The Battle of Nashville- 150 years later Musings on an Old Piece of Iron

His name was Alvis Holladay. No one called him “Alvis” however. To friends and family he was “Buster.” And he was obsessed with relic hunting. Civil War relics that is. Socially awkward and a bit of a nerd he was unconcerned about the usual teenaged high school social rituals of dating, sports, fast cars, etc. Instead, nearly every weekend he put his trusty metal detector in his beat up red 62 Dodge and went out in search of metal things hidden in the ground from a hundred years before, the debris of war- various types of rifle and artillery projectiles or fragments thereof, buttons from uniforms, belt buckles, connector pieces from knapsacks and leather gear, and much, much more.

It wasn’t all treasure. Mostly he got trash. The detector would sound off into his headphones at the presence of any sort of metal, trash or treasure, and in the years since the war, a great deal of trash had accumulated on CW sites. There were days when he spent hours out in a weedy field and got nothing for his trouble but chigger bites, a bad sunburn, and lots of rusted tin cans. But, old Buster had some lucky days too, lots of ‘em, and by the time he was eighteen years old, around 1969, he had gathered an impressive collection of Civil War artifacts which he piled into every nick and cranny of his bedroom.

On three or four occasions I went out with Buster to try my luck. We scoured the ground at Shiloh (just off park property), an old farm near the Stones River in Murfreesboro, the old Johnsonville site on the Tennessee River, and at a property just South of Abbot Martin Road in Green Hills here in Nashville. At this place I got lucky and unearthed a fascinating bit of history still in my possession.

It was the Summer of 69. Astonishingly enough, the place we walked over that day was a small cattle farm-a field of cows and cow paddies ringed by an electric fence-just a few acres adjoining a large development of ranch style homes and the commercial district of Green Hills along Hillsboro Road. Even then this cattle farm seemed out of place, a farm in the middle of suburbia. But there it was.

It was no ordinary cattle farm for another reason. At the top of a long gradual rise SW of the main house there was an unnatural formation rising from the ground about four to five feet high, five or six feet wide, and seventy five yards or so long. Even to the untrained eye it appeared man made. To a Civil War buff, it was clearly the eroded remnant of an earthwork fortification.

Two years previous Buster had discovered this site after receiving a tip from a friend. After getting permission from the property owners to dig (as long as he refilled his holes), he took his detector out of the car, crossed the electric fence, turned on the device, and swept it a few inches over the ground a few feet in front of the old earthwork. Immediately the thing began sounding off like nothing he had ever seen before. Within minutes he filled a box with iron fragments of exploded artillery shells. He could hardly dig fast enough. He stopped only when darkness fell and he could no longer see. As soon as he could he returned and found more relics including one entire unexploded projectile. Clearly this was a place that had come under a severe artillery bombardment during the Battle of Nashville. It didn’t take Buster long to come to the conclusion that he had discovered the precise location of Redoubt Number 4, a Confederate fortification where such a thing had indeed occurred on the afternoon of December 15, 1864. He returned to the site again and again over the next few months. He told no one other than his family about it. It was his spot. No one else, so far as I know, hunted there or even knew about it until years later- a relic hunter’s dream come true.

Buster had already found several boxes full when he took me out there that Summer day and let me try my luck. And my efforts were rewarded. A few inches below the surface approximately a hundred feet or so below the earthwork I found my hunk of CW iron, the back of a “Hotchkiss” artillery shell, a conical shaped “bolt” fired from a 3″ordnance gun, a rifled piece of field artillery. I still have it, my chief relic of the Nashville battle sitting on my desk, a heavy iron chunk of CW history fired from one of about twenty or so guns located on a ridge a half mile or so to the West along what is now Estes Road near the present site of Harpeth Hall girls academy. These guns pummeled Redoubt Four, a detached exposed enemy position, for about an hour and a half. The Union fire was deadly accurate as evidenced by the proximity of the shell fragments to the earthwork.

Sergeant Maxwell of Lumsden’s Batttery tells in his account of the defense of Redoubt Four: “a Federal four gun battery opened on us, completely enfilading our four guns..our number three (gunner) Horton, was shot down..with a bullet in his groin and rushed to the rear..Hilen L. Rosser ..a lad of seventeen, the youngest of three brothers that belonged to the battery, had his head shot off by a shell, scattering his brains in the face of Capt. Lumsden.” (p.53, EYEWITNESSES AT THE BATTLE OF NASHVILLE, ed. by David Logsdon.*

The doomed Confederate defenders, only about a hundred or so Alabamians with a few dozen artillerymen manning four brass smoothbore artillery pieces, never had a chance. Soon after the Union guns had done their work and the smoke had cleared, the shell shocked survivors caught sight of two brigades of Union infantry coming up the long rise straight at them. The defenders fired what they had in their single shot rifles at the approaching horde and then fled toward their own lines a miles or so away to the East as fast as their legs could carry them.

The fall of Redoubt Four was but one episode in the Battle of Nashville, one hundred and fifty years ago today. This decisive battle of the US Civil War occurred in the hills south of Tennessee’s capital city putting an end to the last hopes of the Western Confederacy. Though the fabled Army of Tennessee wasn’t completely destroyed the next day on December 16, it fled the area in disorder never to return, no longer a threat to Union installations in the area. For John B. Hood’s shrunken, demoralized army, the battle of Nashville was an unmitigated disaster. For the Union, it was, arguably, their most brilliant success. For the Union commander George Thomas, everything went according to plan; something that rarely happens in any battle anywhere, anytime. Back in Washington City, president Abraham Lincoln was delighted- a major worry crossed off his list.

When the battle opened on December 15 Confederate forces under the command of the youthful John B. Hood had been dug in a long thin line facing the Union fortifications just south of town for about two weeks. After the terrible blood-letting at Franklin on November 30 Hood and his badly mauled army pursued the fleeing Twenty-Third Corps under Schofield North but being unable to catch him as he slipped into Nashville and the safety of the extensive fortifications there, had simply dug in and waited. What exactly Hood, with the depleted, badly equipped and demoralized forces at his disposal planned to do outside Nashville has always been a bit uncertain. Technically he was carrying out a classic siege, but realistically the Union forces in Nashville only grew stronger, not weaker, while Hood watched and waited and pleaded for reinforcements that would never come.

The fortifications encircling Nashville were much too strong for even the headstrong and reckless Hood to challenge. Maybe, Hood must have thought, they will attack me as I did at Franklin and maybe, just maybe, we can do to them what they did to us and a seriously weakened Union force might abandon the city. But this was a forlorn hope. George Thomas, the Federal commander in Nashville was one of Mr. Lincoln’s most capable generals, a Virginian, who, unlike his old friend Robert E. Lee, refused to change loyalties when his home state seceded. This officer, known as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” would fight hard. But unlike Hood, he would fight smart. Besides, he had all the advantages. His gathering army would be better equipped, better fed, more confident in their commander, and, most of all, would enjoy a more than two to one advantage in numbers in the coming battle. Thomas determined to leave the safety of his fortifications and move against Hood only when he was good and ready and not a moment before even though his anxious superiors in Washington threatened to relieve him of his command at one point. Thomas, well aware that Hood could only watch and wait, would not be rushed. He had that luxury knowing that the massive Federal installation in Nashville that had built up since the city had fallen to Union forces two and a half years before was never in any real jeopardy. With each passing day Hood’s weary, hungry forces grew weaker and Thomas’ grew stronger. Time was on his side.

The Confederates were saved by darkness at the end of the first day of the battle, Dec. 15, as the army withdrew a couple of miles to a second line of defense and dug in just South of what is now Battery Lane. The Union army followed them, formed up, in a long parallel line just North of their enemy and started blasting away at them with artillery the next morning. As the Confederates responded as best they could with their own artillery and hunkered down to await the next onslaught, Union dismounted cavalry under James Wilson slowly worked their way around the extreme Confederate left. On what came to be known as Shy’s Hill the tired cold defenders never really had a chance against the legions of Union soldiers who came up the slopes from three sides. They broke and ran and within minutes the entire Confederate line began collapsing to the East like a row of dominoes.

At the end of the day on December 16 Hood’s army was in full retreat cramming onto Franklin Road and Granny White Pike with the Union cavalry in hot pursuit. Thousands had been taken prisoner and were making their sullen dispirited way North under guard toward internment pens in Nashville where they would be processed before being shipped North to POW camps in Illinois and Ohio. The exhausted remains of Hood’s army would finally cross the Tennessee River near the Alabama state line a week or so later to spend a miserable Christmas in the camp of the defeated. Knowing that all hope was gone, many would desert and head for home leaving the fabled Army of Tennessee a mere shadow of what it had been only six weeks before when it had crossed into Middle Tennessee full of energy and renewed hope.

Most of the blame for this debacle can be placed on the commander himself- John B. Hood and his poor decisions made in late November at Spring Hill and the terrible decision he made on Winstead Hill just South of Franklin to assault the Union position there. It was a judgment call Hood, who survived the war, never(unfortunately) regretted. In his memoirs he choose to blame the men of Cheatham’s Corps, the brave men who made the charge and died in droves, that they were timid and had grown too accustomed to fighting behind breastworks and fortifications. It was an assertion that insulted the proud veterans of his army. They might forgive him for a bad mistake but to put the blame on the them and their dead comrades for a mistake for which Hood and Hood alone was responsible? They wouldn’t forgive him for this. They turned their back on him and refused to speak his name at reunions. They spit on the ground on those rare occasions when his name was mentioned. Few attended his funeral. In the West their beloved commander was Joe Johnston. In the East it was, of course, Robert E. Lee. Among the rank and file Hood was universally despised.

Was the Battle of Nashville a foregone conclusion? I think so. The cold, hungry, war weary Confederates encamped South of town could, in the days prior to the battle, clearly see across the deforested plain the mighty host gathering against them Any fool could tell that the fates had turned against them. When the battle began, most of them stayed at their posts and fought anyway-until they were killed, wounded, overwhelmed and captured or ordered to fall back. In the hills South of Nashville their glory days were over. Here there would be no ecstasy, only agony. But it wouldn’t last much longer. The bloodletting was drawing to a close. The end of the long cruel war was near.

All this comes to mind when I reach over and pick up my one lb relic of that fight, my iron chunk of history, a small part of the means by which the more numerous industrial Northern states brought the agriculturally oriented Southern Confederacy to its knees in our biggest American war. A little piece of rusted iron can say a lot. I wonder who loaded it into the gun and pulled the friction primer to fire it toward the doomed Confederate position a mile or so to the East. Did a portion of this shell kill the 17 year old Confederate gunner? Gosh, If it could only talk.


*a heavy enfilading fire upon your position would be something not easily forgotten. Having inspected the remains of the earthworks at Redoubt Four, it is easy to see that they run East-West as if anticipating an attack from the North, which, of course, was the location of the enemy when the thing was constructed. (many battle maps erroneously show the works facing West- NW) Thomas, however, did not cooperate. His guns were placed due West of the redoubt, about twenty in all, firing from a mile or so away, rendering the fortification almost useless. To return fire, Lumsden had to relocate at least two of those guns out in the open. But they offered little challenge to the Feds in this most unequal contest.

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Seventy years ago today our boys hit the beaches of Northern France and parachuted into nearby fields in the opening phase of the long anticipated second front against the Nazi war machine. Eleven months later Adolf Hitler was dead. Caught in a deadly vise between American, British, and various other national forces to the West and the massive Soviet juggernaut in the East, high ranking German generals finally called it quits in May 1945 and accepted Allied demands for unconditional surrender bringing the war in Europe to a close.

Of course, June 6, 1944 or “D-Day” was not the beginning of hostilities between the US and Germany. The US and Germany had been at war for over two years by mid 1944. In the opening months of 1942 the US warred with German U-Boats. Once this threat was minimized the US was able to get men and material “over there.” Fighting on the ground between US and German forces occurred first in North Africa, then in Sicily, and then in Italy. But prior to D-Day no US soldier had yet touched the soil of occupied France.

At the very beginning, most US military leaders had favored an immediate invasion of Northern France. They saw little reason to wait. But British leaders considered this rash, reckless and ill advised-doomed to failure. The US simply wasn’t ready. Our people needed more training and experience. Roosevelt reluctantly sided with them on this and our boys headed to North Africa instead.

Things went well for the Allies in North Africa and Sicily but the Italian campaign was a different story. Forces under American general Mark Clark found it a hard slog “up the boot” against a German army commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a brilliant defensive strategist and tactician who took advantage of every hill and mountain forcing allied armies to a hard expensive crawl that produced many embarrassing episodes and few celebrations.

To the North, the US waged war in the air. Flying out of bases in England, huge formations of heavy bombers conducted a relentless daily bombing of the German heartland in a massive unprecedented effort to destroy factories making war material and to demoralize the German people. Tens of thousands of German civilians perished. By early 1944, the center of many large cities such as Hamburg and Berlin had been reduced to piles of ash and rubble. But proud strong, and tenacious, the German people held on. Much of their war production under the brilliant direction of Albert Speer, simply moved underground and out of harm’s way.

Historians in our time are undecided as to just how important a part the air war played in bringing Germany to her knees. Some argue that the air war accomplished little and was never more than a thorn in her side. Others argue differently. This debate will continue.

There is no disputing this: Germany’s biggest challenge was her bitter fight against the Soviet Union. After brilliant success the first two years, the tide finally turned in early 1943 in favor ofthe Soviet Union and the Germans and their allies found themselves on the defensive fighting for their lives. But the absence of any great threat far in their rear to the West enabled Germany to keep enormous forces along the long Eastern making the Soviets pay dearly for every acre of ground recaptured. Again and again the beleaguered war-weary Joseph Stalin badgered Roosevelt and Churchill with one persistent question: When does this war get a second front?

Stalin had good reason to ask. He and his people were convinced that they had, so far, done most of the hard work, heavy lifting, and shedding of blood in the fight against Germany. By early 1944 US deaths in the ETO (European theatre of Operations) could be counted in the tens of thousands. Russian losses, both civilian and military, could be counted in the millions. Stalin was more than ready for his allies in the West to step up to the plate and do their share. In early June 1944, as far as Stalin was concerned, the US and Britain had not yet entered the fight.

It was universally understood that both the Italian campaign and the strategic bombing of Germany from the air, regardless of how well these efforts went, would be sideshows. The big show in the West, the decisive campaign that would drive the allied dagger into the heart of Nazi Germany would be “boots on the ground” in Northern France launched from bases in nearby England-a second front. It was simply a matter of time.
The Germans were well aware of this as well. And so they prepared for the invasion that was sure to come. Their most famous and respected General, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox” was sent to northern France to oversee the construction of defenses there. Month after month he worked twelve hour days visiting beach after beach directing the construction of massive concrete fortifications, pillboxes, and the placement of hundreds of thousands of mines in a colossal effort to turn back the invasion with a deadly reception on the beaches.
After being assured by his weather consultants that uncooperative weather would prevent an allied landing, an exhausted Rommel finally took a break and hopped in a staff car to make the long drive to visit his wife in Germany on her birthday- June 6.
For the Allies, careful, meticulous planning was also an absolute necessity. For a year or so prior to June 6, the US had been sending men and material to England. In most towns and villages in the southern part of that country, US servicemen outnumbered the English. They waited and they trained. Mostly they trained. Day after day ships from the states unloaded cargoes of men and material. Everyone knew what it was for-the invasion of continental Europe.
Yet only a handful of top allied planners knew exactly where on the long coast of Northern France the invasion force would land. This was top secret and closely guarded. If the Germans discovered this and were able to prepare accordingly, a crucial aspect of the element of surprise would be lost and the invasion likely doomed to failure. The Germans must be kept guessing.
Hitler and his staff thought that they knew. For a variety of reasons, including the counsel of Hitler’s astrologers, they were convinced that the invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais in Northeastern part of France. A crack German army was sent there in early 1944. Nevertheless, Hitler was persuaded by prudent advisors to place German airfields and several highly mobile panzer divisions in reserve within a reasonable striking distance of the entire coastline. Mostly they would count on their tanks, the Luftwaffe, or German air force, was only a shadow of what it had once been.
Rommel was forced to do the best he could with what he had. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht or German army tied down in the East, nearly all of the German divisions in the West were under strength. And so he had to deploy his forces wisely.

Rommel was not only dissatisfied with the quantity of forces at his disposal, the quality of those forces was a problem as well. Quite simply Germany was running out of manpower. Along the coast of Northern France many units were filled with teenagers belonging to the “Hitlerjungen” or Hitler youth- ideologically pure but mere boys. Other units were filled with the former wounded and sickly. Others were filled with old men. It was not unusual to view in a group of German prisoners on or after D-Day a sixty-five year old man standing next to a fifteen year old posing next to a twenty-five year old with a patch over one eye and a hand missing. The Germans were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. They would be no match for American units of well trained, highly motivated college aged young men at the peak of their physical powers.
Even worse (from the German view) were the “Ost” or East units along the coast filled with men who spoke little or no German who nevertheless wore the German uniform, Russian POWs who had been given a choice: serve the Fuhrer and be fed or sit in a POW camp and slowly starve to death. So they chose the former. But reliable they were not. When the going got tough German leaders feared that they would throw up their arms and embrace the POW status once again-this time as prisoners of the Americans or British where they were likely to be fed, and treated well. Still it was worth a try: they just might fight long enough to keep the Yanks or Brits off the beach. A Russian in a pillbox sitting behind a machinegun on the day of the invasion was better than an unmanned pillbox. Would they fight or immediately surrender? This and a thousands other questions kept the Field Marshall up at night.

The biggest question of all was exactly when the invasion would come. Even Dwight Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters did not know. It would be weather dependent. The English channel could be treacherous, even in early June. TO send the invasion armada out in bad weather would invite disaster. A few centuries before the Spanish Armada had found out the hard way.
Most of us know that the weather cooperated and the invasion did finally come on June 6 and it was a great success. Our boys landed not at Pas de Calais but at Normandy even though Hitler and his closest planners for several days, astonishingly, refused to believe that the business at Normandy was anything more than a diversion.
Over the years some prominent historians such as Richard Overy, have doubted that D-Day was as important as we have been told. They maintain that the war in the East was what really decided things and spelled the end for Nazi Germany.
There is some justification for this view. Without question, the biggest part of the German war effort was in the East. Two thirds of the German soldiers who died in WW II died there. The biggest land battles of the war, Stanlingrad and Kursk, were on the Eastern Front. Compared to these colossal struggles, darn near anything that occurred in the West, with the exception of the battle of the Bulge, was a much smaller affair. Due to the severe depletion of manpower and material in the East, the Germans had little left to fight a big war in the West. The German who fought the American and Englishman in the West, in this view, was a warrior already weak from a severe loss of blood in the East. By rights the laurels of victory belonged to the hard fighting Russians, not to any English or French speaking warriors. The warriors of the Soviet Union did the lion’s share of the dirty work and the Americans and their partners simply moved in for the final coup de gras.
Historian Stephen Ambrose had a huge problem with this view. He believed that total victory and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany would never have been possible without a second front. Though Stalin had given assurances to Roosevelt and Churchill that such thing would never occur, Allied leaders were scared that an impatient and exhausted Stalin could have parlayed for a separate peace, a cessation of hostilities not unlike the Armistice of 1918. A non-agression pact had existed between the two nations from 1939 to 1941, and though they were bitter enemies, there was plenty of reason to believe that the Germans would have surrendered all of the conquered Russian territory and simply returned to the positions of 1939, a move that would have assured the survival of Nazi Germany and freed up dozens of crack, battle hardened divisions to travel West to reinforce their comrades already in place in Northern France. This would surely have doomed any hope of a successful invasion. This was a real possibility, Ambrose argued, a persistent fear that haunted American and British planners. They trusted comrade Stalin as far as they could throw him.
They could not forget something very important: in 1917 the Russians had given up, abandoned the fight against Germany and gone home to fight among themselves. Overnight, the Germans suddenly had a manageable situation. Massive reinforcements were sent to the Western front. The two front war became a one-front war-all to Germany’s advantage. And so the war dragged on another year only to end in an unsatisfactory truce. And even that would not have occurred if the US had not joined the fight.
Well, allied leaders reasoned, this could happen again.
There was no time to lose. To prevent a separate peace in the East, a successful invasion in the West had to take place as soon as possible. To the Americans and British, any sort of armistice, cease fire or negotiated terms with Nazi Germany was completely unacceptable. A commitment to the unconditional surrender of Germany had been made early in 1943 at Casablanca in North Africa and they were sticking to it. There would be no repeat of the mistakes of 1918 and the Versailles Treaty.
In short, it is possible that the European half of World War Two could have ended without a second front in the West. It was NOT necessary for a truce or armistice, or cessation of hostilities. That could have, and indeed, probably would have occurred in the East without the second front. But….Nazi Germany would have survived-a most unsatisfactory conclusion to the war, not what we were fighting for, not why we were “over there.”
To Stephen Ambrose the importance of D-Day, June 6, cannot be overstated. It was the decisive day of the European war, the real beginning of the end for Germany. It meant a two front war, something Germany could not sustain. At the end of what is often called “the longest day”, the worst fears of sensible German planners and strategists had come to fruition. They were doomed and they knew it. A few weeks later a large group of desperate German officers knowing of the bitter future that awaited their nation if something wasn’t done quickly, sponsored an attempt on the life of Hitler. They almost succeeded.
Tonight I watched a TV special narrated by journalist Brian Williams as he followed and reminisced with four aged veterans at the Normandy coast. One had been a paratrooper, one a sailor and the other two soldiers on the scene that fateful day. Mostly these old fellows spoke of the comrades that didn’t survive the hard business of that day and they strolled teary eyed through rows of crosses in the carefully maintained US cemetery above “Omaha” beach, a place this writer wants to visit someday.
When Eisenhower gave the orders to proceed late on June 5 and unleashed that mighty force against the enemy held French coast, it was all out of his hands and up to these fellows- paratroopers of the British 1st airborne and the US 101st and 82nd divisions, sailors of the US and British Navy, soldiers of the US 1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry divisions, and many more British, Canadians, and Free French forces. It was up to them to take that  thirty mile long beach away from Axis forces and hold it firmly until more men and material could arrive. And more. And more. Until Germany felt the full wrath of an aroused democracy. It was the common soldier, young men mostly in their early twenties that accomplished it, that got the job done and opened the much-needed second front in the West. Until this was accomplished, there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany, in one form or another, could and probably would, survive. By the end of the day on June 6 there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany was doomed. D-Day made all the difference.



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Walter Reed and the Deadly Yellow Jack

During the Spanish-American War, Robert Cooke and two other soldiers of the US army volunteered for an especially hazardous and unusual job. They agreed to come face to face with an enemy that had, over the course of the previous century and before, taken down thousands of US soldiers, an enemy far deadlier than any human brandishing a weapon. As part of a noble experiment, these brave men agreed to spend twenty days in a simple frame structure full of filthy, smelly carpet, bedding, and other textiles. They would exchange their uniforms for the filthy stinking ones they found in the building. The conventional wisdom was that these men would never walk out of this building. They would have to be carried out. And if they survived, it would be by the grace of the Almighty God. Quite simply most regarded it as a suicide mission.

Their commanding officer thought otherwise. He was in charge at Camp Lazear, a unique experimental facility in Cuba in late 1900. He was sure that these healthy men would get sick to their stomach and lose a meal or two in that filthy place, but otherwise they would be fine. The dreaded enemy wouldn’t bother them. Though he was sure they would come to no real harm, Dr. Walter Reed admired their courage nevertheless. He hated it that human volunteers, human guinea pigs, were so necessary for this project. But there was no other way.

The dreaded enemy was Yellow Fever, often called “Yellow Jack.” And it was serious. This malady, a scourge of American civilization, seemed to have originated in Africa in the early years of the slave trade. Traveling over the Atlantic in ships loaded with their sad human cargos, it was a deadly import to the Americas, afflicting slave trading Europeans as a sort of divine revenge growing in proportion to the slave trade itself. Major epidemics afflicted English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies and plantations, especially in the Caribbean and in Southern ports along the Gulf Coast. Native Americans, at least those who had survived the various smallpox epidemics now had another worry. Only the Africans seemed, for the most part, immune. Unfortunately this didn’t help them. Since they weren’t particularly vulnerable to the malady, this made them all the more desirable as slaves. And the terrible slave trade continued until finally outlawed in the Americas in the mid-nineteenth century. By then Yellow Fever was firmly established.

Yellow Fever was the most dreaded disease in North America for over two hundred years. There was no cure. All that could be done was to try to keep it from breaking out in the first place or to keep it from spreading when it did break out. Upon arrival in a port ships were often quarantined and the crews forced to remain on board until local authorities, after making the necessary examinations, were sure that no sick persons were aboard. When epidemics broke out in towns and cities healthy persons fled to the countryside and sick persons were kept in hospitals apart from the general population. Their clothing and bedding was burned. Floors were scrubbed with chemicals and every effort was made to keep the “infection” from spreading. But all too often it seemed that the epidemics, despite the best efforts of doctors and health officials, simply had to run their course. And, curiously enough, those epidemics always broke out in warm or hot weather. In more temperate areas, with the first frost and the coming of cooler weather, new cases diminished and finally ceased.

US history is replete with Yellow Fever epidemics. The worst occurred in the city of Memphis, Tennessee in the summer of 1878, when it seemed that the wrath of God visited that place. At the beginning of the terrible episode half the population departed and stayed away until the thing had run its course. Many businesses closed, some never to reopen. Thousands died, especially among those who stayed in the city. No class or ethnic group was spared. Entire families perished. “Death wagons” with coffins piled high, rolled down the streets collecting the latest victims day after day, week after week. Memphis nearly became a ghost town. Even now one can visit Memphis cemeteries filled with Yellow Jack victims. Many graves are unknown because when buried, no persons remained alive who could identify the deceased. Curiously enough, the African-American population was the least affected. Their death rate was much lower.

The symptoms of Yellow Fever are easy enough to spot. First, the victim feels a severe headache and loss of energy. Then comes a painful sensitivity to light. Then comes a terrible high fever, the body’s attempt to kill the invader. The victim feels as if his/her bones are cracking. If the condition worsens, the kidneys shut down and the body is poisoned. Blood seeps from the eyes and nose. The tongue swells and turns purple. A black vomit pours out and the whites of the eyes turn yellow shortly before death-thus the disease is named. When fatal, the whole process usually lasts about seven to ten agonizing days. It’s not a pleasant way to go.

The malady is not always fatal. As often as not, the victim recovers. When this occurs, he/she develops immunity, and is likely to survive the next epidemic. Often such survivors later rushed to assist in areas where epidemics had broken out. A number of those working in US army hospitals in 1900 in Cuba were survivors of the 1878 Memphis plague.

Yellow Fever and Malaria were the big killers in the Spanish-American War. Of the 5000 or so Americans who died, only 180 died as a result of warfare. The Spanish military was the least of our problems in that popular, “splendid little war.”

Major Walter Reed, a native of Virginia in his late forties, a career soldier and longtime member of the medical corps, was determined to do something about it. Though highly regarded by his peers, most of these respectfully disagreed with him on his theories regarding Yellow Fever, including the surgeon general himself. Nevertheless, because of the magnitude of the problem, he was able to secure permission and funding for a bold experiment in Cuba. His laboratory would be Camp Lazear, named in honor of a comrade and dear friend who had perished the previous year in Yellow Fever research.

Reed believed that the infection was spread, not by any sort of human contact or through contact with the possessions of yellow fever victims but by the bite of the lowly mosquito. That was, in his view, the ONLY way contract the disease. No one could ever get it by contact with a diseased person or his things. Quite simply, it couldn’t spread in this way. In 1900, this was a highly controversial view, a view scoffed at by most of Reed’s peers.

Walter Reed was not the first to suggest this. Other doctors and researchers had published papers and made reports along similar lines. But none of these had been able to offer real scientific proof. In 1900, it was still widely believed that Yellow Fever was contagious and spread from person to person through close contact or somehow upon or within the possessions of sick persons in a manner similar to smallpox or cholera. Gases emanating from swamps could spread the sickness as well it was thought. Malaria, interestingly enough, had been linked to the mosquito, but the medical community, for various reasons, refused to do the same with Yellow Fever.

When Cooke and his two friends happily emerged from the Infected Clothing Building after an unpleasant, but uneventful twenty day stay, Reed felt vindicated. As he had predicted, they were fine. No one had been stricken with the disease even though they had been deliberately exposed to clothing, bedding and other textiles that had been used by or come in close contact with yellow fever patients.

This was huge. For years people had been burning clothing, furniture, and cleansing buildings in an attempt to halt “contagion.” For many years people had been quarantined and separated from loved ones when stricken with the deadly pestilence. Extraordinary and expensive measures, born of fear and desperation, had been the accepted mode of dealing with Yellow Fever epidemics such as the departure of nearly half the population of Memphis from the city in 1878 when it was announced that the disease had appeared in their city. By getting away from the diseased and their infected homes and possessions, one would probably avoid the disease.

In one bold stroke, Walter Reed and his associates proved that nearly all of these oft employed extreme measures were utterly useless and needlessly cruel. Yellow Fever was not contagious like smallpox. If anything could give a person Yellow Fever, wearing the stinking, filthy, vomit stained uniform of a Yellow Fever patient should do it. Sleeping on the bedding or using the blankets and sheets from a Yellow Fever patient should do it. But it didn’t. The test had been unpleasant and sickening for Cooke and his comrades. Their stay in the Infected Clothing Building made them sick at their stomachs but hadn’t made them sick with Yellow Fever.

Reed wasn’t finished. It had long been a universally accepted fact that one could “catch” Yellow Fever from a sick person, that it was contagious and therefore spread by human contact. Reed thought not. A human being couldn’t give you the disease. This was an even more radical notion than his belief that “infected “ things were harmless. He had observed that many of the non-immune volunteers at hospitals full of Yellow Fever patients NEVER came down with it. In those areas stricken with epidemics, plenty of people who had come in close contact with the diseased never developed the malady. For a non-immune person, working at a hospital or being around the sick at home or elsewhere was risky, but it was not a surety that he/she would develop the malady. Furthermore, many of those who had fled Memphis in 1878, people who had had no contact with the sick, nevertheless came down with it. It almost seemed to be in the air they breathed but that really didn’t make any sense. Something else was spreading it. And Reed had a good idea as just what was responsible.

Now, Reed knew, was the time and place to prove it. He made ready for the next experiment. They were a long ways from a cure, but finding out just how the disease spread, or rather did NOT spread, would be a major step. Now they would seek to answer this question: If not through human contact, just how was a healthy person infected with Yellow Fever? It had to be the mosquito. Nothing else made sense.

The theory that the lowly, tiny mosquito spread the pestilence from one person to another(as mentioned before) was not a new one. Walter Reed was not the first research doctor to hold this idea. At Camp Lazear he resolved once and for all to answer the question: was this little bug the culprit? Could it be that the simple mosquito bite was the thing to be avoided, not contact with an infected person, either direct or indirect? Reed had to prove it. The many skeptics out there, particularly in the medical community, demanded hard proof. Until this was produced, the old ways of dealing with the disease would continue.

In another one room building called the Infected Mosquito Building at Camp Lazear, Reed conducted the next important experiment. Into this building he placed three healthy, non-immune volunteers. A large screen or tight-woven net was placed down the middle with two men on one side and John Moran on the other. All three men breathed the same air, used the same linens, ate the same food, wore the same clothing etc. except for one important difference: Carefully selected mosquitoes raised and cultivated in a nearby laboratory were released on Moran’s side of the net. He allowed himself to be bit multiple times. On the “safe side” the other two were protected. They received no bug bites.

It didn’t take long to get results. On Christmas Day John Moran, after only four days in the building, awoke with a headache and chill. Later that day his temperature was 104 degrees. He remained in the room and was treated there. Without a doubt he had contracted Yellow Fever. Over the course of his illness he lost twenty pounds. But, fortunately, he survived and lived to tell the tale. The two men on the other side of the building watched it all and stayed for the entire allotted time staying in close proximity to Moran. They never contracted the illness.
Walter Reed was elated. Finally, the long-awaited scientific breakthrough had been accomplished. It was the mosquito all along and only the mosquito. There was no longer any doubt.
No one had yet identified just what the nasty little bug was doing to its human victims, but he was doing more than simply taking blood OUT of humans and moving their blood around from person to person: he was putting something deadly INTO a human at the same time. We know now of the Yellow Fever virus. But it would be several more years and many more hours in laboratories before this tiny, tiny sneaky and highly adaptable killer would be isolated and identified. Other forms of Yellow Fever, different from the American variety, would be discovered in Africa. More researchers would die. Although it has largely been banished from the Americas, (for the time being)Yellow Fever, in various forms, remains a terrible scourge worldwide.

Walter Reed and his brave volunteers simply pointed us in the right direction. Not only did they not discover the virus, the real enemy, they didn’t discover a cure for Yellow Fever. But finally at long last, the means by which that tiny enemy was injected into humans had been identified. For all practical purposes the mosquito WAS the enemy. And in most wars, enemy identification is half the battle. Reed and his associates discovered that the more a person was protected from mosquito bites, the better were his chances of avoiding a bout with Yellow Fever. It was that simple. Fight the mosquito and you fight Yellow Fever.

Reed’s findings gained quick acceptance and a war against the mosquito ensued. When possible, swamps were drained and stagnant pools emptied. Extensive use of insect repellants and netting helped as well. The results were remarkable. When, a few years later, enormous crews arrived in Panama to resume the construction of the long-awaited canal, they did the smart thing and attacked the mosquito first. Yellow Fever casualties were kept to a minimum. This time there was no epidemic and one of the greatest engineering feats in human history, the Panama Canal, was finally completed in 1914. Reed and his courageous volunteers at Camp Lazear had made this possible.

Walter Reed returned to the United States a hero, the recipient of promotions, awards and honorary degrees. He is best remembered in our time for the Washington DC military hospital that bears his name. Unfortunately he didn’t enjoy his new found success for long. He died in 1902 of a ruptured appendix at the age of 51.
Today Walter Reed is regarded as the brilliant research doctor who gave humankind a long-awaited breakthrough, the first great victory in the long war with a deadly killer: Yellow Fever. We owe him a great debt.

SOURCE: THE AMERICAN PLAGUE by Molly Caldwell Crosby, Berkley Books, New York, 2006.



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Wartime atrocities are a tricky, difficult subject. And it’s hard, very hard to fight a “clean” war, even a war that is justifiable and necessary, where only the guilty are punished and all participants conduct themselves honorably. There are simply too many people involved. And even among the “good” guys, even in the good apple barrel, there will be a few rotten apples.
Only those nations who allow others to fight the wars can plead innocence. Sweden, for example, stayed out of World War Two. They were fortunate. When it came to defeating Hitler and his legions, the British, Americans, Russians, and many others, even Brazilians, did the dirty work. They expended their blood and treasure to stamp out the worst threat to humanity ever to appear in that part of the world. Therefore nations like Sweden and Switzerland are off the hook when it comes to war atrocities. They get no blame. In a sense, they stayed in the house and watched someone else dig the sewer line by hand in the pouring rain. Once it was done, they used their restroom and took great pride in their clean hands.

Of course, they get no credit either.

Bad guys, rogue nations, and oppressive regimes do not go down without a fight. And those nations who join the fight to bring them down will, inevitably, cross some lines and make some poor moral choices. In the course of the terrible business, the painful but necessary operation they will do things they later regret.

Often Americans say something like this: “Sure, the Germans did bad things in WW II. But so did we. The US did terrible things and violated the rules of warfare in Vietnam. We’re no better than they were.” I’ve actually heard otherwise intelligent people say things of this sort.

When I hear such things I’m usually not sure where to begin the discussion-if there is to be one. Often such remarks are tossed out by people with few facts at their disposal and no intention of honestly debating the matter. (Indeed few people know HOW to really debate an issue, to enter into a respectful discussion where the ground rules are understood, the perimeters of the issue are defined, etc.)On such occasions, I do my best to keep my composure and temper.

But….let me take a stab at this.

Let’s compare the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam (a US wartime atrocity) to the work of German police battalion 101 in Poland (examined closely in Daniel J. Goldhagen’s HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS-see previous article) and raise the following questions: Was the crime of Lt. Calley and the men of “Charlie Company” in Vietnam just as bad, just as deplorable, just as heinous , as the crime of Major Trapp and his men in Poland 25 years before in the village of Jozefow in the Spring of 1942? Will such a comparison result in a moral equivalency between the two events? Are we, in a sense, comparing rotten apples to rotten apples or are were comparing rotten apples to a poisonous fruit?

First, consider what occurred in the village of My Lai in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Essentially a company of US combat infantry operating in a war zone let their emotions, their anger, their battle fatigue, frustration, whatever one may call it, get the better of them and methodically slaughtered, tortured and raped over four hundred innocent villagers. The end result was a huge pile of dead civilians- elderly men, women, and children, non-combatants-an awful business, contrary to the rules of war, contrary to their own code of conduct, a deed that caused the US great embarrassment when the gruesome photos were published in Life and other magazine a year later. My Lai is considered by many the “most shocking episode of the Vietnam war.”
One must, however, recognize some important differences in the two scenarios.

FIRST, the big picture is quite different. US servicemen were not sent to South Vietnam to massacre South Vietnamese civilians. There was no policy of genocide. Prejudice against the South Vietnamese was not promoted by the US government . Ostensibly, it was just the opposite. From Eisenhower to Nixon, over the long course of this cold-war conflict, the South Vietnamese were regarded as victims of Communist aggression and the US was there to help. US officials were in constant and widely publicized contact with SV leaders. The official US position was one of concern and respect toward the South Vietnamese government and its people.

Of course, this official position was not always honored by Americans in Vietnam. There was hypocrisy. Among the rank and file, “Gook” and other insulting words in regards to Asians were thrown around a great deal. Racism of many varieties was still quite common in the US and they brought such attitudes to Vietnam. Furthermore, if the enemy is racially different , racism is to be expected-particularly in a war zone. The enemy and the civilians, who give him aid and comfort, will not be spoken of in complementary tones or treated with respect. And, it must be admitted, My Lai was not the only atrocity committed by US forces in the Vietnam war. There were others, many others-a subject far beyond the scope of this paper.

On the other hand, at least according to a good friend of mine who served as an infantry company commander and did (unlike most Vietnam Veterans) experience combat, many US servicemen were under strict orders to treat the locals with the utmost courtesy, especially AFTER the sorry My Lai business. There was a positive result. US forces “in the bush” were, for the most part, much better behaved after My Lai.

Whether or not Lt. Calley actually had orders from his commanding officer, Capt Ernest Medina, to murder noncombatants as he saw fit, remains uncertain. At the official Army Criminal Investigation Inquiries held in late 1969 and early 1970 Medina, though he admitted “sugar-coating” his reports and participating in the cover-up, he denied giving orders to execute innocent civilians. Fortunately for him, he was not present in My Lai while the murders were occurring. In November 1970, after many attempts by US army leaders in the related chain of command to whitewash or cover up the sorry business, fourteen officers, including the division commander himself, were brought up on charges. One by one men were exonerated and charges were dropped. Once all was said and done, 2nd Lt William Calley was the only fellow left standing, the only one actually court-martialed and convicted of the charges leveled against him. He had personally shot 22 civilians. This he admitted. He had no choice. There were so many witnesses he couldn’t deny it. The testimony against him was overwhelming.

Yet Calley had friends. Many in high places, including retired military leaders and politicians, defended him as the guy who simply became the “scapegoat” for US atrocities in Vietnam in general, but they could not stop his court-martial and conviction and were only able to see that he served no time in prison, that his “imprisonment” was merely a three-year house arrest.
There was some merit to their defense of the beleaguered Lieutenant, but by early 1970 it became obvious to the US government that somebody had to pay for My Lai, and most of all, the damned thing needed to disappear from the headlines. Domestic opposition to the war, already at an uncomfortable level by the late sixties, only increased when the news of My Lai broke.

Considering the pig picture, as to German Police battalion 101, there is no debate: this unit was sent to Poland by the German government on a chilling but simple mission: locate, assemble, and kill Jews. Their mission was made very clear to the five hundred or so men of that unit prior to the firing of the first shot. At the beginning, the men knew that they were to be instruments in genocide. In testimony offered years after the war, none of those questioned doubted their mission. They were sent to Poland to kill Jews. The Jews, essentially non-combatants, were the “enemy.” It was all very simple and straightforward.

Imagine if you can, a country where cold-blooded, systematic massacres in an otherwise “peaceful” situation, massacres that make our more recent Sandy Hook and Columbine shootings in the US seem pretty tame by comparison, are occurring EVERYDAY for several terrible years. No, the Poles didn’t see reports of this on CNN. They didn’t even read about it in the newspapers. But everyone knew what the Germans (with Polish collaborators) were doing. News of this sort travels quickly from person to person and house to house. What the Germans were up to was no secret. That was Poland during WW II.

SECOND, the My Lai massacre was performed by combat troops in a war zone where they were fighting an elusive but deadly enemy who often blended into the local population. Prior to that terrible day in 1968, Lt. Calley’s unit had suffered real losses to a real enemy, 28 men killed and wounded.

Police battalion 101 did NOT operate in a war zone. The real war on the Eastern front and elsewhere, was hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, the men of #101 had NOT been in combat, had suffered no losses and, according to Goldhagen, during their fifteen month tour of duty in Poland were NEVER engaged in deadly combat with a real enemy. They were executioners, not soldiers, though they often prided themselves on their “dedication and courage” and took pride in the commendations the unit received from a grateful government. * What they did was both inexcusable and beyond understanding to a rational, reasoning mind, a mind where a conventional morality is held.

THIRD, once the deeds of Lt. Calley and his men were brought to light by US journalists, there was a scandal. The US government was embarrassed and Calley was relieved of his command and brought up on charges. High-ranking officers who had participated in the cover-up were stripped of decorations and sent letters of censure. Even Calley’s division commander was demoted from major general to brigadier and lost his position as commandant at West Point. There were consequences and repercussions up the chain of command.

In Nazi Germany there was no scandal, no need for any “cover-up.” No participants of the German Police Battalions were brought up on charges for the murder of Jews by the Nazi Government. Quite the opposite. They received praise and commendations of gratitude from their government. Clearly, the German government was proud of these men.

FOURTH, a few Americans, notably High Thompson, a helicopter pilot who stumbled onto the grisly business as it was happening at My Lai, tried to intervene and rescue Vietnamese civilians. Though shunned by some of his comrades initially, he was later commended by his superiors and awarded a Bronze Star for heroism.

As far as we know German Police battalion 101 did their work without hindrance. No fellow Germans tried to stop them. Had anyone tried they would have gotten themselves into big trouble.

FIFTH, Charlie Company did this terrible thing, the murder of somewhere between 350 to 400 civilians, only once. It had not happened before and it did not happen again.

The story is dramatically different for Police Battalion 101 twenty five years before. The massacre at Jozefow was only the beginning. They continued from place to place with their grisly business, doing the same thing over and over again. Author Goldhagen believes that this unit alone was responsible directly or in part, for the deaths of over eighty thousand innocent civilians!

The deeds of the police battalions were never officially made public until well after war’s end, though many in the Fatherland knew of them. Any zealous reporter or journalist who attempted to announce the business of the police battalions to the German public would have found him or herself in prison. Or worse. Nazi Germany was a police state. There was no American style freedom of the press or free speech. Major Trapp was never brought up on charges. There was no scandal involving Major Trapp with the German press or the Nazi government. On the contrary, his unit was ordered to proceed to other towns and villages and murder more Jews. Again and again.

To this writer, a comparison of these two groups is a little like comparing the fellow who kills someone in a barroom brawl to the deeds of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer! (best comparison I can think of at the moment)

Now to call the question: Is there any real similarity between the deeds of Lt. Calley and his men to the deeds of Major Trapp and his men?
I say not much.


Lt Calley and the men of Charlie Company operated within a universally recognized moral universe, a system of right and wrong, good verses evil, sanctioned and approved by the society from which they originated and the nation they served. In the months following the My Lai incident they attempted to hide their deeds and “sugar-coat” the after-action reports using language that gave no real indication of the terrible truth. They tried to “sweep it under the rug.” But they did not succeed. The truth came out and they had to own up to their deeds.

The men of Charlie Company sitting on the docket knew well that many of their comrades in other units who had done similar things (though not on the scale of My Lai) would escape official scrutiny. In this they can be compared to the fellow motoring along in a crowd of rapidly moving vehicles who finds himself pulled over and ticketed for speeding. He was not only in violation of the law, he was just plain unlucky. But…. it didn’t make him right and he had to pay the fine.

The frightening question is this: would I, had I been a part of that unit, succumbed to powerful peer pressure, a mob mentality, and violated the standards of morality and decency and fair play that Americans celebrate and hold dear? Or would I have exercised appropriated self-control and said “No” when all around me my comrades are saying “Yes” to the demons that had laid hold of their souls that terrible day at My Lai? Would I have kept my moral wits when even my best buddies, all other members of my unit, were losing theirs?

As bad as My Lai was, German Police Battalion 101 presents us with a much different and far more sobering situation. They operated in an entirely different moral universe, one where traditional ideas and standards of right and wrong had been discarded altogether, a new morality, one where the dominant groups deserved to exist and prosper and lesser social groups, especially the Jews, a group officially deemed sub-human, did not deserve to exist at all. For the good of Germany and the world, they needed to be exterminated.

In November, 1961 Kurt Mobius, a former member of Police Battalion 101 testified thus: “ it did not occur to me that these orders (to murder Jews) could be unjust…I believed the propaganda that all Jews were criminals and subhumans.. the thought that one should evade the order to exterminate them did not enter my mind at all.” P.179

Put simply, this man was part of a nation where a vastly different moral universe was acknowledged. That such a twisted, bizarre system of values could hold sway over the hearts and minds of people in a nation where a powerful, and pervasive Christian tradition existed, is chilling beyond words. The men of Police Battalion 101, unlike the men of Charlie Company, weren’t violating their own moral standards when they murdered innocent civilians, they were honoring those standards, doing what they thought was right and proper. They did not, as far as we know, harbor any guilt about it-at least not for a long time, at least not until they were forced to confront all this sorry business years later by their astonished conquerors.

In excusing themselves, attempting to cover up or gloss over or hide the My Lai massacre the men of Charlie Company and those in authority over them did at least acknowledge that a terrible, inexcusable thing had occurred at My Lai. In the months following they ran away from it and distanced themselves from it as fast as they could. My Lai was a big failure and failure, as the old saying goes, is an “orphan.” Though many of the participants may have muttered various rationales, justifications, and excuses amongst themselves for the terrible business at My Lai, no American officer or official ever claimed that Charlie Company had done “the right thing”.

On the opposite hand, the men of Police Battalion 101 and the officials in charge did not, for many years, believe that they had done anything wrong. On the whole, all the evidence and testimony suggests that they were quite proud of what they had done. Furthermore, I suspect that many of them never thought twice about their deeds and went to their graves with a clear conscience!

In general, the work of the German Police Battalions in Poland during World War Two represents a far more chilling, frightening scenario than the moral lapses of US servicemen in Vietnam in that war.

Is there a moral equivalency between the two scenarios?
Absolutely not. Though the end result (for one day’s work) was the same, they’re far more different than they are similar. Charlie Company in 1968 was a “rotten apple”- good guys gone bad. But German Police Battalion 101 in 1942 was “a poisonous fruit”-deadly by nature.

Jim Hardaway December, 2013


*Of the 38 Police battalions that participated in genocide, author Goldhagen tells us that a few of these units were sent East to a real war zone and actually DID engage in combat with the Soviets, a real, rather than imaginary “Jewish” enemy.

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HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel J. Goldhagen

This book caused quite a sensation when it appeared a few years ago. In his analysis of the almost total destruction of European Jews by Hitler’s Nazi regime, an event known universally as the Holocaust, author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen articulated a startling thesis: many thousands of those who carried out the terrible “Final Solution” were not brainwashed ideologues but simply common representatives of a an entire nation that had embraced anti-Semitism as the cultural and social norm. Yes, he admits, SS and Nazi party members ran the camps and staffed the killing machines at Auschwitz and at so many other terrible places. Over the years they’ve received a great deal of attention. Yes, they were the leaders, the most visible, and perhaps the most fanatical of Hitler’s executioners.

The SS and their Nazi superiors were simply chips off of a larger German block. They’re only part of the picture. “Ordinary” Germans , thousands of people representative of a broad spectrum of German society, also became willing and enthusiastic supporters of and participants in, genocide. They did so because they, like their Nazi leaders, and most Germans of that generation, believed that Jews were a problem. Nazi leaders, regardless of their popularity, had finally come up with a solution to that problem. Goldhagen is adamant: the typical German during the Nazi era was thoroughly anti-Semitic. They embraced genocide and murder because they firmly believed that humiliating, torturing, starving, and finally killing Jews was the right thing to do.

Naturally, this analysis was controversial. This book has garnered great critical acclaim and numerous awards. But Mr. Goldhagen has his critics.

This is to be expected. In our time many Germans remain in a profound state of denial about the beliefs and attitudes of Germans during the Nazi era. Just after the war they were quick to distance themselves from Nazis and SS, from those on the dock at Nuremburg with the assertion that those people did not represent “ordinary” Germans. It was common for Americans and British in the postwar occupation to hear the locals talk about Nazis and the SS almost as if they had been agents of some other nation. The ordinary German, people like us, they told their conquerors, not only did not really know of the genocide occurring in the occupied nations other than by way of idle rumor, but ordinary decent Germans had no significant part in it. When they did, unfortunately, find themselves involved in genocide, ordinary Germans, they asserted over and over again, did so only because they had no choice. Like the defendants at Nuremberg) they were only following orders. The average German did not fret about a “Jewish Problem”, they insisted, that was a Nazi obsession. After the war, American authorities had a hard time getting anyone to admit that they had been members of the Nazi party. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, a group that had had a nearly eight million person membership at its height, seemed to have disappeared.

For many years this explanation has sufficed, not only for most modern Germans, but also for many Americans. The German people, it is widely believed, were simply manipulated, abused, and used by fanatical Nazis and their bizarre, bewitching Fuhrer. Anti-Semitism was mostly a Nazi invention, a thing embraced by ordinary Germans only for a brief, but tragic period of time. If the German people had really known of the terrible things being done to the Jews, they would have put a stop to it. Gosh, the ordinary German of the Nazi era was not so different from the average American. Or Englishman, etc.etc, They were just regular folks doing the best they could in a bad situation. And they paid dearly for their “mistakes.” So it is believed.

Mr. Goldhagen will have none of this. The Holocaust occurred , he contends, not just because the Nazis and the SS wanted it, but because the German people as a whole, a people with a long history of anti-Semitism, wanted it as well. They were in it together-up to their eyeballs. It was a joint effort. And when it came to exterminating Jews, ordinary Germans didn’t just look the other way, they did their part. And did so with great enthusiasm.

Goldhagen’s verdict is harsh: as to the Holocaust, few Germans of that generation can plead ignorance or innocence. The truly ignorant? Very, very few.. The truly innocent, those who had not embraced anti-Semitic views, but resisted Nazi ideology as well as Nazi power? Also few and far between. It is well known that many resisted the Nazi regime, especially late in the war when it became obvious that Germany was losing, but throughout the long, terrible drama, only a precious few protested Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. It is now astonishing to discover that even among Hitler’s most vocal and bitter critics, a “Jewish problem” was universally acknowledged.

The Nazi program, Goldhagen insists, was a German program. And vice versa. The two cannot be separated. When the murders are described, he identifies the murderers again and again not as Nazis but as “Germans.” He uses the word “Nazi” only when necessary. The Holocaust was a German national effort, not merely the enterprise of a fringe, special interest group. Yes, there were also collaboraters, local helpers in the occupied areas where the murders occurred, but they were minor characters in what was essentially a German drama.
The best evidence for his thesis is found in the work of the German police battalions in Poland. In chapters 7 and 8 Goldhagen gives us the story of battalion 101 from the Hamburg area, a critical examination both of their deeds and their motives. German police battalions (500-600 men) were NOT elite units but collections of local police quickly formed into military type units, put on trains and sent to the occupied zones to await further orders. Unlike the SS, they were given NO ideological training. Their superiors, it seems, were confident “special training” was not needed. The average policeman was older than the average German soldier (36.5 years old) Their backgrounds were the backgrounds of typical Germans. Most had wives and children. Though they had participated in rounding up German Jews in Hamburg and putting them on Eastbound trains, their duties in Hamburg prior to 6/42 had been “the normal, unremarkable duties of policemen.” (p. 204) These policemen, Godlhagen insists, were themselves unremarkable, ordinary Germans, “the man next door”, unlikely candidates for mass murder.

All this changed in the Summer of ‘42 when Battalion 101 arrived in the Lublin District of occupied Poland. The Holocaust was in its opening stages as they arrived. Jews were being rounded up and sent to the Warsaw and other urban ghettos. Deportations to death camps were just around the corner. But German authorities in Poland knew that they didn’t have them all. Across the countryside, in the woods and small towns, tens of thousands of Jews were avoiding the orders to leave home and head to the larger ghettos. Shorthanded, the military occupation forces needed help. From the Fatherland, the local police were sent over. They would locate these uncooperative Jews and deal with them.

And so they did. Sometime in late June or early July, (the postwar testimony was uncertain of the exact date) these police arrived in the village of Jozefow. As soon as they got out of their trucks, Major Trapp, the battalion commander, assembled his men and informed them of what was expected of them, that they would be shooting Jews. After going through the details of the operation the Major made a remarkable offer: those who were not “up to the task” would be allowed to avoid it. They would be assigned to other duties. A dozen men stepped forward, wanting no direct part in the gruesome business. Only a dozen out of approximately five hundred.
The next day the German police of battalion 101 began driving the Jews of Jozefow from their homes. Those who did not cooperate were shot on the spot. Jewish patients in a local hospital were shot in their beds. After sorting the able bodied men from the others and sending them elsewhere, the police transported hundreds of Jews, those who had survived the initial roundup, to assembly areas just outside town. One by one, old men, women, and children were taken into the woods, ordered to lie down and shot in the head. When the policemen returned to get their next victim, they were usually covered in human gore.

There was nothing impersonal about it. Each policeman was able to look his victims full in the face and hear their cries of anguish, their pleas for mercy before he killed them. “In this personalized, individual manner, each of the men who took part in the shooting generally killed between five and ten Jews, most of whom were elderly, women and children.” (p. 218) The victims lay on the ground unburied. They were not forced to undress nor were they searched for valuables and robbed. This sort of thing would come later.

Some of the victims that day were Jewish refugees from Germany. Many begged for their lives in a language and even in accents familiar to these policemen from Hamburg. One was a veteran of the First World War. None of this made any difference. They died alongside the Polish Jews. In the view of these “ordinary Germans”, a Jew was a Jew and needed to be exterminated.

Goldhagen is firm in one very important detail: the postwar transcripts from several participants in this grisly business,(men not aware of the party line) all agree that NO retribution was visited upon those who wanted no part in the killing, or upon those who wanted out of the business after having participated in it. In this way, most of the officers and NCO’s demonstrated a certain solicitude for the feelings of their men. They realized that they had pulled their men into a new moral universe, and that some of them simply didn’t have the stomach for it. They understood that these were not the sort of duties these policemen had signed on for when they had entered the police force. How touching.

Not long after this, on August 19, the battalion carried out a similar operation in the nearby town of Lomazy. Many of those ( the testimony reveals) who had been revolted and disgusted by what they had done in Jozefow, found a bit easier this time. A generous distribution of alcohol that evening helped. Some even took photographs of Jews assembled on an athletic field shortly before their execution (pp.224-225) Another photo shows Jews digging a mass grave (p. 226) On that day, battalion 101 murdered an estimated 1600 Jews at Lomazy.
Furthermore, it seems that many of the policeman enjoyed making their victims suffer for awhile before their execution. Forced to disrobe to the waist, many were badly sunburned as they died. Some of the old men were forced to undress completely and crawl toward their newly dug graves as the policemen beat them with clubs before shooting them. Hundreds of Jews were forced to watch in horror before they too, were shot. One can only surmise, Goldhagen insists, that these “ordinary Germans” were beginning to enjoy their work. Some of it was great fun. In candid photos taken after the massacre, the men seem in good spirits, almost as if they were on vacation.

Goldhagen concludes: “The years killing culminated in the November 1943 immense slaughter in Majdanek and Poniatowa..all told the men in Police Battalion 101( before returning home)participated in killing operations in which they, alone or together with others, shot or deported to their deaths well over eighty thousand Jews.” (p.233) The post-war testimony of various members of battalion 101 is simply staggering. They performed so many missions against their Jewish “enemies” in the Polish countryside that they lost count. Furthermore, if they suffered any casualties as they went after their Jewish enemies, they don’t mention it. Dangerous, courageous work indeed.

The Jewish community of Poland, numbering approximately three million, in 1939, was mostly eradicated. At the war’s end, less than a hundred thousand remained. German police battalions, ordinary men with no special ideological orientation, men with wives and children of their own back in Hamburg and other German communities, played a major role in accomplishing this, without a doubt, one of the most successful genocides in human history.

Though many of them were clearly haunted by their deeds in later years, men of the German Police Battalions, (#101 was but one of many) Goldhagen insists, willingly and enthusiastically participated in genocide not because they were forced to do so but because they thought it the right and proper thing to do. Their anti-Semitic view of things, their empathy with Nazi ideology, was a typical, not an atypical German view. The Jew was the enemy, they believed, and the good patriotic German did what had to be done to rid Europe of this enemy. Only when this was accomplished could Germany achieve its destiny and live in peace and prosperity.
(more to come- an examination of the late war death marches and what they tell us of the typical German anti-Semitic impulse)

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Finally..finally…a major motion picture that features real people and the hard facts surrounding the assassination of JFK. Since 11/22/63 we’ve been subjected to numerous flights of cinematic fantasy, journeys down the rabbit holes of various conspiracy theories where the viewer is never sure where the fact ends and the fiction begins. PARKLAND, a film named for the hospital in Dallas where Kennedy and (two days later) Oswald were taken and treated in late November,1963, deals only with the facts, depicting certain important characters in the assassination drama such as Abraham Zapruder, the amateur who filmed John Kennedy as he was shot and killed, James Hosty (of the FBI) , the medical personnel of Parkland, and Robert Oswald, brother to the assassin.
No, this film will likely not garner academy awards as did Oliver Stone’s JKF, a highly entertaining, but utterly exasperating film that focused on the successful efforts in 1967 of flamboyant New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison to bring to trial Clay Shaw, a local businessman, for the murder of the President . Shaw, of course, was acquitted. The jury deliberated for less than an hour and delivered its verdict having come to the conclusion that no hard evidence against Mr. Shaw (played beautifully by actor Tommy Lee Jones) had been presented. Mr. Garrison’s case had been dubious at best: hear-say, innuendo, and amateurish trips into the la-la –land of conspiracy theorists, a leaky vessel that would hold no water in a real court of law.
In spite of the failed outcome the grand-standing Mr. Garrison got most of what he wanted-lots of national attention, a sweet book deal, lots of support from fellow conspiracy theorists, and, most tragically, the utter ruination of Clay Shaw, an innocent man who probably couldn’t have been more confused and dumfounded at the incredible charges leveled against him. Many have speculated that Garrison found Shaw, a known homosexual, an easy target. Shaw, interestingly enough, was the only person ever brought to trial for the murder of JFK! The 1967 trial was a joke, a terrible publicity stunt that should never have been allowed. But it was enough to stimulate an academy-award winning film many years later.
The new film PARKLAND sticks to the facts, principally the whirlwind of the events of November 22-25. They happened so fast- JFK landed at Love Field in Dallas for a routine presidential visit to a major US city around noon on Air Force One, stepped into a vehicle with his wife and the Texas governor and his wife and began their trip through the city. An hour later he was pronounced dead at Parkland hospital. About an hour after that his body was whisked away to Washington DC leaving behind a city and a nation in a state of complete shock and confusion, with dozens of law enforcement agencies eager to get to the bottom of things and discover what had just occurred and who was responsible.
Fifty years later, it seems that LH Oswald, the young man that police officers surrounded at a Dallas movie theater later that day and placed under arrest, a man fitting the description of witnesses to the shooting at Dealy Plaza, is still the best and most reliable answer to the question: Who shot JFK? He was held for two days, questioned repeatedly (he never said anything of any use) until he himself was shot by Jack Ruby, an angry, grieving local businessman, as officials attempted to move Oswald the suspect to another location. This was witnessed on national television.
An especially memorable portrayal in PARKLAND is that of businessman, and amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder, (portrayed by actor Paul Giamati) a man who just happened to be “Johnny-on-the-spot” at the right place and the right time, giving us what is possibly the most famous and scrutinized bit of film in US history, about two-hundred or so frames of 8mm film, lasting only ten or fifteen seconds, recording the murder of a president. A stunned and distraught Zapruder was surrounded by secret service agents and forced to turn over his camera within an hour of the assassination. Those few seconds he recorded on his camera changed his life.
Another tragic character depicted is that of Robert Oswald, brother to the assassin, a sane, level-headed, decent man doomed to live as part of a tragically dysfunctional family, shackled to a criminally weird brother and a delusional, nutty mother who, to her dying day, maintained that her son Lee was an agent of the US government who had been framed for murder. Many conspiracy theorists believed her.
Then there is FBI agent James Hosty. LH Oswald had been on his case file, one of many. He never met Oswald, but in late October had been to his home on a routine visit and spoke to Marina, Oswald’s Russian born wife, for a few minutes. She didn’t and couldn’t say much. Sitting in his auto at the time he had simply made a notation in his file and moved on to the next subject. The next day another notation was made in that same file when an angry Oswald himself came to the FBI office and verbally threatened to blow up the building. Instead of arresting him, the office workers threw him out and warned him never to return. Hosty had not been there. No one at the office took Oswald seriously. He was just another delusional nut with a big mouth. They had seen his kind before. They would check on him later.
Later came much quicker than they could have ever guessed. Upon hearing of the arrest of Oswald, Hosty felt an alarm go off in his head. He dashed to the file cabinet and took out Oswald’s file collapsing into a chair, fearing that this might spell the end of his FBI career. He dutifully took it to his supervisor, who recoiled in horror at the thing and gave Hosty a tongue lashing unlike anything he had ever imagined. But the question was now paramount? Would they confess to the world and to their superiors that they had had the assassin under surveillance? Or would they destroy the evidence and assume their part of ongoing investigations assuming the same sort of shock and ignorance as their fellow law enforcement officers?
They did the latter. In PARKLAND the Dallas FBI supervisor orders agent Hosty to get rid of the file and pretend, like everyone else in the office, that the damned thing never existed. Hosty burns it and that is that. This writer has been led to believe that the destruction of the file was ordered by J. Edgar Hoover himself in an attempt to avoid embarrassment to his agency, a thing NOT depicted in this movie. There may be some controversy on this. No matter, the file was destroyed anyway. If Hoover had ordered it, he never would have admitted it. Hosty, in later years, did admit to doing it.
Conspiracy theorists over the years have gone crazy with this, sure that this destruction of evidence somehow had to be part of a large-scale government cover-up. Hosty himself always said that it was no such thing. It was simply an attempt to save the agency from scrutiny and embarrassment, to save his own job and likely that of his supervisor. Heads tend to roll when disaster strikes. That’s the way the world really works. But this obvious truth will never satisfy those in the conspiracy crowd.
PARKLAND, is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. It probably did not stay in the local theatres for long. The performances of the ensemble cast are solid. The performance of Zapruder, by Paul Giamati, is powerful. On the other hand, JKF, by Mr. Stone, with its well-executed forays into fantasy land and skillful performances by famous actors, is far more entertaining. Unfortunately, it will, for many millions, remain the best remembered cinematic statement on the subject.
As the fiftieth anniversary of this important event rolls around in a few days, PARKLAND is well worth viewing. It powerfully captures the spirit and mood of that unforgettable day, the 22nd day of November, 1963, when, as a nine-year old fourth grader sitting in class, our principal walked in and soberly gave us the terrible news. I remember it like it was yesterday.


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Nazis Invade Tennessee

In mid 1943 they came-Nazis, thousands of ‘em, to the great state of Tennessee. It was an invasion the likes of which Tennesseans had not seen since the 1860s.  It was an incredible sight, large groups of enemy soldiers walking through the streets of small towns like Lebanon, Tn where just a year before US soldiers had marched through by the thousands participating in mid state maneuvers and war games. Yes, in 1942 it had been merely a game, a training exercise. A number of men had been killed and injured,  but  this was due to accidents, not warfare. There were no real enemy soldiers, just US soldiers pretending to be the enemy. The real enemy was far away, appearing only in newsreels and newspapers.

 A year later this had changed. In a sense, the war had come home.  Now the soldiers climbing out of trucks and trains appearing in towns such as Clarksville, Lebanon, and Tullahoma looked a great deal like American soldiers but they spoke German and wore Wermacht, German army  uniforms.  No play-acting this time, they were the real thing.  I can only imagine the surprise and raised eyebrows of the old men gathered around the town square, sitting in their usual places whittling, playing checkers,  and chewing tobacco, when they caught their first glimpse of the enemy  on Tennessee soil.

The German soldiers were real enough but, in all honesty, not very frightening. They were unarmed POWs, the acronym for “prisoners of war.”  Tennessee was a world away from Frankfurt or Berlin.  Any attempt to escape was utterly futile. So the vast majority made the best of it. Under the watchful eyes of armed guards they were well behaved- courteous, friendly, and cheerful. Moreover, they were curious about their new surroundings and eager, when allowed, to fraternize with the natives. Many spoke English. For them, the death and destruction of the European war was a thing of the past. For them the war was over. And most of the prisoners couldn’t have been happier about it.

One of the reasons for their good cheer was this: every POW was acutely aware that he was among the fortunate.  In 1943 two of every three German soldiers fought on the Eastern front against the Russians. A German soldier did not want to be a POW in the East. To be a prisoner of the Russians was to be under a death sentence, a slow agonizing death in an ice-cold labor camp where food and medical aid was scarce. As POWs they had arrived in the promised land. For POWs, it was as good as it gets .

There was a simple reason for this. In 1929 United States delegates had agreed to and signed the regulations of the Geneva Convention pertaining to the humane treatment of prisoners of war. And they did so with every intention of following them to the letter. When the US entered the war in late 1941 it was believed that US personnel in German hands would fare much better if the US treated German prisoners according to the Geneva agreement, which, incidentally, Germany had signed as well.  They were right. Though not without many humiliations and hardships, US servicemen in German POW camps fared reasonably well.

All in all, the Geneva Agreements worked pretty well. Prisoners on both sides (US and Germany) throughout the war, fared well, for the most part, once they got away from the front lines and into semi-permanent confinement. But they had to get away from the front lines first. Many ugly incidents of angry combat soldiers murdering or abusing enemy soldiers are recorded. All too often our GIs would take a bunch of prisoners off to the woods and shoot them. All too often German soldiers did the same.

Downed American pilots and bomber crews were often threatened by mobs of angry German civilians. They weren’t safe until German service personnel arrived on the scene to rescue them. Sometimes they didn’t arrive soon enough. Such are the fortunes of war.

Unfortunately World War Two was a far bigger conflict than the US verses Germany. We were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Out there it was much different. In the Pacific things got ugly, real ugly, real fast. Especially regarding the treatment of US and allied POWs.

Reports of terrible Japanese abuses toward US and Filipino prisoners in the infamous Bataan Death March reached the US soon after the capitulation of General McArthur’s forces in April, 1942. Americans, already angry about the attack on Pearl Harbor became even more angry. The enemy they faced in the Pacific, many Americans concluded, was an uncivilized beast, and should not, therefore, be according anything but death and destruction. With each passing month, Americans in a tight spot became even more reluctant to surrender knowing the sorry fate that awaited them.

Japan had signed the Geneva Agreement in 1929 but made it known as soon as war erupted that they had not the slightest intention of abiding by it. In their “Bushido”, their belief as to the responsibilities of a warrior, surrender was not allowed. The true warrior fought to the death. In this creed any warrior who allowed himself to be captured was a disgrace to his uniform, to his family, and most of all, a disgrace to the emperor.  They felt perfectly justified when abusing and starving American or allied servicemen.  The result was an appalling death rate of POWs in Japanese hands and many highly publicized, humiliating trials of Japanese officers after the war , a legacy of shame for  the empire of Japan.  It took many years for Americans to forgive and forget. Many never did.

A few years ago I attended a graveside service near Danville, Ky. Walking amongst the tombstones I noticed one in particular with this inscription along the bottom: “I survived the Bataan Death March.” That occupant of that grave, Ernest Sampson, born in 1919 and died in 1990, never forgot, and probably never forgave the Japanese for what they had done to him and to his comrades.

Through the course of the Pacific conflict US servicemen in the Pacific conquered the Japanese in hundreds of places as they slowly but surely made their way toward the Japanese home islands. But they took few prisoners.  Here is an astonishing fact: Before the Emperor made his announcement calling for capitulation in August 1945, NO Japanese officer facing sure defeat or annihilation ever communicated with an American or allied officer in the field asking for surrender terms, a pretty common practice with German officers in similar circumstances.   In tough combat situations, when it was obvious that “the jig was up” and there was no hope for success or even survival, the Japanese officer would take out his Hara-Kara knife, do himself in, and expect the men under his command to either fight to the death or do themselves in as well. And they usually did.

This made a captured Japanese serviceman a rare and valued possession. Their captors, very interested in any valuable information or intel they might obtain from a prisoner, tended to treat him very well to induce his cooperation, a thing that aroused intense anger from front-line troops, men who knew very well that they would not be treated similarly if they fell into Japanese hands.

 US care of Japanese POWs was almost a non-issue.  Only a handful, about five thousand Japanese POWs, made it to the continental US, to camps in Iowa and Wisconsin.  Most of these had not actually surrendered in the field but had been overwhelmed or seized before they had had the chance to do themselves in.

 US care of German and Italian POWs was no small task. They began arriving in the US soon after US forces clashed with the enemy in the North Africa campaign. Their numbers grew  in the Summer of 1943, after the surrender of approximately three hundred thousand Axis forces at Tunis in May.  About half of these were sent to the US on “Liberty ships”, the same vessels that had brought GIs East simply turned around and brought Axis POWs West to their new wartime homes.  U-boats captains were quickly informed that a US ship headed West would probably contain POWs and that if they sent it to the bottom they would be killing their own. Consequently few US transport ships headed toward the US were attacked after mid- 1943.

In the volume entitled  PRISONERS OF WAR, part of the Time-Life series on World War Two, the chapter covering the US continental POW program is entitled “An Easygoing Custody.”   By war’s end, nearly half a million Axis POWs “did time” in the US.

Many of the first POWs to arrive in the US were sent to Camp Forrest, an enormous military installation and training center located just outside Tullahoma, TN. Before these veterans of the Africa campaign were shipped off to other camps by  late 1943, mostly in East Texas, their numbers swelled to nearly 24,000-a Nazi invasion of our fair state of Tennessee. After their departure the US army moved back into the formerly enemy-occupied areas and resumed its  own training activities there.

Another type of prisoner was kept at Camp Forrest (and at a smaller installation down the road near Crossville):  unhappy individuals and even some families, civilians all, newly classified officially as “enemy aliens”, persons rounded up in early and mid 1942 considered security risks and possible spies or saboteurs. Many were recent arrivals from Germany and Italy. The FBI was especially busy that year, knocking on doors and telling those inside, many of whom barely understood English, that they must pack their bags and report to internment centers where they would be held in custody until they could clear up certain questionable issues on their files-a sort of guilty status until they could prove their innocence. Over the next year or most of these persons were able to do so, especially since many were Jewish refugees from Nazism! Many of these, however, could never explain to the satisfaction of government authorities just why they had come to the US. They remained in custody until the end of war.

One of the prevalent myths of the WW II era goes something like this: ONLY Japanese-Americans were “rounded up and sent to concentration camps (not exactly the way it was even if that were true) and white people of German and Italian ancestry were left alone”-proof of just how racist the US was at the time.

The truth is that once war with Germany broke out in late 1941, the US government eagerly sought out suspicious persons regardless of color. “White people” were exempt? Nonsense. J. Edgar Hoover and his “G-men” loved to arrest white people!  Foreign born persons, especially those who had been active in the German-American Bund prior to hostilities, were under special scrutiny. They had some questions to answer. And if they could not offer the needed answers, off to the internment centers they went. Recent studies have revealed that as many as ten thousand persons of this sort were sent to dozens of internment centers across the US.  Two were here in Tennessee.

At Camp Forrest , named for General NB Forrest of Civil War fame,   and at many other similar installations across the US, the POWs were treated well.  Very well. So well in fact, that many US citizens complained to the government that the “enemy was being coddled.”  Let these Nazis suffer, so they said.

 The War Department thought otherwise. They defended themselves and their program not only on humanitarian grounds, but with the reasoning that if Axis prisoners received good treatment, they would be far more likely to surrender. Good conditions for Axis prisoners would shorten the war. And this would save American lives.

There is ample reason to believe that they were right. By the time allied forces crossed the Rhine into Germany in March 1945, their principal opposition was old men, convalescents, and boys. Crack  German combat units were a mere shadow of their former selves. They had surrendered by the hundreds of thousands.  The war lasted only another five or six weeks. Critics of the POW program were effectively silenced.

Over here, Axis prisoners  had it pretty good- plenty to eat, good housing, proper clothing (they were allowed to wear their own uniforms at all times) access to recreational facilities, libraries, movies,  and much more. Compared to their comrades in Russia, they were on vacation. Were they?

 Not exactly.  They were required, enlisted men in particular, to work up to ten hours a day, the limit established by the Geneva Convention, but  they could not be sent to work in war-related industries.  A few worked alongside US civilians in canneries and food processing plants, but most Axis POWs performed good old-fashioned farm work- baling hay, picking cotton, harvesting vegetables,  cutting and curing tobacco, feeding livestock, etc. With so many young men overseas, US farmers were glad for the help. The government and the many contractors supplying the armed forces were buying everything they could produce.

The Geneva Convention also stipulated that POW labor could not be slave labor. Workers had to be paid. But the pay rate was up to those in charge. Naturally they didn’t get much, on average about fifty cents a day, usually not in cash, but in certificates and coupons to be redeemed at the camp canteen for snacks, magazines, toiletries, and dozens of other items including that most prized commodity of all, cigarettes. American cigarettes were considered far superior to their European counterparts.  

Fifty cents a day was not a good wage, but it beat nothing by a long shot.  What would fifty cents buy in 1943? A bottle of Coca Cola was five cents.  A nice lunch at a café could be had for twenty-five cents.  A gallon of gas (purchased only with a ration book) was fifteen cents. Admission to a double feature at a movie theatre (sometimes POWs were allowed to go) was a dime. A standard postage stamp was three cents.  Fifty cents  is probably comparable to eight or ten dollars now. For the POW, whose room, board, medical care, and clothing was all provided, that fifty cents seems pretty fair in my estimation, as long as the prices at the prison commissary were not inflated.

It didn’t all go the “company store.” Sometimes the POWs were paid with real money, money they were eager to spend when passing through retail districts on their way to work sites. My father told me of seeing German POWs from Camp Forrest   performing work details near his home in Lebanon, TN. When word got out that the POWs had money, my enterprising father, who was fifteen years old in 1943 obtained  cartoons of cigarettes from his brother-in-law and did a brisk business with the “Krauts.”  They were, much to his surprise, polite, cheerful, and well behaved. He solicited their business at the local high school where they were putting up decorations in the gymnasium for an upcoming dance. Apparently the citizens of Lebanon were happy to employ these fellows in all sorts of jobs. Cheerful, intelligent, hardworking, and strong young men for only fifty cents a day?  Who would turn that down?

Years ago when visiting in the home of a friend I noticed an interesting framed document on his wall with a list of about a dozen Germanic names neatly scripted underneath an inscription, all done in  a beautiful Gothic script. My friend told me that this was presented as an official token of gratitude and appreciation to his father ( who lived near Camp Campbell) during the war by a group of German POWs who had worked on his farm for several months. War or no war, during the course of their employment they had become good friends. My friend said that this framed document had been one of his father’s most cherished possessions.

Arriving in the US, the POWs were astonished at what they found in their new home away from home. The vast richness of America overwhelmed them, a place untouched by the ravages of war, a nation where the average middle-class family owned a home and an automobile, a unified but diverse nation  where anyone who wanted to work could do so (at least during the war.) In Germany and Italy, only the well-to-do owned an auto.  Even under wartime rationing Americans lived better than Europeans. Upon their arrival they saw shiploads of troops and supplies headed to Europe. Moving into the interior, and it often took two or three days to arrive at their destination, they saw trainload after trainload of troops and supplies headed toward the East coast. They were impressed.   Americans were strong, prosperous, intelligent, and determined to win the war. They were not the stupid bumbling clods manipulated by greedy Jews portrayed in Nazi propaganda.  Even the fervent  Nazis among the POWs  saw enough to quickly come to the conclusion that declaring war on the US had been their Fuhrer’s biggest mistake. Better to have let that “sleeping dog lie.”

 The POWs were also allowed to correspond with loved ones back home. They had a lot to say. But many were afraid to send candid and honest letters home about their good treatment for fear that their letters would be regarded as propaganda and that they would be considered collaborators. Furthermore, since their letters were censored by their captors(like US service personnel) they could not write the opposite either, to lie about their situation and claim that they were being mistreated.  Mostly they wrote short letters letting their families know that they were OK which was, of course, the main thing.  Study POW letters written from the US during WW II and you will discover very little about their experience, a revelation not too different from a study of letters from our own GIs on the frontlines. Beyond “Hey Mom, I’m OK. Don’t worry ‘bout me” they couldn’t and didn’t say much.

An odd thing the POWs noticed about their new home was Jim Crow racism, a sad fact of life in the Southern US  where most POW camps were located. German and Italian POWs quickly saw the obvious failure of the US to live up to its ideals when they, the enemy,  could eat inside a nice diner or café with other white patrons while  their African-American guards had to wait outside or go around to the back door to be fed. They were impressed with the US but they realized in due time that despite its richness and strength, it was far from perfect.

The POW program had its problems. Early on, US authorities assumed that nearly all German soldiers were fervent Nazis. All had taken an oath to the Fuehrer. Those who were not so ideologically inclined were often subjected to abuse by fellow prisoners.  Well meaning prison officials sought to protect them by separating these men from their fellow prisoners and sending them to special camps.  Fearing that they would be considered collaborators, few wanted to leave their comrades. Most stayed put , even when, on occasion, it cost them their life.

There were few problems of this sort among the Italian prisoners. Very few had any love for Mussolini. They were especially happy to be out of the war and somewhere safe. Hard-core facists among the Italians were rare.

In assuming that most POWs were die-hard Nazis, the prison authorities had clearly been wrong. Yes, some were. But most wore their uniforms not so much out of a strong adherence to Nazi party ideology but out of a more commonplace, simple patriotism and a strong sense of duty.  Hard core Nazis among the POWs were a minority, albeit a powerful one in the POW hierarchy. In time prison authorities began to weed these men out and send them to special high security camps away from the rank and file. This worked much better.

It also helped in late 1944 when veterans of the fighting in France began arriving, men with a much more realistic view of Germany’s impending fate. When they told their stories, the old POW residents realized that the US newsreels of allied successes were not propaganda but the truth. By early 1945, the hard core Nazis among the POWs found that they no longer exerted much of an influence. Hitler and his Nazi disciples back home in Germany were clearly doomed. Hard-core Nazis among the POWs began to disappear, a situation not unlike Allied occupiers discovered after the war when civilian leaders were interrogated. Nazis, curiously enough, became hard to find. A man who admitted that he had enthusiastically supported Hitler  was a rare bird indeed.

In mid 1945 the European war drew to a close and the US began the enormous job of closing the camps and sending nearly a half-million Axis POWs home. It didn’t happen overnight. They had become an integral part of the US economy!  Nevertheless, by early 1947, the camps were all closed and the prisoners had all, except for a handful who awaited trial for their misdeeds during captivity (mostly murders of fellow prisoners) been sent back to Italy or Germany.  These homeward bound former POWs were nearly all healthy, well clothed, and the majority, I suspect, had money in their pockets. Furthermore, they felt pretty good toward the US.

By means of the POW program during WW II, the US government had gone a long way in slowly turning a bitter enemy into a friend, a friend we would need badly in the “cold war” that lay just ahead, a vital component of the allied victory planned, constructed, and executed by forward thinking officials.

The country the POWs found was a far different place than the one they had left behind. Dozens of major cities lay in ruins. Many POWs from East Germany had no desire to return home and live under Communism. A lucky few managed to go back to the US, a place they had grown to love, a place where they could make a new life. But the vast majority had no choice but to stay in Germany, roll up their sleeves and get to work rebuilding their nation. There was plenty to do.




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