This much is clear about the Battle of the Bulge and a small town in Belgium named Malmedy – Nazi SS troops slaughtered 100 or more American soldiers there who were their prisoners.
At a trial after the war, there were questions raised (by the Germans) about whether some of the American prisoners had picked up rifles they threw to the ground when they surrendered and resumed fighting. That story is obscured by the aforementioned fog but what is very clear is that a massacre took place of 100 Americans.
This all happened in winter; the fallen bodies froze; and forensic study of the preserved bodies confirmed they had been cut down in groups by machine gun fire and many bodies showed a single shot to the head at close range, evidence they had been shot again after they fell to be sure they were dead — double executions in the thorough style of Germany’s well-trained army.
Reports about the Malmedy massacre spread like wildfire through the U.S. Army. One unit’s commander ordered his men not to take Germans prisoners though whether that order was followed is unclear to me.
About six months after the Battle of the Bulge and just after the Germans had surrendered, I was sent to a hospital from my Combat Engineers Battalion because I had a fever and swollen glands. A few aspirin and a short stay in the hospital later, I was sent back to my unit through the Army’s Replacement Depot procedure. You were trucked to a “Repple Depple” closest to the hospital, then to another until you were very close to your unit’s location. Then your unit sent a Jeep to pick you up.
The succession of movements between Repple Depples took more time than my stay in the hospital and became an opportunity to go to Paris for a short visit without anyone’s permission.
It was also a time when I heard a story that I have read about nowhere else involving retaliation for the Malmedy Massacre. At a Repple Depple, I bumped into a solder who looked familiar. It turned out we recognized each other as having been fellow students at the Bronx High School of Science. He might have been a year ahead of me and was a paratrooper with one of the well known Airborne divisions.
He told me that after news spread about Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge, he and others in his unit captured a group of SS men and took them to a cave where they slaughtered them, in retaliation for Malmedy.
Whether the story was true or not, I never found out. We went in different directions; he was leaving to return to his unit that day. I don’t remember his name and I never saw him again.
Was he boasting? Was it a story made up to show the paratroops were tough? I don’t know. I know the SS slaughtered American soldiers. I know the anger that aroused. But marching an enemy unit into a cave to kill them? Perhaps that’s hard to believe about Americans.
But my gut says the story is true. It’s a reality that may balance some of the levity I project in my blog posts about evading Army rules to have fun after the fighting ended.
It’s a reminder.
War is about killing and maybe about how a kid from a highly civilized school can decide that murder in the dark of a cave is justified.