EVEN GREAT LEADERS have terrible ideas, and General George S. Patton was no exception. In late March 1945, Patton hatched a secret plan to send a small task force some 50 miles behind the lines to liberate a POW camp at Hammelburg, Germany. Captain Abe Baum, a street-smart 24-year old New Yorker with the 4th Armored Division, was put in charge. Patton told Baum that the camp, Oflag XIII-B, held 300 American POWs. Although Pat ton later denied it, he was focused on just one: his son-in law, Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, captured in North Africa. Baum’s service earned him repeated awards of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star; for this operation, he also received a Distinguished Service Cross. Now a frail 91-year-old, he revisits Task Force Baum’s dark tale.
The 4th Armored Division hit Normandy on July 13—in time to slog through the hedgerows.
Yeah, we really took a beating. The hedgerows were seven feet high with strong, twisted trunks. A maintenance sergeant made a plow out of a tank by welding a point on the front; that started us out. After the breakout, we were near the Maginot Line when we hit a “Bouncing Betty” minefield. When you heard the click, the mine launched from the ground to waist-high and spread shrapnel. I heard the click so I turned; I took about 40 pieces of metal throughout my back and buttocks. I recovered in a brand-new hospital for a couple of weeks, and put butterfly bandages on my wounds so I could go dancing with the nurses at an air force club nearby.
Task Force Baum was organized on March 26. How did that happen?
I was lying on a halftrack’s engine to keep warm when a courier told me to report to division headquarters. When I walked in, there were General Patton, XII Corps commander [Manton] Eddy, 4th Armored Division commander [William M.] Hoge, and Creighton Abrams, who ran Combat Command B. I thought, what the hell am I doing here? Nobody but Patton liked the idea of a task force. Abrams said the mission needed a combat command—3,500 to 5,000 men. Patton said there wasn’t time to organize one. They assigned it to me because the other candidate had hemorrhoids, which Patton personally inspected. Patton said he’d get me the Congressional Medal of Honor. I told him I had orders; I didn’t need to be bribed. I had no idea the mission was about his son-in-law.
What components were pulled together for Task Force Baum?
A company of light tanks, a company of medium tanks, a company of armored infantry, a recon platoon, and an assault gun platoon: about 50 vehicles and 300 troops. It was organized that day. Our only hope was surprise—and that was eliminated right away.
Two companies of tanks and infantry were supposed to open the area up for us but got stalled; it was supposed to take half an hour but went on for hours. I told them, “Get outta my way, I’m going.” Off we went behind enemy lines, with only a road map. We made good time on High way 26 through the [Spessart] forest. We caused some damage and captured a few Germans. But our mission was to keep moving. Our biggest enemy was civilians with [antitank] Panzerfaust rockets; they were everywhere. We lost our first Sherman to them at Lohr. But I kept that column moving no matter what.
Until you reached the bridge over the Main River near Gemünden.
That’s where we were supposed to cross. I had a tank platoon and an infantry platoon take the bridge. I didn’t know it was an assembly area for a German division; there were railroad yards there. The Germans regrouped and blew the bridge—while I was on it. I was wounded in the leg and hand, and lost three tanks, and the infantry and recon platoons were captured. I radioed for air support; a few P-47s came in later and bombed the yards. But now I had to change my route. I didn’t want to engage; I had to get to Hammelburg. We got a German civilian guide and got out.
How did you make up for lost time?
That afternoon, we got to the only ford we could cross. I had a halftrack go in to test the depth first. But I didn’t realize a German spotter plane had already seen us.
So the liberation became a fiasco.
First we were ambushed by “Hetzer” tank destroyers, and lost a few halftracks and jeeps. But we finally made it to the hill where the camp was. The guards put up some resistance, and my men were firing back at them, but also at Serbian POWs: they had a compound there too, and my men thought they were Germans. When Waters left the camp to tell us about the Serbians, a German shot him in the spine, so he couldn’t be moved. By now I knew who he was; Patton had sent an aide with my force to ID him. Then Colonel [Paul R.] Goode, who commanded the American POWs, told me there were 1,500, not 300. I was stunned; I could’ve cried. I had about half my force left. I figured we could take about 200 POWs, field-grade officers and some enlisted men. So I climbed up on my jeep and explained things to the rest: shift for yourselves or stay till liberation.
That night you got caught in a trap.
I sent out three probes that ran into German roadblocks all around us. The only way out was west, to Hill 427. We fought our way there and regrouped, siphoning gas from some vehicles into others so we could get back. At dawn all hell broke loose.
No wonder—Hill 427 was a German observation post!
The Germans had surrounded us with reinforcements—more tank destroyers and mortars, 40 or 50 Panzerfausts manned by officer cadets, infantry. We got blown up as an organized unit, so I told the troops to shift for themselves.
Some of them, like you, made it to the woods. What happened then?
I was lying against a tree. Up came a buggy with two home guard civilians. I tried to take my .45 out from under my mackinaw but couldn’t; with my bandaged hand I couldn’t have fired the damn thing anyway. They saw my predicament, so one took out a Walther P38 and came toward me. I watched him shoot me in the groin. I said, “You son of a bitch, you shot one of my balls.” He started laughing. He understood English: he was a German American who belonged to a Bund in the States before the war. I wound up in the hospital at the POW camp I’d liberated. A few days later, the 14th Armored Division liberated us.
When did you next see Patton?
He came to the hospital; his son-in-law was there, too. A colonel came into my room and yelled, “Attention!” I said, “Attention?! I’m in a hospital bed, what kinda crap is this?!” In walked Patton. He sat on my bed and started talking about anything to evade [discussing] the task force. I was thinking, do I rock the boat? This is the best general we have, the one I’d want leading me in war—though I wouldn’t want him to marry my sister. Finally I said, “How’s my unit doing?” I gave him an out. He said, “Well, 4th Armored Division moved forward 75 miles with little resistance because of the raid.” He felt very good about that.
How did you feel about it?
It was a half-assed success. We failed on the POWs, and had about 30 men killed and lost all our vehicles. But we did some damage and created so much confusion among the Germans that 4th Armored Division had an easier time. My men were outstanding. Wounded guys were firing off the halftracks just like the rest.
But you never got the Medal of Honor.
That would have meant a congressional investigation of the raid, which Patton didn’t want, so he pinned a Distinguished Service Cross on me. I didn’t care about medals; I already had some. I kept telling Patton I just wanted to get back to my troops. But General Hoge ordered me to go to the French Riviera for 11 days. Then I went back to my troops to finish the war with them.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.