Oftentimes, when you read about WW2, a sharp distinction is drawn between the Eastern and Western Fronts. In the East both the Germans and the Soviets executed prisoners outright, or worked/starved them to death. The Western Front is portrayed as a more “civilized war”, where events like the Malmedy Massacre were the exception not the rule. Americans especially don’t like to think of “our boys” acting like murderers but war is dirty business. While the Eastern Front in general was more brutal in many respects, that doesn’t mean that Western Front was without its horrors.
Recently, I’ve been reading several memoirs of American paratroopers and what I’m finding most interesting is not the particulars of what battles they fought in, but the attitudes that shine through the text. Both books, David Kenyon Webster’s Parachute Infantry and Donald R. Burgett’s Currahee: A Screaming Eagle at Normandy, are fascinating in different ways. Webster was a member of the famous Easy Company of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division, and is a character in the Band of Brothers mini series. He was a Harvard educated Democrat who joined the paratroops so he could experience the war as a grunt. Burgett, in Able Company of the same regiment, was of humbler origins and he had an eagerness for combat that Webster seems to have lacked. Each has an anecdote that bears repeating.
Webster relates an incident from the Normandy battles. He and his unit were advancing when a German jeep came barreling down the road. It was painted with red crosses and had two stretchers strapped on it with wounded men. Webster’s squad were taken by surprise and just stared at it as it drove by. Down the road, an American officer flagged it down. Turns out the German medic took a wrong turn while trying to get these severely wounded men to an aid station. Webster matter-of-factly notes that the medic was shot on the spot because he had a pistol in his belt (technically, a no-no for medics, but an often ignored rule). Then the American officer had the two stretchers taken off the jeep, which he commandeered for his own use. The two wounded Germans were left to die by the side of the road.
Burgett’s story also comes from the Normandy battles. He and a 30 or so other paratroopers succeeded in capturing a fortified French town from several hundred German troops. In the process, they captured around 75 prisoners. At first, the prisoners were locked in a church. Later, as more American troops showed up and they began pushing up the road, they ran into stiffer German resistance. Someone then had the bright idea of getting all the prisoners and marching them up the road in front of the Americans. They hoped the Germans wouldn’t fire on their own soldiers. They were wrong. Once bullets started flying, the prisoners began diving off the road. Burgett then relates how he and the other paratroops weren’t about to let any of them escape, so they began firing into the prisoners from behind. Caught in a vicious crossfire, all the prisoners were killed.
While it is perhaps no surprise that awful things happen in war, what I found most interesting is that both of these incidents pass without comment from the authors. They don’t seem to think that this kind of behavior was unusual at all, or anything worth feeling regretful about. That is at odds with the picture frequently painted about the Western Front in WW2.
Since it’s Veteran’s Day and all, let me close with an appropriate quote from Robert E. Lee.
“It is well that war is so terrible or we would grow too fond of it.”