Stranger Than the Novel

The true story of the Germans' rash and desperate attempt to infiltrate US lines disguised as American soldiers during 1944's bloody Battle of the Bulge is fragmented and a challenge to piece together. Recently, though, I heard a personal story that gives the tale more texture — and yet adds to the mystery.

John M. Gunn, an emeritus professor of economics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, emailed me with an account that encapsulates the chaos and shock of those grueling times. And it includes a couple surprise participants who would later figure prominently in directing US foreign policy. 

In late 1944 near the front in Belgium, Gunn was a young medical technician in the Clearing Company of the 84th Infantry Division, set up in a field hospital receiving (or "clearing") wounded from the fighting. The division had dug in at the town of Marche, where several major roads intersected. The Germans had targeted the town but American troops fought off the attack in bitter combat. As Gunn tells it:

The weather was dreadful. It was the coldest winter in Europe in half a century (to be surpassed the following year). The ground was frozen down several inches, with several inches of snow on top of that. To dig a slit trench or a fox hole required chopping through several inches of ice. The sky was overcast heavily, so that air support was impossible.

Then, on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve, the morning broke cold and crystal clear. Soon the sky was covered with aircraft:  bombers, fighter escorts, German fighters on the attack, US P47s in support of ground troops. I counted more than 3000 airplanes within less than an hour, watched multiple dog fights, and saw more than a dozen aircraft come down, US and British bombers and fighter planes from both sides. I saw multiple airmen parachuting to the ground, and over a period of two or three days there must have been several dozen of them who came through our clearing station with wounds and/or injuries from hard landings.

I was assisting my platoon commander, Lt. Benedict A. Biasini (later Captain) in treating a first lieutenant who had injured his ankle in parachuting to the ground. Lt. Biasini was a fine young officer and fine surgeon, just out of medical school when he had joined the company just before we sailed overseas. I respected him much, and we had developed as close a friendship as an enlisted man and officer who was his commander could have. After a time I noticed that he was stalling. I was surprised. That was so unlike him. I didn’t understand.

Then he caught my eye and with eye signals indicated I should step away from our makeshift operating table ... He said quietly, “Corporal Gunn, without telling anyone what you are doing go up to company headquarters, call division headquarters, and ask them to send a counter-intelligence team down here. Tell the first sergeant to send them to you when they arrive. Then get a carbine, put a cartridge in the chamber, come back and without letting this man see you take a position behind him. Don’t let him move.”

I had no idea what prompted him to suspect the man on the litter, and I still have little, except that we had heard stories of German spies penetrating our lines by several means, including parachuting during dogfights. We were unarmed, of course. The Geneva Convention provides immunity to medical personnel, who may wear red crosses on their helmets and on their sleeves, with large red crosses over our tents or buildings commandeered as aid stations, but in exchange we must never be armed. Yet, many of the wounded or ill soldiers coming through the station still had their arms with them; we were required to take them away, and we always had a few dozen weapons and considerable ammunition collected at company headquarters until the load was large enough to justify sending a truck to Ordnance Company. 

The “lieutenant” had protested vigorously when we took away his standard officers-issue .45 — that may have been a clue to Lt. Biasini.

After half an hour or so two men, both enlisted men, arrived from division headquarters. I signaled to them that I was the person they were looking for and pointed to the man on the litter, no words being spoken. I thought I recognized one of them. I think he was Fritz Kraemer, a young historian who had lectured around the division and whom I knew to be one of just 5 people in the Division’s counter-intelligence unit. The other was a private first class whose identity was unknown to me at the time, and whose name would have meant nothing if I had known it, but whose voice is one that once you have heard you will never forget ...

The more junior enlisted man took over the interrogation. The “lieutenant” was good. His “papers” all were in good order. His English was flawless, with no hint of an accent. His story was comprehensive and well integrated. He was “from Chicago,” a graduate of New Trier High School. He had been in college when he volunteered for service and was chosen for flight training.

But his interrogator also was good. Much of his questions I am sure were standard ones that personnel in counter intelligence were taught early on. They were such things as “Sing us your high school fight song.”  “Who is the Cubs’ left fielder?”  “Who is Benny Goodman’s girl singer”? As this interview proceeded I watched the man on the litter grow increasingly anxious.

But then smoothly, without changing his pitch or pace or tone or anything whatever about his voice, Pfc Henry Kissinger asked a question in German. The “lieutenant” started to answer, caught himself, but not in time. There could be no doubt now. The game was up.

He jumped up and tried to run, but quickly he discovered two things: (1) His ankle was broken. He could neither run nor walk on it. (2) I was about ten feet away from him with a carbine pointed at his heart.

Fritz Kraemer and Henry Kissinger produced handcuffs and cuffed him, brought up their jeep, and took him away. I did not realize it was Henry Kissinger until years later, when I discovered he was a private first class in the 5-person counter-intelligence unit of Division Headquarters, having been previously in a rifle company ...

Fritz Kraemer was a German expatriate historian and later civilian advisor to the US military. During WWII he recruited a young fellow expat and future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for counterintelligence and served as his mentor. At that time the two German-Americans operated as part of a team of front-line intelligence detectives, sniffing out clues to the enemy's plans. 

As for the German secret agent: This one was not like those I'd characterized in my novel The Losing Role or the nonfiction Kindle Single Sitting Ducks. As Gunn told me, the man didn't seem one of those "hastily recruited, unsophisticated men that I take it you depict as having been typical of the group. He was sophisticated and polished." It could be that he was acting alone, with special orders. Gunn never learned what happened to the man, but he was sure that ankle received first-class medical treatment. "For all I know," Gunn added, "he became an American citizen and a prosperous community leader — in Chicago, his 'home town.'"