Crossroads of Death

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Late in 1944, Hitler took one last gamble to win World War II by a renewed Blitzkrieg in Belgium. To Americans, the conflict was known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” One particular incident of that brief campaign stood out in the minds of many Americans. An advancing SS armored unit had herded more than seventy GI prisoners of war into an open field just south of the town of Malmédy and turned their machine guns on them. Several individuals had lived to tell about the ordeal by feigning death. The physical evidence of the killings had been gathered by United States Army inspection teams who came upon the frozen and snow-covered bodies when the German offensive failed and the United States Army advanced once more. The disarmed corpses were bullet-ridden, some with their frozen hands still above their heads. If any Americans needed to be reminded of the ruthlessness of the SS troops, the “Malmédy Massacre” provided the grisly evidence.

As the war drew to an end, the sometimes lethargic, sometimes precipitous machinery of United States military justice sought out the perpetrators of the deed. The unit in question was identified as the Battle-Group-Peiper, named after its dashing young Commander, Colonel Jochen Peiper. On May 16, 1946, seventy-four officers and men of the Waffen-SS (SS-military, as opposed to the police or purely political SS) were put on trial before an American military court. Seventy-one men, including Peiper himself, were members of the erstwhile Battle-Group-Peiper; the other three, including SS General Sepp Dietrich, were higher up the command structure. They were accused of a criminal conspiracy and the murder of 538 to 749 American prisoners of war and over ninety Belgian civilians. Ironically, the trial took place in Dachau; the accused were incarcerated in the infamous concentration camp. By July 18, 1946, the trial was completed, and the defendants all found guilty of “violations of the laws and usages of war.” Forty-three men, including Peiper, were sentenced to death; the rest, including Dietrich, were sentenced to prison.

The story, and Weingartner’s carefully researched and well-written account of it, might have ended there, but it did not. The American colonel who had been assigned to defend the accused SS men, Willis Everett, was convinced that an injustice had been done. A prominent Atlanta attorney in civilian life, he began a series of legal and political maneuvers which were to lead to a Senate investigation of the Malmédy trial and eventually to freedom for all the defendants. Everett had at first approached his task of legal defense at Dachau with considerable distaste; but soon he became convinced that the United States Army’s case against his clients was seriously flawed. Clearly the seventy-two American corpses in the field near Malmédy proved that a war crime had taken place there. The several hundred other alleged murders were not as well-documented;...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)