Chapter 10. Tony Vaccaro
Michael (Tony) A. Vaccaro was the sentry who was the first person who spoke with Harry Shoemaker. He got this story first hand.
Let’s take a close look at his statements.
Tony was a soldier of F company and took, as a member of that company, a lot of photographs during the war.
In 2010 I had brief contact with him and asked him if he was willing to answer some questions about the Ottré matter and in particular Harry Shoemaker. The answer was pretty sobering.
Vaccaro answered that his publisher forbids him to give that delicate information, until his own biography is published.
Vaccaro stated that he has photos of the men of the platoon, back then still alive, including Shoemaker and also has photos of the dead soldiers in the snow. He has their names and where they came from. He has the story that Shoemaker told him on the 11th of January 1945, 02.30 hrs and he has the story that Shoemaker told him the other day on the field when they went back at 06.00AM.
Vaccaro also said that he was planning to visit friends and family of Shoemaker, to gather more information.
“I personally think that he loved Germany so much that it made him an American coward!”
And: “Why didn’t he use his pistol and kill that damn son-of-a-bitch Nazi soldier?”
Vaccaro wanted to bring out the information, because the American army had neglected to do a decent investigation. They never interviewed him or others who were a witness or who had any knowledge about the massacre.
He ended his reply: “As for you–I suggest patience, unless you want to take over.”.
It is clear that Tony Vaccaro is still very upset with what happened in Ottré. Which I totally understand.
But: after 11 years, I ran out of patience.
In several broadcasts, interviews and newspaper articles he talked about the field and some of the pictures he had taken.
In his documentary “Under Fire, the untold story of Tony Vaccaro” (2016), he mentions Ottré and the picture he took of Henry Irving Tannenbaum (“White Death”).
“If I was not put on guard of the Headquarters I would have been killed. It was the 11th of January 1945. We were in Belgium to fight the Battle of the Bulge, just between Ottré and Petite Langlire. It was freezing cold, we hadn’t bathed, washed, changed socks, or had hot meals for at least ten days. […] We were ordered to take this field and go into the woods. I said goodbye to Sgt. Shoemaker and company F and I went to a house here where we had the Battalion headquarters. (house no. 2 in Ottré, which carries the plaque dedicated to the 83rd) to guard the CP all night. I seldomly pulled guard duty. It was rare for me. And the reason is they always wanted tall big boys for guard. So they never used me. Around 02.00 o’clock in the morning, I heard footsteps in the snow. So, I said ‘Halt, who is there!?’. And he said ‘Shoemaker.’. I knew something was wrong. All along a sergeant does not leave his platoon. I said ‘What happened?’ and he said that the whole platoon had been killed. I asked him if he could take me to the spot where it took place. So about 06.30 in the morning we came up this road to this spot and I see bodies all over here. And he tells me they were advancing and when they arrived there they were mowed down with a machine gun by the Germans and there was one Tiger tank that knocked out five of our tanks. One tank and one soldier, sergeant Fair, who was wounded and screaming for help and he couldn’t move and was run over by our own Sherman tank. Shoemaker tells me at a certain point, between 01.30AM and 02.00AM out of the forest came this German, dressed in white and he had a pistol and he went to every GI thinking that they were wounded. He kicked the helmet out of the way and put a bullet into each head. Roughly that’s 27 GI’s. And then I saw the soldier that was lying down so peacefully, so beautiful as if an artist had drawn it. It was…. And I said to myself: ‘Tony you’re looking for a requiem photograph. This is it.’. I placed the body exactly in the center. In other words, I had almost drawn lines in my grainfinder how things should be placed. I really worked within and clicked when I was happy. Death, that is beautiful. It’s a contradiction. You want the ugliest aspect of mankind, death, to be beautiful. Otherwise it can not be a monument. […] I wanted this photograph to be that of an unknown soldier. But my curiosity had the better part of me and I made a mistake. I took my bayonet, I chipped away [the snow; BK] and I saw who it was. My friend…Henry Tannenbaum. We were both from New York and we became friends.”
In the same documentary, Tony tells about another picture he took: that of Jack W. Rose, “The Last Step.”
According to Tony the picture was taken on 11 January 1945 in Ottré. While he was taking cover because of sniper fire, his good friend Jack Rose tried to make it to the other side of the road, got shot by a sniper and bled to death in the middle of the street. “He was hit by a shell from a gun and instantly died.” (In another interview, May 2021, he said Rose was hit by shrapnel from a mortar explosion severing his spine.)
But: in the picture we see no snow at all. That means the picture was not taken on 11 January 1945 and it also means it is not Jack Rose. In 2016 I wrote a story about this picture, including a lot of evidence. Jack Rose was one of the victims who died on the field just outside of Ottré on 10 January 1945. You can read the full story here: http://www.battle-of-the-bulge.be/jack-w-rose/.
Up untill today Tony Vaccaro keeps insisting it is Jack Rose in his picture. But in one of the newspapers of the 83rd we see the same picture with the following words: “A co. C doughboy flinches slightly at the sound of an exploding shell.” (TTF 24 Februari 1945)
One other picture that he has published, is the picture of James G. Fair. It is one of the most haunting pictures he ever made. We see the body of a man crushed under the tracks of a Sherman tank. According to Vaccaro it is the body of James G. Fair.
Although we cannot show you all the pictures made on the field due to copyright restrictions we have the description of these pictures, provided by one of our sources.
He showed us a letter written by Tony, dated February 7 1997. The content of that letter is interesting enough to publish here:
“The sequences of the images […] are in the last two strips of roll 66. They are strips 5 and 6.
The first picture of strip #5 you see the town of Ottré, followed by sgt. Shoemaker (2) pointing to the way he crawled out of there in the early hours of jan. 11 1945. He walked to headquarters* and told the story first to me because I was on guard duty and still up. I asked him if early next morning he could take me to the spot where the massacre took place. It was about 07.00 AM. We were the first there. About half an hour later came the platoon that picked up the dead and took them away, as you see in the picture (5) where two GI’s (the bottom part of them) are first trying to identify the dead soldiers. In picture #3, the picture of the massacre is pointing towards the main road. Then on Pic.4 you see a close up of a corpse, in #5 as stated above. Then comes the picture (#6) pf Pvt. Henri I. Tennenbaum […]. Looking at the picture you can see the footsteps of Sgt. Shoemaker who had walked around […], then directly in the center/ bottom you see two other foot prints. Those are mine. When I placed the camera to the eye I realized that I was too close for the picture so I backed up, in order to get what you now see. After that picture I walked carefully to the tanks and took photo #7, which is that of a corps of a GI crushed by the tank- you can see the arm and hand, all burned, it was Pvt. James Fair. In the last picture of the sequence, you see a halftrack that was sent up the slope to pick up the remains, picture #9. Picture #8 is only a far away image of the scene which was heavily mined and taken from the main road to Ottré, on one side and our headquarters on the other.
The picture of Pfc. Rose is on another roll. #10 was taken elsewhere. I printed the pictures very dark, otherwise you cannot see details of feet movement in the snow. […] But these dark ones tell the story. The others may not. They will only be better looking.
* about a mile away
** bodies were over an area of about 150 square yards. They were not regrouped in one area. This means that the Nazis went wherever there was a wounded soldier. And killed “
(this is where the letter stops, only a few words are missing)
Some of the pictures are shown in his documentary “Under Fire. The Untold Story of Pfc Tony Vaccaro”.
Here is a link with that documentary and you can find pictures, mentioned by Tony here:
– The supposed picture of Jack W. Rose: 24.27 minutes
– Tony Vaccaro telling about Ottré: starting at 35.38
– Picture 1, Ottré: 36.00
– Picture 2, Harry Shoemaker at the field of Ottré with in the background 2 knocked out tanks: 37.41
– Picture 3, the field of the massacre including a halftrack in the back: 38.09
– Picture 4, close up of the corps: 38.15
– Picture 5, Two G.I’s trying to identify a soldier: 38.18
– Picture 6, “White Death”, Henri Tannenbaum: 40.05
– Picture 7, a G.I crushed under one of the tanks, supposedly to be James G Fair: 38.29
– Picture 8, far away image, probably the ones with two knocked out Shermans and one knocked out Tank Destroyer on it: 38.24
– Picture 9: I am not sure about this one. It could be a picture I haven’t seen before. Picture 3 has a halftrack in the back.
– According to Tony they entered the field around 07.00 hrs in the next morning. At that time in early January it is still dark in the Ardennes. And more important: At 11 January 1945 that area was still in German hands. The Americans took it during the afternoon.
– In several interviews Vaccaro stated that the image of Tannenbaum was pure and that he told Shoemaker not to go to the body. In the letter he tells us that there are several footsteps around the body. That means that the printed version was printed with much more white in it.
– Picture 7 is supposedly James G. Fair. But it also could be William Scholl. Tony said “…you can see the arm and hand, all burnes.”
According to the IDPF of Scholl he had a crushed skull, multiple fractures of all bones and he had 3rd degree burnes.
– It is remarkable that Tony writes in this letter that the picture of Rose was taken elsewhere.
– You have to realize that the story about the massacre, as told by Vaccaro, comes from one source, and one source only: Harry Shoemaker, the sole survivor of the massacre.
© Bob Konings