Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What do you do when you’ve seen the worst that people can visit upon on another? How do you hang on to your humanity? In times of war, the worst and the best in people tends to come out.
I recently spoke to World War II veteran Claude Cruise Jr., who is now 87. I interviewed him back in 2009 about his experiences while fighting with the Army in Europe, particularly during the Battle of the Bulge. As usual, I came away wondering how anybody could survive such hardships. He told me how he and his fellow soldiers were bombed by American planes — there was more than a little confusion about where the Germans were deployed. Then he told me about how he and some of his buddies confiscated a radio from a German cafe. While he was trying to hook its wire to a pole outside a house, a German tank opened fire. He dived into the basement and somehow the soldiers survived while that tank demolished the home.
Those experiences were bad enough, but then Cruise told me about a sight that really had me wondering how I would react. He recalled how he and his fellow soldiers found the victims of the Malmady Massacre in which 70 to 80 American prisoners of war were murdered.
When Adolf Hitler planned the big counteroffensive in the west, he told his generals to be especially ruthless. The goal was to reach the port of Antwerp and split the Allied forces in two. At that point the German army was almost at the breaking point with fewer soldiers, tanks and fuel. This offense was to be an all-out effort.
Hitler hoped that some shows of ruthlessness would frighten American and British soldiers, so he told his generals not to take any prisoners and to use the methods seen on the Eastern Front against the Russians. The Malmady Massacre was one of the results.
Hitler’s call for more savagery turned out to be another in his long list of mistakes. Instead of being frightened by the horrible sight, American soldiers like Cruise were outraged. They became even more determined to stop the German offensive. Cruise summed up the sight by saying, “It made you hate like you’ve never hated before.”
What happened after the war is long and complicated. There were trials, some convictions and some acquittals. One of the German generals who ordered the massacre was later murdered: somebody set his house on fire.
From everything I’ve read, the rest of the world was in no mood to be lenient with the Germans after the war. Soldiers like Cruise who were assigned to occupation duty were ordered not to “fraternize” with the German civilians. I understand that American generals soon gave up trying to enforce this edict.
While Cruise shared his memories, he reminded me of something important: It really is possible to put your hate aside and do what’s right.
About two days after Germany surrender, Cruise and another soldier, Bob Klingensmith, encountered some Russians on a tank. Cruise was a messenger who carried dispatches to the local Russian base near the Elbe River in Germany where American and Soviet forces linked up as Germany collapsed. Cruise didn’t speak Russian and the Russians didn’t speak English, but they both spoke some German. They chatted about the war ending.
Then a dozen German civilians — refugees, really — appeared about a 100 yards away. Allied bombing and the advancing armies had driven millions of Germans from their homes. At that point they were bewildered and had nowhere to go. According to journalists of the time such as William Shirer, who wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the German government collapsed completely. There was no government even at the municipal level. These refugees — many of them old people, women and children — had nowhere to go, and there was no concerted effort to help them at that point.
The Russians talking with Cruise were in no mood to help; in fact, one climbed up on the tank and opened fire with a machine gun. This is when Cruise, who had seen the frozen, snow-covered bodies of murdered Americans, intervened. He got the Russians to stop firing and, with Klingensmith, went to the refugees and pretended to check their identification. The Russians, who likely had seen a lot of atrocities committed by the Nazis, didn’t care for this; but they held their fire and let the Germans leave.
That one act of kindness demonstrates that it is possible to thrust hate aside and do what is right. In a world marked by seemingly endless cycles of violence and revenge, it is good to know that getting off the cycle of horror is possible. During the war, America’s own propaganda machine worked to portray the Germans as brutes, but the service men and women who actually met them learned that was not always the case. Gradually, they saw people in need and started to respond accordingly. They put aside the hate and took up compassion. It is a lesson we could use today in a world full of turmoil.
Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.