Chapter 14. 10 January 1945
During the days leading to 10 January 1945 German troops dug in deep on the ridge leading from Ottré to Langlire, creating a heavily defended position, containing several strongpoints. Elements of the 331 Regiment/ 83rd Infantry Division occupied the hamlet of Ottré, together with elements of the 3rd Armored Division.
In the neighbouring village the 330th Regiment was attacking Bihain against elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division.
On 9 January 1945 six men of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment were ordered to move out of Ottré and to dig in on the right side of the road. One of them, Bob F. Kauffman, recalled a quiet night with only one encounter with an American tank and the usual war noise of artillery fire far away.
On 10 January the 36thAIR squad consisting out of Bob Kauffman, George Sampson, Harry Clark and three other men left their positions when it was already light. Sunrise started at 08.34hrs.
Back at allied lines, F and G company of the 2nd Battalion prepared to attack three strongpoints which were deployed on and around the high ridge outside of Ottré. The attack had to start early in the morning around 07.20 hrs but was most likely delayed by artillery fire. F company was going to attack on the left, G on the right and E company stayed in reserve.
On the upper left side of Ottré elements of the 3rd Battalion would attack in the same direction.
At approximately 09.10hrs Bob’s group arrives back in Ottré and enemy artillery shells start to come in. They make a dash into a barn for protection.
During their stay at the crossroads nor when they returned to Ottré did they see any troops of the 83rd moving in. Comparing the records they must have missed each other by an inch. But it gives an indication when the attack started.
Around 08.45hrs G company is arriving at the woods. F company is to follow.
At 9.25hrs the 908th Field Artillery sends out an observation plane to spot targets for their artillery. Because of heavy ground haze, the plane returns to base without any result.
Around 9.30hrs G company has to leave a containing force at the enemy strongpoint as they try to bypass it. This means that the enemy strongpoint is very difficult to neutralise and it costs too much time. They leave some troops that will keep the Germans pinned down so they can bypass it and move on to the objective.
At 10.15 hrs the Germans are bringing up infantry with support of 2 Panther tanks into the strongpoint (the Marechal farm).
Around 10.55 hrs enemy artillery fire decreases.
Exact time unknown: Harry Shoemaker leads his platoons into the field. It is cold and the wide open space is covered in snow. Their olive drab on a white field made them very vulnerable.
This was suicide.
In the distance he could see a farm on the left side. The terrain sloped after several hundred yards and Shoemaker had no idea where the enemy was and what was behind that bend.
The two platoons entered the field and started to cross the 700 metres of open terrain in a wide formation. The men came under heavy fire when they bypassed the strongpoint on their right that also gave G company a lot of trouble.
Upon reaching the top of the slope the platoons run into crossfire and several of them are instantly killed by machine gun-, tank- and sniper fire. Shoemaker, who is behind his troops, shouts that they have to hit the ground.
The fire was very intense and mortars started to come in. From the opposite side Germans are shouting contradictory orders in English to his men to proceed with the attack. Shoemaker shouts his orders and tells them to lie still. Each time one of his men is moving, the firing starts again.
It is not only the cold that makes him freeze to the ground. The total chaos and horrors he is seeing directly around him makes him powerless.
Here he is again. In an open field. Under fire and each German bullet is looking for him. There is no help. There is no support. He is the only one that can get his men out of this miserable situation.
Shoemaker does not know the names of most of his men. There are so many replacements. Next to him lies his messenger Andrew Rohrscheib. He is dead. In front of him he sees many bodies. He doesn’t know if they are still alive.
He is so afraid and in shock that the surrounding around him fades to darkness.
Around 13.25 hrs: G company is retreating to vP640844 and has no visual on F company. Tank destroyers are moved in and are firing on the Marechal farm where Panther tanks are hiding. One of the TD’s is knocked out.
Around 14.10 hrs Shoemaker hears tank noises behind him. From the Marechal farm tanks are firing on them. He can only hope the friendly tanks can and will proceed far enough to get him and his men off the field.
The tanks have trouble to orientate what is in front of them, they have to stop for a brief moment to look over the bend. One of the tanks receives a direct hit and is set on fire.
Another tank gets knocked out. And a third….
Around twenty guys from F company have joined them, hoping to help their friends that are trapped on the field. One of them is Lt. Alson Lancaster who is in one of the Shermans. He is directing the Sherman to the area where his good friend Harry Shoemaker is with his platoons. After the tank gets a direct hit Alson bails out and hides behind the Sherman. There is nothing he can do and he retreats to the rear with other members. He is wounded, but manages to reach the line of departure and is treated in the hospital.
Shoemaker watches the black smoke coming from the tanks and he knows the rescue mission has failed.
The cold is getting worse but he has to lay still because as soon as he starts to move, the Germans will start shooting again. He is hoping darkness will fall soon so he can escape.
At 15.23 hrs it is reported that G company is at 640844; F company at 643844; E company behind G company. 2 squads at 645844 have been lost since the morning.
Around 16.30hrs the light is fading, which is good. But still not good enough to get out. Harry uses one of the bodies next to him as a cover against the cold wind.
There must have been a few moments that Harry thought it was safe enough to crawl off the field. What kept him pinned down? Is he so afraid that he can not move? Or does he realise that he can’t leave his men alone?
There is no other attempt to get the 2 platoons out of the field. They are alone, helpless and not able to do anything.
At 20.45 G company reports tanks that are on the road between Petite Langlire and the main road where the strongpoint is. (Marechal farm area) I Company also reports Panther tanks rolling into the strongpoint between Langlire and Ottré. The Germans are reinforcing it. No attempt is made to search for the two platoons.
Around 23.00hrs a barn on the left side of Harry, approximately 300 yards away, is set on fire by artillery. He can see much more now.
All of a sudden he sees two shadowfigures coming out of the woods: Germans.
Harry Shoemaker is certain that this is it. A certain death is waiting for him. He presses his face in the snow and hopes the body on top of him will hide him.
Harry hears voices coming closer. He feels he is dying and the surrounding are fading again, his physical system is shutting off.
Two Germans entered the field. They could hear the moans of the enemy. The two started to check on the bodies. Several of the men were alive, some of them wounded. Every GI who was still alive was picked up and brought to the cellar of the farm.
Raymond Vincent: “I was so afraid that I could not move and the only thing I could think of was playing dead. Later the Germans came to pick up the wallets of the dead soldiers. I turned my head to see what they were doing, but I was totally shocked when I saw a German standing right next to me. Instead of shooting me, he asked me how old I was and since I was only 19 and looked like a kid, they took me prisoner and brought me to a POW camp.”
It is quiet again. All of his men must be dead. Executed by those two German SS-ers.
Harry starts to move. First crawling backwards. Adrenaline takes over. As soon as he can, he turns around, facing the 331st Regiment line and he starts to move faster. Half frozen and scared to death he arrives around 02.00 hrs at the command post where he sees a centry, Tony Vaccaro.
Shoemaker tells his story. A story about a massacre that never happened.
It is possible he really believed the massacre happened.
Or maybe he made it up, because he was afraid he would be accused (again) of leaving his men alone and he was afraid of the consequences.
Regardless, the story of the Ottré massacre was born.
In order to find out what happened on that field I had to obtain as many Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPF’s) as possible.
It is a personnel file created by the military services to document the death of a soldier and the related actions associated with the disposition of the remains.
With the incredible help of Myra Miller and the Footsteps Researchers I could get all the IDPF’s that I needed during the last years of research. The IDPF’s would tell me the type of wounds when the men were examined by the Graves Registration Service. That would give a strong indication if the men were executed, as Shoemaker stated.
I also realised that the outcome of that part of my research would be rather sobering and that there was a chance that the conclusion about what happened there had to be reconsidered: The massacre, as told by sergeant Harry Shoemaker, did not happen.
Let me state again: Harry Shoemaker was the only source I have found. He first told it to Tony Vaccaro and later told several versions of the stories to the Press and the War Crimes Office, with some aberrations, like the version where he states he killed that he killed a sentry with his bayonet.
There are no other statements from men who witnessed what Harry Shoemaker had seen. And apperantly the War Crime Office did not find sufficient evidence to build a case.
Before examining almost 40 IDPF’s, I already had figured I would find multiple victims with a gunshot wound in the head, execution style.
The opposite was true, however: I only found 3 men with a gunshot wound in the head. But that does not necessarily mean they were executed.
I also checked what the men had with them when they were found, like watches, rings, lighters, anything that had value and could have been interesting for those SS-ers who approached the pinned down men. That outcome was surprising as well: they still had all kinds of things with them. (see the last chapter: We Remember)
Strangely enough, at least 9 men were taken prisoner of war. I can add a tenth: Elmer Antle. He died in a hospital in Calvarienberg/ Ahrweiler, most likely due to an infection after his leg was amputated. And then there is also Sgt. Raymond Kirkpatrick of A company who was found approximately 450 meters from the Marechal farm, in the direction of Petite Langlire. He died of wounds and was found in a small woods.
Why would the Germans take a group of prisoners and execute the others?
Furthermore I found the name of Charles J. Heckler of Acron/ Ohio (ASN: 35510066). He too was a member of F company. Charles disappeared on 10 January 1945 and was missing in action for almost two weeks. He shows up again in the Morning reports on 21 January and returned to duty. Was he also taken POW and managed to escape? I tried to contact his family in 2021, without success for now.
During the years we have had other names on the list, but thanks to the Morning Reports and IDPF’s we found out that these men were in other companies and at other locations during these attacks.
All evidence points in the same direction: There was no massacre. This story was told by a troubled man, who should have been sent home after the first incident in the Meautis area on 4 July 1944.
He had to live with the Ottré tragedy for the rest of his life.
After the war he was mocked several times by veterans and stories were told about him that he was a coward, a traitor and a German lover. On one occassion they threatened to throw him overboard during a reunion on a cruise ship.
During the past eleven years I have always told people that I wanted to rehabilitate Harry E. Shoemaker because he was blamed for abandoning his men.
Although I have never met him, I felt there was something totally wrong with this whole story.
I wanted to redeem him, but the outcome of my research might have the opposite effect. The easy thing to do would be to judge this man and condemn his actions.
However, finding out he was hospitalized for a post traumatic affliction, I refuse to call him a coward.
It is clear to me: Harry Shoemaker is a victim too.
He had to live with the fact that many men under his command were killed in action: in Meautis, in Gey and in Ottré. It must have been an excruciating cross to bear during the rest of his life.
Try to imagine the sheer horror and the overwhelming effects of war and how this man and other men had to deal with that, every hour and every day during the war. And every hour after the war. Imagine the nightmares they had about their friends and comrades being mowed down by an enemy they despised.
Harry never should have been sent back to the front line after his hospitalisation in Carentan.
I feel sorry for what happened to all the men who were killed on 10 January 1945.
But I also feel sorry for Harry. I for one sincerely hope the man has found his peace.
It was Bob Kauffman who told me on our first meeting in May 2009: “War is a horrible human experience.”
He was right.
Harry Shoemaker died without any relatives next to him on 6 January 1992 in the hospital in Broward, Duval/ Florida. I can only hope he finally has found his peace.
“The expeditious return of treated patients to their original units was not consistently recognized as an important therapeutic measure. It was expected that 10 – 15 % of patients discharged to duty as asymptomatic would develop symptoms on rejoining their unit or even on reaching the division clearing station. This occasionally was the cause for the expression of exaggerated distress on the part of the unit surgeon or commander, with the result that antagonistic attitudes were developed toward the problem as a whole and toward the returning soldier in particular.”
-The 622nd Clearing Company/ psychiatric hospital –
© Bob Konings