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Biscari Massacre

Discussion in 'Italy, Sicily & Greece' started by kerrd5, Jul 14, 2018.

  1. kerrd5

    kerrd5 Ace

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    14 July 1943, a black day for the United States Army 45th Infantry Division.

    Seventy-five years ago today, 14 July 1943, SGT Horace T. West, A Company, 180th Infantry Regiment,
    and CPT John T. Compton, C Company commander, 180th IR, both weary from lack of sleep from five
    days of sustained, intense combat, executed 73 Italian and German POWs near the Biscari Airfield,
    Sicily. The two separate incidents are called the Biscari Massacre.

    SGT West, who was tasked with taking his nearly 50 prisoners to the regimental S-2 for interrogation,
    instead separated the younger men from the group, ordered the remaining 37 (thirty-four Italians and three
    Germans) off the road, borrowed a Thompson Submachine Gun from a fellow non-com, and murdered the shirtless and shoeless prisoners at approximately 1000. Borrowing another clip, he walked among the
    fallen and shot at point-blank range those who remained alive. The next day, 15 July, the 45th Division
    Chaplain, LTC William E. King, discovered the bodies on his way to the Battalion Command Post.

    By mid-afternoon, 14 July, Biscari Airfield had finally been secured after a German counterattack with heavy armor. "During the fight, Company C of the 1st Battalion swept down a deep gulch, taking a dozen casualties from machine-gun fire" and snipers throughout the airfield. Soon 36 Italian soldiers, some of whom were wearing civilian clothes, emerged from a bunker and surrendered to Captain Compton's C Company.

    Compton "immediately had a detail selected from the company to execute the prisoners. The prisoners were formed in a single file on the edge of a ridge and were executed" by his command.

    Upon learning of the incidents from LTG Omar Bradley, II Corps Commander, LTG George S. Patton, JR., Commander, U.S. Seventh Army, dismissed them as likely exaggerations but instructed Bradley “to tell the officer responsible for the shootings to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press, so nothing can be done about it.”

    Bradley did not approve. When LTC William O. Perry, 45th Division Inspector General, determined that there was "no provocation on the part of the prisoners who had cooperated with their captors in every respect," Patton changed his mind - "Try the bastards."

    “Sergeant West was the first to be tried. His court-martial began on 2 September 1943 and concluded the next day. West pleaded not guilty, and his counsel (none of whom were lawyers) portrayed him as ‘fatigued and under extreme emotional distress’ at the time of the killings.” West's defense counsel included CPT George A. Fisher, Personnel Adjutant of the 180th, who would later write the "The Story of the 180th Infantry Regiment," which does not mention the West and Compton incidents.

    During his trial, he was asked “During the days of the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th of July 1943, were
    you ever completely out of enemy shell fire, enemy sniper fire or enemy tank attack?” He replied, “I was
    in an enemy tank attack Sunday morning. A Company being the first Company always prided itself on being the best soldiers, and I understand later all the guards had been posted. I was on outpost all this time. I felt then that I could not rest, could not sleep, that something was the matter.” “During the next three of four days did you get very much sleep?” West answered, “I did not sleep at all, sir.”

    After telling the court of seeing two American soldiers captured and taken into a blockhouse, West
    moved up to the building and “I looked in. There was one main I could see his feet and another American with blood gushing from his throat and chest. I could see. I never had such a feeling possess me. The three foreign soldiers were standing there looking over their papers… I grabbed a grenade and …I tossed it in.”

    Question: “What impression did that give you about what they had done?” Answer: “It was the damdest
    feeling I ever had in my life. The worst feeling. I do not recall just how I did feel about it. I never had any kind of a feeling like that in my life. I know they killed them after taking them prisoner. One thing it seemed to me was to take apart every living soul up there.”

    “Sergeant West also advanced a second rationale for what he had done at Biscari: he had been following
    the orders of General Patton who, insisted West, had announced prior to the invasion of Sicily that
    prisoners should be taken only under limited circumstances. Colonel Forest E. Cookson, the 180th
    Infantry’s regimental commander, testified for the defense and confirmed that Patton had proclaimed he
    wanted the 45th Infantry Division to be a ‘division of killers,’ and that if the enemy continued to resist
    after U.S. troops had come within two hundred yards of their defensive positions, then the surrender of
    these enemy soldiers need not be accepted.”

    At the conclusion of testimony, the court retired, held a secret written ballot, and found SGT West “guilty
    of premeditated murder under Article 92 of the Articles of War.” He was sentenced to life imprisonment
    on 3 September 1943. He would serve his sentence in the MTO until November 1944 when, after
    inquiries from Arizona Congressman Richard F. Harless upon behalf of West’s brother, his sentence was
    remitted and he was returned to duty as a private. He received an honorable discharge, returned home to
    Oklahoma and died in 1974.

    Compton, who fell ill with malaria, was not tried by court-martial until October 1943, by when the 45th
    Infantry Division was now fighting on mainland Italy in the Salerno Campaign.

    “Compton’s defense was that he, too, had been acting pursuant to orders - orders from General Patton.
    Compton claimed that he remembered, almost word for word, a speech given by Patton in North Africa to
    the officers of the 45th Infantry Division. According to Compton, Patton had said”:

    “When we land against the enemy, don’t forget to hit him and hit him hard. We will bring the fight home
    to him. We will show him no mercy. He has killed thousands of your comrades, and he must die. If you
    company officers in leading your men against the enemy find him shooting at you and, when you get
    within two hundred yards of him and he wishes to surrender, oh no! That bastard will die! You will kill
    him. Stick him between the third and fourth ribs. You will tell your men that. They must have the killer
    instinct. Tell them to stick him.”

    To the charge of Violation of the 92nd Article of War, specifically, that Captain Compton did “with
    malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, and with premeditation kill thirty-six prisoners
    of war, whose true names are unknown,” the court found him Not Guilty on 23 October 1943. Compton
    was transferred to the 179th Infantry Regiment and was killed in action on 8 November 1943 in Italy.

    Thanks to the efforts of Andrea Augello, the true names of the murdered POWs are now known. His
    book, Kill the Italians, identifies the Italian and German soldiers slain on that warm July day.

    The court-martial records and associated reports were classified secret and stored in a safe at the Pentagon
    until they were declassified in September 1958.

    The village of Biscari is now called Acate. The Biscari airfield was located on a plateau to its north
    near Santo Pietro. The map, exhibit A of the West trial, showing the location of the morning incident,
    was apparently lost.

    General Eisenhower, who commented upon the sentence of SGT West, in October 1943, has the last
    word: “His conduct in the particular instance was reprehensible in the extreme and fully justifies the
    sentence awarded. We must take effective action to demonstrate that such conduct cannot be considered
    as representative of the mental attitude of our soldiers toward the enemy.”*


    Sources:

    Atkinson, Rick. “The Day of Battle.”

    Augello, Andrea. “Uccidi Gli Italiani. Gela 1943, La Battaglia Dimenticata.”

    Borch, Fred L. “War Crimes in Sicily: Sergeant West, Captain Compton, and the Murder of Prisoners of War in 1943,” Army Lawyer, March 2013.

    Court-martial records, Compton and West.

    *Ike Memo, page 234, West record.


    Dave
     
  2. JJWilson

    JJWilson Well-Known Member

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    I have never heard of this incident before............such a shame what war does to formerly reasonable people. I am not excusing their actions, as they were premeditated and wholly wrong, but their reasoning is understandable.
     
  3. ColHessler

    ColHessler Member

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    This was also the division which shot SS guards after the Dachau liberation.
     

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