The Ottre Massacre – Harry E Shoemaker

Chapter 6: Harry E. Shoemaker.
So, it is said that Harry E. Shoemaker was the the only survivor of the massacre, by playing possum.
But who was Harry Shoemaker, the man who was hated by many men of the 83rdID? And who told the story or what is the source that he was the sole survivor when he arrived back at the CP in Ottré?

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Harry (left) during a reunion in Florida

Harry was born on October 13, 1920 on Rhode Island, North Providence. He was the son of Harry E Shoemaker Sr and Charlotte Irene Shoemaker. He had one sister: Dorothy I Shoemaker. (born 8 oct 1913) and two brothers: Walter (1923-1991) and Stanley (1925-1972).
His father was a chef in the Hope Lunch Inc, which was situated at the 29 Manton avenue  Cranston, and died in 1942.
Harry served the US Army from October 26th 1942 until october 17th 1945. His Army Serial Number was 31182671. There is a small rumour that he served under the Canadian  army for a while, but I could not find any evidence of this.
When Harry was 19 he married to a unknown woman on 17 August 1940 in Brocton, New York, USA
There is not much known about his service time in the US.
We know he was with F company from the beginning of the European campaign. Starting at the beaches of Normandy, he fought towards Saint Malo and further on.
According to his Army papers he was first Lightly Wounded in Action (LWA) on July 7th 1944. (“Sprain of the ankle joint, after falling in a ditch.”). The troops were attacking the (vicinity of) Sainteny. On 25 July he returned to duty, but was transferred to the 622nd rest center only 6 days later: on July 31 1944.
Shoemaker returned to his unit via the 53rd replacement battalion on 8 October 1944.
In December he is again WIA in his hand, caused by machine gun fire. I think this happened around the 10th of december 1944 during the attacks on Gey/ Hurtgenwald. He is not reported in the Morning Reports as WIA.
He was again transferred to an evac hospital on 7 March 1945 as an NBC (Non Battle Casualty). On March 8th 1945, he again appeared in the Morning Reports with a NBI (Non Battle Injury). In his personal files you will find the diagnosis: “Fracture, compound, comminuted with no nerve or artery involvement; Location: Phalanges of index finger; CausativeAgent: Bullet, Pistol or Revolver.”
Although the document says “not intentionally inflicted by self or another person.”, it is peculiar.
I will get back to that later.

Harry standing in the field on 12 January 1945

After the Ottré incident, Harry stayed one day in a field hospital. On the 12th he returned to the massacre field and showed sentry Tony Vaccaro the site. Tony made several pictures of the scene.
It took me a lot of time to get the official statement from Shoemaker. During the years I contacted a lot of people without result and ended up emailing the National Archives in May 2010. They found the War Crimes Office papers and sent it to me around 2012.
Shoemaker was interviewed by the Judge Advocate General’s Office and was heard on 25 October 1945, nine months after the events took place. They were looking for him for a couple of months, but apparently could not contact him. During their search they contacted several hospitals, but could not find him. Was Harry staying in several hospitals after his return to the USA?

Here is the transcript of the hearing:
Q: During your term of foreign service, did you witness any atrocities or mistreatment of American citizens at any time?
Shoemaker: Yes.
Q: Will you give the information you have?

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Harry Shoemaker, bottom second right; anonymous source

Shoemaker: At 0700 on 10 January 1945, while leading an assault platoon on enemy positions in Langlier, Belgium, as a member of Comp. F, 331st infantry, 83rd division, we had proceeded about seven hundred yards from our line of departure when we were pinned down by enemy automatic rifles and twenty millimeter fire. We remained in this position all day until nightfall. In the meantime the men who were with me had been wounded and shot and I was unable to give them medical assistance. The Battalion also sent up help, a platoon of riflemen and a platoon of tanks, which were knocked out before they reached my position. At nightfall I saw a number of Germans come out of their positions and go through the personal belongings of the American soldiers who were wounded. The Germans did not give the soldiers any medical treatment. When the Germans came up to these soldiers, they kicked them or prodded them with bayonets. If the soldiers moaned or showed any signs of life, the Germans would shoot or bayonet them. The Germans were approaching me and I did not know what to do. My messenger (pfc. Andrew Rohrscheib; BK) was lying beside me and was in very bad condition. His right arm was gone and I had tourniquets on his left leg and left arm. When the Germans reached him, he was still alive and then I felt them kick him. He made a groan and the Germans knew he was alive so they shot him through the head. It was then my turn. The Germans kicked me, turned me over on my back, went through my personal belongings, took my billfold and wristwatch, went through my gas mask and took anything they thought was of value. After that, they rolled me back on my stomach and kicked me a few more times, but I didn’t show any sign of life. Then the Germans disappeared towards their positions. About 23.25 I began to make my way towards my own lines, reaching Battalion CP about 0200 on the eleventh of January 1945. On 13 January 1945, after having received medical treatment for myself, I returned to the scene of the incident, accompanied by war correspondents and others. I observed the bodies of my platoon lying in the field where they had stopped.
I found that of the original number of my platoon, 41, I and an army Lieutenant were the sole survivors. At this time I do not recall the identity of the officer mentioned.
Q: Who were the slain American soldiers, or can you describe them?
Shoemaker: As these men had only recently come from replacement depots to build up the strength of my platoon, I was not fully familiar with them. However, I do know that the messenger beside me was pfc Rochscheib and that there was a pfc Tannenbaum from Brooklyn, New York. There was also a tall corporal named Jack (
Jack Keene Smith; BK)  from Texas. About a week following the incident, a captain, name unknown, whom I believe to have been attached to G-2, was given by me a complete roster which I possessed indicating the full identities of those in my command. This latter action took place at 2nd Battalion Headquarters, 331st Infantry, 83rd division.
Q: Can you identify by name, description, or organisation the German soldiers involved.
Shoemaker: No, I can not.
Q: About what time during the evening of 10 January 1945 did the German troops approach from their positions and begin to examine your platoon as they lay on the ground?
Shoemaker: About 2300.
Q: In what position were you in the field so that you could observe what you have described?
Shoemaker: I lay in a position about in the middle of my platoon with both squads on each side of me and slightly ahead. I was lying on my stomach, facing the German lines, and by slightly raising my head could observe all action.

Q: If it was already nightfall, how could you see what was going on?
Shoemaker: About 2200, 10 January 1945, our own artillery had bombed the German lines ahead and in doing so had struck an old wood-framed mud farmhouse about three hundred fifty or four hundred yards to my left, setting it on fire and causing the entire area to be lighted by its flames.
Q: Is there anything else you wish to add concerning the mistreatment of American soldiers?
Shoemaker: No.”
And so the hearing ended. There is another report where Schoemaker is quoted. In the document a soldier is reported to be MIA on 11 January 1945: Elmer R. Antle.
“Members of the 3rd platoon, the assault platoon, bypassed one position and were caught in cross-fire of two strong-points. Many casualties were thought to have been suffered.”
Shoemaker was heard as a witness.
(1) A check by the Regimental Graves Registration Officer of that particular area was made the following day but without result. A further check by the Personnel Section of the Battalion and Regimental and Clearing Company Admission and Disposition Reports and the Division and Regimental Graves Registration Reports failed to reveal the whereabouts of EM. (enlisted man; BK)
(2) As platoon sergeant of the third platoon, I led my platoon in the assault on the enemy strongpoint. We bypassed two strong points to get to a third and just as we got by the last mentioned position, the enemy opened up on us with machine gun- and 20mm fire causing many casualties. Those having minor wounds or who were unhurt hit the ground and at any sign of movement the enemy opened fire. I was unhurt but played possum and in a short while two SS men came out and inspected the bodies. They methodically kicked each body and if any sign of life was shown the SS men shot them. I succeeded later, under cover of darkness, in rejoining my organization and the following day after successfully taking this area, all bodies, with the exception of some men, pvt Antle among them, were evacuated.
This report is dated January 13 1945.

Some of the documents of the War Crimes Office, regarding Harry’s interview.

On the 13th of January Shoemaker was also being interviewed for a newspaper. Several newspapers published the article on Sunday 14 January 1945. The original source was the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Shoemaker states to interviewer Hal Boyle that he killed a German sentry with his bayonet. The guard was only a yard away, and he stabbed him in the neck. Shoemaker states further that he could see the German positions and that it would be suicide for his group to maneuver during daylight. During the day he played dead, and when dusk came he saw some Germans appearing, searching the dead and wounded soldiers.
Remarkable is that on the same date several newspapers also reported about the findings of almost 100 US soldiers who were murdered in the fields near Malmedy, referring to the Malmedy Massacre, which occured on 17 December 1944.

Other articles are published on the 14th of January, 1945. The articles mention that wounded and dead soldiers were killed and robbed. Again, it says that Schoemaker is the only witness and only survivor. The description says unidentified German troops in December or January 1944/1945 near Langlire, Belgium, shot and used the bayonet on U.S. casualties that showed any sign of life, and robbed the dead and injured.

For many years I tried to find relatives of Harry Shoemaker. I even wrote to a newspaper (The Cranston Herald) to see if they were interested to help me out. Meg Fraser published a short article about my quest. In the meantime I found a son of Harry’s wife, Evelyn, and contacted him. Although at first willing to help me out, the man lost interest and gave me a final message, stating:  “People will think what they want. We are done sir.”
But in one of the conversations he said something very true:
The murder of the surviving members of his unit by the German soldiers was horrible and dishonorable. For anyone to call any soldier, (especially one with the war record of Mr. Shoemaker) a coward for surviving such a combat action is unconscionable.”

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Lee (middle) with her father and the author, durng a visit in October 2016

Years later I was contacted by Lee Stover Wiant. She found the article in the Cranston Herald. Lee knew Harry Shoemaker about twenty years ago, when he was already older: he was her neighbour. Harry married when he was older. His wife Evelyn was much younger and already had a daughter. After their marriage, they bought a camper so they could drive through the country. Unfortunately Evelyn died shortly after their marriage.
Lee took care of Harry, brought him dinner and chatted with him. Harry had a bad form of arthritis and his hands and fingers were deformed.
On several occasions, Harry talked about the war. He also talked about Ottré. He described a large field that he had to crawl off, which took him hours. He also described a situation where he was laying in the snow and used one of the dead bodies to stay warm.
It gave us an important clue how Harry Shoemaker survived these deadly hours in the snow and freezing cold.
Lee: “They were all in front of a firing squad and he just fell when they started shooting and that he later covered himself with a body and then escaped when he had the opportunity, probably at nighttime. He did tell me that it was very cold and that snow… Harry was very proud of his service and I never sensed any shame from him. I do remember he had received a gunshot wound in one of his calves and he showed me the scar.”

This made me want to know more about Harry.

© Bob Konings

7. July 1944: Ferme des Ormeaux (Meautis) >>>>>

Hospitalisations of Harry E. Shoemaker; source: Morning Reports
83rd Infantry Divisions Docs
Picture example