Memorial honors victims of WWII mob
By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 25, 2004
RüSSELSHEIM, Germany — Over a cup of coffee in a makeshift art studio above a busy intersection near the Main River, a bag lady points to the street below and recounts for her painter-host a little-known story about her town and World War II.
That chance encounter 13 years ago between the woman and artist Hans Diebschlag helped inspire an effort that will culminate Thursday with the dedication of a memorial to an American B-24 bomber crew beaten and stoned by an angry mob on the morning of Aug. 26, 1944.
The heart-wrenching saga of 2nd Lt. Norman J. Rogers Jr. and his eight crewmen is an extraordinary story — but one that has been largely forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It’s a very dramatic story,” said Peter Karle, the German architect who designed the monument in Rüsselsheim, where the attack took place.
There are many layers to it, too.
Historically speaking, the landmark trial of 11 Rüsselsheim citizens in July 1945 marked the first proceeding of its kind in the American zone of occupation. It also served as a guide for the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal that started four months later.
And, in an ironic twist, the remembrance in Rüsselsheim is occurring the same week the U.S. military is holding preliminary hearings for four terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The proceedings are the first U.S. military tribunals since Nuremberg.
A central figure in the Rüsselsheim trial was the U.S. Army prosecutor, Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski. Thirty years later, Jaworski gained fame as the special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation of President Nixon.
Jaworski’s prosecution in the 1945 case led to the conviction of 10 of the 11 conspirators, though it was later determined that scores of other people were involved. Five of the 10 who stood trial went to the gallows. A sixth, a German soldier, was convicted and executed in 1946.
The attack on the U.S. aircrew happened the morning after the city was heavily damaged in a massive bombing raid by the Royal Air Force. While the city was home to a sprawling auto plant, converted to produce aircraft parts for the German air force, much of the damage occurred in residential areas.
In his book “Wolfsangel,” Augusto Nigro noted that Rüsselsheim had been bombed before and that residents, like others throughout Germany, had come to refer to Allied air crews as Terrorflieger, or terror fliers.
Large-scale “strategic” bombings, in which cities and civilians well behind enemy lines were pounded from the air, was a precept first accelerated by Britain in early 1942, the American professor wrote. Germany adopted the tactic a few months later, leveling cities such as Coventry, in England. The tactic, a tenet of the “total war” concept, “introduced a new kind of terrorism into an already terrible war,” Nigro wrote.
It was against this backdrop that Rogers’ crew parachuted into northern Germany on the night of Aug. 24 after their B-24 Liberator was shot down following a bombing run on an air base near Hanover. All were captured and transported to an air base near the city of Münster.
One of the nine airmen, Staff Sgt. Forrest W. Brininstool, was taken to a medical clinic where he was operated on for shrapnel wounds. He remained behind while the others were loaded onto a train for a trip south to the prisoner interrogation center in Oberursel, near Frankfurt.
The RAF raid on Rüsselsheim in the early hours of Aug. 26 damaged the train tracks in town. When the train carrying Rogers and his crew neared the city, the eight Americans were taken off the train and escorted through town by two German soldiers. The idea was to cut through the city on foot and catch another train on the opposite side of town.
During the “death march,” as Nigro called it, residents of Rüsselsheim took their anger out on the crew, thinking they were Canadian fliers from the previous night’s raid. What began as taunts escalated into accusations, and before long a mob descended on the crew, attacking them with building material, stones, bricks, lumber and even hammers. The German soldiers disappeared.
“There were more than 100 people involved in the murders, in the massacre,” said Dagmar Eichhorn, a principal proponent of the memorial.
The bodies were loaded onto a farmer’s cart and taken to a local cemetery. While one of the residents swung a 2-by-4 to quiet the groans of those men still alive, an air raid siren sent everyone scurrying for cover.
William M. Adams and Sidney Eugene Brown, both sergeants, managed to pull themselves off the wagon and slip away, avoiding capture for four days before their luck ran out. They spent the rest of the war in POW camps, never revealing to their captors what had happened to them.
After the war, Adams and Brown told Army officials what transpired in Rüsselsheim, but, amid all the postwar chaos, word didn’t reach Jaworski until after the trial. Instead, the Army learned of the mob’s attack from French and Polish slave laborers.
Over the years, the story has resurfaced from time to time, but it largely has been forgotten, especially by the people of Rüsselsheim. Eichhorn explained that most simply wanted to put the episode behind them.
Given that U.S. authorities were able to prosecute only a fraction of those involved, Eichhorn said, “It was dangerous for people in Rüsselsheim to talk about this.”
That explains why Diebschlag, the artist who is also a native of Rüsselsheim, though he later moved to England, didn’t know the story.
When the bag lady told him the story, he incorporated elements of it into the painting commissioned by the city. The painting, a satirical work that drew plenty of detractors, hung in an assembly hall for four years before a new mayor ordered it removed.
The decision led to a public forum about the painting and the city’s wartime past, which spurred Eichhorn and others to lead the effort to build the memorial.
Of the three airmen aboard the B-24 that was shot down who survived the war, only Brown is alive today. He is expected to attend Thursday’s dedication, along with Rogers’ daughter and granddaughter. Eichhorn credits Brown’s forgiveness, Nigro’s book and Diebschlag’s painting for helping the city face its past and heal wartime wounds.
The war, Eichhorn said, “was a very hard time for all of us.”