Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Goering's Gifts" (Pfaffenheck, Part 2)

Fritz Gehringer, a veteran of the 6th SS
Mountain Division North, standing in
1995 beside the tree where he was wounded
five times on March 16, 1945.

   "Don't go. You'll only humanize them."
   That was my supervisor talking when I told her where I was going on my vacation in 1995.
   Over the years, as I gathered the stories of the 712th Tank Battalion, I, myself, became the subject of a handful of stories, like the time, having heard Jim Flowers tell the story of Hill 122 several times, I supplied him with a detail he seemed to be grasping for and he blurted, "Who's telling this story, me or you?" Or the time, knowing the answer but not nearly suspecting the force with which it would be delivered, I asked Otha Martin if he was at Pfaffenheck. "Pfaffenheck," he repeated coldly, fixing me with a stare. "The Sixteenth day of March in '45. I was there. I can tell you every man that was there." And he proceeded, with remarkable accuracy, to name the five crew members of each of the five tanks in the second platoon of C Company, including his own, that took part in the battle.
   My own interest in Pfaffenheck goes back to 1987, the year I first attended a reunion of the 712th, where I met two sisters, Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline Wolfe Litten -- twins -- whose brother Billy was killed at Pfaffenheck when they were 16 years old. Billy was 18. There are some pretty remarkable twists to the story, but long story short, John Zimmer, a member of Billy's platoon, had contacted the sisters so that he could deliver a plaque in Billy's memory. Thus started a journey of discovery for the sisters. Because I was beginning my own journey of discovery at about the same time, the two journeys crossed paths. In 1992 I interviewed Bob Rossi, who described the battle at Pfaffenheck although neither he nor I knew it was Pfaffenheck he was talking about. The newsletter reprinted a letter written by  Byrl Rudd, the platoon sergeant, to Ray Griffin, the newsletter editor, describing the battle. And Rossi showed me a copy of a letter written by Lt. Francis "Snuffy" Fuller to Hubert Wolfe, Billy's older brother, who was in the 78th Infantry Division. Hubert never showed the letter to his family, and didn't tell his sisters about it until he was on his deathbed.
   As I gathered the stories of the battalion, I always asked about Pfaffenheck. And then in 1995, one of the veterans told me there was a notice in the 90th Infantry Division newsletter saying there would be a ceremony in Pfaffenheck commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle.
   I wrote to the person who sent in the announcement and said that I wasn't a veteran but that I had interviewed several survivors of the tank battalion that fought there, and that I would like to come to the ceremony.
   I got quite a shock when the reply came: I would be very welcome to come, only it was not being put on by the village, but by the Germans who fought there.
   Not only that, but this was an SS outfit. And I'm a Jewish kid from New York. At least I was a kid some 50 years ago, or 35 years before this ceremony was to take place.
   Needless to say, the letter gave me pause. Byrl Rudd's letter described the SS troops his platoon encountered as "fanatical," and Fuller's letter said pretty much the same, indicating that they fought almost to the last man. On the other hand, I spoke with a 90th Division veteran who was captured by the 6th SS Mountain Division, Reuel Long, who lived in Minnesota. He wanted to go to the ceremony but couldn't get a low-cost airfare and had to cancel. But he said that he was captured at Pfaffenheck and his captors treated him very well and with respect; it was not until he was sent to the rear that he suffered abuse. And just by coincidence as I was reading a book called "Raid!" about the attempt to free General Patton's son-in-law from a prison camp, I came across an account of another soldier who went out of his way to say that the 6th SS Mountain Division treated him well when he was captured.
   The liaison, whom I can't name because he wrote a book about his experiences under a pseudonym, stressed that the division was fighting in Finland for much of the war and was not in any of the areas where atrocities attributed to the SS took place. He said that it was basically an elite fighting unit. When I pointed out that the couple of references I'd seen to the battle described them as fanatical, he said they knew the war was lost but that they thought that by continuing to fight, they could gain time for a negotiated settlement, and that they were fanatical not in their devotion to Hitler but in their devotion to the comrades beside whom they'd been fighting for three or more years. And he wrote a letter to Paul Wannemacher, the battalion association president, saying that he owed his survival to the fidgety trigger finger of a tank gunner, who fired five rounds at almost point blank range into his machine gun position, and yet he survived. (There was a touch of humor when he wrote this, but in his book the scene is absolutely terrifying).
   In a way, I guess, my supervisor was right. I arrived at Pfaffenheck a day before my hosts, and encountered two of the German veterans, Fritz Gehringer and I don't remember the other's name. Because we were the only three there, they took me on a little sightseeing tour, the highlight of which was the tree beside which Gehringer was standing when he was struck by five bullets. He said to make matters worse, they were hollow point bullets, which were against the Geneva Convention.
   As we stood by the tree and Gehringer posed for a picture, the other veteran said that they had just that morning broken into a house and found some food, and ate for the first time in a couple of days. And he said that the division had recently gotten a number of replacements, whom he said were described by the battle-hardened veterans of the war in Finland and the Vosges Mountains as "Goering's gifts" -- Luftwaffe trainees who were reassigned as infantry replacements

Pfaffenheck in 1995. Lieutenant Fuller's five tanks approached the village
through what was then an orchard off to the left on March 16, 1945.
.   My supervisor was right. These were veterans of the Waffen SS, but to me they were humans. It was a strange feeling during the ceremony as I watched one of their veterans place a wreath in the cemetery at a monument dedicated to the anti-tank platoon, knowing that its weapons had knocked out three of Lieutenant Fuller's five tanks, killed four members of his platoon and wounded several others. And it was an even eerier feeling meeting the veteran who fired the antitank gun that struck Sergeant Hayward's tank, cutting off his legs -- he was later killed either by a sniper or machine gun fire as Fuller and his gunner, Russell Loop, tried to carry him between them to safety -- and either killing Billy Wolfe instantly or burning him to death inside the tank. It was a very strange feeling indeed, to learn at the banquet -- where my hosts set up a table for me to interview some of the veterans, with two of them acting as interpreters -- that the fellow who fired the antitank gun was in turn wounded -- likely by Sergeant Loop, who claimed to have gone up to the second story of a house, taken a rifle and picked off the members of the gun crew that disabled his tank -- and allowed to return to his family after getting back across the Rhine, and then, either weeks or months later, turned himself in so as to become a prisoner of war because he was unable to find work.

The grave marker of Gunther Degen, a battalion
commander and Knight's Cross recipient, who
was killed at Pfaffenheck.
   When they held the ceremony in 1995, the Germans were expecting protests because anything to do with the Waffen SS was frowned upon in Germany. There was a significant police presence, but perhaps because it rained that day no protesters showed up.
   I returned from that reunion with about six hours of interviews in German with only the brief synopses by my two interpreters. I learned that the 1995 ceremony was unique only in that it marked the 50th anniversary of the battle, but that the veterans of the 6th SS Mountain Division North gathered in Pfaffenheck every year on the anniversary of the battle because 100 members of their division are buried in the village cemetery, and more are buried in the nearby town of Buchholz where there was another pitched battle, but one that to the best of my knowledge did not involve my father's tank battalion. When I went with the German veterans to the ceremony in Buchholz, they showed me an antiaircraft gun preserved in the village, that had been used against the ground forces. One of the men killed in Pfaffenheck, Sergeant Russell Harris, was struck in the head by a shell from a 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun.
   One thing I will say is that while I found the German veterans to be very human -- I remember overhearing something about Gehringer's wife suffering from depression, and Gehringer himself, who was the burgomeister of a medieval town called Rothenburg on the Tauber, would die the following year -- I can't say as much for some of the younger people who attended the ceremony/reunion. There was a young museum director I think from Koblenz who brought with him a rusty old pistol that had been found in the forest, and he was trying to confirm that it had belonged to Gunther Degen, and I very much sensed that he was more upset than most of the veterans that the Germans lost the war. And there were a couple of young what seemed to be neo-Nazis from Switzerland. I also sensed that my hosts were at least a little bit uncomfortable with what to some is the cult status of the Waffen SS.
   Those tapes -- and another three hours worth from 1996, when I returned to Pfaffenheck for their reunion, but more about that anon -- languished on a shelf until last year, when I heard from two men in Germany who belong to some sort of archeology club and were researching the events at Pfaffenheck. I was able to put them in touch with one of my hosts -- the other has since passed away -- and I sent them copies on CD of the interviews, which they promised to translate, although I haven't yet received the translations.

(Next: The Mark of a True Soldier)
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