Face-to-face with the Nazis’ Master Interrogator
Please try to understand my surprise when my wife handed me your March issue (“We Have Ways of Making You Talk,” March 2008). “Oh my God,” I exclaimed. “That is the guy that interrogated me at Frankfurt!” And the author, James S. Corum, did his homework well; he described Hanns Scharff’s modus operandi perfectly. I not only remember Scharff’s face but also remember marveling at his command of the English language and how smooth he was with his dialogue. I am rather proud to say that he got nothing from me other than my name, rank, and serial number, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t gain some information from me just from my facial expressions after he spieled off some very accurate facts.
I was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 and we were shot down on our twenty-fifth mission over German-occupied Holland after bombing an oil refinery in central Germany. Later that evening I was interrogated in a farmhouse by a Wehrmacht colonel who was just the opposite of our Mr. Scharff. This was one tough SOB, and I lost track of how many times I rattled off my name, rank, and serial number.
He kept accusing me of being a spy and threatening to shoot me and bury me in the backyard where no one would ever know what happened. I decided it might be time to bargain as I told him, “America does not hire nineteen-year-old spies!” Those were my very words. He jumped from the table and yelled for a guard who escorted me to the barn. Obviously there was no shooting, but I shall never forget the face of that colonel.
So, except for the three days in solitary at Frankfurt, Herr Scharff and his interrogation was like being in a college classroom compared to the colonel and his frontline boys. Thanks very much for the article and for stirring up old memories.
James S. Corum replies:
Solitary confinement was inevitably the hard part at the center for most POWs—meant to psychologically isolate and unnerve the prisoner before being interrogated. A clever technique, and acceptable under Geneva Convention rules. I’ve read the POW interrogation transcripts of German soldiers captured in Italy in 1944 and 1945, and we had some guys who were just as good as Scharff. One way we assessed the bombing campaign against the German transportation net was to select German POWs whose military documents and pay books indicated that they had recently had a leave home. The interrogator got them talking about their families and hometowns and the talk would get around to how the POW took the train home. By the route and number of delays we were able to assess very accurately how long it took the Germans to repair various rail yards, etc.—all very important to scheduling the next attacks on the German transport. It was a lot of detail work, but when it was all put together our interrogators had some very important information to give to our air war planners—all from just getting the Germans to talk. I suspect that the Germans also did not know that they were being carefully interrogated for vital information.
Thanks for the Memories
Thank you, Lewis Lord, for a child’s eye view (“ARGH!” March 2008). This article vividly illustrates how the conflict affected virtually everyone in the country through friends and relatives in uniform, rationing, shortages, recycling, war production, and victory gardens. Having been born in southeastern Michigan one and a half months after Germany invaded Poland, I also remember World War II. My father was exempt from service because of his age and because of working in an essential war industry: he helped build some of the nineteen thousand B-24 Liberator four-engine bombers at Ford’s Willow Run plant west of Detroit. During a period of one and a half years, he worked seven days a week, twelve hours per day, carpooling into the plant with three other men to comply with the gas ration. This also gave three of them a chance to sleep.
A family friend we lovingly called “Uncle Jack” was drafted into the service and sent to Europe. In England and France he repaired the B-24s that my father helped build. Years later, after we moved to Southern California, he would visit from Detroit, and always wanted to see the Queen Mary. On one occasion, I asked him about the fascination. He said that he was onboard Christmas Day in 1943 in the North Atlantic on his way to Scotland from New York City as part of the buildup for the D-Day invasion. The Queen Mary was a part of him.
We kids, of course, played children’s games. Hopscotch was a favorite. If one of us said, “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back, we would diligently evade all cracks. Say “step on a crack and break Hitler’s back,” and we would actively step on every crack we could see, even if we didn’t understand the significance of Hitler.
Charles L. Hand
I was born in 1937 and raised in Mount Vernon, New York. Lewis Lord’s article brought up incredible memories of that period—I share many of the same experiences as Mr. Lord. My earliest memory of the war is going to see the movie Bambi in 1942 and being handed a button to wear by the ticket taker. It had a picture of an American flag and General MacArthur on it with the words, “I shall return.” We were also given identification tags to wear around our necks that glowed in the dark in the event of an air raid. During blackouts, the older youngsters would run to the roof of our apartment house and then be chased off by white-helmeted air raid wardens.
My dad was too old for the draft, so he joined the New York State Guard. We found out after the war that he was in the intelligence unit of the guard. I still remember when he took me to see a Japanese Midget sub and lifted me to see inside a window that had been cut into its side.
I have a vast collection of memories in my mind of the war: the pictures of the concentration camps and the weeklong nightmares that followed, the pride I felt when we attacked Normandy, and the joy of seeing my cousins return with all sorts of souvenirs from Europe and Japan. Even at the age of eight, I was cognizant that these young men had changed. They smiled when they returned in September 1945, but their eyes seemed far away. They were obviously not the same.
Marina Del Rey, Calif.
How the Allies Bested the Bocage
I would like to add a bit of information to your story about the hedgerows (“Weapons Manual,” March 2008). I was a member of the 663rd Topographic Engineer Company, attached to 7th Corps, whose divisions led the Normandy breakout. We continually produced tactical maps for 7th Corps, from the D-Day landings on Utah Beach until the meeting with the Russians at the end of the war. We worked under mobile field conditions, moving right behind the advancing front.
The day before a particular attack, the air corps would fly a photographic mission over the hedgerow terrain in front of the 7th Corps divisions. Our mobile topographic unit assembled these photos into a 22 x 28 inch mosaic of the terrain, and then as many photomappers as possible would crowd around the map, hand-numbering the individual fields by the thousands. This took most of the night, and just before dawn, we would make plates and offset-print thousands of copies.
These were then immediately distributed to the troops, infantry, armor, and mortar, down to squad level. The troops could identify the field they occupied by number, and could call for supporting fire into enemy-held fields by appropriate number. We were assured these maps had greatly helped the attacks and saved many lives and casualties. We produced over 4 million maps during the campaign, moving across France, Belgium, and Germany, and under difficult field conditions.
Coconut Creek, Fla.
I was in a rifle platoon in E Company, 38th Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division, and the tank dozer saved the day for me. By knocking down the hedge, the dozer overcame the German line of resistance and opened up the way to our objective with minor casualties. In the hedgerows, tanks were the greatest accessory next to artillery that you could have.
Charles D. Curley Jr.
Emergency B-29 Landings on Iwo Jima
Mark Grimsley errs in his assertion that hundreds of B-29s and thousands of crewmen were not saved by making emergency landings on Iwo Jima (“What If,” December 2007). As a combat aircrewman in VPB-116 flying PB4Y-2 Privateers out of Iwo, I witnessed over eighty B-29s coming in for fuel in early July 1945. They were strung out in a long glittering parade as far as the eye could see. Several passed over the island firing red flares, with crewmen bailing out and fighters scrambling to shoot them down. Large tractors with oversized blades and protective cabs were stationed along the runway to push any that had crashed off to the side. It was a sight I’ll never forget.