The Biscari massacre was a war crime committed by members of the United States Army during World War II. It refers to two incidents in which U.S. soldiers were involved in killing 73 unarmed Italian and German prisoners of war (POWs) at regia aereonautica airport nr 504 in Santo Pietro, a little Village near Caltagirone, southern Sicily, Italy) on 14 July 1943.
As part of the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Seventh United States Army under Lieutenant General George S. Patton and the British Eighth Army under General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery invaded the southeast corner of the island on 10 July 1943. As part of Lieutenant General Omar H. Bradley’s II Corps, the 45th Infantry Division was given a difficult task despite the fact that it was the only "green" division participating in the invasion. The 45th Division's 157th and 179th Infantry Regiments were tasked with capturing several coastal towns and the Comiso Airport before linking up with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
The 180th Infantry Regiment was tasked with capturing the Biscari airfield and linking up the US 1st Infantry Division. The 180th Infantry Regiment performed so poorly in the first 48 hours of the landing that Major General Troy Middleton considered relieving its commander. Instead, the assistant division commander was sent to exercise close supervision over the regiment.
During the capture of the Biscari airfield on 14 July 1943, troops of the 180th Infantry killed a total of 71 Italian and two German POWs in two separate incidents. In the first incident 35 Italians and two Germans were killed, while 36 Italians were killed in the second incident.
On 14 July 1943, soldiers with the U.S. 180th Infantry Regiment were facing stiff enemy resistance near the Santo Pietro airfield, and by 1000 hours had taken a number of prisoners, to include 45 Italians and 3 Germans. The Executive Officer for the 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, Major Roger Denman, ordered a noncommissioned officer (NCO), Sergeant Horace T. West, 33 years old, to take that group of prisoners "to the rear, off the road, where they would not be conspicuous, and hold them for questioning." The POWs were without shoes or shirts, which was common practice to discourage attempts to escape.
After Sergeant West, with several other U.S. soldiers assisting him, had marched the POWs about a mile, he halted the group and directed that eight or nine of them be separated from the rest and taken to the regimental intelligence officer (the S-2) for questioning. West then took the remaining POWs "off the road, lined them up, and borrowed a Thompson submachine gun" from the Company First Sergeant (the senior NCO in the Company). When the First Sergeant asked West what he wanted it for, West responded that he was going to "kill the sons of bitches." West then told the soldiers guarding the POWs to "turn around if you don't want to see it."
He then killed the POWs by shooting them with the Thompson. When the bodies were discovered some thirty minutes later, it was noted that each POW had been shot through the heart, which indicated shooting at close range. Investigators later learned that after West had emptied the Thompson into the group of POWs, he "stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving."
The next day, the 37 bodies caught the attention of a chaplain, Lt. Col. William E. King, who reported the event to his senior officers.
As commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, Captain John T. Compton landed south of the Acate River amidst sporadic mortar and small arms fire. Pursuing his first objective, he pushed his company towards Highway 115, joined with some 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, and attacked several German positions. Compton did not sleep during the first three days of the invasion. He was simply "too excited to sleep." On the fourth day, he managed to grab about an hour and a half of sleep before the attack on the Biscari airfield. Around 11:00 P.M., C Company set off and reached the airfield around 11:00 A.M. on 14 July 1943. Immediately they began to receive artillery, mortar, and sniper fire. The sniper fire was especially deadly. From a concealed position in a nearby draw, the snipers targeted wounded G.I.s as well as the medics attempting to aid them. Out of 34 men in Compton’s 2nd Platoon, 12 were either wounded in action (WIA) or killed in action (KIA).
In an attempt to locate the snipers’ firing position, Private Raymond C. Marlow crept down into a nearby draw. He had only gone about 25 yards into the draw before he spotted an Italian soldier with a rifle. Marlow raised his rifle and shouted at the Italian. The Italian ran away and entered a dugout that was located further in the draw. After a minute or two, the Italian soldier emerged with thirty-five others, several of whom were in civilian clothing. Marlow walked them up the hill to his outpost and reported to his squad leader, Sergeant Hair. "I told him that I had gotten those fellows that were shooting at us while we were getting out from under that artillery fire," Marlow reported. Acting as an interpreter, Private John Gazzetti asked the prisoners if they had been acting as snipers. He got no response. Hair herded the prisoners out of the draw and asked 1st Lieutenant Blanks what he should do with them. Blanks, in turn, asked Compton for instructions. Compton asked Blanks if he was sure that they were the same snipers that had been shooting at them all day. When Blanks answered in the affirmative, Compton said bluntly, "Get them shot." Without hesitation, Blanks ordered Hair to assemble a firing squad and shoot the prisoners.
Compton accompanied the firing squad of about 11 men to the ridge overlooking the draw. He told the G.I.s to line up and they positioned themselves about six feet away from the prisoners. The prisoners started pleading for them not to shoot. Gazzetti, the interpreter, asked Compton if he had anything to say to the prisoners. Compton did not have anything he wanted to ask them. Compton told the men to commence firing on his order and that he "didn’t want a man left standing when the firing was done." Seeing that their fate was sealed, a few of the prisoners began to run. The firing squad opened fire and killed all of the prisoners.
When he was informed of the massacres, General Omar Bradley told General George S. Patton that U.S. troops had murdered some 50-70 prisoners in cold blood. Patton noted his response in his diary:
I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the Officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it.
Bradley refused Patton's suggestions. Patton later changed his mind. After he learned that the 45th Division's Inspector General found "no provocation on the part of the prisoners . . . . They had been slaughtered," Patton is reported to have said, "Try the bastards."
The U.S. Army charged Sergeant Horace T. West for "willfully, deliberately, feloniously, [and] unlawfully" killing thirty-seven prisoners of war in the first incident. At his trial, which began on 2 September 1943, West pleaded not guilty. Although he admitted the killings, his non-lawyer defense counsel raised two matters in his defense. The first was he was "fatigued and under extreme emotional distress" at the time of the killings and was essentially temporarily insane at the time of the commission of the acts. However, First Sergeant Haskell Y. Brown testified that West had borrowed the Thompson plus an additional magazine of 30 rounds and had appeared to act in cold blood.
The second defense raised by West's counsel was that he was simply following the orders of his Commanding General who, he testified, had announced prior to the invasion of Sicily that prisoners should be taken only under limited circumstances. West's Regimental Commander, Colonel Forrest E. Cookson, testified that the General had stated that if the enemy continued to resist after U.S. troops had come within 200 yards of their defensive position, then surrender of those enemy soldiers need not be accepted. The problem with this defense was that the POWs in this case had already surrendered and the surrender had been accepted.
The court-martial panel found West guilty of premeditated murder, stripped him of his rank and sentenced him to life imprisonment. On 23 November 1944 the remainder of his sentence was remitted and he was restored to active duty and continued to serve during the war, at the end of which he received an honorable discharge.
In regard to the second incident, Captain John T. Compton was also court martialed, charged with the premeditated murder of 36 POWs under his charge. He also pleaded not guilty, and relying upon the respondeat superior legal doctrine, also defended his actions by claiming that he was merely following orders of his Commanding General given in a speech to the officers in his Division. On 23 October 1943 the court martial panel acquitted him; however, the Judge Advocate in his review of the trial declared that in his opinion Compton's actions were unlawful. Captain Compton was transferred to the 179th Infantry Regiment and subsequently was killed in action on 8 November 1943 in Italy.
The Commanding General named by both West and Compton was Patton. The War Department Inspector General's office conducted an investigation into the killings, and in the course of the investigation General Patton was questioned about the alleged speech. Patton stated that his comments in the speech had been misinterpreted and nothing he had said "by the wildest stretch of the imagination" could have been taken as an order to murder POWs. The investigation ultimately cleared Patton of any wrongdoing.
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