Wharton's secret war
William Wharton was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925. He volunteered to join the US army during the Second World War, serving in both an engineering and infantry unit until injury led to his discharge. He published his first novels, Birdy, in 1978 to huge critical acclaim. Author of eight further novels and three memoirs, Wharton died in 2008. His final memoir was never published in English - until now. A harrowing yet gripping account of his experiences, the book exposes a shocking war crime covered up by by the American forces. Subtitled, 'Tales Not Told,' in Shrapnel Whatron reveals the memories of an event that haunted him all his life...
There is a very sad story, and one which I never told my children, for good reason. I still have a hard time facing up to it inside myself. I’m having a hard time trying to get myself to write it. I guess that’s why I put it off till last. I want to tell it as honestly as possible.
I’m sent back to hospital again because I’m still having troubles with dizziness. They do a series of tests but they come back and say there’s nothing wrong with me. It takes fifty years for me to find out what’s wrong. But the army does an electroencephalogram, and there is nothing abnormal showing in my brain. They just figure I’m dogging it and send me back to my outfit.
I’m trying to figure when this would have been. It’s all jammed together after all these years. I know it was before the war was over and after the collapse of the German army. It’s before the Hitler Youth attack. I’m put in charge of a company group, a Tiger Patrol unit again. This is not I & R, it’s an aggressive patrolling group and it’s formed more or less independently of the company but is part of the company. There are eight of us and we are going out after prisoners. The Germans want to surrender and we give them the chance. It’s not much fun, however. If a bunch wants to surrender, and there’s one hard nose who doesn’t want to, he can just open up on us with a burp gun. Too many guys get this far and this is the way the war ends for them.
In general, streams of Germans are dashing as fast as they can towards the West to surrender. They’re trying to surrender to Americans by preference, the alternative is the Russians in the East.
So, it’s a strange time of war, it doesn’t last all that long. But we’re out on one of those Tiger patrols when a group of Germans, there are ten of them, step out of a wood and want to surrender. They step into a clearing, waving a flag and throw down their rifles. They are a raggedy, loose, sad looking bunch. As soon as the surrender is established, after rifles are gathered up and they have their hands on their heads, I figure the patrol is over. I put the fellow who’s been in charge of this patrolling group before I came back from the hospital, in control. I want to take a walk by myself to the CP. When I get there, I sack out in a pup tent without reporting, figuring I can do that later. I’m on the edge of tears. I’m beginning to feel I need to turn myself in to the medics and just say I can’t go on, take whatever they do to someone who has combat fatigue.
As I say, things are relatively easy; we’ve been in the same place for two days and in those times, that’s a long time to be in any one place. I don’t know why we are here, or what’s going on. I’m mentally out of it. The bigger mechanism of the war is beyond me and doesn’t really interest me enough. I know it would be easy for me to get killed. I don’t care enough any more.
But then the guys come in and they don’t have the prisoners. I’m shocked.
‘Where are the prisoners?’ I ask the one I put in charge.
‘Ah, they tried to escape so we shot the bastards Sarge.’ He answers.
Immediately I don’t believe him. I know these guys are really a strange group. But I also know they’ve been in this anti-tank battalion the whole war, and have never had to fire in anger.
These old time anti-tank guns didn’t make any sense anymore, so all during the war, these guys have just been scared to death, waiting. They’ve had seventy five mm guns that they’ve had to haul around behind jeeps and shoot tanks. A seventy five mm gun has practically no chance of knocking out a German tank. A jeep has no chance of surviving a hot from an 88mm mounted on a tank, either.
With the invention of the bazooka, anti-tank warfare ideas changed completely. The old anti-tank battalions are useless. They’d never really been used and so are finally broken up and distributed. This is how they came to be in this company patrol group. Bad luck for everybody.
I begin to suspect what’s happened. I go to Captain Wall, and tell him how I’ve taken the patrol out and we’d captured ten Germans, I tell him how I came in earlier expecting them to bring the prisoners in. Now, I’ve found out they didn’t bring them in and they say the prisoners tried to escape so I think they shot them. I should have kept my trap shut, not having reported earlier, but I’m scared, angry and not thinking well.
Captain Wall is a decent man. He wants to find out what really happened out there as much as I do. I’m convinced they’ve massacred these men. We go out to find out what happened. Several members of Tiger patrol go with us. They are beginning to intimate what really happened. They start yelling about Malmedy – where Americans who surrendered were shot by Germans – and all the other atrocities of the Germans which are beginning to become known, and so forth.
I realise these are just a bunch of vicious, violent animals and I’ve done a really wrong thing, leaving them on their own. In court, later on, some turn witness and tell how the squad leader and one of the scouts tortured the Germans, shooting them in the legs, then the arms, before they kill them. One tells how one of the Germans pulled out a wallet with photos of his family and started crying.
Some of them are feeling guilty about it all, but the worst of them are proud of themselves, consider themselves avenging patriots.
We go back to where they have hidden the bodies. They’ve put them in shallow graves with brush and pine needles raked over so no one would find them until we’d all be off and gone. I vomit when we dig the bodies up. The C.O. turns white and looks away. He’s furious.
He wants to convene a general court martial on this. However, he’s told if they do this, the entire massacre will go into the Congressional Record. The officers don’t want this in the Congressional Record, a public record that anyone can read. They don’t want the American people to know for one thing, and for another they don’t want the Germans to know, because it could be used as propaganda to keep soldiers from surrendering.
So instead they make a special court martial out of it. No one really talks too much about what really happened. The guy who’s in charge of the patrol, the one I’d replaced, is the one who’s really responsible. He instigated and egged on the other members of the patrol into doing it. There are some who really didn’t shoot and they give evidence. Everybody is sentenced from two to ten years in Leavenworth, a federal prison, as well as dishonourable discharges, the whole bag.
I’m told by the chief of the court martial that I was responsible, I should have stayed on till the end of the patrol. There was no justification for my having left them. I was in dereliction of duty. But Captain Wall testifies and protects me pretty well. They break me into private again, take away another six month’s salary. No matter what, it doesn’t mean anything to me any more. Within a month Captain Wall has me back as squad leader. We become good friends. What we’ve shared brings us together.
It’s a really bad way to end a war. If there’s a good way to end a war I don’t know what it is, but this was a bad way to end one.
At the final sentencing, the bastard who got ten years, sees me in the court yard as they go out. He yells, ‘Better watch out Wharton. In ten years you’re not safe. I’ll have your ass.’
This really upsets the Colonel in charge of the court martial who tells the rotter he’s exactly the kind of person the army doesn’t want and he’s a disgrace to his uniform. They strip him of his stripes in public.
But I’ll tell you, when the first two years are over, I’m nervous, then for ten years more I sweat it out. I don’t know whether they all served their full terms or not. I want to put that part of my life behind me. The brutality of it all is sickening. How low human beings can come when you take the leash off them. I still have something of this feeling in me. I don’t have much confidence in my fellow human beings even fifty years later.
I know how easy it would be to trick the young and everyone else into going off and fighting another stupid, meaningless war. I know how humans will turn on each other, the way cats and dogs will, in the right situation. I know from myself what one can do in the name of greed, in the name of power. These convictions lodge in my soul and have been difficult to shake. They change me.
The main thing I do learn is that I don’t ever want vested authority again. For one reason, I feel I’m not the right type of person I am not responsible enough. For another, I don’t really believe in vested authority as such. Any authority I might have, any power anyone can have in this life, should be a result of what he or she can do, not power given as a result of hierarchy. I’ve lived my life without getting involved in power.
The closest I’ve come to a power hierarchical structure is when I’ve been teaching. I did a fairly good job at it. The kids like me and learned. Then they wanted to move me into school administration. I backed off. That was thirty five years ago and I quit teaching fairly soon thereafter. Since then, I’ve only worked for myself, doing things I’m good at, not having to tell anyone else what to do.
Of course, there are important people who build roads, bridges, dams and so forth. In an abstract way they work for us, for all of us. But, in our family, we’ve never had any servants, I can’t take that responsibility. I don’t work for anybody myself, and have no one working for me.
At nineteen I made these decisions, and these decisions were from having had this kind of responsibility thrust upon me when I was too young.
The Friday Project will be publishing 10 more titles by William Wharton over the next two years in paperback, audiobook and ebook. The collection also features brand new cover designs by 21-year-old Central St Martins student, Henricke Dreier. For more information visit harpercollins.co.uk and henrikedreier.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BE careful with your mouth make-up. By careless work you may obliterate well-cut lines, and you will always achieve a badly groomed look if your lipstick is smudged and badly applied."The Lady, Make-Up for Mouths, 8th January, 1942