COMMENTARY: Of death and victory: A salute to the fallen

 

The beginning of the 1970 movie Patton includes a speech to troops by the lead character, in which it is said that one does not win a war by dying for one’s country. But in truth, General George S. Patton, Jr. was well aware of the sacrifices made by those under his command in pursuit of victory in Europe in World War II. This is a story of both.

In late March 1945, as the Allies were closing in on the Third Reich, General Patton initiated a plan to free American POWs at a camp some 50 miles behind German lines. The operation was very risky, a veritable suicide mission. Part of the reason for the mission was to rescue Patton’s son-in-law, Col. John Waters, who had been held at the Oflag Camp near Hammelburg since capture in 1943. Patton put Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams in charge of the operation, who in turn selected Capt. Abraham Baum to command it. A total of 303 soldiers were led by 11 officers.

From the start, the mission had problems. First, Abrams was overruled in his request for more troops, though it is unclear whether more men alone would have made a difference. As they made their way into enemy territory, the group, dubbed Task Force Baum, lacked sufficient maps indicating where they were or the exact location of the prison camp. Further, German spotter planes soon discovered the incursion, which was fatal to the success of the mission later on.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Once the Americans reached the Oflag camp, they opened fire on who they thought were German guards. Actually, the camp housed both Serbian and American POWs, and the Serb uniforms evidently looked like Nazi garb to the Americans. Col. Waters attempted to warn the rescuers of the mistake but was shot himself. Once inside the camp, the raiders quickly discerned two things: they radically underestimated the number of POWs present there, and most internees were not able to walk due to various ailments. The decision was made to allow only field-grade officers to ride back, while others who could escape would have to walk. Col. Waters stayed at the camp after his injury.

On the way back from the raid, Task Force Baum lacked adequate moonlight to see and fuel for the vehicles. Further, because of insufficient reconnaissance, the Americans were unaware that

German troops surrounded their position at night. Once morning broke and the Americans started to move, they were literally sitting ducks. Of the 314 total men involved in the raid, 32 were killed in the battle which ensued, while only 35 made it back across to Allied territory; the remaining troops headed back to the prison camp under the white flag of surrender. One of the unlucky ones forced to return to the camp was Capt. Baum, who was shot and captured. Devastatingly, all 16 tanks and 41 other vehicles involved in the mission were captured or destroyed.

On its face, the raid was an abject failure. Since the camp was subsequently liberated just nine days after the operation, many questioned why it was necessary in the first place. While he offered a rare admission of mistake, General Patton—who was reprimanded by Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower for his role in the operation—nonetheless justified the mission based on the premise that retreating Germans may have slaughtered POWs at Oflag as they did elsewhere. From a military perspective, the mission did have a hidden benefit later revealed by the Nazis: it gave the impression that Allied troops would enter that part of Germany only from the east rather than from the north as well.

Col. Waters recovered from his wounds and went on to a distinguished military career, eventually earning the same rank as Patton, four-star general. Before his tragic death in an automobile accident while in Europe in December 1945, General Patton returned to the United States and gave a speech to assembled troops in Los Angeles in which he paid tribute to those who perished under his command, lamenting the “40,000 white crosses, 40,000 dead Americans.” Buried in a military cemetery in Luxembourg, General Patton’s grave is marked by a simple white cross at the front of an endless landscape of the fallen.

Maybe, as General Patton once actually remarked, “you don’t have to be a corpse to be a hero.” Nevertheless, even he knew it takes both the living and the departed to win wars, and it is the latter’s ultimate sacrifice we pay homage to on this solemn day of remembrance.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He visited the Luxembourg military cemetery where General Patton is buried during a 1975 trip to Europe while in high school. Dr. Hoff is a past recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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