In 'Eisenhower's Death Camps' - A US Prison Guard's Story
By Martin Brech
Dec. 28, 2003
In October, 1944, at age eighteen, I was drafted into the
U.S. army. Largely because of the "Battle of the Bulge," my training
was cut short. My furlough was halved, and I was sent overseas immediately.
Upon arrival in Le Havre, France, we were quickly loaded into box cars and
shipped to the front. When we got there, I was suffering increasingly severe
symptoms of mononucleosis, and was sent to a hospital in Belgium. Since
mononucleosis was then known as the "kissing disease," I mailed
a letter of thanks to my girlfriend.
By the time I left the hospital, the outfit I had trained with in Spartanburg,
South Carolina was deep inside Germany, so, despite my protests, I was placed
in a ãrepo depotä(replacement depot). I lost interest in the
units to which I was assigned and don't recall all of them: non-combat units
were ridiculed at that time. My separation qualification record states I
was mostly with Company C, 14th Infantry Regiment, during my seventeen-month
stay in Germany, but I remember being transferred to other outfits also.
In late March or early April, 1945, I was sent to guard a POW camp near
Andernach along the Rhine. I had four years of high school German, so I
was able to talk to the prisoners, although this was forbidden. Gradually,
however, I was used as an interpreter and asked to ferret out members of
the S.S. (I found none.)
In Andernach about 50,000 prisoners of all ages were held in an open field
surrounded by barbed wire. The women were kept in a separate enclosure I
did not see until later. The men I guarded had no shelter and no blankets;
many had no coats. They slept in the mud, wet and cold, with inadequate
slit trenches for excrement. It was a cold, wet spring and their misery
from exposure alone was evident.
Even more shocking was to see the prisoners throwing grass and weeds into
a tin can containing a thin soup. They told me they did this to help ease
their hunger pains. Quickly, they grew emaciated. Dysentery raged, and soon
they were sleeping in their own excrement, too weak and crowded to reach
the slit trenches. Many were begging for food, sickening and dying before
our eyes. We had ample food and supplies, but did nothing to help them,
including no medical assistance.
Outraged, I protested to my officers and was met with hostility or bland
indifference. When pressed, they explained they were under strict orders
from "higher up." No officer would dare do this to 50,000 men
if he felt that it was "out of line," leaving him open to charges.
Realizing my protests were useless, I asked a friend working in the kitchen
if he could slip me some extra food for the prisoners. He too said they
were under strict orders to severely ration the prisoners' food and that
these orders came from "higher up." But he said they had more
food than they knew what to do with and would sneak me some.
When I threw this food over the barbed wire to the prisoners, I was caught
and threatened with imprisonment. I repeated the "offense," and
one officer angrily threatened to shoot me. I assumed this was a bluff until
I encountered a captain on a hill above the Rhine shooting down at a group
of German civilian women with his .45 caliber pistol. When I asked, Why?,"
he mumbled, "Target practice," and fired until his pistol was
empty. I saw the women running for cover, but, at that distance, couldn't
tell if any had been hit.
This is when I realized I was dealing with cold-blooded killers filled with
moralistic hatred. They considered the Germans subhuman and worthy of extermination;
another expression of the downward spiral of racism. Articles in the G.I.
newspaper, Stars and Stripes, played up the German concentration camps,
complete with photos of emaciated bodies; this amplified our self-righteous
cruelty and made it easier to imitate behavior we were supposed to oppose.
Also, I think, soldiers not exposed to combat were trying to prove how tough
they were by taking it out on the prisoners and civilians.
These prisoners, I found out, were mostly farmers and workingmen, as simple
and ignorant as many of our own troops. As time went on, more of them lapsed
into a zombie-like state of listlessness, while others tried to escape in
a demented or suicidal fashion, running through open fields in broad daylight
towards the Rhine to quench their thirst. They were mowed down.Some prisoners
were as eager for cigarettes as for food, saying they took the edge off
their hunger. Accordingly, enterprising G.I. "Yankee traders"
were acquiring hordes of watches and rings in exchange for handfuls of cigarettes
or less. When I began throwing cartons of cigarettes to the prisoners to
ruin this trade, I was threatened by rank-and-file G.I.s too.
The only bright spot in this gloomy picture came one night when.I was put
on the "graveyard shift," from two to four A.M. Actually, there
was a graveyard on the uphill side of this enclosure, not many yards away.
My superiors had forgotten to give me a flashlight and I hadn't bothered
to ask for one, disgusted as I was with the whole situation by that time.
It was a fairly bright night and I soon became aware of a prisoner crawling
under the wires towards the graveyard. We were supposed to shoot escapees
on sight, so I started to get up from the ground to warn him to get back.
Suddenly I noticed another prisoner crawling from the graveyard back to
the enclosure. They were risking their lives to get to the graveyard for
something; I had to investigate.
When I entered the gloom of this shrubby, tree-shaded cemetery, I felt completely
vulnerable, but somehow curiosity kept me moving. Despite my caution, I
tripped over the legs of someone in a prone position. Whipping my rifle
around while stumbling and trying to regain composure of mind and body,
I soon was relieved I hadn't reflexively fired. The figure sat up. Gradually,
I could see the beautiful but terror-stricken face of a woman with a picnic
basket nearby. German civilians were not allowed to feed, nor even come
near the prisoners, so I quickly assured her I approved of what she was
doing, not to be afraid, and that I would leave the graveyard to get out
of the way.
I did so immediately and sat down, leaning against a tree at the edge of
the cemetery to be inconspicuous and not frighten the prisoners. I imagined
then, and still do now, what it would be like to meet a beautiful woman
with a picnic basket, under those conditions as a prisoner. I have never
forgotten her face.
Eventually, more prisoners crawled back to the enclosure. I saw they were
dragging food to their comrades and could only admire their courage and
On May 8, V.E. Day, I decided to celebrate with some prisoners I was guarding
who were baking bread the other prisoners occasionally received. This group
had all the bread they could eat, and shared the jovial mood generated by
the end of the war. We all thought we were going home soon, a pathetic hope
on their part. We were in what was to become the French zone, where I soon
would witness the brutality of the French soldiers when we transferred our
prisoners to them for their slave labor camps.
On this day, however, we were happy.
As a gesture of friendliness, I emptied my rifle and stood it in the corner,
even allowing them to play with it at their request! This thoroughly "broke
the ice," and soon we were singing songs we taught each other or I
had learned in high school German ("Du, du liegst mir im Herzen").
Out of gratitude, they baked me a special small loaf of sweet bread, the
only possible present they had left to offer. I stuffed it in my "Eisenhower
jacket" and snuck it back to my barracks, eating it when I had privacy.
I have never tasted more delicious bread, nor felt a deeper sense of communion
while eating it. I believe a cosmic sense of Christ (the Oneness of all
Being) revealed its normally hidden presence to me on that occasion, influencing
my later decision to major in philosophy and religion.
Shortly afterwards, some of our weak and sickly prisoners were marched off
by French soldiers to their camp. We were riding on a truck behind this
column. Temporarily, it slowed down and dropped back, perhaps because the
driver was as shocked as I was. Whenever a German prisoner staggered or
dropped back, he was hit on the head with a club until he died. The bodies
were rolled to the side of the road to be picked up by another truck. For
many, this quick death might have been preferable to slow starvation in
our "killing fields."
When I finally saw the German women in a separate enclosure, I asked why
we were holding them prisoner. I was told they were "camp followers,"
selected as breeding stock for the S.S. to create a super-race. I spoke
to some and must say I never met a more spirited or attractive group of
women. I certainly didn't think they deserved imprisonment.
I was used increasingly as an interpreter, and was able to prevent some
particularly unfortunate arrests. One rather amusing incident involved an
old farmer who was being dragged away by several M.Pâs. I was told
he had a "fancy Nazi medal," which they showed me. Fortunately,
I had a chart identifying such medals. He'd been awarded it for having five
children! Perhaps his wife was somewhat relieved to get him "off her
back," but I didn't think one of our death camps was a fair punishment
for his contribution to Germany. The M.P.s agreed and released him to continue
his "dirty work."
Famine began to spread among the German civilians also. It was a common
sight to see German women up to their elbows in our garbage cans looking
for something edible -- that is, if they weren't chased away.
When I interviewed mayors of small towns and villages, I was told their
supply of food had been taken away by "displaced persons" (foreigners
who had worked in Germany), who packed the food on trucks and drove away.
When I reported this, the response was a shrug. I never saw any Red Cross
at the camp or helping civilians, although their coffee and doughnut stands
were available everywhere else for us. In the meantime, the Germans had
to rely on the sharing of hidden stores until the next harvest.
Hunger made German women more "available," but despite this, rape
was prevalent and often accompanied by additional violence. In particular
I remember an eighteen-year old woman who had the side of her faced smashed
with a rifle butt and was then raped by two G.I.s. Even the French complained
that the rapes, looting and drunken destructiveness on the part of our troops
was excessive. In Le Havre, we'd been given booklets warning us that the
German soldiers had maintained a high standard of behavior with French civilians
who were peaceful, and that we should do the same. In this we failed miserably.
"So what?" some would say. "The enemy's atrocities were worse
than ours." It is true that I experienced only the end of the war,
when we were already the victors. The German opportunity for atrocities
had faded; ours was at hand. But two wrongs don't make a right. Rather than
copying our enemyâs crimes, we should aim once and for all to break
the cycle of hatred and vengeance that has plagued and distorted human history.
This is why I am speaking out now, forty-five years after the crime. We
can never prevent individual war crimes, but we can, if enough of us speak
out, influence government policy. We can reject government propaganda that
depicts our enemies as subhuman and encourages the kind of outrages I witnessed.
We can protest the bombing of civilian targets, which still goes on today.
And we can refuse ever to condone our government's murder of unarmed and
defeated prisoners of war.
I realize it is difficult for the average citizen to admit witnessing a
crime of this magnitude, especially if implicated himself. Even G.Iâs
sympathetic to the victims were afraid to complain and get into trouble,
they told me. And the danger has not ceased. Since I spoke out a few weeks
ago, I have received threatening calls and had my mailbox smashed. But its
been worth it. Writing about these atrocities has been a catharsis of feeling
suppressed too long, a liberation, and perhaps will remind other witnesses
that "the truth will make us free, have no fear." We may even
learn a supreme lesson from all this: only love can conquer all.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 2,
Web posted at: http://www.rense.com/general46/eisn.htm
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