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Observations of an American Field Officer who Escaped from the 1st SS Panzer Division “Adolf Hitler”.

Observations of an American Field Officer who Escaped from the 1st SS Panzer Division “Adolf Hitler”.
 
Report Major Hal D. McCown, 30th U.S. Infantry Division
G-2 Periodic Report n°198 dated December 30, 1944

Annex # 2

 
The following is an account, in his own words, of the experience of Major Hal D. McCown, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, who was captured by the armored spearhead “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” in the vicinity of Stoumont on 21 December 1944. 
 
On the afternoon of 21 December about 1600 hours, I, my radio operator and orderly were captured by a German patrol which had us covered from all sides in a trap; a machine gun fired over our heads and individuals from another patrol closed in on us from three directions.  
 
At that time I was moving away from the front lines where I had inspected the front line positions of my Battalion, which was flanking Stoumont from the German’s rear.  I was taken back to the German CP at Stoumont and as I passed through the town observed preparations everywhere for departure among the Germans.  The German commander later told me that it was the appearance of my troops on his rear in Stoumont that caused him to evacuate the town that night.  I was taken back to the Main Headquarters at La Gleize passing through several areas where fire fights were going on between my men and the surrounded Germans.  Knowing my own plans for the capture of Stoumont were put into effect at that time I was half way expectant to be recaptured before I reached La Gleize; this was not the case however.  
 
In La Gleize I was taken to the cellar containing the commander of the German troops whose name I later found out was Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper, 1st Regt, 1st Panzer SS Adolf Hitler Division.  An interpreter (Joseph Hecker) who has spent 16 years in Chicago, USA, served as an interpreter.  I later found out that the majority of German Officers spoke English fairly well.  The Colonel spent a few minutes trying to get tactical information from me but seeing the attempt worthless, sent me away again.  I was then taken to a cellar containing a German 2nd Lieutenant and several high ranking NCO’s; they were dressed very faultlessly in their black Panther uniforms, each with several decorations.  I mentally noted at the time that this would probably turn out to be one of their “bluff” attempts to get information.  All of the added effects were there – I was placed in a chair apart from the other occupants of the cellar where the light of a mall electric bulb would fall mainly upon my face, leaving the rest of the room in semi-darkness.  One of the NCO’s drawn his Luger, examined the clip, reloaded the weapon and laid it on the table in front of him.  
 
It was with difficulty that I managed to suppress a smile at these obviously studied and rehearsed preparations in a place so identical with what Intelligence Officers back in the States teach our troops to expect when in hands of the enemy.  The only distracting feature to an otherwise perfect setting, as far as they were concerned, was the frequent crashing of an American artillery concentration sometimes quite uncomfortably close.  The next thirty minutes was spent in an attempt to extract from me the information I had refused to give the Commander earlier that afternoon.  I was surprised to see that as my failure to respond to their threatening continued they grew no angrier, but instead seemed to lose interest in the procedure.  Finally I was taken to another cellar where a warrant officer searched me thoroughly taking my flashlight and knife, but leaving me my wrist watch, ring, a little food I was carrying and my personal papers.  I was conducted to a very small cellar which contained four other American Officers all lieutenants of my own regiment. We exchanged information about our present situation. 
 
During the entire time I was in this town I gathered all the information I could from other captives as well as German Officers and men (who talked to a surprising degree) about the strength, disposition and condition of the Germans in that area.  The Germans in the La Gleize pocket were part of the 1st Panzer SS Division Adolf Hitler.  Lieutenant Colonel Peiper – normally a regimental commander – commanded this column which consisted of more than his normal command.  I learned later that the La Gleize pocket consisted of a portion of his column, a considerable portion being near Stavelot, the remainder near Trois-Ponts and further back on the route of the breakthrough. 
 
Initial order to Colonel Pieper contained the information that he could not expect supplies from the rear during the attack, that he would capture both gas and food for subsistence.  Extra ammunition was carried and strict orders against wastage of ammunition were emphasized. 
 
I did my best to determine the objectives of this unit and gained from several sources among the German Officers and men that this Division would be the first element in Liege and Maastricht. Colonel Peiper questioned me fruitlessly several times about road and bridge conditions in the Maastricht area. 
 
An amazing fact to me was the youth of the members of this organization – the bulk of the enlisted men were either 18 or 19 years of age recently recruited but from my observations thoroughly trained.  There was a good sprinkling of both Privates and NCO’s from the years of Russian fighting. The officers for the most part were veterans but were also very young.  Colonel Peiper was 29 years old, his tank Battalion commander was 30; his Captains and Lieutenants ran from 19 to 27 years of age.  The morale was high throughout the entire period I was with them despite the extremely trying conditions.  The discipline was very good.  The noise discipline on the night movements – which I will mention later - was so perfect that I could hardly believe that they could accomplish it.  The physical condition of all personnel was good, except for a lack of proper food which was apparent more strongly just before I escaped from the unit.  The equipment was good and complete with the exception of some reconditioned half-tracks among the motorized equipment.  All men wore practically new boots and had adequate clothing.  Some of them were parts of American uniforms, mainly the knit cap, gloves, sweaters, overshoes, and one or two overcoats.  I saw no one however in American uniforms or in civilian clothes.  The relationship between officers and men, particularly the Commanding Officer Colonel Peiper, was closer and friendly than I would have expected.  On several occasions Colonel Peiper visited his wounded and many times I saw him give a slap of encouragement on the back of heavily loaded men as we were climbing the steep hills and speak a couple of cheering words. 
 
Later on during the night of 21 December at approximately 2300 hours I was again taken to the cellar Headquarters of Colonel Peiper.  I found him in a very much different mood than the cold impersonal attitude which he used formerly.  He and I talked together from 2300 hours until 0500 hours the next morning; our subject being mainly his defense of Nazism and why Germany was fighting.  I have met few men who impressed me in as short a space of time as did this German Officer.  He was approximately 5 feet 8 inches in height, 140 lbs. in weight, long dark hair combed straight back, straight well-shaped features with remarkable facial resemblance to the actor Ray Milland. 
 
He is the holder of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and had fought in Russia for a long period of time and briefly at Mortain and Caen.  He was completely confident of Germany’s ability to whip the Allies.  He spoke of Himmler’s new reserve army quite at length saying that it contained so many new divisions, both armored and otherwise that our G-2’s would wonder where they all came from.  He did his best to find out from me of the successes of the V-1 and V-2 were having and told me that more secret weapons like those would be unleashed.  He said a new submarine campaign is also opening up and that they had been told that there had been considerable tonnage sunk in the English Channel just recently by the new underwater attack.  The German Air Force, he said, would now come forth with many new types and which – although inferior in number to the Allies – would be superior in quality and would suffice their needs to cover their breakthrough in Belgium and Holland and later to the French coast.  Concerning treatment of prisoners by the SS, I can state that at no time were the prisoners of this organization mistreated.  Food was scarce but it was nearly as good as that used by the Germans themselves.  The American prisoners were always given cellar space to protect them from the exceedingly heavy American artillery barrages.  I was taken for a brief period to the main prisoner enclosure which was a large two-room, well-constructed cellar quite superior to any I saw in La Gleize.  The men were considerably overcrowded and were allowing the guards to bully them a little.  I organized the entire group of some 130 into sections, appointed a First Sergeant and laid down a few rules and got the German warrant officer in charge of the prisoners settled upon a fairer method of giving.  
 
I was taken back the morning of 22 December and again placed in the small cellar with the four other American Officers.  All that day American artillery pounded the town incessantly, even the guard detachment – consisting of 5 Germans – came down into our cellar with us which heavily overcrowded the tiny room.  In the afternoon a 105 shell made a direct hit on the wall of our cellar throwing the German sitting beside me half-way across the room.  A hole approximately 2.5 feet in diameter was knocked in the wall. Lieutenant Hendley and Lieutenant Youmans of my Regiment helped pull the German out from under the rubble and got him on the floor of the undamaged part of the cellar.  Within a few minutes another shell landed a few feet outside the hole in the cellar wall and shrapnel and stone flew through the room.  Lieutenant George Hendley was killed instantly and three Germans were wounded.  One of the Germans died within about thirty minutes. We administered first aid as well as we could.  For several hours when the shelling continued without appreciable let-up and the dead and wounded together with those who were unhurt were cramped close together in the unharmed half of the small cellar.  
 
Late in the afternoon parties of American enlisted men came to the cellar and removed the dead and wounded; the litter bearers told me that German casualties had been heavy throughout the town. 
 
Late in the afternoon of 23 December I was called once more to Colonel Peiper’s Headquarters.  He told me that he had received orders from the Commanding General to give up his position and withdraw to the east to the nearest German troops.  He said that he knew it to be impossible to save any of his vehicles, that it would have to be a foot withdrawal.  His immediate concern was what to do with the American prisoners of which he had nearly 150 as well as his own wounded.  He dictated to me a plan of exchange whereby he would leave all American prisoners under the command of the senior PW, a Captain, to be turned over to the American commander as the Americans entered the town the next day.  He said that his wounded would also be left in the cellars of La Gleize and that he would leave a German Medical Officer in charge of them.  He had previously left a considerable number of wounded in the Chateau at Stoumont which had already been captured by Americans.  In exchange for the American prisoners, all German wounded would be turned over to the 1st SS Panzer Division wherever they might be when the wounded were assembled.  I would then be released back to the American lines as I would be the only prisoner retained during the foot movement of the Germans east from La Gleize.  
 
I told Colonel Peiper that I could not give him assurance that the exchange would be carried out as it was a matter of higher headquarters.  He said that he fully understood and the entire plan concerning the American prisoners was carried out as already stated. 
 
All during the night of 23/24 December plans were laid for the evacuation of La Gleize.  At 0300 hours 24 December the foot column began to move. Colonel Peiper and I moved immediately behind the point, the remainder of his depleted regiment following in single file.  Colonel Peiper told me that he had 800 men to evacuate.  I later watched the column pass three separate times and this number was correct according to my own estimate.  
 
We crossed the Ambleve River near La Gleize on a small highway bridge immediately underneath the railroad bridge and moved generally south climbing higher and higher on the ridge line.  At 0500 hours we heard the first tank blow up and the inside of thirty minutes the entirely area formerly occupied by Colonel Peiper’s command was a sea of fiercely burning vehicles, the work of the small detachment he had left behind to complete destruction of all his equipment.  He told me later that there were a few vehicles he had not destroyed.  I could not ascertain the exact reason why. 
 
The foot column was closed into a thickly wooded slope on a very high hill.  Colonel Peiper, his staff and I with my two guards spent all day of the 24th reconnoitering for a route to rejoin other German forces.  No food was available at any time after we left La Gleize; the only subsistence I received was four small pieces of dried biscuit and two swallows of cognac which one of the junior officers gave me.  The German Regimental surgeon later gave me one piece of Charms candy, the sugar of which did me lots of good during later long march.  At 1700 hours, just before dark, the column started moving again on the selected route; we pushed down into a valley in single column with a heavily armed point out ahead.  The noise made by the entire 800-man group was so little that I believe we could have passed within 200 yards of an outpost without detection.  As the point neared the base of the hill I could hear quite clearly an American voice call out, “Halt!  Who is there?”  The challenge was repeated three times, then the American sentry fired three shots.  
 
A moment later the order came along the column to turn round and move back up the hill.  The entire column was half-way back up the hillside in a few minutes.  A German passed by me limping, who was undoubtedly leading the point as he had just received a bullet through the leg.  The Colonel spoke briefly to him but would not permit the medics to put a dressing; he fell in the column and continued moving on without first aid.  The point moved along the side of the hill for a distance of a half mile, then again turned down into the valley, this time passing through undetected through the valley and the paved road which ran along the base.  Several American vehicles “chopped” the column but at no time was its presence detected.  
 
The entire 800 men were closed into the trees on the other side of the valley in an amazingly short period of time.  I could then tell that Colonel Peiper was basing his direction of movement on the explosion of American artillery fire as the probable location of his friendly forces.  His information as to the present front lines of both sides was as meager as my own as he had no radio and no other outside contact.  He continuously consulted his map, thus proving that he was quite thoroughly lost.  We continued moving from that time on continuously up and down the rugged hills, crossing small streams, pushing through thick undergrowth and staying off and away from roads and villages.  At around 2200 hours Colonel Peiper, his Executive, and his S-3 disappeared from the forward command group.  I and my two guards were placed in charge of the Regimental surgeon whose familiar Red Cross bundle on his back made it easy for me to walk behind.  I tried in vain to find out where Colonel Peiper went; one friendly enlisted man of Colonel Peiper’s HQ told me that Colonel Peiper was very much tired out and I believe that he and a few selected members of his staff must have holed up in some isolated house for food and rest – to be sent for from the main body after they had located friendly forces.  
 
The change of command of the unit also wrought a change in method of handling the men.  A young Captain in charge of the leading company operated very close to me and my knowledge of Latin as well as the German I had picked up enabled me to understand to some degree practically every order he issued.  I heard him tell my guards to shoot me if I showed the slightest intention of escaping, particularly when we neared the American lines; whereas the Colonel Peiper had given a rest “break” every hour or so, there were no “breaks” given under the new command from that time until I escaped.  The country we now were passing through was the most rugged we had yet encountered.  All of the officers were continuously exhorting the men to greater effort and to laugh at weakness.  I was not carrying anything except my canteen, which was empty, but know from my own physical reaction how tired the men with heavy weapons load must have been. 
 
I heard repeated again and again the warning that if any man fall behind the tail of the column he would be shot.  I saw some man crawling on hand and knees. I saw others who were wounded but who were being supported by comrades on either side up the steep slopes; there were fully two dozen wounded in the column, the majority of whom were going along quite well by themselves.  There was one Captain who was rather severely wounded, the Colonel had told me, who moved along supported by another officer and a medical NCO and was still with the unit the last I saw of him. 
 
We approached very close to where artillery fire was landing and the point pushed into the American lines three times and turned back.  I believe the Germans had several killed in these attempts.  Finally the commander decided to swing over the ridge and come down in the next valley and try to reach their lines.  I was firmly convinced by this time that they did not know where they were on the map as there were continuous arguments from among the junior officers as they held their conferences.  At around midnight the condition of the men was such that a halt would have to be given as well as warmth and food provided.  I heard the Captain say that he would attempt to locate a small village where the unit could hole up for the rest of the night. At approximately 0100 hour,  I believe, I heard word come back that a small town was to the front that would suffice.  At this time I was not forward near the point – my guards held me back near the position which was occupied by the covering force between the village and the west – that is to say towards the American rear.  
 
The outpost had already moved into position before firing broke out not very far from where I was standing.  My guards and I hit the ground, tracer bullets flashed all around us and we could hear MG bullets cutting the trees very close over us.  The American unit, which I later found out was a company, drove forward again to clear what it obviously thought was a stray patrol, this time using mortar fire as well.  The mortar fire fell all around on the German position.  I do not know if my guards were injured or not – shrapnel out the trees all around us.  The American MG and rifle fire was very superior to that of the covering force.  I could hear commands being shouted in both German and English with the latter predominating.  There was considerable movement around me in the darkness.  I lay still for some time waiting for one of my guards to give me a command. After some time I arose cautiously and began to move at right angles from the direction of the American attack watching carefully to my rear to see if anyone was covering me or following me.  After moving approximately 100 yards I turned and moved directly toward the direction from which the American attack had come.  I can remember that I whistled some American tune but I have forgotten which one it was.  I had not gone over 200 yards before I was challenged by an American outpost of the 82nd Airborne Division. 
 
I was taken successively from their Battalion CP to the 82 Airborne Division CP; then back to my own Division CP from whence I rejoined my unit.
 
Source: Documents N.A.R.A.
Major Hal D. McCOWN

2nd Battalion

119th Infantry Regiment

30th InfantryDivision

Campaign

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium