By Jeremy McCoy
The Oise-Aisne cemetery, dedicated to the fallen Americans in the First World War, has a small plot impossible to visit in which rest the remains of 94 soldiers executed for committing all kinds of atrocities against the civilian population.
The work of the soldier is always dark and anonymous. It consists, as General George Patton said at the time, in a basic rule: “The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.” As if that were not enough, the story always reminds the high officials, but never the soldiers that shed their blood in Salerno or the fine sand of Normandy. That is why monuments and military cemeteries are so important for the nations like the United States because the names of the combatants allow to honor the memory of soldiers and not to forget them. Resting places such as the cemetery of Coleville, Omaha, are an example of this, hosting more than 10,000 American heroes.
To this end, the Oise-Aisne military memorial was erected to preserve the remains of exactly 6,012 US soldiers who had left their lives fighting in the First World War. However, this beautiful place also keeps one of the murkiest secrets of the US Army: a plot marked with the letter E contains the remains of more than 90 American soldiers who were executed by their command for perpetrating from rapes of children, to murders of women during the war that liberated Europe from the Nazi yoke. There are no crosses, no names in this small hidden nook. The US government barely spent a few dollars on a tiny number plate. Spending more on their burial would be too much honors.
Today Plot E is a great secret. Searching it on the websites of the official agencies of the United States is an impossible challenge. An example of this is the page of the American Battle Monuments Commission, where the section dedicated to Oise-Aisne does not even name it. On the contrary, the description merely points out “it contains the remains of 6,012 American war dead, most of whom lost their lives while fighting in this vicinity in 1918 during World War I.” The introductory text talks about the location of the tombstones (“aligned in long rows”) and just “four plots by wide paths lined by trees and beds of roses.” It is said that “the memorial is a curving colonnade, flanked at the ends by a chapel and a map room.” But nothing is revealed of the dark cemetery.
Why do not the authorities talk about the cemetery plot? The history of Plot E is, therefore, one of the darkest in the United States. Not in vain had to wait until less than a decade ago for the institutions to give out the names and surnames of those who rested under the Gallic land. Until then, it was impossible.
However, the reality is that these burials are the silent witness to the atrocities perpetrated by a minority of American fighters in World War II. As it became known after the Second World War, 443 American soldiers (245 whites and 198 African Americans) were condemned to death for crimes committed in the European continent, little more than nine dozen faced the gallows. This is a small number of soldiers who committed atrocities during the liberation operation, compared to the total number of its participants – more than 11 million.
The starting signal for US intervention in Europe was the Normandy Landing, an operation after which northern France became the access point for US troops. That day, the rancor led some members of the allied airborne divisions to perpetrate all kinds of brutalities against the German soldiers who defended the coast. Most behaved scrupulously, but “there were a few cases of brutal looting,” says historian Antony Beevor in D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.
“The commander of the 101st Airborne’s MP platoon came across the body of a German officer and saw that somebody had cut off his finger to take the wedding ring. A sergeant in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was horrified when he found that members of his platoon had killed some Germans and then used ‘their bodies for bayonet practice” the author points out.
The brutality of some paratroopers attracted attention even to his companions. A soldier quoted in D Day: The Battle for Normandy was amazed when (after the jump) he asked one of his companions why his gloves were not yellow.
“I asked him where he got the red gloves from, and he reached down in his jump pants and pulled out a whole string of ears. He had been ear-hunting all night and had them all sewed on an old boot lace.”
However, most authors agree that those behaviors were minority. In fact, the most common reaction to these practices was offered by a military chaplain: “Those guys have gone crazy.”
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Beyond the atrocities committed during the Normandy Landing, the initial trip from the north of France to Berlin was not carried out by brutalities or indecent acts with the female population. According to Field Marshal Edwin Bramall, then a former lieutenant, fighters at times often thought more of tasty food and a warm bed than about women, but over time, the need for intimate relationships grew more and more. However, with the passage of the weeks the sexual deprivations became palpable in the combatants. At least, according to the historian Max Hastings in his work Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45: “Once out of the line for a time, however, women and alcohol became obvious magnets for many men.”
Thereafter, the officers had to face the need to maintain the order of a troop between which the fallacy had spread that women like the French were prone to have sex with the liberators. The author reveals in his work that the most resourceful soldiers managed to satisfy their needs in brothels bypassing all the rules. Although this number was very small in the American Army, as a practice it was prohibited by the government. At least officially.
Green crosses by day and green lights by night guided soldiers to condom-issuing stations, which did not prevent the US Third Army from achieving an average monthly VD rate of 12.41 per 1,000, comfortably exceeded by the Canadian score of 54.6 per 1,000.
With such an approach, it was only a matter of time before some soldiers gave free rein to their basest instincts and dedicated themselves to looting, stealing and raping. Frequent cases of rape served as a signal for American high-ranking military, who were unwilling to instruct their troops, to stop these brutal actions. “About 17,000 women were raped by American soldiers during the war,” explains Fernando Paz in his work Nuremberg: Trial of Nazism. The practice, however, was pursued by Commander in Chief Dwight Eisenhower, who ended up imposing the death penalty for those who, after a trial, were found guilty. For this, he even called the only executioner of the “star and stripes” in European territory: John C. Woods.
However, the truth is that the majority of complaints from women against US soldiers were carried out during the last months of the war and almost half of them were against black soldiers.
“It seems an awkward reflection on the administration of justice in 1944-5 that more than 40 per cent of all death sentences passed in the ETO were imposed upon African American soldiers, though these constituted a tiny proportion of US Army strength,” determines Max Hastings in his book.
According to the historian Giles MacDonogh and his book After The Reich – The Brutal History Of The Allied Occupation, “rape charges in the US army rose steadily, from 18 in January 1945 to 31 in February to an enormous 402 in March and 501 in April, once military resistance had slackened off. With peace the rapes petered out: there were 241 reports in May, 63 in June and 45 for each month thereafter. About a quarter to a half of these reports resulted in a trial and a third to a half of the trials to a conviction. A number of American servicemen were executed, proportionally higher than any of the other occupying powers.”
Why was the number of accused American soldiers so insignificant? Most historians agree that it was a combination of several factors. The first factor was the laxity of the government. And the second factor was that on many occasions sex was partly spoiled. “One reason there were fewer reports of rape was that there was far more consensual congress. German girls would have sex for food or cigarettes. You didn’t court a German woman with flowers – a basket of food was more welcome. The Americans were attractive to the Germans, because they had not suffered the deprivations of war in the same way,” says MacDonogh. In this sense, the historian also believes that African Americans managed to have sex even easier because of a perceived exotic nature.
Beyond the number of executions carried out by the US Army against its own men, after 1944 a new difficulty arose: where to bury the remains of the soldiers found guilty of rapes and murders? The decision was found shortly after the Second World War and it was then that Plot E of this cemetery was set up to secretly locate the remains of 95 soldiers condemned to the gallows. They all joined Eddie Slovik, who had been sent to the gallows for deserting. They all have something in common: the shame that stained them.
Among those who rest on this site of the cemetery, Lee A. Davis, an African American soldier of just 20 years old, was executed for the assault and rape of two girls near Wiltshire in England. His case is striking because it happened far from the continent. Apparently, the soldier pointed his rifle at two girls who were returning from the cinema and ordered them to hide behind some bushes. One of them tried to escape, so Lee A. Davis shot at her and ended her life. He raped the other, although he did not kill her. Later the girl gave a statement and Davis was tried and hanged in December 1943 by Thomas Pierrepoint, the British executioner.
The story of Blake W. Mariano is crueler. This soldier, 29 years old and father of three children, fought for the United States in Africa, Italy and southern France. However, on April 15, 1945, he committed an outrage in the southwest of Germany that cost him his life. After going out to drink and get drunk on cognac, he forced a young woman named Elfriede (21) to have sex with him. Later he did the same with another one named Martha (41), whom he killed after discovering that she was menstruating. In case it was not enough, he repeated his behavior with another woman, 54 years old. The next day an investigation began that ended with him hanging.
In spite of everything, Plot E has only 94 occupied tombs now. Just two soldiers managed to escape the shame of resting there: Alex F. Miranda and Eddie Slovik. The case of the second is the most prominent, since his remains were returned to the United States. In 1987 after it was considered that his crime hadn’t been comparable to that of his companions. “Eddie Slovik was the first American soldier executed for desertion since a Union Army firing squad shot one William Smitz of Company F, 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers, in 1865,” explains Charles Glass in Deserters: A Silenced History of the Second World War. Although those soldiers who had left the ranks were counted by hundreds, to Slovik’s disgrace his case was used as a warning.
Jeremy McCoy. I am a freelance journalist published in such media outlets as History Today, Global Research and Ground Report.