The Army Lawyer | Issue 2 2021View PDF

null Lore of the Corps: “Go Down the Road and Get a Few [Germans]”

Major General John M. Devine, the 8th Armored Division commanding general, decided that 2LT Schneeweis and the three enlisted men must be prosecuted for war crimes. (Photo courtesy of author)

Lore of the Corps

“Go Down the Road and Get a Few [Germans]”1

A War Crime in Germany and Its Aftermath


On the morning of 27 March 1945, twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army Second Lieutenant (2LT) Robert A. Schneeweis crossed the Rhine River into Germany with his unit, Company B, 36th Tank Battalion, 8th Armored Division. Shortly after the unit’s arrival in the town of Vorde, Schneeweis told three of his Soldiers—Privates (PVTs) Glen D. Joachims, William Peppler, and Francis F. Nichols—that they were to come with him to “shoot Krauts.” Peppler later reported that 2LT Schneeweis told him that they were going to “go down the road and get a few Krauts,” which he understood to mean they were going to kill Germans.2

The four Americans went into a German home, where they discovered two German men dressed in civilian clothes. Schneeweis ordered Nichols and Joachims to shoot the men, so the two Soldiers took the Germans down into the basement and fatally shot them. About the same time, Peppler walked down a nearby road, searching for Germans. Looking through the window of a home, Peppler saw two women. When he reported their presence to Schneeweis, he was told to shoot them.

Peppler hesitated to obey the order; but, ultimately, accompanied by PVT Nichols, he returned to the home. The two Americans then opened fire on the women, wounding them in the legs. Schneeweis appeared on the scene; and, after Peppler refused to obey Schneeweis’s order to kill the two German women, Schneeweis “finished them off” by shooting them with a “clip and a half” of bullets from his .45 caliber pistol.3

A short time later, accompanied by Peppler and Nichols, Schneeweis shot and killed two middle-aged German men with his M-1 rifle. The civilians had been walking in a field near the home where Schneeweis had previously killed the women.4 As a result of his unlawful killing of four unarmed and unresisting German civilians, Schneeweis was tried by general court-martial for murder. Privates Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols were prosecuted for murdering the two civilian men in the basement. What follows is the story of this war crime in Germany and its unusual aftermath.

While the war crime was investigated immediately, and written statements taken from the accused and other witnesses, the 8th Armored Division was in almost continual combat until the end of hostilities in Europe.5 Consequently, 2LT Schneeweis and PVTs Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols were not tried by courts-martial until the division was at rest in Czechoslovakia in July 1945. Schneeweis was, however, immediately relieved of all duties on the day of the murders and placed on “arrest in quarters.”6

As Schneeweis had ordered Joachims and Nichols to shoot the men in the basement, Schneeweis could have been prosecuted for six killings. The government, however, decided to charge him only with the murders he personally carried out. The command also could have conducted a joint trial of the four Soldiers at a single proceeding. Presumably, the government decided that it would be better to try the officer accused alone, and that charging four homicides was sufficient. Perhaps the prosecutor also feared that, if Schneeweis were convicted of the killings that had been carried out by PVTs Joachims and Nichols, it might be more difficult to convince a court-martial panel that the enlisted men should still be convicted of the same killings.

In any event, 2LT Schneeweis was tried first. His general court-martial began in Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, on 21 July 1945, when he was arraigned on four specifications of premediated murder in violation of Article 92 of the Articles of War. There were two trial counsel (both infantry captains) and two defense counsel (also infantry captains). The panel consisted of ten officers—a brigadier general, a colonel, and seven lieutenant colonels. Given the rank-heavy composition of the court-martial, there is no question that Major General (MG) John M. Devine, the 8th Armored Division commander, understood the importance of this trial.7

While PVT Nichols did testify at Schneeweis’s trial, it was PVT Peppler who was the chief witness for the prosecution. Peppler told the panel that he witnessed the accused shoot to death the two women and the two men walking in the field. He also testified that Schneeweis was acting “unusual” on the date of the offense and that he “had a funny laugh . . . a kind of snicker or half-laugh” at the time of the killings.8

In cross-examining Peppler, defense counsel suggested that this behavior might suggest some sort of temporary insanity, but the prosecution rebutted this claim with the testimony of Major (MAJ) (Dr.) Nathan M. Root, the division psychiatrist. He told the panel members that a three-member medical board, of which he was a member, had examined the accused and concluded that Schneeweis was “free from any mental condition that would prevent him from determining right from wrong” and that he was competent to stand trial.9

While Schneeweis did testify on his own behalf, he did not present much of a defense. Schneeweis did not deny the truth of any testimony given by PVT Peppler; he did not dispute the facts presented by him. But Schneeweis did tell the panel that, prior to crossing the Rhine, his battalion commander had given the unit a “pep talk” in which he said that the battalion’s “mission was to kill Krauts.”10 Under cross-examination by the prosecution, however, the accused acknowledged that “it is improper to shoot an unarmed human being who is not offering any resistance or threatening you.”11 Schneeweis also insisted that, when it came to identifying the enemy, “a German is a German” and that he considered “unarmed German civilians, regardless of age and sex” to be a threat to him personally. “I was afraid of them all,” Schneeweis said on re-cross-examination.12 “I didn’t trust any of them.”13

Schneeweis’s defense counsel recalled MAJ Root—the Army psychiatrist who had examined the accused—and attempted to get him to admit that the accused might have been suffering from “a temporary psychological disorder” that might have been the trigger for the killings. Major Root, however, was having none of it. “From a medical standpoint,” he told the defense counsel and panel members, “there actually isn’t any such thing as a temporary form of insanity.”14 In his expert opinion, Schneeweis knew the difference between right and wrong, and he knew what he was doing when he shot and killed the four unarmed and unresisting civilians.15

At the close of the government and defense cases, the court-martial panel heard arguments from both sides. The record of trial does not contain a verbatim transcript of these arguments, so the arguments are not known. The record is similarly silent on how long the court was closed for deliberation. But, when the court was opened, the president, Brigadier General (BG) Charles F. Colson16 announced that the panel found the accused not guilty of murder but guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter. The panel sentenced Schneeweis to a dismissal, total forfeitures of all pay and allowances, and confinement at hard labor for twenty-five years.17

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Sam W. Russ, the division judge advocate, reviewed the court-martial for factual and legal sufficiency on 4 August 1945. His boss, MG Devine, took action on the court-martial two days later.

The record then went to the Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Forces European Theater, for another review prior to confirmation by General George S. Patton, who was then serving as the most senior Army commander in Europe. Judge advocate Captain Abraham S. Hyman concluded that the record was legally sufficient to support the findings and sentence.

When Hyman’s work product got to BG E. C. Betts, the top Army lawyer in Europe, Betts wrote, “I concur, except that I recommend that the court be criticized for the inadequacy of the sentence.”18 Consequently, it should come as no surprise that, when General Betts took the confirmation paperwork to Patton for his action on 13 November 1945, the confirmation signed by Patton stated that the sentence was “wholly inadequate punishment for an officer guilty of such grave offenses. In imposing such meager punishment the court has reflected no credit upon its conception of its responsibility.”19 This was strong language from a commander who had been less concerned about war crimes committed by Americans in Sicily in 1943. But Patton may well have been incensed because Schneeweis had murdered unarmed and unresisting civilians—a very different situation from the execution of prisoners of war in Sicily.20

The Board of Review for the European Theater (the forerunner of today’s Army Court of Criminal Appeals), affirmed the findings and sentence on 15 December 1945, but not without noting that it was “somewhat incomprehensible” that Schneeweis had been convicted of manslaughter rather than premeditated murder.21

Schneeweis soon left for the United States, where he was incarcerated in the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Over the next few years, Schneeweis’s wife and mother, joined by other members of the public, agitated for clemency on his behalf. The Army Clemency Board, which considered clemency for Schneeweis on a yearly basis, would have none of it—at least initially.

In 1948, however, the future improved markedly for Schneeweis. It seems that he volunteered to take part in a “malaria infection” research study conducted on prisoners. As a result of his participation in what seems to have been a dangerous experiment, the Secretary of the Army remitted all confinement “in excess of eight years, eight months and fifteen days.”22 With this greatly reduced sentence, Schneeweis was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas, and placed on parole shortly thereafter.23 Although the record of trial is silent on where Schneeweis went after his release from prison, it seems likely that he returned to his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

What happened to PVTs Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols? The three Soldiers were tried jointly for the murder of the two civilians taken to the basement and shot to death on the orders of 2LT Schneeweis and for the murder of the two women that Peppler and Nichols had shot and Schneeweis had “finished off.”24

The court-martial began hearing evidence on 26 July 1945. The prosecution used admissions made by the accused to the investigating officer and others to prove that Joachims and Nichols had killed the men in the basement, that Nichols and Peppler had shot and wounded the two women, and that Peppler had assisted 2LT Schneeweis in shooting the two civilian men walking through the field. The government’s theory of the case seems to have been that all three accused were responsible for the four murders because they were either principals or had aided and abetted 2LT Schneeweis in carrying out the killings, and they had the requisite mens rea.

Interestingly, the trial judge advocate called Schneeweis to testify. The lieutenant admitted on cross-examination that on the morning of 27 March, he had said to the three accused “Let’s go out and get some Krauts.”25 Schneeweis also conceded that he ordered PVT Peppler to shoot “certain persons” and that Peppler had hesitated to obey the order.26 But most of Schneeweis’s replies to questions at trial were evasive and self-serving, as he either could not “recall” or “wasn’t sure” what had happened that morning.27

After being advised by the court that they need not testify, and that their testimony might incriminate them, all three accused elected to testify under oath. Joachims and Nichols both told the court that they had protested when 2LT Schneeweis told them to take the two German civilians into the basement and shoot them, but that Schneeweis told them to do it “anyway.” As Joachims put it, “He told me to go down and shoot them and when an officer tells you to do something, you do it and ask questions later.”28

As for nineteen-year-old PVT Peppler, he admitted that he and Nichols had shot and wounded the two German women when they fired through the window of the house. But when 2LT Schneeweis told them to kill the women, Peppler did not obey the order. Peppler also denied shooting at the two Germans in the field.29

Private Nichols, who was the last to testify, told the court that “we were always told in the States to obey an order and ask questions afterward if you got any faults about them.”30

Q: Did you feel that the lieutenant had authority to order you to shoot unarmed civilians?

A: (Nichols): I would say yes.31

The court started hearing evidence against Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols at 0930 on 27 July. At 1530 that same day, the members were back with their verdict: Not Guilty of all charges and specifications.32

In retrospect, the result was not much of a surprise. As LTC Sam Russ noted in his post-trial review of the case, 2LT Schneeweis’s order to kill civilians was “clearly an illegal one.”33 But Russ explained further:

I do not believe that the court should be criticized for its findings. Under the then-existing conditions of combat when every German was a potential threat to the lives of the advancing American troops, and the troops had been repeatedly impressed with that fact by higher authority, it cannot be reasonably expected that an enlisted man should stop and deliberate the legality of an order of his superior officer to kill the potential enemy. Rather, it would seem, that he should follow a course of obedience, leaving to the superior officer the responsibility of consequences of the execution of the order. It is my opinion that the court was justified in its findings.34

What conclusions may be drawn from these two courts-martial? Historian James J. Wiengartner insists that the trials reflect that the American Army “judged war crimes committed by its own members by a more indulgent standard than it applied to comparable crimes committed by the enemy.”35

This is an unfair criticism. Hitler’s Wehrmacht, especially when in combat against the Soviets on the Eastern Front, was committed as an institution to the widespread killing and mistreatment of prisoners of war and enemy civilians. Moreover, the destruction of villages, wanton destruction of civilian property, and other war crimes were committed by the Wehrmacht as a matter of routine. The U.S. Army, however, whether in Europe or the Pacific, adhered as an institution to obeying the law of armed conflict. Consequently, while American Soldiers did commit war crimes, these resulted from individual rather than institutional shortcomings. After all, no “indulgent standard” could be applied to German war crimes when these offenses were not only vastly greater in number and scope, but were also the direct result of the Wehrmacht’s intentional failure to obey the law of armed conflict.

The import of both the Schneeweis and Joachims-Peppler-Nichols courts-martial is that the U.S. Army did not shy away from bringing war crimes to trial. The 8th Armored Division certainly understood that the trial of a lieutenant for the murder of German civilians was a serious undertaking, as reflected in MG Devine’s selection of a brigadier general and nine other senior officers as panel members.

Moreover, the judge advocates reviewing Schneeweis’s record of trial recognized that the findings were wrong—he was guilty of murder, not manslaughter—and the sentence wholly inadequate. Additionally, they had the courage to voice this opinion in writing—for all to read. One must assume that, while General Patton signed the confirmation in United States v. Schneeweis, it was BG Betts or another Army lawyer in his office who drafted the language in the confirmation. This is principled counsel at its finest. While our rules governing admonishment of panel members have evolved over time, the candor expressed between judge advocates and their commanders exemplify principled counsel at its finest.

As for the young enlisted men who were acquitted, many who have served as Soldiers will readily understand the result. Obeying the order of a superior commissioned officer is at the heart of military discipline. It is so critical to having an efficient and effective fighting force that this obedience may sometimes legally excuse bad behavior. Consequently, it seems likely that the three teenaged privates (two were eighteen years old and one was nineteen) were acquitted not because the court-martial panel approved of their conduct, but rather because the members were loath to convict them for following an officer’s orders—even though those orders were criminal. What is important is that the 8th Armored Division was willing to prosecute these privates for murder and was not afraid to subject them to the possibility of severe punishment. Nothing was “swept under the rug” or hidden from view.

Having been found not guilty, PVTs Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols returned to duty in the 34th Tank Battalion. Since the war was over, and they had survived, they presumably went home and re-entered civilian life in the United States. TAL


Mr. Borch is the Regimental Historian, Archivist, and Professor of Legal History and Leadership at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.


8th Armored Division shoulder sleeve insignia; Schneeweis, Peppler, Nichols and Joachims wore this patch on their left shoulder of their uniforms. (Photo courtesy of author)


Brigadier General Charles F. Colson, the panel president in United States v. Schneeweis. (Photo courtesy of author)


General George S. Patton confirmed the findings and sentence in Schneeweis. The wording of his action expressed great unhappiness with the result in the trial. (Photo courtesy of author)

Notes

1. The actual statement used at trial was “Go down the road and get a few Krauts.” “Kraut” is a pejorative nickname derived from “sauerkraut,” which is a distinctive feature of German cuisine. Soldiers commonly referred to Germans as “Krauts” during World War II. The British slang term for Germans was “Jerry,” the origin of which is uncertain. As for the Germans, they referred to American troops as “Amis,” from the German word “Amerikaner.” Paul Dickson, War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War 179, 183 (2003) (1994).

2. United States v. Schneeweis, No. 309215 (European Theater of Operations (ETO) No. 18436), at 18 (8th Arm. Div., Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, July 21, 23, 1945).

3. United States v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols, No. 308661 (ETO No. 17041), Allied Papers: Division Judge Advocate’s Review (8th Arm. Div., Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, July 26, 1945).

4. Schneeweis, No. 309215, Allied Papers: Report of Staff Judge Advocate, Headquarters, 8th Armored Division, to Commanding General, 8th Armored Division, 28 April 1945.

5. Organized in April 1942 and de-activated in November 1945, the 8th Armored Division nevertheless had a distinguished combat history in its short history. The division reached France in January 1945 and immediately joined General George S. Patton’s Third Army. The 8th first saw combat in the attack against the Moselle-Saar salient and then moved to the Netherlands before crossing the Rhine on 27 March. The division then took on the 116th Panzer Division in its drive to grind down German opposition in the area of the Ruhr River. The 8th Armored Division’s last tank-infantry assault was against Blankenburg, at the foot of the Harz Mountains. After V-E Day, the division moved to Czechoslovakia. E. J. Kahn Jr. & Henry McLemore, Fighting Divisions 174–75 (1945).

6. Schneeweis, No. 309215, War Dep’t. Adj. Gen. Office Form No. 115, Charge Sheet, Data as to Restraint of Accused.

7. John M. Devine graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1917 and served as an artillery officer until 1940, when he transferred to the newly-created Armor branch. Devine commanded the 8th Armored Division from October 1944 to August 1945. After retiring from active duty in 1952, he served as the Commandant of Cadets at Virginia Tech until 1961. Devine died in 1971. He was 75 years old. The West Point Register of Graduates and Former Cadets 197 (1992).

8. Schneeweis, No. 309215, at 20, 23.

9. Id. at 37–38.

10. Id. at 55.

11. Id. at 58.

12. Id. at 59.

13. Id.

14. Id. at 62

15. Id. at 63.

16. Born in South Carolina in November 1896, Charles Frederick Colson graduated from West Point in 1918. Commissioned in the Infantry, he served in Europe with the 8th Armored Division from 1944 to 1945, and was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Star Medals. While in Korea in 1952, Colson was in the news when he was appointed commandant of the Koje Prison Camp after Brigadier General Francis Dodd was seized by North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war. Colson retired in 1953 and died in 1970. General Court-Martial Convening Order No. 155, Headquarters, 8th Armored Division, 7 July 1945.

17. Schneeweis, No. 309215, at 67–68.

18. Id. Allied Papers: Abraham S. Hyman, Review by Staff Judge Advocate, Headquarters, U.S. Forces European Theater.

19. Id. Allied Papers: Action, Headquarters, United States Forces European Theater, 13 Nov. 1945.

20. For more on the American execution of German and Italian prisoner of war in Sicily, and Patton’s involvement in the war crime, see Fred L. Borch, War Crimes in Sicily: Sergeant West, Captain Compton, and the Murder of Prisoners of War in 1943, Army Law., Mar. 2013, at 1.

21. Schneeweis, No. 309215, Allied Papers: Holding by Board of Review No. 1, Branch Office of The Judge Advocate General, European Theater of Operations, 15 Dec. 1945.

22. Id. Allied Papers: Secretary of the Army, Remittance of confinement, 30 July 1948.

23. Id.

24. Schneeweis, No. 309215, Allied Papers: Holding by Board of Review No. 1, Branch Office of The Judge Advocate General, European Theater of Operations, 15 Dec. 1945.

25. United States v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols, No. 308661 (ETO No. 17041), at 25 (8th Arm. Div., Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, July 26, 1945).

26. Id. at 26.

27. Id. 21–27.

28. Id. Exhibit A, Testimony of PVT Joachims to Captain Francis A. Chamblin, Investigating Officer.

29. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols, No. 308661 (ETO No. 17041), at 39–40 (8th Arm. Div., Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, July 26, 1945).

30. Id. at 46.

31. Id.

32. Id. 46–47.

33. Id. Allied Papers: Division Judge Advocate’s Review, at 3.

34. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols, No. 308661 (ETO No. 17041), at 46–47 (8th Arm. Div., Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, July 26, 1945); Allied Papers: Division Judge Advocate’s Review, at 3.

35. James J. Weingartner, Americans, Germans and War Crimes: Converging Narratives from “The Good War, 94 J. Am. Hist. 1164, 1167 (2008) (emphasis added).

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