From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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The Collection Point
Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

Published in Stars & Stripes - January 28, 1945


From Belgium with the 3rd Armored Division -

"What is your regiment?"

The line of gray-green figures shifts. The man to whom the question is put leans forward apologetically. He is an old guy with reddish stubble on his grey face. His eyes are blue and scared.

"48th Volks-grenadier Regiment," he answers quickly, and adds "12th Infantry, 8th Kompanie. I have been here only three days. We went into an assembly area at St. Vith, and we..."

The old guy goes on talking. The American GI, handling division interrogation, listens carefully, nodding and making notes in a small loose-leaf folder. MP's methodically search the prisoners. In front of each German soldier is a little pile of nicknacks from his pockets. There is the usual assortment of broken knives, cracked mirrors, combs and cigarettes. More than a few of these Krauts display Luckies and Camels. One of the MP's cracks -- "Now I know why we have a cigarette shortage!"

The scene is a frontline POW collecting point. In this cold little Belgian village you can tell how the battle goes by the number of muddy, beat-up Jerries who come stumbling in to this first stop before shipment to barbed wire confinement for the duration. Today, they are coming in swiftly and in numbers. The escorting MP's grin confidently.

"More of these bastards," a truck driver yells to the waiting interrogators. One's wearing GI overalls."

Lt. Arthur Rutshaw, of Chicago, Ill., 2nd Armored Division military police officer, orders the prisoners to line up immediately. They shuffle forward -- they don't look smart, and they don't look like soldiers. They're just all beat up, tired, pitiful and harmless.

Harmless! That's the word, but Joe, you don't know the definition as applied to these jokers.

They Know the Enemy

T/Sgt. Otto Schroeder -- that's not his real name, but for various reasons it'll do -- is a crack 3rd Armored Division interrogator. Like each of the eight enlisted men and two officers who make up the PW interrogation teams, Schroeder was born in Germany and lived there for many years. He went to school in Cologne and his parents are still there. Schroeder is an American citizen now, but he knows the Nazis and he reads between the lines of their pitiful stories.

All of the division's POW interrogators have this in common -- a flaming hatred of Nazi policy. They know the enemy. They know the torture of concentration camps and the bitter anguish of the hunted. These men left their native land to escape persecution. America offered both sanctuary and justice. Today, these soldiers of the United States prove themselves worthy of the new world.

Schroeder says sarcastically, surveying the prisoners, "They're all a bunch of poor boys who have been forced to fight. To hear them tell it, not one has ever fired a shot in anger. They all wanted to surrender. They are indeed pitiful, but they are very dangerous if you are fool enough to swallow their double-talk." He indicated a man standing before MP John Sullivan, of Dallas, Texas.

"That one wears the iron cross -- the diagonal red, white and black ribbon on his coat. He tells us that it was awarded on the Russian front. He has never fired a shot at the Americans. He is another of those pitiful, harmless ones. It would be a joke if it were not so serious."

From the Nazi, Sullivan had taken one of the ever-present knives, a pair of cuticle scissors, several letters and a small map. One of the interrogation team scanned these articles carefully. Except for knives, and other items of cutlery, all personal effects are returned to the prisoners. Letters, maps and other documents are of primary importance -- from them may come information vital to our frontline combat forces.

"It is hard for a fighting man to realize how much the taking of prisoners may guarantee his own safety," Schroeder says. "One POW is often worth more than a dozen dead enemy soldiers on the front. When an infantryman knows that German troops have murdered his buddies in cold blood, he is in no mood to bring 'em back alive! However, we seem to have impressed our men with the importance of getting Jerry back quickly so that we can interrogate him while he is still dazed from battle, uncomfortable, and low in spirit.

Nazi in OD's

"The doughboy who sees that a German prisoner keeps everything but his weapons until we can properly interrogate and evaluate letters, official papers and diaries is doing himself a favor. The information we gather is put to work immediately. Then, when our combat teams hit the Kraut, they are able to know where it will hurt most!"

The man in GI coveralls explains that the garment was issued to him and was worn only under his Wehrmacht overcoat. He had the coat on when he was captured. Schroeder shrugs. "What can we do? He is probably telling the truth in this case. Certainly he wasn't trying to use the fatigues to confuse our troops. He did wear them under the long coat, and he wore a regulation Jerry helmet. He's scared now, and he'll tell us all about his organization."

"Yesterday," he added, "there was one we didn't even interrogate. We got that boy in a cellar with the rest of his squad. They all wore regulation uniform, but this man had civvies pulled on over the outside. Like all the rest, he had a tall and pitiful yarn. He said that he had decided to come over to the Americans and could only do so in the disguise of a civilian. Yet he was taken with a gun in his hands!

"Any prisoner caught in a uniform which is obviously intended to mislead our troops, is carefully guarded so that he may not add to or take off any item of clothing. He is rushed back to Army intelligence and tried immediately. We have instructed our combat soldiers to be extremely careful in the handling of prisoners in civilian clothing or American uniforms. Give those jokers half a chance and they'll disrobe, or slap a Jerry overcoat on over the GI duds."

The prisoners stood passively as MP's moved down the line giving each a thorough frisking. Several wore items of GI equipment under their uniforms. One had a pair of combat pants under his gray-green trousers. Another wore an American officer's greens. There were a couple of OD sweaters, a pair of galoshes, a pair of shoes -- none of which were marked "Made in Germany."

Manpower Problem

"Some of this stuff may actually have been issued," Schroeder says. "They captured much of it in the Rundstedt drive through Belgium. If the equipment is worn on the outside in an effort to deceive, the prisoner is sent directly to Army, tried and probably executed. Their clothing is very poor. You can see for yourself."

The prisoners wore anything but uniform. Some wore padded jackets, others the splotchy camouflage cape of a sniper. There were a variety of coats, fatigues, caps and boots. Although the majority of these men were remnants of the 12th Infantry, they wore uniforms of Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine.

"The navy and air force men are really disgusted," Schroeder chuckles. "They have been given hasty training and sent into the line. We had a sergeant-pilot of fighter planes here this morning. He said he didn't give a damn how the war ended if he had to fight as an infantryman. One non-com had just returned from the hospital and was willing to give us the information we wanted, but he didn't exactly know the caliber of his PAK (anti-tank) weapon. He wasn't kidding. Hitler has reached so far into his manpower barrel that he's coming up with splinters!

"Of course, the prisoners are not all German 4-P's. That little punk with the long hair is an SS panzer trooper. We are really disappointed in the Hitler-jugend, though. They have a reputation for guts in Germany, but the frontline seems to dissolve that tough attitude.

"Soldiers of the old Wehrmacht dislike the young SS thugs. They have a joke which goes: 'In Germany the SS children have steel in their hearts, but on the frontline it turns to lead in their pants!'

"Not many are arrogant now. A few declare that Germany will win but they say it without conviction. The lieutenant in this group tells me that it looks bad, but that somehow Germany will win the war.

"They all talk," Schroeder says. "Sometimes they talk so much that we have to tell them to shut up. Much of their spiel is lies -- some is truth. By comparing the statements of a group taken individually, we can be certain of reasonable accuracy. Our reports often aid frontline combat teams to properly evaluate the enemy situation.

They All Talk

"Even the officers volunteer information. To a man, they cry shame on some other outfit. Someone has always left them holding the bag, the SS promised support which never came, etc., etc. ad nauseum. The double-cross is so deeply ingrained in Nazi philosophy that every German soldier thinks that he personally has been betrayed when things go wrong. It is the same state of mind which accounts for the wearing of American uniforms by Nazi troops, the white flag and the burst of fire, the eternal off-side trickery which is as much a part of German tactics as bouncing bettys and tellermines."

The prisoners were busy now, stowing personal articles back into their pockets. One caught Schroeder's eye. "Do you think," he asked hopefully, in German, "that I might be sent to the United States?"

Schroeder chuckled. "Maybe," he replied, or they might send you to rebuild Stalingrad."

The Jerry's grin vanished. "I am a sick man," he said. "I returned to the line from the hospital just three days ago. I have always wanted to see America but I will do as I am told."

"You see," Schroeder said. "That man is sick to death of war and misery, and yet he says -- 'I will do as I am told.' There are a great many of his kind between us and final victory. Our combat troops can't afford to slacken the pace for a minute. Neither can we miss a chance to capitalize on information from prisoners."

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