Gaurding the War Criminals
Michael Prestianni served as a
guard at Nuremberg as high-ranking
Nazis stood trial for their lives.
by Roscoe C. Blunt
Perhaps the most feared group of accused criminals in the annals of history was a potpourri of personalities who had been associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. These were the intellectuals; the ramrod-stiff military officers; the cunning politicians; the world’s most vicious, depraved, notorious mass murderers; an architect; a filthy-minded and sex-obsessed anti-Semitic newspaper publisher; a gentle writer of poetry; the bombastic bullies; an unrepentant, ghost-like figure; the subservient military lackeys; and even their self-appointed leader, a bloated, drug-addicted former war hero.
Some were convicted of history’s most barbaric crimes against humanity. Twelve paid with their lives. Seven others, over time, were reduced by lengthy prison sentences to hollow, shuffling shadows of their former selves. All were destined for incarceration, at least during their trials, in two of Germany’s most feared prisons: the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg and Spandau Prison on the western outskirts of Berlin. Three of those accused were acquitted and upon their release soon faded into obscurity. These once powerful leaders of Nazi Germany were the accused of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
Sixteen of these captives were guarded by Pfc. Michael R. Prestianni of Framingham, Massachusetts, who later survived months of combat in Korea. During his service in Korea, Prestianni was wounded twice and decorated for valor numerous times. Today, he carries on his World War II and Korean War heritage in various veterans organizations.
Upon arriving in the European Theater, Prestianni, a replacement, found himself in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. His initial assignment was as a guard at the Nuremberg prison. He served in that capacity for three months, bringing him in daily contact with 16 of the 22 accused war criminals.
His remembrance of duty at Nuremberg remains vivid. “At the time, I saw these men only as individual prisoners, guilty of unknown crimes. I had no idea of the magnitude of what they had done. It was only sometime later that I realized in retrospect that I had become part of history,” Prestianni said. “At the time, it was just a job we were told to do. Had I known just who these prisoners were at the time and what they had been accused and convicted of having done, I probably would not have had such a close relationship with them. I would have kept my distance from them.”
Prestianni, the guard contingent, and supervisors under the command of Colonel B.C. Andrus, a strict disciplinarian, were constantly reminded that the prisoners should be treated with civility and objectivity at all times. They were not to be shown disrespect. Before and during the war crimes trial, they were to be considered still innocent, Andrus drummed into the military personnel under his command.
The Nuremberg prison was a Bastille-like affair. Most of the time the prison was dank, uncomfortably cold, and forbidding, especially during the winter months. Prisoners and guards were forced to wear heavy scarves to ward off the penetrating cold. “It was a very old, ancient, almost primitive prison,” Prestianni recalls. During the dead of winter, cell temperatures constantly hovered near freezing, partially due to severe coal shortages throughout most of Germany, and some prisoners were relegated to wearing stockings as gloves and wrapping their feet in underwear or any other available cloth to keep warm.
For added security outside the prison, three American Sherman tanks, manned by MPs, were positioned at the front, side, and rear entries to the prison. The purpose of the armored reinforcement was to prevent any possibility of attack by groups of still-fanatic Nazis.
In the prison cellblock, each single-occupant cell had two parallel heating pipes beneath a single, heavily scratched, plastic-covered window, the top half of which could be tilted open for limited ventilation. The prison’s concrete walls, most of which were more than three feet thick, encased the solitary cell window that offered the prisoners no view of the outside world.
Eighteen-inch rectangular holes were cut from the heavy, oaken cell doors, slightly below eye level. Through these openings, aluminum food trays could be placed within reach of the prisoners. The food, prepared in an American-staffed kitchen, offered identical German menus for each prisoner. American chow was prepared for the guards and other Army personnel.
“Generally, I would describe the food, as I recall, quite good,” Prestianni remembers.
Cell doors were never opened when food was distributed. Meals were brought to the prisoners on a precise schedule each day on wheeled, double-tiered push carts by German prisoners from other sections of the prison who were being held for civil crimes. All war crimes prisoners ate from a single German menu. No favor-itism was shown nor was a selection offered.
In an attempt to further depersonalize them, prisoners were designated by numbers rather than by their familial surnames. For example, Baldur von Schirach, former head of the Hitler Youth, was known only as Number 1. Number 2 was given to Karl Dönitz, former grand admiral of the German Navy. Number 3 was Konstantin von Neurath, a former high-ranking politician. Number 4 was assigned to Erich Raeder, the Navy’s former grand admiral before being replaced by Dönitz. Number 5 was Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect and confidant. Number 6 was Walther Funk, former minister of economics, and Number 7 was Rudolf Hess, once Hitler’s private secretary and deputy führer.
Each prisoner’s cell was equipped with a simple, bench-like bed against one wall adjacent to the cell door, a primitive commode, a wooden table to hold the few allowed pictures and other personal items, and a chair too rickety to support the weight of a standing man. The intentionally weakened table and chair, Prestianni said, prevented possible suicide attempts by hanging. The toilet was the single source of water.
After one of those accused, Robert Ley, former director of the nation’s Labor Front, hanged himself from a drain pipe with a torn towel, prisoners were kept under constant visual surveillance by guards, and while sleeping were forced to do so with their faces and hands exposed above their blankets at all times.
“After Ley hanged himself, this strict suicide watch was instituted,” Prestianni explained. Guards, for the most part, were not allowed to talk to each other or to prisoners while on security duty. Strict attention was always paid to the prisoners. Guards occasionally retaliated against unpopular, troublesome prisoners by rapping on the cell doors with their night sticks to disturb the occupants’ sleep. “This wasn’t authorized, but it was done on occasion,” Prestianni smiled.
Where the convicted were housed on the ground floor, lower-tier cellblock, the main corridor was 60 meters (195 feet) long, lined by 16 cells on each side, and constantly patrolled by 1st Division guards. To move from one corridor to another, guards carried different colored passes. Movement was extremely restricted and closely monitored, even for the guards. The second-level tier housed high-ranking SS (Schutzstaffel) officers and many of the infamous doctors who had conducted ghastly medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.
All female prisoners were segregated on a third tier. “I only patrolled there once. That was enough. We were given strict orders to have no contact whatsoever with these women, no conversation, no nothing and to stay well away from them,” noted Prestianni. “False accusations of rape, abuse, or other misconduct by guards were commonplace. They even accused guards of watching them undress. Whenever these female prisoners, most of whom were former concentration camp guards, created a problem, we merely, as instructed, called the sergeant-of-the-guard to resolve the situation. These women prisoners constantly did anything they could to get a guard in trouble or disciplined.”
The most infamous of the female prisoners during Prestianni’s tour of duty was Ilse Koch, known to guards as the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” With her husband, Karl Koch, the camp commander, Ilse often rode a horse through the camp compound, whipping prisoners. If one inadvertently looked up at her, she arbitrarily ordered the prisoner shot. Koch ordered skin emblazoned with tattoos to be stripped from the cadavers of prisoners and made into lampshades. Her guards were repulsed, and some requested reassignment to another cellblock.
Koch was later tried at Buchenwald and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was released after four years and eventually committed suicide in a Bavarian prison.
Read the rest of the story in the November 2009 issue of WWII History magazine.