The Ottre Massacre – as told during the years

Chapter three: The Ottre Massacre – as told during the years
During the last 77 years, several stories about this massacre appeared on the internet.
A version of this story can be found on the AWON website (American WWII Orphans Network):
“On January 11th, a rifle platoon walks in an ambush near Ottré, and only platoon sergeant Harry S. Shoemaker leaves this scene alive by playing dead. As the sergeant returns to the regimental headquarters, he tells the sentry, corporal Tony Vaccaro, what had happened. The Germans had murdered the wounded soldiers, who cried out in pain, searched their bodies and stole their watches and other personal things. After that, their tanks rolled over the dead and dying bodies, crushing them to death.”

The 83rd in Bovigny
The 83rdID in Bovigny

A second version can be found on the Brothers in Arms website, about F company/ 331st regiment.
“The massacre at Ottre near Bihain, Belgium was one of the terrible tragedies of war for the 83rd Division. On 11 January 1945, as the 331st Infantry was driving toward the town of Langlir, two assault squads of F Company made a dawn attack into the forest. They had gone 100 yards when they were pinned down by heavy machine gun crossfire. The entire slope was raked continuously for several minutes. When the fire lifted, platoon sergeant Harry Shoemaker raised his head and looked around. Many of his men were dead, most of the others wounded. He saw two SS troopers coming down the slope from the ridge and he dropped his head and watched from the corner of his eye. They began searching the clothing of the dead soldiers. A man groaned and a rifle shot rang out. Blood trickled from the man’s temple. Another groan was heard followed by more shots. Everyone of the wounded was riddled and their clothes searched. Shoemaker was the only one who escaped to tell the story.”

 A third version can be found in the book “Remembrances” by former Sgt. Robert L. Parsons:
“…F company was to attack the village of Ottré. We were fighting the SS troops who were trying to hold open the road to Vielsalm and St. Vith for their retreating German army. My detachment of men was protecting the left flank of the company going into Ottré. The 3rd platoon was making their first attack. Their first combat experience was written up like this in our regiment records in History of the 331st Combat team:
SS brutality was also evidenced in the Ardennes battle.
In one incident an assault platoon of the 331st Combat Team made a dawn attack out of the village of Ottre into the Ardennes forest. They had gone one hundred yards when they were pinned down by heavy machine gun crossfire. The entire slope was raked continuously for several minutes. The men hugged the ground when the fire lifted, the platoon sergeant raised his head and looked around. Many of his men were dead, most of the others were wounded. He saw two Germans coming down the slope from the ridge and he dropped his head and watched from the corner of his eye. They began searching the clothing of the dead soldiers. A man groaned and a rifle shot rang out. Blood trickled from the man’s temple. Another groan was heard followed by more shots. Each wounded soldier was riddled and his clothes searched. The platoon sergeant was the only one man to escape. He played dead.”

picture example


Yet another version stated: On 11 January 1945, as the 331st Infantry was driving toward the town of Langlir, two assault squads of F Company ran into a German ambush and were pinned down by MG42 machine gun crossfire. The entire slope was raked continuously for several minutes. Many of his (meaning Shoemaker; BK) men were dead, most of the others wounded. He saw two SS troopers coming down the slope from the ridge and he dropped his head and watched from the corner of his eye. They began searching the clothing of the dead soldiers. A man groaned and a rifle shot rang out. Blood trickled from the man’s temple. Another groan was heard followed by more shots. Everyone of the wounded was riddled and their clothes searched. Shoemaker was the only one who escaped to tell the story.

And lastly we have several statements from former Pfc. and photographer Tony Vaccaro. Tony was the first one who heard about the massacre, when platoon sergeant Shoemaker reached the CP around 02.00 hrs. In 2008 a local Walloon magazine wrote down the following:

Ottre-church-1945
The destroyed church of Ottré

Six hundred men, old and badly trained, belonging to the 12th Volksgrenadier, had enough time to dig in, next to the SS’ers, who created an artillery bombardment. Rifle company F (2nd battalion 331th) crossed  the ridge from Ottre, overlooking Langlir. They were ambushed, without camouflage clothing and were like rabbits in the snowy field. When the firing stops, most men of the company are dead or wounded. Miraculously, sergeant Harry Shoemaker remains unharmed for a second time and escapes as the only witness to these events. The SS started to riddle the bodies and kill the wounded with gunfire. At two o’clock in the morning on January 12th 1945, Shoemaker arrives at the Battalion HQ where Tony Vaccaro stands guard. Tony is with the signal corps and is the unofficial photographer of the Battalion. Around 06.00 hrs, Tony goes with a squad to the scene. When Tony arrives, he sees the dead. He tries to identify them. That is what he wanted to do when he saw the dead soldier. He wanted to go to him, but he did not, because there were no footsteps around the body. This photo was to be a true requiem for a dead soldier. Vaccaro takes the picture and after that he discovered that it was his friend Tannenbaum.

Some notes to the above:
– According to the statements, the Ottré Massacre occurred on January 11th 1945. This is actually not true. The event took place on January 10th 1945. I tried to figure out why the date is kept wrong until today, but did not find an answer to that question. Is it that important? Yes, for me it is.
– According to the stories only one man survived the massacre: the platoon sergeant Harry E. Shoemaker. I will show you later that this is not true.
– What became very important to me: who was the source of these stories?
– According to Vaccaro he and Shoemaker went back the next day at 0600hrs in the morning and Vaccaro took several pictures. In January it is still dark at that time.
– Vaccaro took several pictures of the field. Some are known, like “White Death” and “James G Fair”. There is also a picture of Harry E. Shoemaker pointing at the field, and several others. Most pictures are unknown by the public. I do not have authorization for most pictures to publish them here, although I managed to obtain these pictures. It is unknown why these pictures have to  be kept secret.
I will get back to Tony Vaccaro’s statements later.

© Bob Konings


Chapter 4: Starting the research >>>>>

Frontline 10 January 1945
The Ottré monument as it is today