A VIRGINIA CO-OP MEMBER STORMED OMAHA BEACH ON D-DAY AND SURVIVED THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE BEFORE HE CONVINCED A GERMAN GENERAL TO SURRENDER AS THE RUSSIAN ARMY APPROACHED.
THIS IS TOM STAFFORD’S AMAZING WWII STORY.
Background: Germany in a Tightening Vice
German Chancellor and Nazi Party Führer Adolph Hitler ignited World War II when his Wehrmacht army started invading European countries in 1939. The British, American, French and other Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) started to bring Hitler to his knees when U.S. Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower successfully commanded the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. From there, Allied soldiers pushed through France, Belgium, Luxemburg and finally into Germany in March 1945.
From the east, Joseph Stalin’s Red Army barreled into Germany in April. They wanted retribution after Wehrmacht soldiers slaughtered and raped millions of Russians in 1941. As they marched, Soviet signs declared: “Soldier: You are now on German soil. The hour of revenge has struck!” Revenge they got in Berlin. As word spread, terrified Germans fled into neighboring countries, especially Czechoslovakia.
With the AEF and Red Army turning a tightening vice, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Under his 12- year Third Reich reign of terror, an estimated 50- to 80-million people died. But even with Hitler gone, many of the Wehrmacht, Schutzstaffel (SS), Hitler Youth and “werewolves” continued fighting, especially since the SS shot soldiers trying to surrender.
Fighting From D-Day to V-E Day
Tom Stafford, a Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member today, fought from D-Day to V-E (Victory in Europe) Day after being drafted in 1943 out of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech). From Normandy’s Omaha Beach, the soldier from Colonial Heights went through the brutal Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region that bitterly cold winter as a platoon sergeant. After crossing the Rhine River in March, 1945, the AEF fanned out through Germany against Wehrmacht resistance.
In one encounter, Stafford directed the two tanks accompanying his infantry rifle platoon to fire on Wehrmacht soldiers trying to blow up a medieval bridge in Plauen to stall the Allies. “I raced across the bridge and cut the demolition ignition wires while my men captured or drove off German defenders,” Stafford explains.
Discovering Concentration Camps
As AEF soldiers took more German towns, they began seeing startling sights. On April 11, an American captain saw along a road in Nordhausen “a strange apparition … a frail-looking creature with striped pants and naked from the waist up. It appeared to be a human skeleton with little signs of flesh, if any. … There was no face, merely a gaunt human skull staring out. The teeth were exposed in a broad grin. …” According to this account in Stephen E. Ambrose’s book, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany; the captain and his troops encountered more gaunt figures along the road until they discovered hundreds of bodies in a Nazi concentration camp.
Stafford volunteered to visit another camp discovered that day called Buchenwald. He wrote, “Etched forever in my memory were piles of dead bodies, at least 10 to 15 feet high, and German civilians ordered by Americans to bear witness to the Nazis’ atrocities.”
Generals Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George S. Patton saw their first camp on April 12. Horrified, Eisenhower called for government officials and newspaper editors to see the many camps where an estimated 12-million people died.
Escaping to and from Czechoslovakia
While American medical personnel cared for camp survivors, AEF soldiers continued to fight. Among the German soldiers Stafford’s company captured on May 6 was a colonel wearing civilian clothes. “I told him he could be shot on the spot as a spy for masquerading as a civilian,” Stafford says. The English speaking colonel said the Russians were nearing Prague, Czechoslovakia, and time was running out for the German forces.”
The colonel was correct: In Ambrose’s book, an American lieutenant wrote in his diary: “Germans pouring into Pilsen by the thousands to get away from the Russians in Prague.”
Stafford goes behind enemy lines
Stafford’s captive was so terrified of the Red Army he asked Stafford to accompany him through German lines to convince his division commander to surrender to the Americans.
Stafford said, “I then made two very stupid mistakes. First, after having survived five campaigns, and foolishly believing the Germans didn’t have ‘a bullet with my name on it,’ I agreed to go with the colonel. Second, I didn’t obtain permission to venture behind enemy lines.”
With a white truce sheet on his jeep, and the officer back in uniform, Stafford says he “sat behind the colonel with my pistol between his shoulder blades and instructed my driver, Jones, to follow the colonel’s directions.”
When the three approached the German position, Stafford saw a German soldier drop his armful of bread and frantically un-shoulder his rifle. “The colonel screamed at him to stop,” Stafford says.
When the jeep finally arrived at the division’s headquarters in Czechoslovakia, the colonel told his corps commander the Americans were there to accept his surrender. In English, the corps commander asked Stafford for his rank. Stafford says, “I certainly wasn’t about to tell him a 21-year-old platoon sergeant wearing muddy clothing was demanding his surrender, so I told him I was a captain. He looked me over and said the American Army also must be running out of officer material if it, like the Wehrmacht, was forced to fill its officer ranks with youngsters barely out of high school. He told me he would not surrender unless ordered to do so by his higher command.
“I told the general the American Army was moving again and wouldn’t stop until we were eyeball-to-eyeball with the Russians,” Stafford recounts. “Although I knew only a few German words, hardly appropriate for the moment, his anxious staff officers apparently told the general I was correct. The general told us to wait outside his office. Jones and I sat in the hallway and watched with growing uneasiness while staff personnel ran hurriedly up and down the halls, eyeing us warily as they entered or exited their offices. While I understood our venture behind enemy lines would not be a cake walk, I began to realize Jones and I might be taken outside and shot. To my relief, the general called us into his office and said that after weighing the predicament facing the soldiers and officers under his command, he would surrender his entire corps.”
Wehrmacht motorcycles led the general, colonel, staff officers and Americans to a hotel. After finding the proprietor and his family hiding in the cellar, the general asked for some paper. “The poor fellow, shaking and scared nearly out of his wits, said he only had ledger sheets.”
On ledger paper, the general signed an unconditional surrender of what turned out to be more than 40,000 Wehrmacht troops and at least 20 German generals. Stafford says, “I knew absolutely nothing of the Geneva Convention or anything about surrender formalities, but recalling a scene from a movie asked the general for a token of his surrender. Without hesitating, he gave me his personal pistol.”
A motorcycle escort led the colonel, Stafford and Jones back into Germany. “When I informed my company commander where we had been, and handed him the surrender document, he said words to the effect that I was one crazy fool, adding — with a wide grin — that he didn’t know whether to court martial me or recommend me for another medal.” Instead, Stafford received a battlefield commission as second lieutenant — the Virginian’s fifth combat promotion in a year.
Early on May 7, a parade of German soldiers, their families and “probably SS and Gestapo men dressed as civilians” began surrendering. Temporary prisoner-of-war (POW) camps soon overflowed. Also on May 7, the German government signed an unconditional Act of Military Surrender.
The escalating parade of surrendering Germans continued in the days ahead until the POW camps could not handle anymore. Stafford said, “Thousands more German troops and civilians were waiting outside our lines, pleading to come in.” With regret, Stafford says, “I learned later that of the 3-million German soldiers captured by the Russians, only 2 million returned to Germany after years of hard labor in Russian prisons.”
By the end of May, the Americans sent many of the POWs home — other than the SS and werewolf resisters.
Before heading back to the U.S., Stafford persuaded his captain to permit a “beer patrol” into Czechoslovakia. “We surprised the braumeister by paying for — instead of ‘liberating’ — several kegs of excellent beer,” Stafford recalls fondly. “After a year of fighting, it tasted like the nectar of the gods.”
Life After War
After the war, Stafford was selected to serve as a general’s aide-de-camp. Then ironically, as a company commander, his division’s mission was to secure the Czechoslovakia/German border in 1950. After two tours of duty in Korea, Major Stafford retired from active military service in 1963. He worked for the Department of Defense until retiring in 1987.
During his military service, Stafford received 24 medals and decorations, including the Silver and Bronze stars and French awards for the D-Day liberation.
Stafford and his wife, Gayla, live in Fairfax, Virginia. Their son, Thomas Stafford II, lives in Alexandria.
On reflection, as part of what writer Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation,” Stafford, says he appreciated how united Americans were during WWII: “Everyone either had a family member in the military or knew someone who was serving. Americans from all regions of the country volunteered to fight. And on the homefront, everyone worked on the war effort. Today there’s too much partisan political fighting across the country. I wish we were as united today as we once were.”
To read Major Stafford’s full account, search online for “Mass Surrender of German Troops.”
From top: The 2nd Platoon Company L 347th Infantry Regiment at war’s end; U.S. soldiers wait for the 11th Panzer Division’s commanding general to emerge from surrender discussions in the Czech town of Vseruby on May 4, 1945; Tom Stafford, with cane, stands with Germans in Plauen reenacting in 2010 as American WWII soldiers; Gestapo and SS Nazis in civilian clothes surrendering; Wehrmacht general in jeep surrenders to 3rd Battalion commander.
A German Family’s Escape
Annemarie, who has family living in Virginia co-op territory, remembers how her German family barely escaped from approaching armies at the end of the war. Her soldier father died fighting in 1939. Then her baby brother died of pneumonia. Her mother struggled to keep the family of six together.
After the Allies bombed their home in Berlin, Annemarie’s family fled to Czechoslovakia in April 1945. But after the Czechs had had enough of their Nazi occupiers in early May, and with the Red Army just days away, Annemarie’s family and other terrified Germans bolted back toward their homeland.
“We were deathly afraid the Russians would massacre us,” Annemarie recalls. “We wanted the Americans to capture us.”
Catholic nuns hid the family in their convent until a farmer took the family in his hay wagon to the border. The girls and their mother, hauling her ailing father-in-law and young son on a cart, hiked through a cold, dark forest back into Germany.
“We didn’t have boots or coats to wear in the snow — just our dirndl dresses,” Annemarie remembers. “When Mutti heard enemy soldiers, she told us to climb up a lookout tower quickly and not make a sound. She covered my little sister’s mouth while the soldiers stopped to smoke cigarettes. We were terrified.”
The homeless family made it back into war-torn Germany, now occupied by the Allies. Annemarie says she and her siblings feared U.S. soldiers almost as much as they feared the Russians.
“The Nazis had told us for years Americans would kill us,” Annemarie recalls. “When a G.I. offered us bananas, my little sister ran to the soldier. We yelled for her to come back before he poisoned her. She ignored us and ate the banana. We waited and watched. When she didn’t die, we ran for the bananas because we were starving.”
Annemarie and her three sisters eventually married U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany and