“The Enemy Has Reason to Fear Him”

NO sword was swifter or more terrible than Patton’s. When a sniper took a potshot at a Third Army staff officer, Patton ordered German houses burned in retaliation. “In hundreds of villages there is not a living thing, not even a chicken,” he told his diary. “Most of the houses are heaps of stone. They brought it on themselves.… I did most of it.” As his vengeful divisions approached Frankfurt, another “brick and stone wilderness,” he wrote Bea that Eisenhower had recommended his promotion to full general, but “at the moment I am having so much fun that I don’t care what the rank is.… I hope things keep smooth. It seems too good to be true.” Time featured him on a cover with the caption: “Third Army’s Patton. The enemy has reason to fear him.”

In a personal note to his fearsome general, Eisenhower wrote:

I am very proud of the fact that you, as one of the fighting commanders who has been with me from the beginning of the African campaign, have performed so brilliantly throughout. We are now fairly started on that phase of the campaign which I hope will be the final one. I know that Third Army will be at the finish.

Curiously, it was unfinished business from Africa that now distracted Patton, ensuring that things would not “keep smooth” and marring the start of his drive into the German heartland. His beloved son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel John Knight Waters, a West Point cavalryman, had been captured in Tunisia on Valentine’s Day, 1943, during the early hours of the German offensive that culminated at Kasserine Pass. Waters eventually found himself interned as POW No. 4161 with fifteen hundred other American officers in Oflag 64, a prison camp in northern Poland, where listening to the BBC on an illicit radio was known as “reading the canary”; where a hissed warning of “Goon up!” signaled an approaching guard; and where “kriegies” (from Kriegsgefangenen, or war prisoners) organized a dance band, a theatrical troupe, a glee club, a camp newspaper, and a five-thousand-volume library.

Waters kept a pocket notebook, titled “Remembrances,” which began with a laconic scribble on February 14, 1943: “Captured. Night in cactus.” For the next two years his spare entries recorded events small and large, including Red Cross and Swedish YMCA inspections, and, on June 6, 1944, the one-word annunciation: “Invasion.” Each calendar day was crossed off in red pencil as it ended. Rarely did Waters give voice to the drear monotony of Oflag 64, as in his October 1, 1944, entry: “And so another month begins. When will this end?”

He also maintained a “Wartime Log,” wrapped in brown burlap with a liberty bell drawn on the front cover and an epigraph from the British novelist Henry Seton Merriman: “War is a purifier; it clears the social atmosphere and puts womanly men and manly women into their right places. It is also a simplifier.” Here Waters kept a meticulous chart of “P.O.W. Rations,” showing daily allotments that typically included 35.7 grams of meat per man—a bit more than an ounce—plus 318 grams of barley bread, 200 grams of cabbage, 100 grams of carrots, 143 grams of cow turnips, and so forth. He carefully peeled food labels from relief-package cans and pasted them into the volume—Top-O peanut butter, Kroger’s Country Club Quality Fruitcake, Richardson & Robbins plum pudding—as if to extract a few final calories of nourishment from the memories. Each letter to POW No. 4161 was carefully listed by date, travel time, and censor number. Every parcel from home or the Red Cross was logged, with notations such as “badly damaged” or “good shape,” and a catalogue of the contents, which ranged from pencils, shoelaces, and vitamin pills to a cribbage board, MacDonald cigarettes, and, oddly, ice skates.

The great Russian winter offensive had abruptly put the kriegies of Oflag 64 on the road, under guard, with millions of other refugees, war prisoners, and concentration-camp inmates trudging west ahead of the Red Army. On January 21, Waters and his comrades marched out of the camp, carrying stolen cutlery stamped with swastikas and with the secret radio hidden inside an officer’s bagpipes. For five weeks they tacked across northern Germany in a horrid three-hundred-mile anabasis. “Zero weather & blizzard,” Waters scrawled in his journal on January 28. Men died, or were shot, or vanished. “Toughest day yet,” he wrote on February 22. Survivors studied their own stool like sheep entrails, for portents of illness; some chose not to wash rather than sponge away body oils that might provide a thin film against the cold. Starving men described the lavish meals they intended to devour when they got home, or concocted elaborate menus and lists of memorable restaurants where someday they hoped to dine again.

On February 26, the column was herded into boxcars to travel by rail at a glacial pace for another ten days to an eighth-century Bavarian town fifty miles east of Frankfurt. “Reached Hammelburg at 6 P.M.,” Waters wrote on March 8. “Deloused, etc.” Marched from the rail yard down Hermann-Göring-Strasse, the men found themselves entering a constellation of prisons that included a vast compound with thirty thousand enlisted men, mostly Soviets. Also here was Oflag XIII-B, a cantonment of five thousand Allied officers, including Serbs held since 1941 and fifteen hundred Americans captured during the Bulge from the 28th, 99th, and 106th Infantry Divisions, as well as the star-crossed 14th Cavalry Group. The camp’s senior officer was Colonel Charles C. Cavender, who had surrendered his 423rd Infantry Regiment on the Schnee Eifel nearly three months earlier.

Conditions at Hammelburg were wretched: a diet of beet or cabbage soup, black bread, and turnip marmalade; a single, cold, four-minute shower each week; eighty men wedged into each shabby hut; and the risk of accidental slaughter by marauding Allied aircraft. “Air alerts all day. Worse than ever,” Waters wrote on March 19. “Distant rumbling.”

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Patton had hoped to hear of Colonel Waters’s liberation in mid-January. But SHAEF on February 9 advised him that Soviet intelligence listed Waters among a number of American prisoners apparently spirited westward. Fragmentary Allied intelligence and Red Cross reports more than a month later suggested that he might be among new arrivals at Hammelburg. On March 23, the day Third Army crossed the Rhine in force, Patton wrote Bea, “We are headed right for John’s place and may get there before he is moved.” Two days later he added, “Hope to send an expedition tomorrow to get John.”

The dubious honor of rescuing the commanding general’s kinsman sixty miles behind enemy lines fell to a tall, tough, redheaded captain from the Bronx named Abraham J. Baum. The twenty-four-year-old son of an immigrant Russian Jew, Abe Baum had studied costume design and worked as a pattern cutter in Manhattan’s Garment District; he enlisted after Pearl Harbor and rose through the ranks as a decorated officer in the 4th Armored Division. Without disclosing his blood interest, Patton ordered XII Corps to dispatch an armored column to Hammelburg and stage a raid that he privately hoped would eclipse Douglas MacArthur’s recent rescues of imprisoned Americans at several camps in the Philippines. To ensure that Waters could be recognized, he pressured his aide, Major Alexander C. Stiller, a former Texas Ranger, to accompany the column, ostensibly “for the thrills and laughs.” Only en route would Stiller confess to Baum that one of the prisoners they hoped to free was the husband of Patton’s only daughter.


Patton had proposed sending an entire four-thousand-man armored combat command eastward but was persuaded that a smaller, nimbler task force would have better odds of success. Baum’s column comprised just over three hundred soldiers in sixteen tanks, twenty-seven half-tracks, three motorized assault guns, and seven jeeps. Exhausted from the Rhine crossings, with little sleep in the past four days, the men carried but fifteen maps among them. Some of Patton’s subordinates harbored serious doubts about the foray, not least because Hammelburg lay east of a corps driving north. Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, whose unit was to provide much of the armored firepower, smacked his fist against a field table during a planning meeting late Monday afternoon, March 26. “What the hell is this all about?” he demanded. “It just doesn’t make sense.” As Baum’s force galloped away a few hours later, Patton wrote Bea, “I have been as nervous as a cat all day as everyone but me thought it was too great a risk. I hope it works.… If I lose the column it will possibly be a new incident.” To his diary he added, “I do not believe there is anything in that part of Germany heavy enough to hurt them.”

He was quite wrong. After skirmishes near Aschaffenburg, the column reached Highway 26 at 2:15 A.M. on Tuesday, March 27, making fair time while cutting phone wires and, at first light, gunning down German troops doing calisthenics on a parade ground. American tank and machine-gun fire ripped through barges, tugboats, and German trains along the Main River, east of Lohr; Major Stiller described how enemy soldiers “jumped off and scattered like quail” from an armored antiaircraft Zug. In Gemünden, defenders rallied to blow a bridge “in a spume of stone and concrete,” and Panzerfaust fire demolished three tanks while wounding Baum in the knee and hand. Detouring north onto a gravel road, the task force freed seven hundred Russian prisoners from a work detail shortly before noon on Tuesday—“Mazel tov,” Baum told a German civilian—then again pivoted east before clattering into Hammelburg around 3 P.M.

Here trouble awaited them. An American map found in the wreckage at Gemünden, and reports from a Storch observation plane tracking the olive-drab procession, suggested Hammelburg as the column’s likely destination. A German assault-gun battalion lumbered into town from the east while Baum and his men approached from the west. A running gunfight broke out when the Americans nosed up a twisting road toward the prison compound, which sat on a high plateau south of town. Enemy shells scorched through the column from below, and by the time American return fire beat back the attack, more vehicles had been demolished, including three half-tracks. Baum’s fuel reserve and ammunition track were ablaze, and camp guards armed with old Belgian rifles had tumbled into a skirmish line outside the fence. The Oflag air-raid siren shrieked maniacally.

Drumfire and coiling black smoke had roused the prisoners, and the sight of five-pointed white stars in the distance provoked jubilant pandemonium. A kriegie priest captured in the Ardennes offered absolution to those who wanted it, but most stood braying at the windows until tank rounds began to slam through the cantonment. The Shermans riddled guard towers and a water tank, and also ignited several buildings in an adjacent compound: Baum’s gunners had mistaken Serb uniforms for German. Prisoners dropped to the floor, and word circulated through the barracks: “No smoking, no lights.”

With consent from a German commandant eager to surrender, five volunteers led by Colonel Waters marched out the main gate amid the battle din and flitting tracers, waving an American flag and a bedsheet tied to a pole. Several hundred yards from the camp, making for Baum’s left flank, they passed a barnyard enclosed by a plank fence. Waters turned just as a German soldier thrust his rifle between the slats and, without aiming, pulled the trigger. The bullet hit POW No. 4161 just below the right hip, chipping his coccyx and exiting through his left buttock. He fell like a stone. Carried in a blanket sling to a nearby German hospital, where he was refused treatment, Waters was then hauled back to the camp and entrusted to Serb surgeons equipped with little more than paper bandages and a table knife for a scalpel.

Baum’s tanks meanwhile had crashed through the perimeter fence to be greeted by whooping, back-slapping prisoners. Many appeared ready to bolt, with bedrolls under their arms and pockets stuffed with Red Cross food cans rifled from the mess pantry. Baum had anticipated finding 300 American officers. Instead he confronted 1,291, according to the latest head count; the milling throng reminded him of Times Square.

It was now 6:30 P.M., with daylight fading and the enemy undoubtedly convening another attack. Clambering onto the hood of a jeep, Baum quieted the men and told them, “There are far more of you than we expected. We don’t have enough vehicles to take all of you.” He pointed west. “When I left, the lines were about sixty miles back in that direction, at the River Main.” He could squeeze a hundred or so onto his tanks and half-tracks. The rest would have to walk, or wait in Hammelburg for eventual liberation. A dismayed murmur ran through the throng.

Evening’s first stars glittered overhead as hundreds of officers, on foot and outfitted by Baum with a few compasses and maps, tramped into the gloaming, vaguely heading west. Separately, with tanks in the vanguard and every hull upholstered with kriegies, Baum’s motorized procession eventually rolled west by southwest, hoping to collide with Patch’s Seventh Army.

Instead they promptly found more trouble. Gunfire and Panzerfausts launched from the shadows harassed them. Vehicles burned, casualties mounted. Scouts reported ambushes and roadblocks with panzers ahead at Höllrich and at Hessdorf, where Baum had hoped to pick up Highway 27. Sometime after three A.M. on Wednesday, he ordered the column to shelter atop a dark knob identified on the map as Hill 427, only four miles southwest of Oflag XIII-B. The wounded were carried into a stone barn as the last gasoline was drained from eight half-tracks to fill six surviving tanks. All but a dozen of the hitchhiking kriegies formed into a column of twos and tramped back toward Hammelburg under a white flag, surely the better part of valor. They would reach the camp at 9:30 A.M.to find that German patrols had already rounded up many of the officers who had set out on foot the previous night.

Just after eight A.M., Baum and his depleted band started to edge down Hill 427. “A sheet of hell,” as he subsequently put it, abruptly engulfed the ridgeline with tank, artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. “At daylight,” Major Stiller later wrote, “they destroyed us.” As one olive-drab vehicle after another burst into flame, a final Morse message was tapped over the radio—“Task Force Baum surrounded. Under heavy fire. Request air support.”

“Every man for himself,” Baum hollered. Into the trees he ran, with Stiller on his heels. The baying of dogs echoed across the slope. One by one the GIs were captured or shot down. A German soldier found Baum and Spiller burrowed beneath a den of leaves; when Baum fumbled for his .45 automatic, the German raised his own pistol and shot him in the left thigh, his third wound of the expedition. They, too, would return to Hammelburg, Baum sprawled in a horse cart. “Get a good sleep, boys,” a guard told the Americans. “You had a hard night.”

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After his wounding, John Waters managed to scratch a few spare entries into his “Remembrances” journal:

March 27: “Shot while under white flag by German.”

March 28: “Operation & hospital. Suffering.”

March 29: “Hosp. Morphine.”

March 30: “Hosp. Suffering.”

Not for some days would Patton learn details of the failed raid, although German propaganda broadcasts celebrated the repulse at Hammelburg as a signal victory for the Reich. A few officers from Oflag XIII-B escaped their pursuers and eventually stumbled into American lines with fragmentary accounts of salvation, flight, and gunfire. Most prisoners and their erstwhile rescuers, including Stiller, were force-marched to another camp near Munich, where they would await Seventh Army’s arrival a month later. Task Force Baum had been obliterated, every vehicle lost and nearly every man captured in addition to the fifty-seven killed, wounded, or missing. An uncertain number of prisoners had died in the escapade.

Patton both evaded responsibility—blaming Major General Manton S. Eddy, the XII Corps commander, for dispatching an undersized force—and prevaricated. To reporters on March 30 he claimed that Task Force Baum was intended largely as a feint. “I felt by hazarding a small force I would confuse the enemy completely as to where we were going,” he said. “It did work, for they thought I was going to Nuremberg.” Later he would insist that he had first learned of Waters’s internment at the camp long after the raid. To Bea on March 31, he wrote:

I had known of the camp there for a week but did not know definitely he was in it. I sent a force to capture it but fear that the force was destroyed. However it was the proper thing to do.

As details of the fiasco emerged and criticism intensified, Patton unsuccessfully tried to suppress the story. “They are trying to make an incident out of my attempt to rescue John,” he told Bea. “How I hate the press.” Ten days after the raid, when troops from the 14th Armored Division overran Hammelburg, they found that those too ill or too damaged to travel to Munich had been left in the Serb dispensary, including Colonel Waters and Captain Baum. Patton sent an Army surgeon and two small planes to evacuate his son-in-law to a Frankfurt hospital; the young officer would recover from his injuries and later attain four-star rank. Baum and other wounded Americans were left behind at the camp for several more days. Eventually the former pattern cutter was promoted to major and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “loyal, courageous devotion to duty,” a decoration pinned on his hospital pajamas by Patton.

Patton had abused his authority, issuing reckless, impulsive orders to indulge his personal interests. As in the slapping incidents in Sicily, his deportment, compounded this time by mendacity, was unworthy of the soldiers he was privileged to lead. Yet with victory so near, his superiors had no heart for public rebukes. Bradley considered the raid “foolhardy,” but kept silent. “Failure itself was George’s own worst reprimand,” he concluded. In cables to Marshall, Eisenhower referred to the raid as “a wild goose chase” and “Patton’s latest crackpot actions.” The Third Army commander had “lost a full company of medium tanks and a platoon of light tanks. Foolishly he then imposed censorship on the movement.”

“Patton is a problem child,” Eisenhower added, “but he is a great fighting leader in pursuit and exploitation.”

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