The Rüsselsheim massacre was a war crime which involved the lynching and killing of six American airmen by townspeople of Rüsselsheim during World War II. The incident happened on August 26, 1944 two days after nine USAAF crew members of a B-24 Liberator was shot down by heavy anti-aircraft fire over Hanover, parachuted to the ground, captured, and held by German Luftwaffe personnel. Unable to transfer the downed pilots to the POW facility due to the train tracks being heavily damaged by RAF bombing the night before, the crew was forced to march through an already devastated town of Rüsselsheim to catch another train. The townspeople, already angered by previous night raid, started attacking the unarmed crew members with rocks, hammers, sticks, and shovels which resulted in the deaths of six airmen.
During World War II, Rüsselsheim, an industrial town that housed many key targets, including the Opel plant, was bombed several times by the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF followed a policy of "area bombing" of cities at night while the USAAF relied on "precision bombing" by day. On the afternoon of August 24, 1944, an American B-24 bomber named Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma'am, commanded by 2nd Lt. Norman J. Rogers Jr, was shot down while taking part in an attack on Hannover and the crew parachuted down near Hutterup. One lookout altered both the local fire brigade and the military detachment at the nearby airfield and dispatched to find the downed pilots. One of the nine airmen, Staff Sgt. Forrest W. Brininstool, had serious flak injuries to his abdomen. After landing on the farm, he was given first aid by an elderly couple and in return, Brininstool gave them his silk parachute, a valuable item for peasants. Within a few hours, most of the crew were captured by German personnel and taken into an interrogation room in the town hall in Greven. After that, most of the crew-members, including Rogers, were taken to an air base near the town where they slept for the night. Brininstool was taken to a medical clinic where he was operated on for shrapnel wounds then was shipped out to a hospital in Münster to undergo a second operation. The next morning, Brininstool still remained behind in the hospital while the others were loaded onto a train for a trip south to the Dulag Luft in Oberursel, north of Frankfurt. At every stop along the way, after German civilians noticed the Americans on the train, crowds would form at the windows, shouting in anger at the "terror fliers" and shaking their fists, spitting on the windows. On the night of August 25, the British RAF sent 116 Lancasters into Russelsheim in order to attack the Opel Plant on a bombing mission, dropping 674 2,000-lb bombs and more than 400,000 incendiaries on the city, destroying the plant and damaging the railtracks, more by far any previous air raid in World War II. Towards the end of the bombing raid, a German air raid warden, Joseph Hartgen, in Russelsheim mobilized residents to put out the fires in their homes.
The Death March
In the morning of August 26, most of the crew-members were still proceeding to their original destination. However, the train line was heavily damaged by the RAF in the previous night so the crew-members was forced off the train and walk to Russelsheim to catch another train. The march was escorted by two German soldiers. As the crew marched towards an already-devastated town of Rüsselsheim, the townspeople, assuming the fliers were Canadians taking part in the previous night raid, quickly formed and immediately turned into an uncontrollable angry mob. Two women, Margerte Witzler and Katerine Reinherdt, shouted out, "There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!" One of the crew-members replied back in German, "It wasn't us! We didn't bomb Russelsheim!" Nevertheless, one woman threw a brick at the crew and that precipitated a riot during which the townsfolk attacked the crew with rocks, hammers, sticks and shovels. Three Opel workers arrive with iron bars and starting beating the men to death to the cries of the crowd. The mob was joined by a German air raid warden, Joseph Heathen, who was armed with a pistol. He would proved to be the crew's worst nightmare. The German soldiers who guarded the crew-members made no attempts to prevent the beatings. After the airmen collapsed from the beatings, Hartgen lined them up in the curb and shot six in their heads but ran out of ammunition leaving two of the airmen, William M. Adams and Sidney Eugene Brown, alive. The mob then put the airmen on a cart and took them to a cemetery. Those who moaned were further beaten with a 2x4 objects. During the attack, an air raid siren came on and the mob ran for cover. Two of the crew-members, William M. Adams and Sidney Eugene Brown, managed to crawl from the bloody cart and fled toward the Rhine and avoided capture for four days. However, they were discovered by a policemen and brought to their original destination, the camp in Oberursel where they remained until after the war in Europe ended.
After the war in Europe ended in 1945, when Rüsselsheim was under occupation by the U.S. Army, the killings came to light and the bodies were located on 28 June 1945. In the first war trials of Germany prior to the Nuremberg trials, eleven residents of Rüsselsheim, including Joseph Hartgen, were put on trial in late July 1945 in Darmstadt, a town devastated by a British night attack the previous September that had killed 8,500 residents and left 70,000 homeless. The defense argued that they had been incited to commit the crime by Goebbels propaganda, which encouraged the German people to take reprisals against the downed Allied pilots, and that they were not to bear the guilt for their actions. Lt. Colonel Leon Jaworski, who would achieve national fame three decades later as the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, insisted on the individual responsibility of the defendants for the murder, saying that, "They were all grown men and women. If they are called on to commit the murder and they do, they are just as responsible as any other murderers."
It is clear that the acts of violence against the surrendered American soldiers by residents of Rüsselsheim constitutes a violation of the laws of war. In Article 2 of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Prisoners of War, it was provided that: "Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Power, but not of the individuals or corps who have captured them. They must at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against them are prohibited." Also, Article 23 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV - The Laws and Customs of War on Land states that: "In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden....(c) To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion". Germany was the signatory to these both conventions. It was specified that German civilians were bound to observe the laws of war since international law were binding upon belligerents under all circumstances and conditions.
The trial lasted six days, with eyewitness testimony to the cold-bloodied assassinations by Joseph Hartgen, and chilling accounts of the bludgeoning of the airmen. On August 2, Joseph Hartgen, Johannes Siepel, Phillip Gutlich, Friedrich Wust, Johannes Opper, Margerte Witzler, and Katerine Reinherdt were found guilty and sentenced to death. The remainder of the defendants were given varying prison terms while one was acquitted by the Commission. The judge, however, committed Witzer and Reinherdt to 30 years in prison when Jean Witzer, Margerte's husband and Katherine's brother-in-law, pointed out that the only offenses the two women committed against the pilots was screaming. On November 10, 1945, Hartgen and four others were hanged at the prison in Bruchsal. A sixth, a German soldier, was convicted and executed in 1946.
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