In the last German offensive of World War II, three German Armies conducted
a surprise attack along a 50 mile front in the Ardennes beginning on Dec.
16, 1944, and quickly overtook thin U.S. lines.
On the second day of the 'Battle of the Bulge,' a truck convoy of Battery
B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was intercepted southeast
of Malmedy by a regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division of the Leibstandarte-SS,
under the command of 29 year old SS Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper. His troops
had earned the nickname "Blowtorch Battalion" after burning their
way across Russia and had also been responsible for slaughtering civilians
in two separate villages.
Upon sighting the trucks, the Panzer tanks opened fire and destroyed
the lead vehicles. This brought the convoy to a halt while the deadly accurate
tank fire continued. The outgunned Americans abandoned their vehicles and
The captured U.S. soldiers were herded into a nearby field. An SS tank
commander then ordered an SS private to shoot into the prisoners, setting
off a wild killing spree as the SS opened fire with machine guns and pistols
on the unarmed, terrified POWs.
Survivors were killed by a pistol shot to the head, in some cases by
English speaking SS who walked among the victims asking if anyone was injured
or needed help. Those who responded were shot. A total of 81 Americans
were killed in the single worst atrocity against U.S. troops during World
War II in Europe.
After the SS troops moved on, three survivors encountered a U.S. Army
Colonel stationed at Malmedy and reported the massacre. News quickly spread
among U.S. troops that "Germans are shooting POWs." As a result,
the troops became determined to hold the lines against the German advance
until reinforcements could arrive. Gen. Eisenhower was informed of the
massacre. War correspondents in the area also spread the news.
By January of 1945, the combined efforts of the Allied armies drove
the Germans back to their original starting positions in the Battle of
the Bulge. U.S. troops then reached the sight of the massacre, now buried
under two feet of winter snow.
Mine detectors were used to locate the 81 bodies, which had rested undisturbed
since the day of the shootings and by now had frozen into grotesque positions.
Forty one of the bodies were found to have been shot in the head. As each
body was uncovered it was numbered, as seen in the photo above.
While the U.S. medical teams performed this grim task, columns of German
POWs being led by Americans passed by, with the bodies in plain view, however,
no act of vengeance was taken.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, 74 former SS men, including Jochen
Peiper and SS Gen. Sepp Dietrich, were tried by a U.S. Military Tribunal
for War Crimes concerning the massacre.
The two month trial began May 16, 1946, in a courthouse at Dachau. But
controversy soon arose. The defense team raised allegations of mistreatment
including physical abuse by the U.S. Army and cited the use of mock trials
in obtaining SS confessions as improper. The defense also complained that
the court's legal expert, a Jew, constantly ruled in favor of the prosecution.
The trial included testimony by a survivor of the massacre who was able
to point out the SS man that actually fired the first shot.
On July 11, 1946, the Judges returned a verdict after two and a half
hours of deliberation. All of the SS were found guilty as charged. Forty
three, including Peiper, were sentenced to death, and 22, including Dietrich,
were sentenced to life imprisonment. The others got long prison terms.
They were taken to Landsberg Prison, the same prison where Hitler had
served time following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
Controversy continued, however, as various U.S. Army Boards conducted
critical reviews of the trial process and methods used during pretrial
interrogations. As a result, most of the death sentences were commuted
and over half of the life sentences were reduced.
Political complications arose after the Soviets blockaded Berlin in
May of 1948. The strategic importance of post-war Germany in the emerging
Cold War became apparent to the U.S. amid public outcry in Germany against
war crime trials being conducted by the U.S. Army.
In 1949, following a series of public charges and counter charges by
trial participants and further investigations over whether justice had
been served in the conduct of the trial, six of the remaining death sentences
were commuted. A U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee then began an
investigation, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, concerning the U.S. Army's
overall handling of the case. The Senate investigation heightened the controversy
surrounding the trial, due in part to the aggressive behavior of Sen. McCarthy.
By the early 1950s, following years of accusations, denials, investigations,
controversy, and political turmoil, the final remaining death sentences
were commuted and release of all of the convicted SS men began.
In December of 1956, the last prisoner, Peiper, was released from Landsberg.
He eventually settled in eastern France. On July 14, 1976, Bastille Day
in France, Peiper was killed when a fire of mysterious origin destroyed
his home. Firefighters responding to the blaze found their water hoses
had been cut.