EXTRACT FROM THE LONGEST WINTER
While Major Kriz made his last-ditch attempt to find Lieutenant Bouck and his men, Jochen Peiper and his point tanks stormed through the Baugnez crossroads, headed toward the village of Stavelot where they would need to cross their first major physical obstacle—the Ambleve River.
Around the same time, a convoy of some thirty trucks carrying Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion left the village of Baugnez in the direction of Malmedy.
Suddenly, the convoy was spotted by men in Peiper’s point tanks who then quickly opened fire. Shells exploded all around as the Americans abandoned their vehicles and ran for cover. When the firing stopped, they were taken prisoner by a group of Panzergrenadier commanded by a Major Josef Diefenthal, one of Peiper’s most trusted officers.
Peiper was several miles past Baugnez when Diefenthal’s men herded Company B supply sergeant Bill Merricken and 130 other men into a field about a hundred yards south of the Baugnez road junction. Other than Company B men, the group of POWs comprised several medics from different units and some MPs who had earlier been directing traffic in the village.
Merricken and his compatriots, hands above their heads, were hustled into eight rows about sixty feet from the road. The ground was muddy, with the occasional patch of snow. The Germans were SS, but Merricken and the other Americans were not unduly afraid. They were obviously going to stand in the field until arrangements could be made to remove them to the rear.
Then a German officer, thought to be Major Werner Poetschke, the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Battalion, halted two Mark IV tanks. They were to cover the prisoners with their machine guns.
Suddenly, Poetschke ordered one of the tank commanders to open fire.
Sergeant Bill Merricken saw a German officer aim his pistol at three of his fellow prisoners. The officer fired, killing a jeep driver and then a medic.
An American officer shouted “Hold fast!” so the Germans would not have an excuse to shoot escaping prisoners. Merricken and the men around him didn’t need to be told the obvious. They were already trying their best to stay calm.
The Germans didn’t need an excuse.
“Machen alle kaput!” (Kill them all!)
The tanks’ machine guns roared.
Men flung themselves to the ground, burying their faces in the mud and under their riddled comrades. There were screams followed by what sounded to one eyewitness like the lowing of slaughtered livestock. Merricken was shot twice in the back but not killed. The machine gun raked back and forth for around fifteen minutes. Then the tanks pulled away.
There was a haunting silence, broken only by the groans of dying men. Diefenthal’s SS men had moved on. But the nightmare for Merricken was far from over. Suddenly, more vehicles pulled up. Merricken dared not move as he heard engineers of the 3rd SS Pioneer Company enter the field. The engineers began to finish off men whose bodies still twitched. One lay above Merricken.
“The fellow on top of me was completely out of his head,” recalled Merricken almost sixty years later. “I was trying to keep still, [trying] not to make any noise. But he was in such extreme pain that he started rolling over. I was face down, so I couldn’t see what was going on. But he rolled over the back side of my legs, drawing the attention of two German soldiers. They came over. I sensed they were right over us. Then they shot him with a pistol. The bullet went through him into my right knee. He didn’t move anymore. I kept perfectly still. I don’t know how I did it. But I did. Then I lost all sense of time. I was flat down, my head turned to the left and my left arm covering my eyes and head and face.
“It was so cold that day, just fifteen degrees. If your mouth was exposed, the Germans would see the vapor and they’d know you were alive. So I lay perfectly still. I heard the Germans smashing men’s heads with the butts of their guns. They kicked men to see whether or not they were alive or not. They would ask if men needed medical help. Some of the wounded would answer only to be shot.”
For two hours, Merricken lay under his dead compatriot as German tanks and half-tracks in Peiper’s ten-mile-long column passed the field. Every now and again, some of the vehicles fired into the field of corpses.
When the rumble of trucks finally ended, Merricken pulled himself free of the dead man above him and then, accompanied by a Company B comrade who had miraculously not been hit, crawled two miles to a farmhouse where an old Belgian woman would hide him in her attic and then help him get back to American lines. Merricken’s buddies from Company B would lay frozen stiff, buried beneath deepening snow, for two more months before being discovered.
News of the massacre spread like a frigid gust throughout the Ardennes, brought by a handful of other survivors who reached American lines less than an hour after the mass execution. When President Roosevelt eventually learned of the most notorious massacre of American soldiers of the entire Second World War, he reportedly responded: “Well now the average GI will hate the Germans just as much as do the Jews.” Robert Lambert heard about the massacre an hour or so after it happened. “Somehow during combat news such as that travels throughout the troops with lightning-like speed,” he explained. “It is believed by some people that the massacre at Malmedy could have resulted from frustrations of SS Lieutenant Colonel Peiper’s troops over delays to their timetable caused by the Lanzerath defensive action of the 394th I&R platoon on the prior day.”