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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Thomas Farragher / Globe Staff / July 2, 2001

Page 5 of 9

Continued from page 4

''The prisoners attracted attention of the guards by cries of 'Kamerad kaput,' knockings, and poundings on the doors of the cars, and calls for 'air' and 'water' in English,'' reported Lieutenant Colonel Marvin C. Hillsman, the inspector general who investigated one of the cases. ''The guards ... ignored these appeals and on one occasion fired shots into the upper corner of two of the cars to quiet the prisoners. No car doors were opened during the entire trip.''

Military scholars say Eisenhower's preoccupation with prisoner treatment was driven equally by public relations and altruism. He insisted that film crews be allowed to record the German mass murders at concentration camps.

''He didn't want it to come out that the US had equally committed atrocities,'' said Brinkley, the Eisenhower Center director in New Orleans. ''He was very conscious of living by the Geneva Convention. Eisenhower believed that when one was fighting in the Second World War for international law, to break it simply because one's emotions took over was not to be a soldier, but to be a murderer. A true soldier understood what their job was. And their job was not to line Germans up on a whim and mow them down.''

Indeed, in July 1945 Eisenhower ordered a comprehensive review into whether enemy prisoners in Europe had been killed or mistreated by US forces, dismissing as unacceptable the excuse: I was just following orders.

''America's moral position will be undermined and her reputation for fair dealing debased if criminal conduct of a like character by her own armed forces is condoned and unpunished by those of us responsible for defending her honor,'' Eisenhower wrote in his order.

War historians Gunter Bischof and Stephen Ambrose have estimated that 99 percent of American and German POWs were returned safely home at the end of the war.

But that did not mean that both sides were innocent of fatal misconduct. For example, in December 1944 nearly 100 US troops -- caught by surprise after a rapid German advance -- were captured during the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans were herded into a farmer's field in the Belgian city of Malmedy, where a machine gunner opened fire.

Word of the ''Malmedy Massacre'' quickly spread throughout the European Theater, and war scholars say there is little doubt that the Americans who singled out the SS soldiers at Dachau four months later were aware of it.

In any case, when the results of the Eisenhower-ordered investigation were filed on the last day of 1945, the asphyxiations in the POW boxcars and the shootings in the coal yard at Dachau were noted prominently. In the report, compiled on an old manual typewriter, both incidents were set apart in unmistakable red ink.

Disgust and disbelief

As 19-year-old John P. Lee, a private first class, stood in the coal yard, guarding an estimated 50 to 125 SS prisoners, his emotions trembled between disgust and disbelief.

''We were all enraged,'' he said in a recent telephone interview. ''Hell, what a shock when you walk up on something like that. Here are these human bodies that look like skeletons with skin on them. Quite a few had their eyes open. It's like they're saying to us: 'What took you so long?'

''The men became quite boisterous. The adrenaline was really flowing. They were saying: 'Let's kill these SOBs.' And 'Let's not take them alive.' ''

As Lee stood watch over the Germans, Private First Class William L. Competielle, a company medic, was busy just outside the coal yard, attending to a woman and two young children who had fainted at an SS camp hospital nearby.

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