6 kwi 2018

Słowa mojego ojca: Kpt. Donalda B. Stewarta

Robert D. Stewart


Donald Stewart uzyskał stopień podporucznika Armii Stanów Zjednoczonych po ukończeniu West Point w 1940 roku. Został przydzielony do artylerii polowej w Fort Bragg w Północnej Karolinie. W 1942 r. został wysłany do Afryki Północnej, gdzie alianci otworzyli front zachodni przeciwko feldmarszałkowi Rommlowi i żołnierzom Afrika Corps. Jako kapitan dowodził baterią artylerii.

Kadet Donald B. Stewart (Stewart Family Archives).

Kiedy jego dowódca rozkazał mu rozmieścić baterię artylerii na wzgórzu 10 km przed amerykańskimi liniami na przełęczy Kasserine, sprzeciwił się (była to bardzo ryzykowna taktyka – nieodpowiednia dla artylerii).  Jego dowódca naciskał, żeby był posłuszny rozkazowi, grożąc w przypadku niewykonania zadania sądem wojskowym. Któregoś dnia zauważył w oddali szybko zbliżające się czołgi. Rozkazał otworzyć ogień. Czołgi szybko zbliżyły się do minimum zasięgu haubic, gdzie mający ich na muszce artylerzyści kontynuowali ogień. Kiedy skończyła się amunicja, chwycili broń i pobiegli w kierunku linii pozycji amerykańskich. Nie udało im się. Zostali opanowani i zdziesiątkowani. Mój ojciec stracił dziewięćdziesięciu ze stu dziesięciu żołnierzy. Po wojnie chciał, aby jego dowódca został postawiony przed sadem wojskowym, ale okazało się, że ten poległ na polu bitwy.

Starcie skończyło się szybko i z wyjątkiem sporadycznych odgłosów karabinów maszynowych wydawało się , że jest już po wszystkim. Kapitan Stewart i młodszy żołnierz leżeli płasko obok siebie na pustyni. Planowali poczekać aż Niemcy opuszczą pole i będą mogli wrócić do linii pozycji amerykańskich. Niemiecki żołnierz piechoty podszedł bliżej i zwrócił się do nich perfekcyjnie po angielsku: „Wiemy gdzie jesteście. Jeśli nie wstaniecie i nie poddacie się, obniżymy karabiny maszynowe i zastrzelimy Was”. Ojciec i młody żołnierz zostali wzięci do niewoli. W tamtym czasie nie wiedzieli, że Niemcy podczas pierwszych starć z Armią Amerykańską przywiązywali dużą wagę do pojmania amerykańskich żołnierzy. Za bohaterstwo w akcji pod obstrzałem w czasie bitwy na przełęczy Kasserine kapitan Stewart został odznaczony Srebrną Gwiazdą.

Kpt. Stewart w Afryce Północnej: "Tak, to jest mój dom" (Stewart Family Archives).

Jako jeniec wojenny został przetransportowany najpierw do Niemiec (Oflag IX A/Z w Rotenburgu nad Fuldą), a następnie do okupowanej przez Niemców Polski, gdzie większość niewoli spędził w Szubinie. W początkowym okresie niewoli, niemiecki komendant obozu oddelegował dwóch strażników, aby poinformowali go, że odbędzie podróż do Związku Radzieckiego w charakterze świadka w miejscu odkrytych masowych grobów. Odmówił nie chcąc brać udziału w nazistowskiej propagandzie. Strażnicy sumiennie przekazali jego odpowiedź, po czym wrócili uzbrojeni w bagnety by oświadczyć mu, że zgodnie z żądaniem odbędzie podróż do Rosji. Donald Stewart pojechał tam wbrew swojej woli. Poproszono go słowo honoru, że nie będzie podejmował prób ucieczek w trakcie podróży. Takie słowo byłoby sprzeczne z kodeksem honorowym, dlatego odmówił, podobnie jak zrobił to podpułkownik John Van Vliet Jr., także absolwent West Point i współjeniec wzięty do niewoli w Afryce Północnej w mniej więcej tym samym czasie. Kapitan Stewart i podpułkownik Van Vliet wyjechali z Rotenburga nad Fuldą do Lasu Katyńskiego.

 Kpt. Donald B. Stewart w Katyniu, trzeci z prawej (z profilu), maj 1943 (Stewart Family Archives).

Na miejscu grobów w Lesie katyńskim Kapitan Stewart i inni jeńcy zorientowali się, że są bacznie obserwowani.  Mając świadomość, że są fotografowani z ukrycia, wiedzieli, że nie mogą okazywać emocji, jak również zdawali sobie sprawę, że nie mogli dyskutować o swoich opiniach z obawy przed możliwością podsłuchania i nagrywania ich rozmów przez nazistów. Warunki były makabryczne – tysiące ciał w zaawansowanym stopniu rozkładu ułożonych jak drewno opałowe w kilku dużych rowach. Smród był uciążliwy. Kapitan Stewart został zmuszony do przejścia po zwłokach i wybrania jednego z ciał ofiar morderstwa do autopsji. Wszyscy jeńcy wojenni będący świadkami w tym miejscu zachowali spokój i doszli do tego samego wniosku – odpowiedzialność za tę zbrodnię ponoszą Sowieci. Stan mundurów i obuwia wskazywał, że były stosunkowo nowe. Wszystkie wycinki z gazet i listy znalezione przy ciałach miały daty, które potwierdzały, że Polacy zostali zamordowani gdy byli jeńcami w niewoli sowieckiej.

Po powrocie z Katynia ani Kapitan Stewart, ani podpułkownik Van Vliet nie wspominali o swoich spostrzeżeniach i doświadczeniach dotyczących wizyty w miejscu grobów w Lesie Katyńskim.

Kapitan Stewart był użytkownikiem kodu zarejestrowanym przez wywiad wojskowy. Listy, które pisał do rodziny z Szubina zawierały tajne informacje, które mogłyby być przydatne amerykańskiemu wywiadowi wojskowemu. W niektórych z tych listów komunikował, że Niemcy mają rację stwierdzając Sowiecką odpowiedzialność za Zbrodnię Katyńską.

Podczas pobytu w Szubinie, kapitan Stewart był odpowiedzialny za przechwytywanie i ukrywanie różnych przedmiotów wysyłanych przez wywiad, które mogłyby zostać wykorzystane przez jeńców, którzy pracowali przy planach ucieczek.  Żaden z ukrytych przez niego przedmiotów nigdy nie został znaleziony przez wielokrotnie przeszukujące obóz Gestapo, a za swój spryt i wysiłek w tym zakresie został odznaczony Brązową Gwiazdą.

Pod koniec wojny, kiedy Armia Czerwona zbliżała się od wschodu, a siły alianckie od strony zachodniej, stało sie bardziej oczywiste, że wojna zmierza ku końcowi. Przetrwanie nie było gwarantowane, a wyzwolenie przez Armię Czerwoną nie wchodziło w grę, ponieważ Sowieci prawdopodobnie zabiliby go z powodu jego wiedzy o Zbrodni Katyńskiej.

Oflag 64, styczeń 1944; od lewej: kpt. Donald B. Stewart, kpt. James Barker, por. William E. Rudell, ppor. Wilbur B. Sharpe, ppor. Joseph E. Seringer.

Po ewakuacji obozu w Szubinie jeńców podzielono na grupy. Jedna z grup składająca się z mniej zdrowych jeńców i kierowana przez ppłk. Van Vlieta podróżowała pociągiem ze Stolpe auf Usedom do Luckenwalde (Stalag III-A). Inna grupa, pod dowództwem kpt. Stewarta maszerowała dalej  Żadna z tych opcji nie była dobra. Alianci dysponowali myśliwcami dalekiego zasięgu umożliwiającymi ostrzał pociągów z broni pokładowej. Co do marszu, to była zima i ziemia była zamarznięta i było dużo śniegu. Obie grupy jednak dotarły do celu.


Donald Stewart i John Van Vliet Jr. zeznawali przed Komisją Maddena potwierdzając ich przekonanie, że Sowieci byli odpowiedzialni za Zbrodnię Katyńską. Donald Stewart i jego żona opuszczając Washington DC wieczorem po złożeniu zeznań zostali odprowadzeni na pociąg tak szybko, jak to możliwe, aby uniknąć rozmów z prasą.

Okładka Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (wydanie z 19 kwietnia 1970 r.).

Zgodnie z rozkazem Donald Stewart nie mówił o Katyniu (złamanie rozkazu, mogłoby skutkować pozbawieniem emerytury wojskowej). Rozkaz obowiązywał go również po przejściu na emeryturę w 1968 r. w stopniu podpułkownika. Rozkaz został ostatecznie odwołany kiedy w Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (wydanie z 19 kwietnia 1970 r.) ukazał się artykuł dotyczący Zbrodni Katyńskiej.  Pomimo, że nigdy nie powiedziano mu, żeby nie mówił o listach, które jako jeniec pisał do swojej matki – listach, które dawno temu zostały wyczyszczone przez użytkowników kodu wojskowego i cenzorów oraz dostarczone do matki – mój ojciec kiedy byłem dorastającym dzieckiem wspominał tylko o jednym liście. Był to list w którym zawarł kodowaną informację stwierdzającą, że twierdzenie Niemców o winie Sowietów za Zbrodnię w Katyniu są prawdziwe. Mówił mi o tym liście kilka razy, ale nigdy nie wspomniał, że był to list kodowany.

Klatka z taśm video zawierających wywiady z ppłk. Johnem Van Vlietem, Jr. i kpt. Donaldem B. Stewartem, 1980. 

Długo po zakończeniu wojny, w roku 1980, pewien magistrant przeprowadził wywiady z Donaldem Stewartem Johnem Van Vlietem Jr nagrany na taśmę video. Taśmy te są znane jako wywiady Towersa. W wywiadach tych obaj przypisali Sowietom winę za zamordowanie polskich oficerów. Istotnym ujęciem w nagraniu Towersa jest moment, w którym Stewart pokazuje buty, które miał ubrane podczas swojej podróży do Katynia w 1943 r. Omawia zużycie jego obuwia i zwraca uwagę, że mundury i buty polskich oficerów były w stanie stosunkowo nowym, co oznacza , że zostali zamordowani we wczesnym okresie ich niewoli w 1940 r. , kiedy to byli w niewoli sowieckiej. Donald Stewart powiedział: „Kiedy chodziłem po ciałach zamordowanych w Katyniu, zdałam sobie sprawę, że chociaż mój kraj może przegrać niektóre bitwy, nie może sobie pozwolić na przegraną w wojnie”.

Krzyż Oficerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej przyznany pośmiertnie kpt. Donaldowi Stewartowi, Warszawa, Belweder, 8 kwietnia 2015.

Ze względu na ich wytrwałość w głoszeniu prawdy o Zbrodni Katyńskiej w 2014 r. Donaldowi Stewartowi i Johnowi Van Vlietowi Jr. przez Ministra Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego został nadany tytuł Amicus Veritati (Przyjaciel prawdy). Oficerowie byli pierwszymi laureatami tej nagrody.


W 2015 roku podczas ceremonii w Belwederze Prezydent RP Bronisław Komorowski za odznaczył pośmiertnie Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr. oraz Donalda B. Stewarta za ich działania związane z Katyniem przyznając im Krzyż Oficerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. 

Robert D. Stewart, najstarszy syn kpt. Donalda Stewarta, uroczystość odsłonięcia tablicy upamiętniającej ppłk Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr. i kpt. Donalda B. Stewarta, 11 kwietnia 2015.

Ponadto , w 2015 r. w Szubinie w miejscu byłego obozu jenieckiego Oflag 64 została odsłonięta tablica. Upamiętnia ona podróż Donalda Stewarta i Johna Van Vlieta Jr. do Lasu Katyńskiego gdzie byli świadkami ekshumacji polskich oficerów i fakt, że po powrocie, z Oflagu 64, w sposób tajny przekazali w 1943 r. i ponownie w 1944 r. rządowi Stanów Zjednoczonych swoje ustalenia odnośnie sowieckiej odpowiedzialności za zbrodnię  na polskich oficerach. Rząd Stanów Zjednoczonych nigdy nie przyznał, że wiedział w 1943 roku, że Sowieci byli winni tej zbrodni.  Komunikaty wysłane przez Stewarta i Van Vlieta dowodzą czego innego.



© 2018 Robert D. Stewart
Copyright © for the Polish translation by Mariusz Winiecki 

5 kwi 2018

Words from My Father: Captain Donald B. Stewart

by Robert D. Stewart


Donald Stewart was awarded a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army after graduating from West Point in 1940. He was assigned to the field artillery at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1942, he was deployed to North Africa as the Allies opened a western front against Field Marshal Rommel and the Afrika Corps. As a Captain, he was in command of an artillery battery.

Cadet Donald B. Stewart (Stewart Family Archives).

Eventually his commanding officer ordered him to deploy his artillery battery on a hill six miles (10 kilometers) out in front of the American lines at Kasserine Pass. He objected (this was a very risky ploy – unsuitable for artillery). His commanding officer insisted he obey the order, under risk of a Court-Martial in a war zone if he failed to do so. He deployed his battery as ordered. One day he observed Panzers in the distance, approaching very quickly. He gave orders to open fire. The Panzers approach soon brought them within the minimum range of the Howitzers, at which point the artillerymen barrel-sighted the guns and continued to fire. When they ran out of shells, they hooked the guns to the trucks and made a run for the American lines. They didn’t make it. They were overrun and shot up pretty badly. My father lost 90 out of 110 men. After the war, he wanted to have his commanding officer prosecuted in a Court-Martial, but discovered that he had been killed in action.

The encounter ended quickly, and seemed to be over except for some sporadic machine gun fire. Captain Stewart and a young soldier next to him were lying flat on the desert floor. Their plans were to wait for the Germans to leave the area, and then make their way to the American lines. A German infantryman walked up to them, and spoke in perfect English, “We know where you are. If you do not get up and surrender, we will lower the machine guns and shoot you.” He and the young soldier were taken prisoner. What they did not know at the time was that the Germans had placed great value on capturing American soldiers in their initial engagements with the American Army. Captain Stewart was awarded the Silver Star for his actions under fire during the Battle of Kasserine Pass.

Capt. Stewart in North Africa: "Yes, this is my house" (Stewart Family Archives).

His initial transit as prisoner of war took him to Germany (Oflag IX A/Z at Rotenburg an der Fulda), and eventually to Poland where he spent most of his time as a POW at Szubin in German occupied Poland. Early in in his captivity, the German Commandant sent two camp guards to inform him that he would be traveling to Russia, where he would function as a witness in an area where mass graves had been discovered. He refused, not wanting to be part of Nazi propaganda. The guards dutifully reported his response. The guards returned with bayonets attached, and informed him that he would travel to Russia as demanded. Donald Stewart journeyed to Russia against his will.  He was asked to give his word that he would not attempt to escape during the journey. To promise not to escape would have been a violation of the Code of Conduct.  He refused, as did Lt. Col. John Van Vliet Jr., a fellow POW at Oflag 64 and a fellow graduate of West Point, who was captured in North Africa at approximately the same time.  Captain Stewart and Lt. Col. Van Vliet Jr. traveled together from Rotenburg an der Fulda to the Katyn Forest.

 Capt. Donald B. Stewart at Katyn, third from right (in profile), May 1943 (Stewart Family Archives).

While at the Katyn Forest burial site, Captain Stewart and the other POWs realized that they were being watched very carefully. Because of German photographers hidden about the premises, they knew they could show no emotion, and also realized that they could not discuss their opinions for fear of being overheard and having their conversations recorded by the Nazis. The conditions were gruesome – thousands of corpses in advanced stages of decay stacked like firewood in several large trenches. The stench was oppressive. Captain Stewart was forced to walk on the dead in one of the graves, and was ordered to choose one of the murder victims to be autopsied. All POWs maintained their composure and all POWs arrived at the same conclusion – the Soviets were responsible for the murders. The condition of the uniforms, the boots, were new.  All of the newspaper clippings and letters had dates that corroborated that the Soviets had been holding the Polish as captives when they were murdered.

Upon returning from Katyn, neither Captain Stewart nor Lt. Col. Van Vliet Jr., mentioned anything about their observations and experiences during their visit to the Katyn Forest Burial Site.

Captain Stewart was a code user registered with military intelligence. Letters that he wrote home to family while at Szubin secretly contained information that would be of use to American military intelligence. In some of these letters, he communicated that the German claims that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn Massacre were correct.

While at Szubin, Captain Stewart was in charge of caring for and hiding various items that could be used by the prisoners who were working on escape plans. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his clever efforts. None of his hidden items were ever found, even when searches were conducted by the Gestapo.

Late in the war, as the Red Army approached from the east, and the Allied Forces advanced from the west, it was apparent that the war would soon end. Survival was not guaranteed. Being liberated by the Red Army was not an option, since the Soviets would likely kill him because of his knowledge of the Katyn Massacre.

Oflag 64, January 1944;l-r: Capt. Donald B. Stewart, Capt. James Barker, 1st Lt William E. Rudell, 2nd Lt Wilbur B. Sharpe, 2nd Lt Joseph E. Seringer.

When the camp at Szubin was evacuated, the POWs were split into two groups. One group containing the least healthy prisoners was headed by Lt. Col. Van Vliet and traveled by train from Stolpe auf Usedom to Luckenwalde. The other group, headed by Captain Stewart, marched out. Neither option was good. The Allies had long range fighters that would make strafing runs on trains. As to the march, it was winter – the ground was frozen and there was snow. Both groups reached their destinations.


Donald Stewart and John Van Vliet Jr. testified at the Madden Commission confirming their beliefs that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn Massacre. Congressman Dondero, who had nominated Donald Stewart for an appointment to West Point, was a member of the Madden Commission. Donald Stewart and his wife left Washington, DC that evening after his testimony was completed. They were put on a train to get them out of the area as quickly as possible to prevent the press from talking to him.

April 19, 1970 edition of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine.

Under orders not to talk about Katyn, Donald Stewart did not talk about Katyn (violating the orders not to talk could have cost him his military pension). The orders remained in effect even after he retired in 1968 as a Lieutenant Colonel. The orders were finally rescinded after the Katyn Massacre was a feature story in the April 19, 1970 edition of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. However, he was never told not to talk about letters that he had written as a POW to his mother – letters that had long ago been cleared by military code users and censors, and delivered to his mother. There is only one letter that my father, Donald Stewart, told me about when I was a child growing up. It was the code letter in which he stated that the German claims that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn Massacre were correct. He told me about that letter several times, although he never mentioned that it was a code letter.

Still picture from the video tapes of interviews of Colonel John Van Vliet, Jr., and Capt. Donald Stewart, U.S. Army, German prisoners in World War II, relating to their participation in a German-organized committee to investigate the Katyn Forest massacre, 1980. 

Long after the war ended, in 1980, a graduate student conducted a video interview with Donald Stewart and John Van Vliet Jr. It is known as the Roy L. Towers interviews. Both men affixed the blame for the murders of the Polish officers to the Soviets. A key feature of the Towers video shows Donald Stewart holding the boots he wore while in the Katyn Forest in 1943. He discusses the wear and tear on his boots, and points out that the Polish officers’ uniforms and boots were in new condition – which means that the Poles were killed early in their captivity in 1940, when they would have been in Soviet custody. Donald Stewart said, “When I walked on the dead at Katyn, I realized that although my country might lose some battles, my country can never afford to lose a war.”

The Officer’s Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland posthumously awarded to Capt. Donald Stewart, Warsaw, Belvedere, April 8, 2015.

Because of their continuing efforts to present the truth about the Katyn Massacre, Donald Stewart and John Van Vliet Jr. were recognized in 2014 as Amicus Veritati by the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage. The two officers were the first recipients of that award.

In 2015 at a ceremony in Warsaw at Belvedere, President Bronislav Komorowski posthumously awarded both Donald Stewart and John Van Vliet Jr. the Polish Officers Cross of Merit.

Robert D. Stewart, eldest son of Capt. Donald Stewart, unveiling of the Stewart/Van Vliet memorial plaque Szubin, April 11, 2015.

Additionally, in 2015 a plaque was erected in Szubin at the site of the Oflag 64 prison camp. The plaque commemorates the journey by Donald Stewart and John Van Vliet Jr. to the Katyn Forest where they would become witnesses and, upon their return to the camp, secretly report their determination of Soviet responsibility for the murders to the US government in 1943 and again in 1944.  The US government has never acknowledged that it knew in 1943 that the Soviets were guilty of the massacre. The communications from Stewart and Van Vliet prove otherwise.



© 2018 Robert D. Stewart

4 kwi 2018

Najpierw obowiązek: służba i niewola ppłk Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr.

John H. Van Vliet III


Słońce wschodzące rankiem 17. lutego 1943 r. ujawniło kolumnę niemieckich pojazdów opancerzonych, artylerii i piechoty poruszających się po drodze. Niemcy znajdowali się bezpośrednio pomiędzy grupą amerykańskich sił a ich celem. Amerykanie, 3. Batalion 168. Pułku Piechoty, otoczeni w pierwszej fazie bitwy na przełęczy Kasserine w Afryce Północnej przez siły Rommla, szukali możliwości odwrotu.

Kiedy bitwa się zaczęła batalion bronił Djebel Ksaira w pobliżu przełęczy Faid. Amerykanie całkowicie stępili atak, jaki przypuścili na nich Niemcy. Niemcy, nie mogąc "wykopać" Amerykanów z zajmowanych przez nich pozycji, ruszyli dalej odcinając i okrążając wszystkie siły amerykańskie broniące się w pobliżu przełęczy Faid. Kilka dni później mały lekki samolot zrzucił informację instruującą Amerykanów do wycofania się na linię pozycji aliantów. Noc była ich sprzymierzeńcem, przemierzali ciemności unikając niemieckich sił pancernych i o świcie dotarli bliżej ich celu, ale musieli stawić czoła Niemieckiej kolumnie.

Kadet John H. Van Vliet Jr.

Wyczerpani, głodni, spragnieni i pozbawieni przeciwpancernej broni żołnierze patrzyli jak niemieckie pojazdy pancerne wysuwają się z drogi i otwierają ogień. Bez żadnych możliwości powstrzymania czołgów Amerykanie widzieli jak bitwa zmienia się w obławę. Praktycznie wszystkie zaangażowane siły 168. Pułku Piechoty zostały przejęte. Dla podpułkownika Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr., dowódcy 3. batalionu, 17. lutego 1943 r. rozpoczął się okres niewoli znaczony nudą, głodem, trzema ucieczkami oraz, znacząco, wyjazdem do Katynia w celu obserwacji skutków zbrodni popełnionej przez Sowietów na tysiącach polskich oficerów.

John H. Van Vliet Jr., nazywany  też “Jack” albo “Van”, pochodził z rodziny wojskowej. Urodził się w Texas City, w stanie Texas i mieszkał w różnych bazach wojskowych i placówkach zagranicznych. W roku 1937, podobnie jak jego dziadek w 1840 i ojciec w 1913, ukończył West Point. Został skierowany do służby w piechocie. Podążał ścieżką kariery typową dla oficera piechoty, aż we wrześniu 1941 r. w cywilu udał się do Wielkiej Brytanii, by obserwować Armię Brytyjską i wziąć udział w organizowanych przez nią specjalistycznych kursach. Potem na krótko powrócił do Fort Benning jako instruktor w Szkole Piechoty by znów udać się do Wielkiej Brytanii, objąć dowództwo 3. Batalionu 168. Pułku Piechoty i poprowadzić go w inwazji w Afryce Północnej i bitwie o przełęcz Kasserine. Misja ta zakończyła się na równinie Afryki Północnej, kiedy to niemieckie siły przejęły kontrolę nad ich nowymi jeńcami wojennymi.

Niemcy przeszukali i rozbroili oficerów oraz żołnierzy „Sto Sześćdziesiąt Ósmego”. Świeżo upieczeni jeńcy wojenni zostali sformowani w kolumnę marszową i poprowadzeni drogą powrotną do przełęczy Faid. Wszyscy cierpieli z powodu pragnienia i dopiero pod koniec dnia odczuli ogromną ulgę mogąc się napić.

W pierwszym rzędzie od lewej: ppłk. Jack Van Vliet, por. Emanuel Robertson;
W drugim rzędzie od lewej: por. Al Casner, por. Woodley Warrick, por. Floyd Saxton.

Obozowe życie w Szubinie było uregulowane. Niemcy dwa razy dziennie wymagali stawiania się na apelu, zaś jeńcy wypełniali pozostałą część dnia przeróżnymi formami aktywności organizowanymi w strukturze dowodzenia ustanowionej przez nich samych. Oficerowie posiadający określoną wiedzę i umiejętności prowadzili zajęcia dydaktyczne dzieląc się nimi z pozostałymi jeńcami. Instrumenty muzyczne dostarczone przez YMCA pozwoliły sformować zespół muzyczny i orkiestrę. Toczono poważne dyskusje, które dotyczyły na przykład sposobu przedłużenia przydatności ograniczonej liczby ostrzy do golenia: czy faktycznie możliwe jest naostrzenie żyletki przez przeciągnięcie jej po wewnętrznej stronie szklanki? Jedzenie, a w zasadzie jego niedostatek, stanowił poważny problem. Niemcy wydzielali jeńcom racje żywnościowe należne osobom, które nie pracowały (oficerowie jeńcy wojenni wg Konwencji Genewskiej należeli do kategorii osób, których Niemcy nie mogli wykorzystywać do pracy).  Jack opowiadał później historie o wyżywieniu w obozie – „cienka codzienna zupa wypełniała dokładnie siedemnaście wyliczonych łyżek”. Skromne niemieckie racje żywnościowe były uzupełniane przez żywność z cennych paczek Czerwonego Krzyża (Jack przez resztę swojego życia wiernie wspomagał datkami Amerykański Czerwony Krzyż).

Jack koncentrował swoje myśli na ucieczce. Amerykańscy jeńcy w sposób naturalny podejmowali próby ucieczek. Powołali komitet ucieczkowy, który koordynował działania mające na celu wydostanie się niektórych z nich z obozu. Jack był zaangażowany w kilka prób ucieczek i opublikowano już sporo informacji o tych próbach czy wsparciu tych prób. Jack stanowczo odmawiał podania wielu szczegółów dotyczących tego typu działań i wsparcia udzielanego uciekinierom z obozów jenieckich. Był wściekły na tych, którzy „puszczali farbę” mówiąc o technikach, pomysłach, doświadczeniach. Jak mi kiedyś powiedział odmawiając publikowania swoich doświadczeń uzasadniał: „Synu, w życiu jeńca nie ma nic lepszego do roboty poza szukaniem sposobności do ucieczki. Jeśli jest możliwy jakiś ze sposobów, to jeniec na pewno na niego wpadnie. Strażnicy, z drugiej strony, mają w ten sposób naturalną motywację w wykonywaniu swojej pracy. Dlaczegóżby pomagać przyszłym strażnikom dostarczając im książkę pełną różnych sposobów ucieczek jakich próbowali jeńcy w przeszłości? Szaleństwo!” 

Ppłk Van Vliet w Katyniu (z tyłu za kpt. Gilderem; oficer w okularach), maj 1943.

Okres niewoli Jack’a wiąże jego oraz kapitana Dona Stewarta z wydarzeniami w Lesie Katyńskim. Któregoś dnia Niemcy poprosili ppłk. Van Vlieta oraz kpt. Stewarta, by towarzyszyli im w Lesie Katyńskim podczas ekshumacji ciał tysięcy polskich oficerów zamordowanych przez Rosjan. Obaj Amerykanie nie chcieli mieć nic wspólnego z czymkolwiek, co według nich byłoby działaniem propagandowym. Odmówili warunkowego zwolnienia z obozu oraz wyjazdu, ale zostali do niego przymuszeni. Ta historia opowiedziana jest w innych miejscach, ale co należy nadmienić to to, że ich osobiste spostrzeżenia potwierdzały odpowiedzialność Sowietów za zbrodnię popełnioną na polskich oficerach.

 Pułkownik John H. Van Vliet Jr., Lata pięćdziesiąte 1950s oraz rok 1987

Armia Czerwona wzięła do niewoli tysiące Polskich oficerów najeżdżając wschodnią część Polski w czasie kiedy Hitlerowcy wkroczyli do jej zachodniej części. Oficerowie Ci reprezentowali elitę polskiego narodu, którą Sowieci postrzegali jako zagrożenie dla ich planów przyszłej dominacji. Stalin wymordował niemal 22 000 Polaków, którzy zostali pochowani m. in. w masowych grobach w Lesie Katyńskim. Kiedy Hitler najechał Związek Radziecki, jego siły okupujące tereny wokół Smoleńska odkryły masowe groby. Niemieccy urzędnicy chcieli, żeby oficerowie sił alianckich i inni świadkowie przybyli na miejsce odkrycia grobów, żeby obserwować co znaleźli Niemcy. Niemcy badali ekshumowane ciała w poszukiwania listów, pamiętników, gazet czy czegokolwiek, co wskazywałoby, że do mordu doszło, kiedy obszar ten był pod kontrolą Związku Radzieckiego. Ppłk Van Vliet i Kpt. Stewart obawiali się oszustwa, ale niezależnie potwierdzili ramy czasowe popełnienia zbrodni wyłącznie na podstawie spostrzeżeń dotyczących stanu umundurowania, w szczególności butów. Nauczyli się oceniać czas spędzony przez żołnierza w niewoli w oparciu o stan munduru i wszystkie znaki potwierdziły, że Polscy oficerowie spędzili w niewoli niedługi czas, co pasowało do innych dowodów.

Krzyż Oficerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej przyznany pośmiertnie ppłk Johnowi H. Van Vlietowi, Jr., Warszawa, Belweder, 8 kwietnia 2015.


Ppłk Van Vliet i Kpt Stewart nie składali żadnych oświadczeń i odmówili jakiejkolwiek współpracy z Niemcami. Mimo wszystko doświadczenie było szokujące i wiedzieli, że informację o tym należy przekazać rządowi Stanów Zjednoczonych. Jack próbował ucieczki z niewoli trzykrotnie. Jak by powiedział: „to coś mówi o skuteczności dwóch pierwszych”. W wyniku ostatniej z ucieczek przemierzył terytorium Rzeszy i  szybko dotarł do Waszyngtonu gdzie złożył szczegółowy raport dotyczący Zbrodni Katyńskiej Generałowi Bisselowi, zastępcy szefa wywiadu Wydziału Wojny G-2 (wywiad) Sztabu Generalnego. W Waszyngtonie rozkazano mu nic nie mówić o Katyniu. Pozostał posłuszny rozkazowi aż do czasu zeznań przed Kongresem.

Ppłk Van Vliet został odznaczony Brązową Gwiazdą z literą „V” (ang. valor – waleczność, męstwo) w uznaniu jego działań w czasie gdy był jeńcem. Później walczył w Wojnie koreańskiej. Na emeryturę przeszedł w stopniu pułkownika. Zmarł w lutym 2000 r. pozostawiając trzy córki i syna.

John H. Van Vliet III, uroczystość odsłonięcia tablicy upamiętniającej ppłk Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr. i kpt. Donalda B. Stewarta, 11 kwietnia 2015.

W marcu 2015 roku Prezydent RP Bronisław Komorowski za odznaczył Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr. oraz Donalda B. Stewarta za ich działania związane z Katyniem pośmiertnie przyznając im Krzyż Oficerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. W kwietniu 2015 w Szubinie, obok pomnika poświęconego więźniom obozów w Szubinie, odsłonięto tablicę upamiętniającą ppłk Johna H. Van Vlieta Jr. i kpt. Donalda B. Stewarta.

© 2017 John H. Van Vliet III
Copyright © for the Polish translation by Mariusz Winiecki 

3 kwi 2018

Duty first: Service and captivity account of LTC John H. Van Vliet Jr.

by John H. Van Vliet III


Dawn broke on the morning of 17 February 1943 and revealed a column of German armored vehicles, artillery and infantry moving along a road. The Germans were directly between a group of American forces and their objective. The Americans, the 3rd Battalion 168th Infantry, were seeking to return to Allied lines after having been encircled by Rommel’s forces in the opening stages of the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa.

When the battle of Kasserine Pass started, the battalion was defending DJebel Kasira near Faid Pass. The Americans thoroughly blunted the one serious attack the Germans launched at them. Having failed to kick the Americans off the high ground, the Germans moved on, cutting off and encircling all of the American forces defending near Faid Pass. A few days after the encirclement, a light aircraft dropped a message instructing the Americans to break out and rejoin Allied lines. The night was their friend, and the Americans trudged through the darkness, evading a German armored force, and arriving at dawn on 17 February near their objective, but confronting that German column.

Cadet John H. Van Vliet Jr.

Tired, hungry, thirsty and without any anti-tank weapons, the exhausted soldiers watched the German armored vehicles deploy from the road and open fire. Without any means of stopping a tank, the Americans saw the battle dissolve into a round-up. Virtually all of the committed forces of the 168th Infantry Regiment had just been captured. For LTC John H. Van Vliet Jr., commander of the 3rd Battalion, 17 February 1943 was the start of a period of captivity marked by boredom, hunger, three escapes, and, significantly, a trip to the Katyn Forest to observe the results of the Soviet massacre of thousands of Polish officers.

John H. Van Vliet Jr., nicknamed “Jack” or “Van”, came from a military family. He was born in Texas City, Texas and lived on a variety of military bases and foreign postings. Graduating from West Point in the Class of 1937, he followed in his Great Grandfather’s (Class of 1840) and father’s (Class of 1913) footsteps. He was commissioned in the Infantry.  He followed a typical career path for an Infantry officer until September 1941 which found him in civilian clothes in the United Kingdom observing the British Army and taking specialized British Army courses.  He briefly returned to Fort Benning as an instructor at the Infantry School before traveling again to the UK to take command of 3/168th Infantry and to lead it during the invasion of North Africa and the Battle of Kasserine Pass.  That command ended on the North African plain as the German soldiers took charge of their fresh prisoners of war.

The Germans searched and disarmed the officers and men of the 168th. The new POWs were formed into a marching column and found themselves on the road back to Faid Pass. They all suffered from thirst and were greatly relieved to be “watered” at the end of the day. They were processed, separated, and shipped across the Mediterranean to Italy where trains took them on to their POW camps. LTC Van Vliet and several of the other officers ultimately arrived in Szubin, German-occupied Poland where they were interred in Oflag 64.

Front l-r: LTC Jack Van Vliet, LT Emanuel Robertson;
Back l-r: LT Al Casner, LT Woodley Warrick, LT Floyd Saxton.

Camp life at Szubin was orderly. The Germans had their required roll call formations, and the POWs filled the rest of the day with a mixture of activities all conducted within the command structure established by the POWs. Officers with skills or knowledge would conduct classes to pass on what they knew. Instruments provided by the YMCA permitted the creation of a band.  Serious discussions took place about how to prolong the usefulness of the limited number of razor blades. (Can you really sharpen a razor blade by stropping it along the inside of a water glass?) Food, or its lack, was a major issue. POWs were authorized a subsistence ration the Germans provided to people who could not work. (The officer POWs were in that category as, under the Geneva Convention, the Germans were not permitted to use officers as workers.)  Jack would later tell stories about food in the camp. The thin daily soup filled seventeen carefully counted spoons full.  The meager German rations were supplemented by food from precious Red Cross parcels. (Jack would faithfully make contributions to the American Red Cross for the rest of his life.)

Jack focused his thoughts on escape. The American officers, naturally enough, organized escape efforts and created escape committees to coordinate activities to spring some of the men. Jack was involved in several escape attempts, and quite a bit of information has already been published about those attempts and the support for those attempts. Jack steadfastly refused to share many details about those attempts and about the support. He was furious at those men who “spilled the beans” by talking about techniques, ideas and experiences. As he told me in response to some of the publicity, “Son, a POW has nothing to do all day except to find a way to escape.  If a way can be imagined, the POWs will find it. Guards, on the other hand, just have the normal incentive to do a job. Why help future guards by giving them a book with all sorts of ideas about how POWs escaped in the past? Nuts!” 

LTC Van Vliet in Katyn (behind Capt. Dr. S. Gilder; the officer in glasses), May 1943.

Jack’s time as a POW included his and Captain Don Stewart’s connection to events in the Katyn Forest. One day, German authorities asked LTC Van Vliet and CPT Stewart to accompany them to the Katyn Forest to observe the exhumation of thousands of bodies of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Soviets. The two Americans wanted nothing to do with what they imagined would be a propaganda event. They refused parole, declined to go, and were then ordered to go. Their story is told in other places, but the essential part of it is that their personal observations confirmed the fact that the Polish officers had been murdered by the Soviets.

 Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr., 1950s and 1987.

The Red Army had captured thousands of Polish officers as it invaded and conquered the eastern half of Poland while the Nazis were conquering the western half. Those officers represented educated elements of the Polish people, and the Soviets saw them as a threat to their plans for future domination. Stalin had almost 22,000 of Polish nationals murdered and buried in mass graves at several places including the first discovered in the Katyn Forest (Soviet Union). When Hitler invaded the USSR, his forces occupied the area around Smolensk, and were directed to the site of the mass graves. German officials wanted allied officer POWs and others to come to the grave site in order to observe what the Germans had found.  The Germans searched the bodies for letters, diaries, newspapers and anything with a date on it to show the men had been murdered while the area was under Soviet control. LTC Van Vliet and CPT Stewart worried about deception, but they independently confirmed the time frame of the murders by noting the condition of the uniforms, particularly the boots. They had learned to judge a person’s time in captivity based on the condition of the uniform, and all of the signs confirmed the Polish officers had only been in captivity a short time, which matched the paper evidence.

The Officer’s Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland posthumously awarded to LTC John H. Van Vliet, Jr., Warsaw, Belvedere, April 8, 2015.

LTC Van Vliet and CPT Stewart made no statements and refused to cooperate in any way with the Germans. Even so, the event was shocking, and they knew the information needed to be shared with the US government. While in captivity Jack escaped three times. As he would say, “That tells you something about the effectiveness of the first two.” After his last escape, he made it through German territory, entered American lines, and quickly made his way to Washington where he reported details of the Katyn Massacre to MG Bissell, Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence. In Washington, he was ordered to say nothing about Katyn, an order he followed until he was called to testify before Congress.

LTC Van Vliet was awarded the Bronze Star with "V" for valor in recognition of his actions while a POW. He later fought in the Korean War and retired from the Army as a Colonel. He died in February of 2000, survived by his three daughters and his son.

John H. Van Vliet III, unveiling of the Stewart/Van Vliet memorial plaque Szubin, April 11, 2015.



In March 2015, President Komorowski of Poland recognized John H. Van Vliet Jr. and Donald B. Stewart for their actions associated with Katyn and posthumously awarded them the Polish Officers Cross of Merit. In April 2015 the Stewart/Van Vliet memorial plaque was unveiled by the monument commemorating the Nazi German Camps located in Szubin.

© 2018 John H. Van Vliet III

27 mar 2018

Capt. Otto Masny: A long way of the American Ranger from Normandy to German and Soviet captivity and finally home

by Jan Korbel
originally published in Czech language at: http://www.radiodixie.cz
Republished with permission.



There are many soldiers who deserve to be mentioned by history. We decided to present in this article the story of one who earned the gratitude of his country and with at least one half of his roots belongs to Bohemia (or Moravia). The other half through his father's blood belongs to Slovakia. He has made both homelands of his parents proud.

 The only photo we've been able to find - Capt. Otto Masny is the fourth from the left

"The President of the United States is happy to award the Cross of Merit to Otto Masny (O-1283639), a U.S. Army (infantry) Captain, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy which he performed as the Commander of Company F of the 2nd Rangers Infantry Battalion in the fight against enemy forces on June 6, 1944 in France." (part of the presidential speech at awarding the second highest U.S. honor to Capt. Otto Masny)

Otto Masny was born on August 15, 1917 in the town of Wheeling near Chicago. His father, Matej Masny, came from Upper Hungary (later Slovakia) and in America began working in a Chicago slaughterhouse. Later, a meeting with Cecilia Tomaskova, a native of Zabreh in Moravia, became fatal for him. Their love was life-long and their union produced Otto Masny. Future soldier Otto graduated from high school and on March 5, 1941 enlisted as a volunteer in the Illinois National Guard.

Rangers overcome the edge of a bloody cliff - a popular theme for painters of historical battle scenes

After basic training, he was promoted to a Sergeant and subsequently selected for the Officers' School where in May 1942 he graduated successfully and became a Lieutenant Sergeant. As an officer he then served in Fort Dix, where he had made decisions that changed his life forever. He enrolled in the newly emerging Rangers troops. With incredible luck he went through the entire French campaign of the Rangers, from the Normandy cliffs to the Hürtgenforest. There Capt. Masny’s luck ran out. But you will learn about that later. Now we shall return to the D-Day - June 6, 1944.

Bloody reef

The 2nd Battalion troops (hereinafter as Bn.), together with the 5th Bn. called the Provisional Ranger Group, were incorporated into the landing plan of Operation Overlord and temporarily assigned to the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. Company F under the command of Capt. Masny, along with Companies D and E and the Command Squad, was part of Task Group A. Their task was to conquer and destroy the German artillery position on Pointe du Hoc. Landing time: 06:30 hours.

Ropes, ladders, and up under fire...

Unfortunately, the leading boat lost direction when it approached the coastline and headed straight to the Pointe de la Percée. But that was a tip of land three miles east of the planned destination. The Rangers realized the mistake, but it was clear that they would miss the place of landing. This mistake moved Capt. Otto Masny with his men on landing boats LCA 883, LCA 884 and LCA 887 east, 300 meters to the left ofthe area originally assigned to them. In addition, the LCA 884 when sailing to its destination was placed under strong enemy fire, which resulted in the first three wounded.

Rangers take cover against German fire in a crater at the top of the cliff

Two remaining boats of Company F managed to get to the shore without any losses and using anchors and ladders their crews began to climb the 30-meter cliff of Pointe du Hoc. Do not imagine it as a Sunday party; ropes soaked in seawater were slippery and the men slid on them like on spaghetti. On top of that, the Germans started to shower them with hand grenades and small arms fire. The number of wounded and fallen began to increase. It was clear that they all have to get up as soon as possible because only death was waiting below.

American soldiers rest at the top of the Pointe du Hoc cliff

With heroic effort the first Rangers got over the cliff edge beyond which they were welcomed by steel tornado from the German 20-mm cannon. Capt. Masny, who was wounded during the landing, let his wounds be temporarily treated and managed to overcome the pitfalls of the cliff along with his men. At the top, he got involved in a strenuous fight among the scattered groups of Rangers and German defenders.

Masny's company came under heavy machine-gun fire from a covered position. They did not know where the machine gun was, which 1st. Lt Hill eventually resolved very simply. He stood up and yelled, "You fucking bastards, you couldn’t hit shit even if you shot grenades as big as cart wheels!" To the shower of bullets coming toward him, he replied with a grenade that disabled the German machine-gun operator. This was the overture to the carousel of death, which continued on the following day. The 2nd Battalion of Rangers managed to fend off four attacks, but they were running short of everything - water, food and ammunition. Capt. Masny’s Company Fhad minimal losses, but only a few men remained from Company E and none from company D. Out of 225 men, who landed on June 6, only 90 soldiers (not uninjured) remained who could holda gun. Despite that, Pointe du Hoc was conquered and secured. This piece of bloody French soil had remained in the hands of allies. Capt. Masny and his Company F continued deeper into Europe.

One of the destroyed German bunkers at the top of Pointe du Hoc

Hürtgen Forest 

It is a triangle with the area of approximately 130 square kilometers between German cities of Aachen, Monschau and Düren. A landscape broken up by deep wooded valleys that make it almost impassable. You can find this place on a map under the name of Hürtgen Forest. The American soldiers who fought here between September 1944 and February 1945 called it Green Hell.

Although the battle of Hürtgen Forest officially ended in February of the last year of war, the most important struggles were fought during three damp and cold months from mid-September to mid-December 1944 and cost the Americans 24,000 fallen, captured and wounded soldiers. Another 9,000 soldiers suffered so-called non-combat injuries, such as respiratory illnesses or trembling leg syndrome. The battles at this area were gradually joined by almost 120,000 U.S. soldiers assigned to troops of the 1st, 4th, 8th, 9th, 28th, 78th and 83rd Infantry Divisions. The armored fist consisted of the 3rd and 5th Armored Divisions.

Marching reinforcement

One of the soldiers, who advanced forward on the line of contact with the enemy in order to replace their colleagues, later wrote: "A crazy path full of mud we called the swamp led straight between the heaps of broken trees and branches. But much more terrible was the ceaseless convoy of jeeps moving against us. Each jeep was overflowing with wounded soldiers who sat wherever they could. Blood was streaking through their white bandages, but they were better off than those who were carried on stretchers and covered with blankets up to their chins."

Muddy Road

In the meantime, Company F of the 2nd Rangers Battalion under the command of Capt. Masny rested after a strenuous journey through northern France, during which it participated in a battle of the port of Brest defended among others by the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division, but that was to change soon.

The unassailable hill

The American First Army was tasked to conquer and clean the Hürtgen Forest andat the same time, to cover the left side of the advancing VII. Brigade. But one “small” thing stood in the Americans’ way - a fortification called the Siegfried Line. The terrain in the area was dominated by a hill near the town of Bergstein. In the thirteenth century, the Burgeberg Castle stood on it and now the Germans used it as a useful observatory. The slope with 45-degree inclination was passable only for mountain goats. In addition, the hill was densely wooded, except for places from which the Germans enjoyed an unobstructed view on any movement of the Americans, which was immediately punished by an artillery grenade. It was the cornerstone of the German defense line. Its U.S. codename of Hill 400 was to enter the history of World War II.

The attack on Hill 400 was assigned to the 9thAmerican Infantry Division. In a month and a half (between September and mid-October) they managed to advance by three kilometers while losing 4,500 men. In early November, they were replaced by the 28th Infantry, which has not progressed at all and lost nearly 6,200 men. At the end of the month,they were replaced in the meat-mincer by the 4th Infantry Division. By the end of December, they had written off 6,100 men and passed the relay to the 8th U.S. Infantry Division. Charles MacDonald in his book called the Hürtgen Forest "the Argonne of World War II." The war correspondent and famous author Ernest Hemingway was briefer: "Passchendaele with explosions in treetops" (Battle of Passchendale or Third Battle of Ypres took place between July 31 and November 6, 1917).

 Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division in the Hürtgen Forest

The worst shit you have ever seen

A veteran. How grand does it sound? They wore a patch of the 2nd Rangers Battalion; they were the D-Day veterans who landed on the Omaha Beach and conquered the Pointe du Hoc cliff. Now they should serve as ordinary foot soldiers. Their specialization did not interest anyone, maybejust their motivation. On November 14, the 2nd Regiment Rangers including Company F of Capt. Masny joined the 28th Infantry Division. Its commander, General Norman Cota, who personally saw Rangers fight on the Omaha Beach, sent the 2nd Battalion to replace the 112th Infantry Regiment in the trenches. Troop A commander, Lieutenant Bob Edlin, walked with his men through snow-covered deep mud to the village of Geremeter. There the Rangers met with the Infantry from the 112th Regiment. Lieut. Edlin later recalled that soldiers of the 112th Regiment when retreating were throwing off the infantry gear in order to be able to flee faster. A friend he had in this unit, Captain Preston Jackson, said, "Bob, that's the worst shit you have ever seen. I wish you didn’t go there."

The Americans were not able to break through the German line in Green Hell even with tank support

Rangers continued on marching. It did not take long and they drew the attention of the German patrol of Hill 400. Within a moment, the whole troopwas under heavy artillery fire. Bob Edlin later recalled: "Suddenly shells started to rain. It was the purest hell I've ever experienced. Howling sound of the falling grenades, earth shaking underfoot, terrible noise, lumps and chips of stone hitting you, your chest pressed so much that you feared you might never breathe again, more and more of this until you thought that you just couldn’t stand it anymore."

 German artillery and mortar fire was unbearable

But what startled the Rangers the most was not the enemy, but the Americans. Rangers from Company B were surprised by the sheer number of abandoned weapons, vehicles, guns and equipment, discarded or left behind by the Americans who retreated from there. Even worse was when the Rangers found that 112th Regiment abandoned their wounded and left them there. The 2nd Battalion’s doctor, Frank South, later recalled: "We moved into a shelter deserted by the Germans at the intersection of Vossenack. When we entered the shelter, we were shocked when we found several injured Americans there. Not only the 112th Infantry Regiment left their equipment and weapons, they alsoabandoned their own wounded! Of course, we took care of itand immediately evacuated them."

Rangers in occupied German positions

As far as winter equipment was concerned, the Rangers were very lucky because General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited them before the attack. The whole battalion gathered around him, and he suddenly asked if someone could tell him whythey didn’t have new shoes. One of the men cried out, "Fuck, General, we don’t know; we only know that everyone at the headquarters has gotten them." One of the veterans recalled after many years: "Everyone at the army, corps and division headquarters was wearing new boots, parkas and warm clothes but this gear never got to the front line. We still had summer clothes and the old thirties on our feet. General Eisenhower said he would take care of it, and in a few days we were given new shoes, clothes, and even wristwatches. He had to kick ass of the whole damn headquarters to get enough equipment for one Rangers Battalion."

When all fail, the Rangers step in

At the end of November, the 28th Division was withdrawn and replaced on the front line by the 8th Infantry Division. Rangers (including Masny’s Company F) remained, sitting in trenches, holding defensive positions and complaining. They had reason, too; from highly motivated and specially trained unit composed of volunteers they suddenly became common infantrymen.

On the American side, launchers were engaged in fighting in the Hürtgen Forest

Three American Infantry Divisions (9th, 28th and 8th), one after another, tried to conquer Hill 400, unsuccessfully. In the first week of December, the 5th Armored Division tried to do the same, but it was fended off with losses. Tanks of the 47th Armored Battalion managed to keep Bergstein against the German counterattack with all their might and was unable to get involved in another Hill 400 attack. In this hopeless moment, the Holly Spirit probably enlightened the Commander of the 8th Division, Gen. Weaver, who personally requested a Rangers unit from the V. Brigade commander, Gen. Gerow, and tasked them with the attack on Hill 400. He left both the plan and its implementation completely in the unit’s competence, trusting in their special skills and extraordinary motivation.

American M10 Wolverine Tank Fighter somewhere in a forest on the German border

All the Battalion Companies were driven by trucks to Kleinhau and from there they set out on foot for Bergstein. The Rangers treaded hard through darkness, mud and cold to get to Bergstein before dawn. They made it, but an unpleasant surprise awaited them. Capt. Slater contacted the command of the 47th Armored Battalion on the western outskirts of the town and asked the guides to move Companies A, B and C into defensive positions to the west and south of Bergstein. But he did not get any. Soldiers of the 47th Armored Battalion remained hidden in cellars and behind the armor of their tanks! Bytheir own efforts, the Battalion managed to move into their positions by 03:00 hours and Companies A, B and C dug trenches at the edge of the forest near the hill. Between 3am and 5am, companies D, E and F occupied positions in Bergstein. 



Rudder's plan

Lieut. Col. Rudder suggested an attack plan that best suited his men's skills. It was based on companies D and F (Capt. Masny) attacking Hill 400, while companies A, B and C secured nearby ridges, created barriers andprovided firing support. Company E and the 47th Battalion’stanks would remain in Bergstein as a reserve to support the attack and as a backup in the event of the awaited Germany counterattack. A reconnaissance patrol consisting of members of Companies D and F under Lieut. Len Lomell carried out a field reconnaissance and returned to the Battalion's command with information about uncovered bunkers and fortified shooting positions. Companies D and F (65 men in total) gathered for the attack by the church wall and waited for command. The attack began at 07:30 hoursby a salvo from American cannons and mortars.

Hürtgen claimed many lives

A fire attack surprised the Germans, and the two Companies began their attack. German soldiers of the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division responded as veterans. Even though they were under heavy U.S. artillery fire, it did not take long and a red flare shot out of their positions. It was shortly followed by a barrage of fire from German mortars and 88mm and 120mm cannons that hit the lines of attacking Rangers with devastating force. The artillery barrage was joined by German machine guns that caused the two attacking Companies further losses.

Company D attacked over 100 meters of open terrain that was whipped by a bullet storm from a German machine gun, while Company C provided a cover fire. Rangers from D started out as sprinters across the open terrain, zigzagging during the run to make it harder for the enemy to aim. Yet, before they reached the shelter at the base of the hill, the Company Commander became a victim of the German shooting. Regardless of this loss, theremaining men of Company D headed up the hill.

 The Rangers had to deal with enemy fire as well as impassable forest terrain

Company F, commanded by Capt. Masny, dashed up the steep hill after crossing the field. It was not fun as the whole hill was made of slate, and frost and snow did the rest. Rangers climbed up the hill like inchworms; if someone slipped, they slid back downhill. Of course, the German artillery and handgunfire continued, claiming more and more victims.

In a natural cutting near the top of the hill, the company F found temporary shelter from German fire. Capt. Masny commanded: "Bayonets up and go, guys!" but his men already had enough. Ranger Mike Sharik could not take it anymore. He stood up and screamed, "Come on, you wicked bastards!" and started forward. His friends followed him.

They shot into the trenches along the way, threw grenades into machine-gun nests, slipped, fell, but they moved closer and closer to the peak. Some Germans ran down from the hill to escape death from the Rangers' hands, others just stood up with their arms raised, surrendering. Those, who chose neither of these options, died.

Rat's holes, the only shelter against artillery fire.

Private Cloise Manning was Company F’s first man to reach the top of Hill 400. On the ridge he saw an enemy bunker with a steel door. Sgt. Petty fired the entire magazine of his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) into the porthole mouth and Anderson threw several grenades into the hole. Then an enemy's grenade exploded behind him, coming from god knows where and killed him. Capt. Masny ran to the site with other soldiers, and they conquered the bunker together.

Sgt. Harvey Koenig chased the Germans remaining on the platform like sheep until the hill was clearat 08:35 hours and was taken over by the 2nd Rangers Regiment. Where four American divisions failed, one attack of Rangers was sufficient. Of course they could not rest on their laurels; the soldiers knew very well how important this place was and immediately started defense against the expected German counterattack.
 
German parachutists in the Hürtgen Forest

Battle of paratroopers

The Germans needed to get Hill 400 back under their control so they entrusted the counterattack to the best they had - the 6th Parachute Regiment, the dreaded Fallschirmjägers. According to preserved German records, Field Marshal Walter Model offered Iron Crosses and a two-week holiday to all Germans who would manage to claim back the hill with the medieval castle. Rangers could not entrench - the field shovel couldn’tbrake the hard slate, so the only shelter was provided in bunkers, which unfortunately couldn’t hold them all. Most of the Rangers were uncovered in the open air when German artillery shells began to fall on them. Within a moment, the top of the hill was shrouded in smoke, from which only the moans and cries of the wounded, begging for help, were heard.

Mortar operator from the Wehrmacht’s 272nd Grenadier Division 

One newbie saw the torn off head of his fellow Ranger, which was rolling away from him. He was angry that he could not remember his name and would not find it out, because the head was missing its whole body that was torn into pieces by the explosion. Thinking about this insoluble puzzle cost himhis sanity. He was evacuated from the hill and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

First of the five German counterattacks that took place over the next two days hit the Rangers’ defensive positions at 09:30 hours and the Germans sent 100 to 150 men to each attack. Most attacks were conducted from the south and east, where the forestation was in close proximity to the base and provided cover to the attacking German paratroopers. Major Williams described one of the counterattacks: "The Germans reached the hill bunker before the Rangers noticed their presence. The short-distance struggle began in which the Germans mixed up with the Americans. In a brutal and savagefight they used machine guns, rifles, grenades, and at a very close proximity also bayonets and assault knives".

The Rangers fought tooth and nail and managed to fend off the Germans. The enemy artillery continued to hit Hill 400. At noon, Companies D and F managed to collect only 32 men, Company D also lost its commander. Capt. Masny realized that he needed reinforcements. So he set off down the hill himself to bring help. He slid down between potholes trying not to get noticed by the Germans. In vain. As he jumped into a deep windfall, the but of a German rifleshot against his face and knocked him unconscious. Capt. Masny has not returned to his men.

Lieut. Len Lomell was the only officer of Company D still alive but he was also injured. His left forefinger was almost torn away and he was bleeding from his ears as a result of shocks from the artillery shelling. General Weaver was unable to get any reinforcements up the hill to help the Rangers. They were left to themselves.

Ten to one

German paratroopers launched a second counterattack in the middle of the afternoon. Lieut. Lomell recalled: "We were outnumbered ten to one and we had no backup. As if it was not enough, the grenades hit our positions continuously." The German counterattack almost worked out, but one single man turned it over. Sgt. Ed Secor was a very quiet man; only a bayonet was left of his weapons, he lost his rifle somewhere. Suddenly he got up, picked up two pistols seized from German POWs, roared and kept shooting against the advancing German patrol. When the Rangers nearby saw it they set out behind him and drove the Germans back. By 16:00 hours, the Americans had only 25 men left at the top of Hill 400. "We stopped another counterattack, but if the Germans knew how many men were left above, they would finish us off" adds Lomell.

The position of the American Browning 30 machine gun

A desperate situation also occurred at the Rangers base in Bergstein. Maj. Williams sent an urgent request for reinforcements to Gen. Weaver, but didn’t get it. Williams in Bergstein managed toscramble together a troop of 10 men from Company E and sent them to reinforce the defense on the hill. The unit arrived at the very moment when the third counterattack began. The Germans struck with two reorganized companies and if it weren’t for Lieutenant Howard K. Kettlehut of the 56th Field Artillery Battalion, who had a great view of Hill 400 from his observatory, they probably wouldn’t have been able to conquer it. The U.S. artillery fire swept away the attacking Germans at the last minute.

And that's what Hill 400 looks like today

The last counterattacks

At dawn on December 8, the outpost of Company E found out that German paratroopers were advancing from the north from the town of Obermaubach. In a few moments, the advancing rows of German soldiers were bitten bysteel from U.S. cannons, which nipped the counterattack in the bud. The toughest German onslaught then came at 15:00 hours. From all sides of the hill, approximately 150 men attacked at the same time in a frontal assault supported by fire from 88mm cannons and mortars. The Germans managed to get under the summit, but thanks to the American artillery they retreated in the end.

Victims of American cannons

During the night, the Germans attempted to slip into the Rangers’ bunkers and trenches. They eliminated the penetrating Germans with short doses from BAR and rifles or with grenades. The final twenty-minute artillery barrage from the American gun-barrels definitively broke the blade of the fifth German counterattack and banished the German from the hill. Even though Fallschirmjägers inflicted serious losses on the Rangers, they did not manage to get them off Hill 400.

Rangers are leaving

On the night of December 8, the Rangers were replaced in their positions by the 13th Infantry Regiment. Finally they could take a breath. During the 40 hours of intense fighting, the 2nd Battalion had 107 wounded, 19 dead and four missing soldiers, a quarter of its original force. Among those missing at the roll-callwas also Capt. Otto Masny. The Rangers were the only U.S.unit in the four-month battle that managed to conquer Hill 400. Unfortunately, nine days later the Germans returned and swept the 13th Regiment from the top of the hill. The U.S. Army wasn’t able to retake Hill 400 again until February 1945. It must be noted that this was the second time the Rangers clashed with a unit as elite as themselves, the German Fallschirmjägers (the first time was in the battle of port Brest). The Rangers came out victorious of both clashes, but with big losses.

The work of an American sniper

The continuation of Capt. Masny’s fate

It would seem that Capt. Masny’s way ended on Hill 400, but it was not so. Otto Masny was captured by soldiers of the 272nd Grenadier Division and after two weeks of interrogation, beatings and torture, afterhaving been hit by a German fist he lost all his front teeth. Apart from personal details, he did not tell anything to the Germans and after a while he was transported through Frankfurt am Main to the officers prison camp Oflag 64 in Schubin (Szubin in today's Poland). He remained "accommodated" there until January 21, 1945. The camp commanders then decided to evacuate the prisoners before the advancing Red Army to the Hammelburg POW camp, 600km away. In icy wind and cruel cold it was a death march and about 100 ill prisoners were left on the site. Otto Masný with several other prisoners managed to escape from the transport and return to Oflag 64, where they waited to be liberated by the Red Army.

A historical shot from the Oflag 64 POW camp; soldiers are playing baseball. But the idyll was to end soon...

On January 23, 1945 the 61st Army forces occupied Szubin and the Oflag 64 POW camp under the command of Gen. Col. Belov. The Commander of the Allied Prisoner Administration Col. Frederick Drury asked Belov for an immediate repatriation of American prisoners, but he was dryly informed that repatriation would not take place; the prisoners would remain locked up behind barbed wire and if they tried to escape they would be shot with allied cordiality. The reason for this dirty trick was simple.

A monument to commemorate the Nazi German camps at today's Szubin, Poland.

The Soviets used all the American prisoners as hostages and conditioned their release by a number of requirements, which in many cases contradicted international law. It regarded mainly the handover of all Soviet prisoners captured by the Americans (sad ending for Vlasovtsy, ROA and other similar groups), unrestricted access to all concentration and POW camps liberated by the U.S. Army, the extradition of citizens of all states forcibly annexed by Russia before or during the war. The cherry on the cake was a requirement of a "reasonable" financial settlement.

 A model of the Oflag 64 prison built by teachers and students of the Reform School in Szubin.
We recommend visiting http://oflag64.us where you can find complete information about the camp

We cannot but quote the words of Gen. G. S. Patton from director Franklin J. Schaffner’s film of the same name. “They can go to hell, those mongoloid Russians. We gave them Berlin, we gave them Prague and god knows what else. And we should letthem dictate how we do politics? This war should not have ended;we should have dealt with the Russians quite sharply. We will fight with them anyway, so why not do it now, when we have an armyto do this. Just say a word and I will kick themall the way back to Russia where they belong."


But back to Otto Masny. He didn’t want to wait behind the barbed wire so when a courier jeep arrived at the camp, he used the momentwhen the driver left, jumped into the jeep and, accompanied by shots from Russian Shpagins, drove through the camp gate to meet his freedom. He managed to get through the chaos of post-war Europe up to the Black Sea port of Odessa (a walk of nearly 1,000 miles) and from there he was transported on March 7, 1945 aboard the Australian SS Moreton Bay ship to the American Military Hospital in Port Said in Egypt. After his recovery and return to service, Capt. Otto Masny was properly and with full honors released from the U.S. Army on October 19, 1945.

The path to freedom led Capt. Otto Masny also aboard the SS Moreton Bay transport ship

This American with Moravian-Slovak roots received The Cross of Merit for heroism at the Pointe du Hoc and there would probably be more awards were he not captured in "Green Hell”. Otto Masny died in January 1991 at the age of 73. He is buried in Wisconsin, Waukesha County, at the St. Charles cemetery.

The final resting place of the Moravian-Slovak American Ranger

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