Capt. Ben H. Jackson said that when he approached one of the camps along the Rhine: “I could smell it a mile away. It was barbaric.”
There [were] 10,000 or more German prisoners in this open field, standing shoulder to shoulder. This bunch of prisoners [was] there for three days or more with no food or water, no shelter… Most of the guards were very brutal… On the morning the prisoners were moved out… mud was deep as far as I could see. Heads, arms and legs of the dead were sticking out of the mud. It made me sick and disgusted.
James Bacque estimates that upwards of 1 million German POWs died in American and French camps after World War II. Numerous American soldiers have come forward to testify to this atrocity. Their testimonies were deposited in 2009 in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto where they are available for use.
(From: Bacque, James, Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II, 3rd edition, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011, p. 308).
American Witnesses to the American and French Prisoner of War Camps
One critic of the book Other Losses has asked: “How could the bodies disappear without one soldier’s coming forward in nearly 50 years to relieve his conscience?” The answer to this question is that numerous American soldiers and officers have come forth to witness the atrocious death rate in the American and French POW camps.
One of the most credible and informative American witnesses is Martin Brech. The following is the major portion of his account:
In October, 1944, at age 18, I was drafted into the U.S. army…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 the 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 devotion.
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.P.s. 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.
“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 enemy’s 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, 45 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.I.s 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 it’s 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.
Image: Propaganda dehumanizing German women ranged from subtle to explicit. It worked to make their abuse a sport.
Martin Brech saw bodies go out of the camp by the truckload, but he was never told how many there were, or where and how they were buried. Brech said in 1995 regarding the U.S. Army,
“It is clear that in fact it was the policy to shoot any civilians trying to feed the prisoners.”
Brech has also confirmed that Eisenhower’s starvation policy was harshly enforced down to the lowest level of camp guard.
Many other U.S. Army officers and NCOs have admitted that the conditions in the Allied POW camps were lethal for the Germans. Cpl. Daniel McConnell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experiences in a U.S. Army camp at Heilbronn. McConnell had been ordered, despite his ignorance of medicine, to take over Baker #4, a “hospital” tent at Heilbronn. McConnell writes: “One day while working on a coal detail, I was summoned to the office of the First Sergeant who said, ‘We see from your 201 file you know some German—the guy out in the prison camp is messing up. We’re sending you out to straighten things out.’ ”
The hospital had no medical facilities beyond bottles of aspirin. McConnell writes:
“After a tour of inspection, I saw that Baker #4 was a hospital in name only. Not even the most elementary standards of cleanliness were maintained or enforceable. Cleaning compounds and disinfectants were unavailable, not to mention medical and surgical [supplies]…The odor was unendurable…Operations were performed without anesthesia…At night the chatter of a machine gun or the crack of a rifle could be heard as a POW went for the wire to escape.”
The mud-floored tent was simply a way to assemble dying prisoners convenient to the trucks that would soon take away their corpses. McConnell saw the prisoners die en masse in this camp, and saw the prisoners buried by bulldozers in mass graves. McConnell states:
“When a POW died, his remains were taken in a gunny sack to a tent near the main gate. There a medical officer would sign a death certificate, which I would witness. A number of bodies would be taken to a long slit trench outside the camp for mass burial. If next of kin were present (a rare event), a few words were spoken by a clergyman, then a bulldozer would start up and cover the bodies with earth.”
Since McConnell was ordered to supervise all of this without being able to stop it, his guilt never left him. After 50 years McConnell’s mental condition eventually made him physically ill. The Veterans Administration, which in 1998 awarded McConnell a 100% medical pension, admitted that McConnell had been injured for life by the horrors he had witnessed in the camp but could not prevent.
Probably the most eminent of the American eyewitnesses to the camps is Maj. Gen. Richard Steinbach (then a colonel), who was ordered to take over administration of several U.S. Army prison camps near Heilbronn. In his memoirs, Steinbach says that on an inspection tour he found that the conditions in the American camps were terrible. The great majority of the prisoners had no shelter. Most of the prisoners had lost weight, some were suffering from illness, and some were slowly losing their minds. Often far less than the official food allotment of 1,000 calories per day was given to the prisoners, even though Steinbach soon found that sufficient food was available.
Steinbach knew what had caused the terrible conditions in the American POW camps:
“This was caused by the Morgenthau Plan…Morgenthau was venting his pent-up feelings on Germany by starving these men…[His] objective was vengeance rather than promoting U.S. national objectives. Of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who approved this plan, was also responsible. Worse even than the starvation was the idleness enforced on these people. I was amazed and disgusted at the same time. Was this the American way to treat people, even though some might be criminals?…Obviously it was not. I directed the U.S. camp commander to send to the railhead and draw supplementary rations.”
Steinbach said that the food and tents were delivered immediately from supplies nearby.
Gen. Withers Alexander Burress, like Steinbach a member of the Sixth Army command,found the same conditions in his camps. Steinbach says he saw the same things elsewhere:
“I inspected other camps and found the same situation, ordering the same remedial action…As soon as I returned to our headquarters, I met with Gen. Burress. He said that the German POW camp was something beyond his comprehension.”
Unfortunately, Steinbach was transferred early the next year, and conditions at Heilbronn deteriorated again according to Cpl. Daniel McConnell.
American prison camps in France were also kept far below the standards set by the Geneva Convention. Lt. Col. Henry W. Allard, who was in charge of some camps in France from late 1944 through May 1945, says that only food rations were sent to the camps. Supplies such as medicine, clothing, fuel, mess kits, and stoves were denied to the prisoners. Allard describes the camps conditions:
“The standards of PW [prisoner of war] camps in the ComZ [the U.S. Army’s rear zone] in Europe compare as only slightly better or even with the living conditions of the Japanese PW camps our men tell us about, and unfavorably with those of the Germans.”
After the war conditions in the American camps grew steadily worse. Col. Philip Lauben later said that the American and French camps in the Vosges region in France were so bad that “the Vosges was just one big death camp.”
Disastrous overcrowding, disease, exposure and malnutrition were the rule in the U.S. camps in Germany beginning in 1945. U.S. Army Cols. James B. Mason and Charles H. Beasley observed the conditions in the American camps along the Rhine in April 1945:
April 20 was a blustery day with alternate rain, sleet and snow and with bone-chilling winds sweeping down the Rhine valley from the north over the flats where the enclosure was located. Huddled close together for warmth, behind the barbed wire was a most awesome sight—nearly 100,000 haggard, apathetic, dirty, gaunt, blank-staring men clad in dirty field gray uniforms, and standing ankle-deep in mud. Here and there were dirty white blurs which, upon a closer look were seen to be men with bandaged heads or arms or standing in shirt sleeves! The German Division Commander reported that the men had not eaten for at least two days, and the provision of water was a major problem—yet only 200 yards away was the river Rhine running bank-full.
The view from inside the camps was even worse. The inmates suffered from nagging hunger and thirst, and large numbers died from starvation, dysentery, and exposure to the elements. Capt. Ben H. Jackson said that when he approached one of the camps along the Rhine:
“I could smell it a mile away. It was barbaric.”
A Jewish intelligence lieutenant at Bad Kreuznach stated:
“I’ve been interrogating German officers for the War Crimes Commission, and when I find them half-starved to death right in our own P.W. cages and being treated like you wouldn’t treat a dog, I ask myself some questions. Sometimes I have to get them fed up and hospitalized before I can get a coherent story out of them….All these directives about don’t coddle the Germans have thrown open the gates for every criminal tendency we’ve got in us.”
Gen. Mark Clark, the U.S. political commissioner in Austria, was horrified by the conditions in the U.S. camps when he arrived in Austria. Clark took the unusual step of writing a memo “for files.” This was probably to exculpate himself before history without offending his boss, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Clark wrote:
When I first came to Austria from Italy, General Keyes told me of the deplorable conditions which existed in the Ebensee Camp, mostly due to over-crowding and to lack of proper nourishment. He told me he was taking corrective steps…I…sent for Colonel Lloyd, my Inspector-General, and told him to make an inspection at this camp. Later Gen. Hume came in with a detailed report showing the critical situation which exists there. I immediately directed the overcrowding be released, and that the caloric value of the ration be increased to approximately 2800 calories. I am not sure that I have the authority to do this, but will do it anyway because some immediate action must be taken. What astounds me is my lack of information on this camp from my staff officers.
The deplorable condition of the Austrian camps is confirmed by a special investigation held in September 1945 under the command of U.S. Lt. Col. Herbert Pollack. Pollack found starvation conditions and severe malnutrition problems among many of the prisoners in U.S. camps in Austria.
U.S. Sgt. Merrill W. Campbell writes of a mass atrocity he witnessed in southern Germany:
There [were] 10,000 or more German prisoners in this open field, standing shoulder to shoulder. This bunch of prisoners [was] there for three days or more with no food or water, no shelter. There was little concern for these people. There [were] no German civilians around. As for food and water, I personally think it could have been provided to them. Most of the guards were very brutal. As I was not in charge of this camp, there was little I could do. On the morning the prisoners were moved out, my company had orders to leave and go to Garmisch as my company was leaving the area. I looked back where they were moving the prisoners out; mud was deep as far as I could see. Heads, arms and legs of the dead were sticking out of the mud. It made me sick and disgusted.
U.S. Capt. Frederick Siegfriedt was detailed in eastern France near Zimming in December 1945, where there were about 17,000 German prisoners. Capt. L., a lifelong friend of Siegfriedt’s, was medical officer of the detachment. Siegfriedt wrote:
Capt. L. had been an extremely hard working and conscientious person all his life. It was evident that he was under extreme stress trying to cope with the conditions at CCE 27 and receiving no cooperation, no help, no understanding, was helpless, and had not even anyone to talk to. I was able to serve to fill the [last] need. He explained to me that most of the men had dysentery and were suffering from malnutrition. Some men in the cages had as many as 17 bloody stools a day, he said. He took me to one of the former French barracks that served as the hospital. It had eight hundred men lying all over, on the cold concrete floors as well as the beds. It just broke your heart to see it…Almost without exception the other [U.S.] officers were reclassified because of alcoholism or psychiatric problems…The operation of CCE 27 seemed typical of the entire system. When an enclosure got a bunch of prisoners they didn’t know what to do with, or could not otherwise handle, they were shipped unannounced to another enclosure…I have no idea how many died [or] where they were buried. I am sure the Americans did not bury them and we had no such thing as a bulldozer. I can only assume that a detail of German PWs would bury them. I could look out of the window of my office and tell if the body being carried by was alive or dead by whether or not there was a fifth man following with the man’s personal possessions. The number could have been from five to twenty-five a day.
Siegfriedt concludes that “…the [American] staff was much more concerned with living the luxurious life than it was about the operation of the prison camps.”
An American officer, who requested anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said: “The conditions you so aptly described were exactly as it was in Regensburg, Moosburg and other camps throughout lower Bavaria and Austria. Death was commonplace and savage treatment given by the Polish guards under American officers.”
Many German POWs “accidentally suffocated” in Allied boxcars while being shipped. U.S. Lt. Arthur W. von Fange saw about 12 locked boxcars filled with men stationed on a siding near Remagen in March 1945. He heard cries from within which gradually died down. Von Fange said, “I don’t imagine they lasted three days.” Several times in March 1945, American guards opening rail cars of prisoners arriving from Germany found the prisoners dead inside. At Mailly le Camp on March 16, 1945, 104 prisoners were found dead. A further 27 German prisoners were found dead at Attichy.
Soon after Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Gen. Eisenhower sent an urgent courier throughout the huge area that he commanded. The message reads in part:
“The military government has requested me to make it known, that, under no circumstances may food supplies be assembled among the local inhabitants, in order to deliver them to the German prisoners of war. Those who violate this command and nevertheless try to circumvent this blockade, to allow anything to come to the prisoners, place themselves in danger of being shot…”
Copies of this order have been found in many towns and villages in Germany.
An American sergeant (who has asked to remain anonymous), saw this order to civilians posted in German and English on the bulletin board of U.S. Army Military Government Headquarters in Bavaria, signed by the Chief of Staff of the Military Governor of Bavaria. The order was even posted in Polish in Straubing and Regensburg, because there were a lot of Polish guards at those camps. The American sergeant said that it was the intention of army command from May 1945 through the end of 1947 to exterminate as many German POWs in the U.S. zone as the traffic would bear without international scrutiny. This sergeant, who at the time was in Military Intelligence in the U.S. Army of Occupation, witnessed the lethal conditions inflicted on German prisoners at several camps, including Regensburg near Munich.
Oscar E. Plummer of Clinton, Illinois writes of the lethal conditions he observed in American POW camps:
I served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and was wounded in Belgium. I spent a lot of time in Germany during and after the war.
Many people are reluctant to believe that the United States could have mistreated German prisoners in the way that James Bacque relates in his book, Other Losses. I can attest to the fact that the U.S. Army did have those inhumane holding pens for German prisoners: I saw them! These were guarded, fenced-in areas with thousands of German prisoners of war inside, and there were no interior buildings or shelters. The POWs looked very thin and drawn. This was months after the war was over. They should have been released when the war was over.
 Bischof, Günter, “Bacque and Historical Evidence,” in Bischof, Günter and Ambrose, Stephen E., (eds.), Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts Against Falsehood, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992, p. 201.
 Brech, Martin, “In ‘Eisenhower’s Death Camps’: A U.S. Prison Guard’s Story,” The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 161-166.
 Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, pp. 41, 44.
 Ibid., pp. 45-46.
 Bacque, James, Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II, 3rd edition, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011, p. xx.
 Ibid., pp. xx-xxi.
 Ibid., pp. xviii-xix.
 Ibid., pp. xix-xx.
 Ibid., p. 190. See also Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 194.
 Dos Passos, John, Tour of Duty, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1945, pp. 251-252.
 Bacque, James, Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II, 3rd edition, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011, pp. 184-185.
 Ibid., p. 184.
 Ibid., pp. 191-192.
 Ibid., pp. 192-193.
 Ibid., p. 193.
 Ibid., p. 192.
 Ibid., p. 194.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, pp. 40-43.
 Ibid., pp. 49-50.
 Bacque, James, Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II, 3rd edition, Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2011, p. xxxi.
 The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, July/August 1994, p. 48.