’s S-3, was chosen to lead the group. He was not their first choice. In another weird twist of fate, the tank battalion commander originally selected to lead the raid was on sick call. So he recommended Baum.
Chaos and Escape
Neither Goode nor Waters were expecting a rescue mission of any kind; neither had a sense of inflated importance. Rumors always floated around but they never panned out. So on the morning of March 27th, everyone in the camp was shocked when the sound of small arms fire and Sherman tanks rumbling down the road started echoing around the camp.
Lt. Colonel Kelly, like everyone else, ran out to see the commotion. The senior officers conferred for a while unsure of how to proceed if the camp came under fire. Initially, the men lingered outside listening to the fighting. Then it got closer; then rounds started falling close to the camp and bullets began ricocheting off the buildings.
It took several hours until tanks burst through the main gate. The POWs slowly came out of hiding. In the confusion, Waters was wounded by a lone German soldier hiding just outside the gate. He was hit in the lower back and buttocks while he carried a white flag to meet the Shermans, which had been done at the request of Colonel Von Goeckel. Now partially paralyzed, he was carried back to camp where Serbian doctors saved his life.
Task Force Leader Captain Abe Baum, and Major Alexander Stiller, a Patton aide acting as an “observer,” finally made it into the compound and immediately began to inquire about the famous prisoner. Cavender gave them the bad news: Waters could not be moved. Desperate, Captain Baum decided to see for himself. Sure enough, the doctors told him to forget about transporting Waters or any of the wounded.
Baum now faced the decision of his life. Would he try to get everyone out and leave without the wounded? Four years earlier he had not imagined himself trapped behind enemy lines leading a secret raid. He had been a pattern cutter from the Bronx, enlisted after Pearl Harbor and steadily rose through the ranks. By early 1945, he was one of the 4th AD’s most trusted field commanders.
There was another glaring problem. The small force, which had numbered about 300 men with 16 tanks (Shermans and M5A1 Light tanks), 27 half-tracks and assorted other vehicles, had lost almost a third of its strength. It had used up much of its gasoline on the drive through Bavaria to get there. They had covered over 60 miles in less than two days.
Along the way, they had run into determined opposition of ad hoc units of Germans, but also surrendering German soldiers and jubilant Russian slave laborers. Wounded had to be left along the route for the German Army to pick up. The dead were buried by German civilians.