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  Tuesday September 30th, 2014    

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The hangman and the general (06/09/2014)
By Chris Rogers


     . Winonan Robert Norton guarded generals and served with the hangman of the Nuremberg Trials just after the end of the World War II.
The story of Robert Norton's service in Europe is not the normal World War II story the terror and bravery at D-Day, the bitter fighting to Berlin. His story is a mostly peaceful one of luck, chance, and intimate brushes with the carousing general who replaced Patton and the loner hangman of the Nuremberg Trials.

The Winonan came of age and signed up for the draft on May 1, 1945, the day after Adolf Hilter committed suicide. The next day Berlin fell and a few days later Germany surrendered. In basic training, he and his bunkmates figured they would be sent to the war in the Pacific. From a base in Missouri, they were loaded on a train. As it chugged away the servicemen still did not know whether they were headed east or west. When the conductors announced they had reached the Atlantic Coast, they realized they were going to Europe a relief.

By the time Norton arrived in Europe, Japan had surrendered. The war was over a joy. Still, the Allies needed troops to occupy the former Third Reich and to watch over prisoners of war (POWs). Norton's role would be more unusual. From a ship full of 5,000 men sent to Berlin, he and four other men were called to a post at Heidelberg, Germany. Norton had no idea why. All five of them could type. Did they need clerks? No, with assignments, "you never knew until it happened," he said. Norton and the other four were assigned to the military police (MP) company that was guarding General George S. Patton.

Patton, "Old Blood and Guts," was a legend. He was famed for his tactics at the Battle of the Bulge and he had a reputation for "ruling the roost" among servicemen at the time, Norton said. However, Norton never saw the war hero alive. Patton died after his command car got in an accident a few days before Norton arrived. Norton joined his unit on the day of Patton's funeral.

So, Norton guarded Patton's replacement, Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes. Keyes lived in a palatial old estate on the hill in Heidelberg, Norton said. "He was good to us," Norton recalled. Keyes would have a lunch spread set out for the guards in one of the great house's 40 rooms. The rest of the rooms were often filled with guests, according to Norton. "He lived high on the hog," Norton said of Keyes. "He'd go in the kitchen, down to the cellar, and get his wine and have his party." He even let some of the MPs have keys to the wine cellar, Norton recalled.

Norton smiled, saying, "He wasn't hard to guard. We weren't overworked guarding the general."

Norton and his buddies would take day trips on the weekends. Norton had a camera and took countless images. His attention was most often drawn to landscape and architecture: a beautiful river cutting through lush hay fields, the grand Heidelberg castle lording over the city, the bombed-out ruins of Mannheim. "You wondered how anybody survived and yet, there were people living in those ruins," he said of Mannheim. Heidelberg, conversely, was a university town with no military targets. Its stately buildings were spared from the air raids.

While living in Heidelberg, Norton became acquainted with a certain sergeant, John C. Woods, who had taken the job as hangman for the military police. The way Woods served, the job did not involve normal military discipline. Woods lived in at the Europa Hotel in downtown Heidelberg, and spent his time as he wished, away from the troops. "He came to headquarters once a month to get his paycheck," Norton explained. "Being a hangman, that was his only job over there."

Every month Woods would stand in line with everybody else to get his pay, but Norton's comrades had little interaction with him. Was Woods mysterious? Was it odd that he lived alone in a hotel downtown? Norton shrugged. He and his fellow servicemen were not intrigued at the time. "When he came in, we'd say, 'Well, there's the hangman.' I guess nobody wanted to be associated with him," Norton said.

Then Woods was called to Nuremberg. The leaders of the Nazi party and the perpetrators of the Holocaust were put on trial. Ten were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hanging. Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and the highest ranking Nazi tried, defied the gallows just before Woods came for him by swallowing cyanide he had apparently smuggled.

Norton watched the rest of the hangings from his base in Heidelberg. The Allies broadcast the hangings at 2 a.m. to bases across Germany. Norton and his comrades stayed up to see the top Nazis, dead at Woods' hands. A strange course of events. Norton, with his photographs, returned to Winona that winter.  

 

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