This Day in Butchery

Today is a 60th anniversary of the Malmedy Massacre, which took place during the Battle of the Bulge. As it happens, I just finished a book called the Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw about the important role played by a single platoon during that battle.

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last gasp, a desperate attempt to cut the Allied armies in two and retake the port of Antwerp. In perhaps the biggest American intelligence failure of the war, the huge buildup went undetected and the launch of the attack took Eisenhower and his generals completely by surprise. The Ardennes in Belgium was thinly held by either green or worn out American units, because it was supposed to be a quiet sector. When the full might of the German offensive hit the American lines, many units just melted away. The Germans took thousands of prisoners, sometimes accepting the surrender of entire units. At Malmedy a group of 150 prisoners was summarily executed by SS men. While perhaps not that unusual an event by the standards of the Russian front, it caused a huge uproar in the American press. After the war 43 surviving SS men, including the commander of the Kampfgruppe, Jochen Peiper, were tried by the Allies. They were at first sentenced to death, but with the Cold War heating up their sentences were commuted. Most got out of prison in the 50s, including Peiper (who wasn’t on the scene at the time of the massacre in any case). Peiper ended up living in France and was murdered in the 70s after a Communist who sold him chickenwire IDed him.

The Longest Winter focuses an Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon from the 99th Infantry Division. They had been ordered to “temporarily” occupy an advanced position until another unit could take over. This was not the normal work of I&R; platoons, who were trained for mobile intelligence gathering, not static defense. Nonetheless, they found themselves facing one of the major thrusts of the German advance with just their 18-man platoon and 4 artillery spotters who joined them that day. They had one heavy machine gun, no anti-tank guns, and no mortars. They had, however, dug in very effectively in an excellent position, the men were well trained, and well lead.

These 22 guys ended up taking on an entire regiment of German paratroopers. They fought off three attacks, killing dozens of Germans for a loss of only two of their own. Eventually, they ran out of ammo and the Germans flanked their position and got amongst the dugouts. At that point, they surrendered, but they had held up the advance all day long. Since Hitler’s plan relied on surprise (achieved) and speed (not achieved), the action of this one platoon ended up having a significant impact on the Battle of the Bulge. And interestingly, it was nearly unknown for thirty years.

The survivors were sent to various German POW camps around the Reich. Kurt Vonnegut, captured that day as well, was on the same train away from the battlezone. Quotes from Vonnegut are used to provide some details of the story, though he isn’t the focus of the book. He faced the same imprisonment and privation as the members of the platoon.

The rest of the book details the POW experience of the survivors. Amazingly, none of them died in captivity, despite the terrible conditions, the lack of food and water, and the endless array of diseases. All sorts of interesting stories intersect those of the platoon. At one point, for instance, they were in the same camp as Patton’s son-in-law. In an incident that was quickly covered up, Patton sent a small advance taskforce to liberate the camp and bring his son-in-law to safety. It was a complete debacle. The entire task force was crushed, the few prisoners liberated were recaptured, and several hundred more Americans were captured as well.

A couple of months later, the survivors were liberated for real. The platoon’s lieutenant, however, had hepatitis and was on the verge of death. Though he made it, he never filed a proper report on the actions of his unit on December 16. This meant none of the men received any recognition of their heroism and the incident remained unknown until the 70s. At that point their story came out in an article in Parade Magazine that focused on the platoon’s Greek-American member, who had been shot in the face with a submachinegun and ultimately had 36 operations because of it. His relatives and some others were pushing for him to get the Medal of Honor. Others disagreed, thinking that the whole unit should be awarded, since he didn’t do anything above what the rest of the platoon had. Ultimately, President Carter gave them a unit citation and a bunch of individual medals and they became the WWII American platoon most decorated for a single action.

The book was quick and interesting read. Since all the guys survived the war, there was much first-person testimony, which was good. It also has some interesting details about the latter part of the European war, which many books gloss over. All in all, pretty decent.

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