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 that 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. German civilians were not allowed to feed, nor even come near the prisoners.
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".
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 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. They considered the Germans subhuman and worthy of extermination.
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 "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.
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. Whenever a German prisoner staggered or dropped back, he was hit on the head with a club and killed. 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.
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 that 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 had 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.
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.
This essay was published in The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pp. 161-166.