Mysterious flowers symbolize questions over 14 executed German POWs

October 28, 1992|By The Kansas City Star

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- Twice since December, flowers appeared on the graves of 14 German prisoners here.

The men, executed in 1945, had lain largely forgotten until then.

No one knows who placed the flowers. And that's not the only question haunting the German POWs' graves.

Why did President Harry Truman permit their hangings months after the European war ended? And why were the 14 executed contrary to a military board's recommendation that their death sentences be commuted to life?

All were sentenced to death in military court-martials for the murders of three fellow German POWs, men they thought were traitors for cooperating with American captors.

The deaths now are the subject of a TV movie being produced by John Sacret Young, creator of the "China Beach" series. And "Days of Fire" author John Mullins is writing about their case in a book to be published next summer, "Unhallowed Ground."

"There was no reason . . . no reason for those people to die," Mr. Mullins says. "Why they decided they would hang them, God knows. Ask any military man what he would do, he would say, 'I would kill [the traitor].' "

Ken Knox, a former guard at Fort Leavenworth who now lives in Sacramento, Calif., has spent years researching the German soldiers' fate, ever since he stumbled on their graves while exploring the cemetery.

"Each and every one of them killed another snitch," says Mr. Knox, a Vietnam veteran. "If Americans had done it, they would have been given medals when they returned to the United States. They acted as soldiers, and now they are buried in the most dishonorable place."

The paths to the graves began at three POW camps, when the 14 soldiers conspired to kill fellow POWs they thought were traitors.

In Oklahoma, military officials reported that on Nov. 4, 1943, a prisoner riot erupted in a camp in Tonkawa, and when it was over, POW Johannes Kunze lay beaten to death.

Five soldiers of Rommel's vaunted Afrika Korps were arrested. The five, Walter Beyer, Berthold Seidel, Hans Schomer, Willi Scholz and Hans Demme, had suspected that POW Kunze had disclosed military secrets.

Hans "Pete" Eschenbrucher, a former POW who now lives in Los Angeles, remembers that night.

"I went to the bathroom at 10 p.m. and noticed the commotion," Mr. Eschenbrucher says. "People were screaming 'traitor.' I saw him getting hit."

In the second case, five U-boat submariners were moved to Papago Park, Ariz., in March 1944. Previously held at Fort Meade, Md., each had spent time in a cell with POW Werner Dreschler, who had discussed military matters at length.

After Helmut Fischer, Fritz Franke, Gunther Kuelsen, Heinrich Ludwig and Bernard Reyakbeing were moved to Arizona, POW Dreschler again was assigned to their compound. On March 13, 1944, they and two sailors from another U-boat, Rolf Wizuy and Otto Stengel, awoke POW Dreschler, beat him unconscious, and, according to court-martial records, carried him to the showers, where he was hanged.

The third case was a similar POW killing in an Aiken, S.C., POW camp, in which two other German soldiers were convicted.

U.S. military officials investigated the deaths of the "snitches" and named 14 Germans as the killers. At least three of the 14 later claimed their American interrogators used torture to obtain confessions.

Mr. Stengel testified at his court-martial that he was burned on steam heaters and that he was made to wear gas masks filled with garlic. Finally, Mr. Stengel said, he gave his confession, part of which said: "I don't consider myself a murderer, but a conscientious German soldier."

Government documents declassified in 1972 revealed that the United States notified the German government that the 14 POWs were condemned to death. When the Third Reich responded that an equal number of American POWs would meet the same fate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military advisers backed away from the decision.

A U.S. military board of review recommended that the German POWs' sentences be commuted to life in prison. But all that changed in April 1945 when Mr. Roosevelt died; the next month, Germany surrendered.

In a memorandum dated July 3, 1945, filed in the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., Military Judge Advocate General Myron C. Cramer wrote that "the threat to execute American prisoners of war has been removed by reason of the Allied military victory over Germany . . . I recommend that the sentence of each accused be confirmed and ordered executed."

In a one-sentence order also dated July 3, 1945, Mr. Truman agreed.

Seven days later, the five Afrika Korps soldiers were led to a gallows at Fort Leavenworth and were hanged. Four days later, the two German soldiers convicted in the South Carolina killing were executed on the same gallows. And the following month, the seven U-boat soldiers met the same fate.

All 14 were buried in a small cemetery overlooking the Missouri River near the fort's Disciplinary Barracks.

Edgar Beyer, a son of SPOW Beyer, has visited the cemetery twice in recent years and is planning another visit next year. He says he does not remember his father, who saw his family for the last time at Christmas 1942.

"I was 4 years old when my mother found out he died," Mr. Beyer says from Hamburg, Germany. "I remember her crying. I'll never forget her cry."

Some German veterans are lobbying to restore the dead soldiers' honor. Walter Johe, 67, a German paratrooper in World War II who lives in Germany, is trying to raise funds to bring home their remains.

"I'm trying to do this as unobtrusively as possible. There are still feelings on both sides from the war. . . . We have to realize that at that time the hate was very great."

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