Not all war crimes during WWII were committed by armed forces, some of them were done by ‘regular’ citizens and factory workers.
Russelsheim, Germany, is a typical industrial town, producing Opel cars in partnership with General Motors. The town, just east of Mainz, with a population of 60,000, has a historic district, and is not unlike any of the hundreds of towns throughout Germany. This town, chartered in 1437, is the center for the assembly of autos, and is the sixth largest engine producer in the world.
Walking through the town it seems typical with the hustle of busy townspeople and the attractive homes. Underneath this calm existence enjoyed by the citizens, one would not suspect that Russelsheim hides a dark secret better left untold.They hope someday to outlive the horrible massacre, so terrible as to defy description.
During World War II, Rüsselsheim, an industrial town that housed many key targets, including the Opel plant, was bombed several times by the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF followed a policy of “area bombing” of cities at night while the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) relied on “precision bombing” by day.
On the afternoon of August 24, 1944, an American B-24 bomber named Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am, commanded by 2nd Lt. Norman J. Rogers Jr, was shot down while taking part in an attack on Hanover and the crew parachuted down near Hutterup.
One lookout alerted both the local fire brigade and the military detachment at the nearby airfield and patrols were dispatched to find the downed Americans. One of the nine airmen, Staff Sgt. Forrest W. Brininstool, had serious flak injuries to his abdomen. After landing on the farm, he was given first aid by an elderly couple and in return, Brininstool gave them his silk parachute, a valuable item for peasants. Within a few hours, most of the crew were captured by German personnel and taken into an interrogation room in the town hall in Greven.After that, most of the crew-members, including Rogers, were taken to an air base near the town where they slept for the night. Brininstool was taken to a medical clinic where he was operated on for shrapnel wounds then was moved to a hospital in Münster to undergo a second operation.
The next morning, Brininstool still remained behind in the hospital while the others were loaded onto a train for a trip south to the Dulag Luft in Oberursel, north of Frankfurt. At every stop along the way, after German civilians noticed the Americans on the train, crowds would form at the windows, shouting in anger at the “terror fliers” and shaking their fists, spitting on the windows.
On the night of August 25, the RAF sent 116 Avro Lancasters
to Rüsselsheim in order to attack the Opel factory on a bombing mission, dropping 674 2,000-lb bombs and more than 400,000 incendiaries on the city, destroying the plant and damaging the railtracks, more by far than any previous air raid on Rüsselsheim in World War II. Towards the end of the bombing raid, a German air raid warden, Joseph Hartgens, mobilized residents in Russelsheim to put out the fires in their homes.
In the morning of August 26, most of the American bomber crewmembers were still proceeding to their original destination. However, the train line was heavily damaged by the RAF in the previous night so the airmen were taken off the train and forced to walk to Rüsselsheim to catch another train. The prisoners were escorted by two German soldiers. As the Americans marched through Rüsselsheim, the townspeople, assuming the fliers were Canadians who had taken part in the previous night’s raid, quickly formed and immediately turned into an uncontrollable angry mob.
Two women, Margarete Witzler and Käthe Reinhardt, shouted out, “There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!” One of the crew-members replied back in German, “It wasn’t us! We didn’t bomb Rüsselsheim!” Nevertheless, one woman threw a brick at the crew and that precipitated a riot during which the townspeople attacked the prisoners with rocks, hammers, sticks and shovels. Three Opel workers arrived with iron bars and starting beating the men to death to the cries of the crowd.
The mob was joined by air raid warden Josef Hartgen, who was armed with a pistol.The German soldiers who guarded the crew-members made no attempt to prevent the beatings.
After the airmen collapsed from the beatings, Hartgen lined them up in the curb and shot six in their heads but ran out of ammunition, leaving two of the airmen, William M. Adams and Sidney Eugene Brown, alive. The mob then put the airmen on a cart and took them to a cemetery. Those who moaned were further beaten.
During the attack, an air raid siren sounded and the mob ran for cover. Adams and Brown managed to crawl from the bloody cart and fled toward the Rhine River, avoiding capture for four days. However, they were discovered by a policeman and brought to their original destination, the camp in Oberursel where they remained until after the war in Europe ended.
When the Third Army took Russelsheim in March, 1945, only seven months later, they were told that eight British airmen had been murdered by the citizens of the town. Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States established a military tribunal which would put on trial anyone involved in commiting a crime against Allied POWs. They would be classified as war criminals. The U.S. Army would investigate the beating deaths of the eight airmen in Russelsheim. Captain Luke P. Rogers was assigned to investigate any alleged crimes. He chose the Russelsheim crimes as his first investigation. It was still believed the crew members were “British”, not Americans. Rogers proceeded to Russelsheim with his assistant and a group of interpreters. He was presented with a list of twenty-one alleged conspirators. Gathering eyewitness accounts of the “Death March” Rogers was sickened by the brutality of the event. He had many of the instigators in custody, but was actively searching for Josef Hartgen, the reported leader of the mob. Rogers released four of those he arrested for lack of evidence. His next step was to dig up the bodies of the crewmen. His team was shocked to find only six bodies after expecting to find eight. They were further shocked to learn that they were Americans, not British as previously assumed.
Rogers gathered all his evidence, and turned it over to the War Crimes Branch. Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski would present the case against the Russelsheim civilians. Finally the much wanted instigator, Josef Hartgen, was captured and rushed to Wiesbaden for interrogation. While in jail he attempted suicide by slashing his wrist on the mattress springs. He was rushed to the hospital, and after recovering was returned to jail.
Part of the Geneva Convention of 1929 states that “Prisoners must at all times be treated with humanity and protected particularly against acts of violence”. Also, the Hague Convention stipulates that “In addition to the prohibitions provided by special conventions, it is expressly forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer any means of defense, has surrendered at discretion”. It was specified that “German civilians are bound to observe the laws of war”.As Loen Jaworski was the Trial Judge Advocate, the defense was led by Lt. Col. Roger E. Titus. He had the unenviable position of defending the enemy. A group of eleven of the accused, including Hartgen, were first on trial.
All pleaded not guilty. Testimony against them was by 21 witnesses. The trial lasted six days, with eyewitness testimony to the cold-bloodied assassinations by Josef Hartgen, and chilling accounts of the bludgeoning of the airmen. They could not account for the two missing men, as everyone was certain there had been eight originally. As the trial proceeded Josef Hartgen was accused of extreme brutality, and vicious and unthinkable conduct in the execution of the defenseless airmen. Five of the group, including Hartgen, were found guilty and sentenced to death. The remainder were given varying prison terms.
The question lingered as to what happened to the two crewmembers, Sgt. William M. Adams, and Sgt. Sidney E. Brown. The crew originally consisted of nine, with S/Sgt. Brininstool wounded and sent to a German hospital, and six executed.
Three weeks after the trial General Davidson received a letter from Sgt. William M. Adams, and Sgt. Sidney Brown. Both had been returned to the U.S. The letter fully explained their experience during the “Death March”, and their miraculous escape, only to be captured four days later. They offered to supply any information they had concerning the ordeal. They had survived the beatings. While the cart with the bodies was at the cemetery awaiting burial, Adams and Brown were able to crawl from under the bodies and escape. After their recapture they were sent to Stalag Luft IV, a POW camp for airmen. Both were liberated in May by the Ninth Army and the British Army. They Returned to the U.S. and gave the authorities what information they had. In the meantime Hartgen and four others were hung on Nov. 10. Otto Stolz was convicted of beating the airmen and helping Hartgen load the bodies in the cart, and accompanying the cart to the cemetery where he fatally beat some of the airmen who were still alive. He was sentenced to death and hanged. It must be noted that none of the women were executed even though they were the primary instigators who excited the crowd to riot and helped in the beatings. The bodies of Austin, Dumont, and Sekul were transferred to their respective hometowns, while the bodies of Rogers, Williams, and Tufenkjian are buried in France.