American’s don’t want to believe that troops representing the United States have committed war crimes in the past. It is a harsh truth to face. But it is a truth. Arguing that revelations of American complicity in the war crimes is revisionism is correct. The revelations of documented war crimes committed by American soldiers, sailors, and airmen is revising a false version of history and placing the truth on the public record. Not every person to wear the uniform of the United States has been the idealized version of the All-American boy, whether volunteer or draftee.
Some war crimes have been racially motivated. Some have been based on vengeance. Some have been sexual, assaults and rapes. Some have been ordered by superior officers and others have been noted by superior officers and covered up by prevailing policy. It is safe to say that many went undetected. The respected historian Stephen Ambrose noted that after interviewing over one thousand combat veterans of the Second World War only one admitted to having shot a surrendered prisoner of war. But he observed that, “Perhaps as many as one-third of the veterans…” reported having seen another GI shoot unarmed German soldiers who had their hands up in surrender.
The Biscari Massacre in Sicily 1943 Part 1
The American and British armies invaded Sicily in the summer of 1943, with the American troops commanded by George S. Patton and the British led by Bernard Montgomery. General Omar Bradley’s II Corps included the 45th Infantry Division, a unit which had not yet seen combat. Part of this division was the 180th Infantry Regiment. It was assigned to capture the Biscari airfield, defended by both Italian and German troops. The regiment encountered strong resistance from the Italians and Germans, and its leadership was so poor that the relief of its commander was recommended to Bradley.
On July 14 the regiment was engaged in fighting around the nearby Santo Pietro airfield and by mid-morning had taken 48 prisoners, three of which were Germans, the rest Italians. Sergeant Horace T. West was ordered to escort the prisoners to the rear to be held for questioning in an inconspicuous location. The prisoners were ordered to remove their shoes and shirts, a common precaution to discourage attempts to escape. West was accompanied by other American soldiers and they marched the prisoners about a mile behind the lines.
West then removed eight or nine prisoners and ordered them sent to the regimental command post for questioning. He then borrowed a Thompson machine gun from First Sergeant Haskell Brown and a second clip containing thirty rounds of ammunition, telling Brown, who asked why West wanted the Thompson, he was going to “…kill the sons of bitches.” West instructed the other men guarding the prisoners to turn their backs if they didn’t want to watch. West then shot all of the remaining Italian and German prisoners.
After all of the prisoners were on the ground West replaced the empty clip in the Thompson with the spare he had requested and walked among them, shooting any who showed any signs of life through the heart. First Sergeant Brown later testified that West was calm, moved deliberately and methodically through the wounded prisoners, and placed each shot carefully after he had mowed them down with the first burst from the Thompson. The bodies were later observed by Lt. Colonel William King, who sent word of the incident up the chain of command to Bradley, who reported it to Patton
Patton’s first response was to suggest that the report was an exaggeration and to ignore it, which Bradley refused to do. Patton wrote of the incident in his diary, reporting that he told Bradley to certify that the prisoners had been snipers, “…or had attempted to escape or something…anyhow they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.” Under pressure from Bradley, Patton agreed to have the matter investigated. When the division’s Inspector General reported that the prisoners were all following the orders of their guards and had done nothing to provoke them, the Army charged West with murder.
West was tried on September 2, 1943 and entered a plea of not guilty, claiming essentially that he was suffering from combat fatigue and was thus temporarily insane. Testimony from eyewitnesses belied this claim. He was convicted, stripped of his rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Less than two months later the remainder of his sentence was remitted and he was restored to active duty. He served for the remainder of the war and was honorably discharged from the Army. He returned to his native Oklahoma where he lived the rest of his life, dying there in 1974.
The Biscari Massacre Sicily 1943 Part 2
The massacre of the 37 prisoners killed by Horace West was not the only atrocity Bradley had to report to Patton which occurred while taking the Biscari Airfield. Captain John Compton, also of the 180th Infantry Regiment, was involved in an attack to the south of the airfield, with his company and the support of some paratroopers. He later claimed that during the first four days of the invasion of Sicily he had only slept for ninety minutes, all on the day of the assault on the airfield, because he had been, “…too excited to sleep.” During the assault they came under heavy sniper fire.
The sniper fire was of special danger, as they targeted the men who attempted to aid those already wounded and the snipers were in concealed positions making it difficult for Compton’s men to return fire effectively. After one of his men on his own initiative flanked the position he found the Italians in a dugout. The Italians then surrendered and were brought by the American soldier, Private Raymond Marlow, to his squad leader. They were then taken to Compton with another American GI acting as an interpreter. Some of the prisoners were in civilian clothes.
Through the interpreter Compton asked the prisoners if they had been engaged with the Americans as snipers. He received no answer. Compton then asked some of his men if they were sure that the prisoners were the snipers which had been keeping the Americans from reaching their objectives. His First Lieutenant assured him that they were. Compton then ordered the prisoners, which numbered 36, be shot. The lieutenant began organizing a firing squad and escorted the prisoners to an elevation above the dugout from which they had been captured.
Compton led the firing squad to the location and had the prisoners herded together. After the interpreter told the prisoners where to stand he asked Compton if the captain had anything to say to the prisoners and Compton replied he did not, but told his own men that he didn’t want to see any of the prisoners on his feet after he gave the order to fire. As some of the Italians recognized the intent of the Americans they started to run, and Compton ordered his men to fire. All of the Italians were killed. The incident was reported to Patton at the same time as the West massacre, and his comments covered both.
At his court martial Compton claimed that he was obeying the orders of a superior officer when he entered his plea of not guilty to the 36 murders with which he was charged. The superior officer to whom he referred was Patton. Patton had given a speech in which, according to Compton, he discouraged the taking of prisoners. Compton was acquitted and an investigation into the nature of Patton’s speech was initiated by the Inspector General of the War Department. Patton was questioned as part of the investigation and claimed that nothing in his speech could possibly be construed as an order not to take prisoners. He was fully exonerated by the investigation.
The Laconia Incident 1942
In September 1942 the German submarine torpedoed and sank the Royal Mail Ship Laconia off the West African coast. The RMS Laconia had been converted to an armed troopship and was carrying some troops, mostly Poles, to guard the Italian prisoners of war aboard. There were also a number of civilian passengers. The ship was bound for Freetown. As the Laconia sank the crew abandoned ship without setting free the Italian prisoners, though many broke out of the hold in which they had been locked up. Several of the Italians were prevented from boarding the lifeboats by the Polish guards.
As the ship went down the U-Boat commander recognized the large number of civilians and prisoners of war in the lifeboats and the water, rather than the British troops he had expected the ship to be carrying. The U-Boat surfaced, broadcast radio signals in the clear that it was conducting a humanitarian rescue, and flew Red Cross flags. It also signaled the German Navy command requesting assistance. The Germans diverted other U-Boats to the scene, along with surface ships of the Vichy French Navy from Dakar. Meanwhile the first German U-Boat, U-156 was spotted from the air by an American bomber. The Germans signaled to the Americans that they were conducting rescue operations.
The American pilot Lt. James Harden, did not reply to the German signal and radioed for instructions, informing the duty officer of the submarine’s activities. The duty officer, Captain Robert Richardson, evaluated the situation, including the assumption that the submarine was rescuing only the Italian prisoners, and ordered the bomber to attack the submarine. Harden returned to the scene and made several passes over the submarine and the lifeboats which it had under tow, bombing and strafing. U-156 had over 200 survivors from the Laconia both below decks and crowded on the superstructure. Faced with the destruction of his ship if he remained on the surface, the German captain had no choice but to submerge.
The lifeboats in tow were cut adrift and requested to remain in place, so that their position could be sent to rescue units. Two of the boats headed to Africa. Of the 120 people on these boats, only 20 survived. Other German U-boats carrying survivors likewise found themselves attacked by American bombers, as ordered by Captain Richardson. In all 1,619 died in the incident, most of the dead were Italian prisoners of war, many of whom never got out of the sinking Laconia. Survivors numbered 1,113, the majority rescued by the Germans and the Vichy French.
Because of the visible armament installed on Laconia the German U-boats believed the ship to be an armed transport, not a ship carrying passengers, when it was attacked. After the war it was determined that the order to attack the U-Boats involved in the rescue operations was a prima facie war crime as a violation of the Law of Naval Operations, which protects ships involved in humanitarian operations. The Army neither investigated the incident nor made any changes to its procedures. Instead, in reaction to Lt. Harden’s claim that he had sunk U-156 (he had not) he and his crew were decorated for their actions.
Samar Pacification 1901
The island of Samar in the Philippines was of interest to the United States as a source of Manila hemp, a product in demand by the cotton industry in America, and by the US Navy and Merchant Marine. After the Spanish American War the United States acquired both the Philippines and the insurrection that the Spanish had been struggling to contain there. In September 1901, Filipino insurgents attacked Company C of the United States Ninth Infantry on Samar, killing 36 outright as they were eating breakfast. Another eight wounded later died. Brigadier General Jacob Smith requested he be reinforced and dispatched Major Littleton Waller to pacify the island.
In his orders to Waller Jacobs specified that he was not to take prisoners. “I wish you to kill and burn,” Smith ordered. “The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me.” Jacobs ordered Waller to kill any male supporting or actively involved in the insurrection “capable of bearing arms against the United States.” When Waller asked for clarification as to what should be considered capable of bearing arms against the United States he was told to so consider any male over the age of ten. Waller chose to disregard the order to kill children.
All communication and trade between Samar and the other islands was immediately closed, and food rapidly became scarce, as part of a strategy to starve the insurrectionists. The Filipino insurgents made up a small part of the population of the island, and those not involved in the insurrection were subjected to starvation. Smith refused to deploy troops to separate the uninvolved civilians from the insurrectionists, a strategy which allowed his troops to consider any interaction to be active support of the rebellion. Troops ranged across Samar, destroying homes and farms, shooting those Filipinos considered to be opposing them, and killing farm animals.
Over 250 dwellings were destroyed by fires set by the American troops, according to Waller’s own report. He also reported the shooting of 13 domesticated water buffalo and 39 civilians. The exact number of Filipinos killed during the march across Samar remains disputed. Filipino claims are over 50,000 but western sources place the figure around 2,500. It was eleven executions by firing squad which led to a court martial of Major Waller, who defended his actions not by stating that he was under orders from Smith, but instead on the prevailing rules of engagement regarding guerrilla warfare. Waller was acquitted.
Testimony during Waller’s court martial exposed Smith’s orders to kill every male over the age of ten. Waller had acted with a great deal more restraint than that ordered by Smith. When Smith denied ever giving the orders, which were presented to Waller verbally, three additional officers testified that they had been present during the conversation between Waller and Smith, and the orders had been delivered as described. Smith was court martialed for giving an unlawful order. He was convicted by the court and forced to retire from the Army. American newspapers described him as the Butcher of Samar.
Concentration Camps during the Philippine-American War 1901
The Batangas and Laguna provinces in Luzon were the site of fierce insurgent activity against the American occupying forces in the Philippines during the war which followed America’s seizure of the Philippines from Spain. To counter the insurgency the American commanding officer, Brigadier General James Franklin Bell order the civilian community be sealed off to prevent contact with the insurgents. To accomplish this strategy he ordered the establishment of concentration camps, which were described in reports to the US Senate as zones of protection.
Civilians were forced to enter the camps as winter came on in 1901. By the end of the year almost the entire population of the two provinces were in the camps. When leaving their homes under escort they were informed that anything left behind was subject to confiscation or destruction by the US Army, to deny seizure by the insurgents. This included homes, farms, livestock, personal property, and anything else. Nearly 300,000 Filipinos were herded into the camps, which were overcrowded, lacking in sanitation facilities, and soon ridden with disease.
The US Army’s Public Relations Office released press reports which described the camps as being well stocked with food and supplies, and welcomed by the Filipino civilians as protection from the insurgents. The Army also claimed that the camps were introducing standards of hygiene and diet which were previously unknown to the Filipinos. Letters home from servicemen in the Philippines soon revealed a much different situation than that reported by the Army when some of these letters began to be printed in several newspapers. The appearance of the letters led to military reprisals upon their authors, including incarceration in the stockade unless a retraction was issued.
Following Christmas Bell ordered that anything outside of the camps – the property of the people within – was to be destroyed and anyone found outside of the camps was to be considered an insurgent. Homes and farms were burned, wells contaminated with either salt or poison, and livestock either confiscated for the use of the Army or shot. Meanwhile within the camps the overcrowded conditions, poor hygiene, and inadequate nutrition led to the spread of infectious diseases as well as beriberi and scurvy. By April of 1902 more than 8,000 Filipino civilians had died in the camps.
Mark Twain was one of the many influential Americans who opposed both the American presence in the Philippines and the conduct of the war, which he described as one of conquest by the Americans, rather than an insurgency. “…I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines,” he wrote in the New York Herald. “We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.” Twain was not alone in his opposition, but the Philippines became an American territory when the war officially ended in July 1902 with the islands becoming an unincorporated territory of the United States. Further rebellions flared in the islands for the next eleven years.
USS Wahoo Third War Patrol 1943
When the United States entered the war following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines one of the first orders issued to the fleet was to execute unrestricted submarine warfare on the Empire of Japan. This meant that unarmed merchant ships were to be attacked without warning. Restricted submarine warfare required unarmed ships be notified and an opportunity given for the crew to abandon ship prior to being sunk either by torpedo or deck gun. The sailors who departed Pearl Harbor on war patrols, were given a first-hand look at the destruction wrought by the Japanese attack as they left harbot. Many had lost friends and family members, and nearly all of them hated the Japanese passionately.
USS Wahoo was on its third war patrol when it encountered the Japanese troop transport ship Buyo Maru. Wahoo was commanded by Lt. Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, today a legend in the US Navy’s submarine service. Morton successfully torpedoed the Buyo Maru and then engaged two other Japanese ships in an action which lasted almost 14 hours before they eluded him, one of them, a freighter, having sustained damage from Wahoo’s deck guns. Morton steered Wahoo back to the site of the sinking transport ship, transiting on the surface to recharge the battery.
When he arrived at the site of the sinking he discovered numerous lifeboats and rafts, covered with what he described in his report as Japanese combat troops. What happened next has been misreported and apologists have tried to justify Wahoo’s actions by claiming that the Japanese fired upon the submarine from the lifeboats. Morton’s report states that he opened fire with his four inch gun upon the largest of the lifeboats. One of the Japanese returned fire. Morton than had all of his deck guns, including machine guns, open fire on the lifeboats and the men floating in the water. On deck crew used small arms to support the ship’s heavier weapons.
At least one of the swimmers in the water was seen by Wahoo’s lookouts waving a white flag as he was brought under fire from the submarine. Another was shot down as he attempted to board Wahoo, also reportedly waving a flag of surrender. In his official report Morton described his actions and claimed that Wahoo had killed most of the men in the water and destroyed all of the boats and rafts, leaving the survivors of the shootings to drown or the mercy of sharks. Morton estimated that 1,500 or 1,600 enemy were killed during the action. In fact Japanese rescue ships reached and rescued many of the men in the water after Wahoo left the scene.
Examination of records after the war revealed that the Buyo Maru was carrying Japanese troops at the time of the sinking, but that it was also carrying Indian prisoners of war. Japanese records list the loss of 87 Japanese and 195 Indians. Morton’s report was endorsed by his commanding officer and Admiral Charles Lockwood, who ordered Morton to keep quiet about firing on survivors in the water. Rumors spread quickly about the act, since so many were involved, but it stayed mostly within the submarine service. Morton and Wahoo were lost to Japanese aircraft attack in October, 1943. The event was declassified in the 1960s.
No Gun Ri Refugees Korea 1950
In the first summer of the Korean War American and South Korean troops retreated steadily down the peninsula toward Pusan. Behind them, and ahead of the pursuing North Koreans, was a constantly growing stream of refugees, desperate to escape the communists. Word spread that some of the refugees were in fact North Korean sympathizers infiltrating to the South. As the military situation continued to deteriorate, American commanders issued orders (which were denied for more than three decades) to shoot Korean refugees. General Hobart Gay, First Cavalry Division commander, designated Koreans behind the retreating Americans as “enemy agents.”
Between July 25 -29, more than six hundred refugees were approaching the American lines west of No Gun Ri. During the night of July 25 several refugees strayed from the main group and were shot by American sentries. The following day the main body of the refugees was stopped by American troops, stripped of anything which could be construed to be a weapon, and forced off the main road. The Americans had the refugees positioned near some railroad tracks and left them there around noon. They were ordered to remain where they were and the refugees were spread out along the tracks when they were attacked by US airplanes.
The air attack included aerial bombing and repeated strafing attacks. Refugees tried to flee in all directions to find the way often blocked by soldiers shooting at them. Eventually the ground fire drove the survivors under a railroad bridge, where they attempted to build a barricade using the bodies of the dead. As darkness fell after a day of horror, US troops brought up searchlights to illuminate the areas (there were two) under the bridge and the firing continued. The situation remained static throughout the next few days, with occasional shots being fired by American troops when motion was seen under the bridge.
In the early hours of July 29 the Americans withdrew as the North Korean troops advanced towards them. North Korean troops found the survivors of the refugee group, reportedly less than 25. North Korea immediately reported the massacre and claimed casualties of around 400 dead, their reports were just as quickly dismissed as “communist propaganda.” In the late 1990s and early 2000 evidence emerged in the form of declassified documents that the massacre of civilian refugees by US troops was known by the high command in Korea and in the Pentagon by the fall of 1950, but no action was taken or acknowledgment made.
In 1999 an Associated Press story based on interviews with survivors and with some US Army participants in the massacre was released. By 2000 the Pentagon was conducting an official investigation. In 2001 the Pentagon’s official report admitted the attack on refugees was conducted using small arms, mortars, and air strikes, but denied that the troops had been under orders from anyone other than the officers at the scene. Since the massacre South Korea has been able to identify 163 of the dead by name, and the general agreement of those who participated is that about 400 of the refugees were killed by American troops and air forces.
Gnadenhutten Massacre American Revolutionary War 1782
There was no International Convention to establish what was and what was not a war crime at the time of the American Revolution, in which the code of the gentleman was largely used to dictate the behaviors of armies. What happened at Gnadenhutten was not strictly speaking a war crime but it was certainly an atrocity and a forgotten one as far as the history of the Revolution is concerned. It involved the slaughter of unarmed and captive Christian Delaware Indians, including women and children, at the hands of the Pennsylvania militia at a place where the name translates to Huts of Peace.
The Delaware had been residents of the village when they were captured by Wyandot Indians loyal to the British. They were taken to Captive Town, where they had little to eat and about 100 escaped and returned to Gnadenhutten to harvest the crops they had planted earlier in the year, and to recover other food stores such as dried fish and smoked game which had been left behind. That summer members of another branch of the Delaware tribe had been raiding settlements in Western Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania militia launched retaliatory raids.
The peaceful Delaware at Gnadenhutten were taken by surprise when their town was overrun by the militia, and they protested their innocence of any attacks. The militia listened to their pleas and then, by vote, decided that the Delaware were guilty of the attacks and by another vote, that they would be executed for them. Women and children were taken to one hut and the Delaware men to another. Several of the militiamen refused to take part in the executions and were told to leave the area, in order that they could not be called as witnesses.
On the evening of March 7 the militia prepared two execution houses in the village, one for the men and the other for the women and children. In the morning the Indians were led one by one to the houses, had their hands bound, and were either stunned or killed by a blow to the head with a mallet or club. After they were stunned or already dead they were scalped. It was believed that the scalping would cause those still alive to bleed to death. Two of the Delaware, both boys and one of them scalped, somehow survived and managed to crawl to safety in the woods as the slaughter went on.
After the killings were finished, in which 96 Delaware were murdered including 39 children, the militia looted the village of everything the Delaware had which was of any value to the Pennsylvanians. They then stacked the bodies of the dead in some of the huts and burned them and the rest of the village as well. Word of the massacre spread quickly, eventually reaching the headquarters of George Washington outside of New York. Few were critical of the brutality of the massacre and Washington was more concerned about Indian retaliation on the frontier than determining if any crime had been committed.
The Dachau Massacre 1945
The Dachau massacre was an example of a reprisal by shocked and outraged troops when they were confronted by the war crimes of an enemy. US troops involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp complex by the Rainbow Division of the US Army. The camp was formally surrendered under a flag of truce by the officer in charge after the camp commandant and most of the guards had fled. They had been relieved by SS troops who were sent to arrange the surrender of the camp, through the Swiss Red Cross, to the arriving Americans.
After the Americans arrived at the camp about 50 SS guards who had surrendered were placed in a coal storage area, under the guard of a heavy machine gun team. Lt Colonel Felix Sparks later claimed that he left the machine gun under the command of a soldier known as “Birdeye” and that the soldier opened fire on the German prisoners, explaining to his superiors that the prisoners were attempting to flee. According to Felix a dozen of the Germans were killed and several more wounded. Photographs of the scene tell a different story. Felix claimed that he directed the wounded Germans be attended and replaced the machine gunner with another soldier.
Other reports were that the inmates swarmed over the disarmed Germans, killing them with whatever came to hand. In at least two reported incidents American soldiers looked away when they encountered inmates beating their former guards with shovels. Two American soldiers discovered former camp guards hiding in a boxcar on the railroad siding and summarily shot them both. Several of the Nazi guards were shot where they stood by the Americans, who also shot the guard dogs, as the dogs handlers had fled before the arrival of the Americans.
In his report announcing the liberation of Dachau General Eisenhower stated that 300 “…SS camp guards were quickly neutralized.” During the process of taking charge of the camp between 35 and 50 Germans were killed by the Americans and the former prisoners, some with the assistance of the Americans. Since the event various historians have speculated that all of the guards still present in the camp were killed, but comparisons of German records of the numbers present and the numbers of prisoners taken by the Americans makes that an impossibility.
After several eyewitnesses to the capture of Dachau reported the killings the US Army formally investigated the incident, and the Assistant Inspector General for 7thArmy formally recommended courts martial for several of the American officers and troops involved, including Lt Colonel Sparks. The investigation concluded that the SS and Wehrmacht troops present had been deliberately separated by the Americans, with the SS troops being taken to different locations to be shot. By the time the investigation was completed George S. Patton had been appointed Military Governor of Bavaria, and he ordered the charges dropped.
War crimes and atrocities by the American Military
In every war in which the United States has been engaged there have been atrocities and war crimes committed by American troops. In two wars, the American Revolution and the Civil War, there were atrocities committed on fellow Americans, on both sides of the conflict. In World War II, in both the European and Pacific theaters of operation, charges of rape committed by American troops were numerous, and American commanders took steps to keep them from being reported to the American people. As time passes and more and more records are declassified, these crimes have become public knowledge, but much of the public doesn’t want to know.
This in no way impugns the majority of the men and women who made up the military in America’s past wars and its wars today. The overwhelming majority of America’s military served and serves honorably, expressing as well as defending the values of the nation. One of those values is truth, and it is an obligation of all to ensure that the truth of our history is recorded, rather than glossing over the mistakes to present a mythological record of our collective past.
America’s military has always reflected America’s society of its day. The racist attitudes of the past were exploited to ensure that servicemen looked down upon their enemy, whether they were Confederate troops engaging Union black troops, US Marines opposing Philippine insurgents, or Navy sailors and aviators encountering what was then referred to simply as the Jap. The efficiency of the propaganda campaigns in all of America’s wars in dehumanizing the enemy went a long way towards fomenting the hatred which led to many of the war crimes committed by American troops.
The behavior of the enemy added to that hatred as well. The number and nature of the war crimes committed by Japan against all of its enemies in World War II made retaliation against them more palatable to many. The same is true of the crimes of the North Vietnamese against the South, the Germans against the civilians of Europe, and the Filipinos against the Spanish and later the American troops there. But none of these facts makes the commission of war crimes against civilians or helpless prisoners compatible with why American troops were deployed in the first place.
The best known American war crime remains the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Between 350 and 500 Vietnamese were killed by American troops in that event. Twenty-six Americans were charged with participating but only William Calley Jr, was convicted of killing 22 civilians. He served three and one half years, mostly under house arrest. What is forgotten about My Lai is that three soldiers tried to stop it as it occurred, and for their efforts they received death threats and were condemned as traitors by some in Congress. Thirty years later, when little attention was given to the matter anymore, they were honored for their efforts, despite one of them not living to see the justice he was due.