* * * * *
Early on the afternoon of August 4, 1944, B-17 no. 909 of the 486th Bombardment Group (Heavy), U.S. Eighth Air Force, which had been damaged in a collision with another plane while on a mission to bomb oil refineries in Hamburg, crash-landed on the German North Sea island of Borkum, long a popular seaside resort. Two crewmen, the flight engineer and the navigator, had bailed out over the mainland and had been captured. They were humanely treated and survived the war. Their seven crewmates on Borkum, led by the pilot, 2nd Lt. Harvey M. Walthall, found a different reception. Rounded up by German naval personnel from a nearby antiaircraft battery, they were marched under armed guard through the town of Borkum, where they were beaten with spades by men of the Nazi Labor Service. Then, incited by the mayor, Jan Akkermann, townspeople kicked and struck them with fists and sticks. Throughout the ordeal, their guards offered them no protection. The guards were equally passive when an off-duty German soldier approached the column with drawn pistol and methodically shot each of the prisoners in the head. The seven murdered fliers were buried the following day in Borkum's Lutheran cemetery.
* * * * *
German authorities took no action against those responsible for the ill-treatment and death of the seven American airmen. A report of the incident, which the troops who escorted the airmen into Borkum immediately made to the commander of the antiaircraft battalion, falsely stated that the Americans had been beaten to death by an enraged mob, which had overwhelmed their guards. This fabrication may have arisen because the Nazi regime had given sanction to "spontaneous" assaults by outraged German civilians, but not military personnel, on downed Anglo-American airmen. Gestapo officials on the mainland were apparently notified, and two agents arrived on Borkum several days after the incident to conduct an investigation, but it was without consequence to the perpetrators. The island's commander claimed he had established a court-martial to try the case near the end of the war, but, if he did so, it was a rather transparent effort to construct a defense against impending Allied retribution.
* * * * *
The path to retribution began with a report on the incident made by Canadian occupation authorities based on information from a former Dutch prisoner of the Germans, who had been employed in the construction of fortifications on the island at the time of the incident. This was followed by a more thorough investigation by U.S. War Crimes Investigation Team 6837 commanded by Maj. Abraham Levine of the U.S. Army Air Forces, which arrived on Borkum in early October 1945. On the basis of that inquiry, fifteen German defendants went on trial before a U.S. Army general military government court from February 6 to March 22, 1946, in the ornate Ordenssaal (ceremonial reception hall) of the palace of the kings of Württemberg in Ludwigsburg
The defendants were charged with violating the laws of war in that they did "willfully, deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate" in the assaulting and killing of William Lambertus, William Myers, James Danno, William Dold, Harvey Walthall, Kenneth Faber, and Howard Graham, "all members of the United States Army who were then unarmed, surrendered prisoners of war in the custody of the then German Reich." There was a figure notably absent from the defendants' dock—the actual killer of the American airmen, a Pvt. Erich or Wilhelm Langer (his first name was uncertain), who had allegedly been transferred from the island to the mainland shortly after the atrocity and who could not be found by American investigators, possibly because he had been killed in action in the final stages of the war. But the absent Langer was a key figure in the trial and not simply because he had been the triggerman whom the Germans had made no effort to arrest. Multiple witnesses testified that as Langer approached the prisoners with clearly hostile intent, he shouted that his wife and children had been killed in an air raid on Hamburg. "You damned swine, you've murdered my wife and four children," were the words one onlooker claimed to remember nine years later.
Langer personalized in its most extreme form the likely motivation for the Borkumers' assault on the prisoners. Those who participated conceived of it as an act of reprisal for the deaths, by August 1944, of hundreds of thousands of German civilians in American and British air attacks. Borkum itself had been largely spared the ravages of raids that had pulverized many German cities, but residents of the island had friends and relatives on the mainland and close contact with the populations of nearby Emden and Wilhelmshaven, which had been heavily bombed, and Allied bomber streams from English bases passing overhead almost daily kept the islanders in a state of high tension and fear. Mayor (and Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter [local party leader]) Akkermann testified that he had simply wanted the American prisoners "who had come over there every day at 8,000 meters altitude" to know how helpless the Germans felt, "as worms on the ground."
But the Borkum atrocity was not a purely spontaneous manifestation of popular outrage, nor was it unique. From the summer of 1943 until the end of the war, over 200 (and perhaps many more) downed American and British airmen may have been murdered by German civilians, military personnel, or police and party officials.12 Although the number killed represents only a small fraction of the total number of airmen captured on German soil during that period and although some of the murders would probably have occurred in the absence of official encouragement, such encouragement had been plentiful. On August 10, 1943, SS commander and German police chief Heinrich Himmler ordered police officials not to intervene when civilians attacked Allied airmen. On May 21, 1944, Adolf Hitler directed that downed Allied airmen be summarily executed if they had fired on Germans parachuting from stricken aircraft or German aircrewmen who had crash-landed, or if they had attacked trains or individual civilians. And, in an editorial in the Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter the following week, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, in "a word on the enemy air terror," accused British and American airmen of the willful murder of German civilians and declared:
It is only possible with the aid of arms to secure the lives of enemy pilots who were shot down during such attacks, for they would otherwise be killed by the sorely tried population. Who is right here? The murderers who after their cowardly misdeeds await a humane treatment on the part of their victims, or the victims who wish to defend themselves according to the principle 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'? ... In any case it would be demanding too much of us if it were asked of us that we use German soldiers for the defense of murderers of children.
Residents of Borkum recalled having heard a radio message with similar content. At the end of the month, Hitler's private secretary and party chancellery chief Martin Bormann circulated a secret memo to Nazi party leaders down to the Kreis (district) level. Suggestively entitled "Re: Justice Exercised by the People against Anglo-American Murderers," it claimed that British and American fliers had been strafing civilians, including children, while they were engaged in innocent pursuits and continued: "Several instances have occurred where crew members of such aircraft who have bailed out or have made forced landings were lynched on the spot immediately after capture by the outraged public. No police or criminal proceedings were lodged against citizens involved." Local party bosses, or Ortsgruppenleiter (such as Akkermann), were to be notified orally of the contents of the memo. Orders to the Wehrmacht reflected Goebbels's rant.
* * * * *
It would be unrealistic, of course, to expect that many German civilians who were on the receiving end of Allied bombs and bullets would have subjected their experiences and reactions to such legal, moral, and historical calculus, even in the absence of official encouragement to give vent to their desire for retribution. Whether intentionally or not, those prosecuting the Borkum defendants may have reflected that line of thought by bringing charges mostly against military personnel. They were persons whose discipline and training might have led them to discharge their obligations to the American prisoners of war under international law. Although it was not included among the charges, the U.S. prosecution framed its case as a conspiracy or common design in which all of the defendants, to varying degrees, had participated. Following the capture of the airmen, the headquarters of the senior German officer, the Fregattenkapitän (commander) Kurt Goebell, had telephoned Akkermann, informing him that the prisoners would be led through the town and reminding him of the "decree" of Reichminister Josef Goebbels. The guards were ordered to take no action if civilians attacked the prisoners. The ostensible purpose of the march was to move the prisoners to the airfield on the island, from which they could be transported to prisoner of war facilities on the mainland. But there were alternatives to marching the prisoners through the town. A narrow-gauge railroad was available for the purpose as was a shorter march route that would have avoided the town. It was a warm day and the march was a long one, approximately seven miles. Nevertheless, their captors required the prisoners to keep their hands raised and struck them with rifle butts if they lowered their hands. Howard Graham, no. 909's bombardier, had particular difficulty complying. "The little flyer" in the discourse of the Borkum case, Graham struggled to keep his loose trousers in place around his waist. When he attempted to pull them up, he was forced with shoves and blows to stumble on. Near the town hall, Graham collapsed and was shot by Langer, the first of his victims. The column marched on with Langer in pursuit.
The defendant whose case proved most problematic was the Oberleutnant zur See (naval lieutenant junior grade) Erich Wentzel, former adjutant in the 216th Naval Antiaircraft Battalion under the command of the Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant commander) Walter Krolikowski, also a defendant. In prewar civilian life, Wentzel had been a principal in a family-owned business in Neuwied and had made frequent trips to England, becoming proficient in English. That fact led indirectly to his standing trial for his life. Wentzel testified that he had been instructed by Commander Goebell to conduct a preliminary interrogation of the prisoners, which had kept him near the crash site until the march into town was about to begin. Wentzel asked each crew member his name and nationality, his position on the plane, the plane's mission, and who had shot them down (the Germans did not learn that no. 909's primary damage resulted from a collision with another B-17). Most were willing only to identify themselves, but one crewman specified his function and another, that the crash had been the result of "the blocking of the connection from the wheel," possibly an awkward attempt to mislead his interrogator. The prisoners were then assembled for the march, with one guard for each airman. The noncommissioned officer who was ordered to lead the column was unfamiliar with the prescribed route, and Wentzel volunteered to accompany the column as guide. That made Wentzel the highest-ranking German on the march; according to the prosecution, he was therefore responsible for actions that led the prisoners into danger, for the mistreatment of the prisoners by the guards, and for the failure of the guards to protect them from attack by townspeople and, ultimately, from the fatal shots from Langer's 9mm Astra pistol. Some testimony suggested that Wentzel might have intentionally directed the column past the men of the labor service who beat the prisoners with spades, although the fact that the Americans survived that ordeal still able to march suggests that the attack may have been largely symbolic. According to the prosecution theory that the defendants had been participants in a criminal conspiracy that had resulted in the murder of the prisoners, Wentzel was a murderer.
It was a strained argument whose persuasiveness, however, was undoubtedly enhanced by the retributive atmosphere permeating war crimes trials in the immediate postwar period. Naval personnel, labor service members, the mayor, and some townspeople had unquestionably contributed to the ill-treatment of the airmen, although there is no evidence that the sudden intervention of Langer with his pistol had been anything but unplanned and unforeseen. But the riotous behavior of the townspeople, incited and facilitated by those in civil and military authority, had encouraged Langer's murderous foray, the prosecution maintained, and that attack could easily have been prevented.
A panel of seven line officers of the U.S. Army found fourteen of the fifteen defendants guilty on at least one count. Those convicted only on the assault charge received prison sentences ranging from two to twenty-five years. Six defendants were pronounced guilty both of assault and murder, and five of them, including Akkermann and Wentzel, were sentenced to death by hanging. The sixth received a life sentence. Klaas Meyer-Gerhards, the chief of Borkum's air raid police, was acquitted.
* * * * *
For those convicted in their respective trials, execution of sentences awaited a process of review. For the Borkum defendants (and all others convicted in U.S. Army trials of German war criminals), this was multilayered, involving examination of the trial record by army lawyers and judge advocates and, in the case of death penalties, confirmation by occupation commanders. The reviews, particularly for defendants sentenced to death, often continued for years following the trials. U.S. Army justice applied to Germans might have been harsh, but it was not precipitous. Evidence, including hearsay (admissible in these trials, but not in U.S. Army courts-martial), and sometimes-fanciful prosecution arguments that might have persuaded line officers untrained in the law (the Borkum panel lacked a "law member" with formal legal training) were often less convincing when soberly analyzed by army lawyers in posttrial reviews. The cooling of wartime passions combined with skepticism about the quality of army justice to encourage caution, while the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union gradually transmuted Germans from enemies to be punished to potential allies to be wooed. Reviewing authorities were inundated with legal arguments for clemency from German lawyers hired by defendants and their families, affidavits contradicting prosecution testimony, and emotional appeals for mercy from loved ones and friends. Such efforts, not surprisingly, were most intense when the sentence was death. The majority of those convicted in the Borkum case benefited from this process. Two of the five death sentences were commuted to terms of life imprisonment, but in fact no German convicted in the Borkum case served out a life sentence. Confinements were reduced, often significantly, by sentence modifications and paroles. All those sentenced to prison had been released by February 1956. But three of the Borkum defendants were not, for they had been hanged at the U.S. War Crimes Prison at Landsberg in the course of 1948. Jan Akkermann, Borkum's mayor, died for having incited violence against the American prisoners and Johann Schmitz because he had headed the guard detail and may have shot one of the American fliers a second time after he had been felled by Langer. Erich Wentzel was hanged because he had directed the column of prisoners and guards into harm's way and, although an officer, had done nothing to protect the Americans once they had come under attack. Wentzel was condemned less for what he had done than for what he had failed to do. An element of symbolic retribution may have been present in that those executed represented the three categories into which the fifteen defendants had been divided—civilians, enlisted men, and officers.