Gen. Andrei Vlasov reviews his troops, Russian soldiers captured by the Germans who then volunteered to serve the Nazis. Some of his men ended up at Fort Dix.
|1945: Prisoners' dilemma
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
|Homemade clubs clenched in their hands, tears of anger in their eyes, 154 Soviet-born prisoners of war rushed their captors at Fort Dix the morning of June 29, 1945 on a mission of mass suicide.
"Shoot us! Shoot us!" they shouted, tearing open their khaki uniforms and pointing at their hearts.
They wanted to die because the alternative was a fate worse than death: to go back to their Russian homeland, there to be condemned as traitors and packed off to a Siberian prison camp.
In the bloody chaos of World War II, these 154 POWs had taken up arms against Communist rule and ended up on the side of Nazi Germany. It was in German uniforms that American GI's had captured them.
Then, the United States government opted to repatriate them, not to Germany, but to the personal care of Josef Stalin.
And so, on June 29, 1945, the Russian POWs of Fort Dix sought to kill themselve before Stalin could. They did not succeed, and the story of their failure is one of the sad, little-told stories of World War II.
Adolf Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 with twisted schemes of turning the whole country into a slave-labor colony. Millions of Slavic people, and every last Jewish man, woman and child, would have to be exterminated.
Yet Russia's Stalin yielded nothing to Hitler in sheer brutality. For a whole decade he had been starving peasants, shooting opponents real and imagined, deporting entire ethnic populations to Siberia. By the time of the Nazi invasion, Soviet Russia was a nation ruled by sheer terror.
Most Red Army soldiers defended their soil ferociously. Others saw no reason to fight for a regime that treated them as prisoners, and flocked to the banner of the swastika.
Still others had no choice in the matter, but were forcibly conscripted into German uniforms after becoming POWs -- and then put to heavy labor.
The collaborators had no love for Hitler, who viewed all Slavs as "untermenschen" -- subhumans -- but saw German might as the only way to overturn a despised Communist regime.
By 1943, their general, Andrei Vlasov, had raised a force of nearly 1 million Soviet-born soldiers in German uniforms.
But instead of heading for the Eastern Front, where they would have fought fiercely, Vlasov's army was sent to man the coastal defenses of German-occupied France.
After the D-Day invasion of 1944, thousands of Soviet citizens were suddenly in American hands -- an odd situation for the United States, which was an ally, if an uneasy ally, with the Soviet Union.
The Allies' official policy was to send back all POWs to their country of origin, "irrespective of the question of whether or not they want to be repatriated." This would be accomplished "by force if necessary."
But many U.S. officials had moral qualms about giving in.
By Stalin's paranoid law, any soldier captured by the Germans as a POW -- not simply collaborators, but any POW -- was a potential traitor. And the penalty for treason was death.
"First thing you know," Secretary of War Henry Stimson scrawled on a memo in 1945, "we will be responsible for a big killing by the Russians."
Unaware of these deliberations at the highest level of the U.S. command, the 154 POWs on American soil sweated out the news of Germany's impending defeat.
They had been shipped to Camp Rupert, Idaho, then to Camp Ruston, La., and finally to Fort Dix. At Dix, they were stationed in their own barracks off Range Road, separately from 4,000 German POWs. The Germans eagerly looked forward to going free with war's end.
The Russians dreaded it.
On May 7, upon hearing of V-E Day, their spokesman, Lt. Col Georgi Solowjow, pleaded against returning his men to Russia:
"We are outspoken adversaries of the Bolshevik system. We declare that we are no longer subjects of the Soviet Union."
"The American government, by not delivering us into the hands of the NKVD [Soviet secret police] at the time of the repatriation of the other Russian prisoners of war to Russia, gave evidence of its large-minded and human comprehension of our situation."
"We appeal again to the humanity of the American government ..."
Who were these 154 POWs of Fort Dix? Most of them had been caught in the swirling tides of the World Wars,
which shifted national boundaries to such a degree that they ended up living in several different countries without moving.
Some were career officers in the Red Army but had lost loved ones to Stalinist repression. Others had themselves done time in Siberia. And some were not Russians at all, but Central Asians, Ukrainians, or Caucasians who never considered themselves citizens of the Soviet Union.
Their identities and stories were never made public at the time, and interviews conducted with the prisoners at Dix were kept secret for 54 years. These interviews were recently declassified by request of The Trentonian, and some of them follow:
PETER GONTSCHAROW, Private. Made a brief statement that indicated probably he had volunteered to serve in the German Army. Asked why, he stated with much dramatic force that in Soviet Russia in 1942 he had seen women beaten and choked to death for taking in washing from German soldiers. Ended by saying, 'Let them shoot me here, for I will never surrender into the hands of the Bolsheviks.
ALEXANDER ALEXANDROW, Lieutenant. Stated he was born in Vologda, Russia, Jan. 23, 1919, where both his parents were also born. He last saw them in 1937 ... captured by the Germans early in 1941 and entered the German Army voluntarily because he hated the Soviet regime and saw the Germans as 'fellow travelers' in the fight against Bolshevism.
KARALBI BASCHEW, Lieutenant. Born at Halchik, Caucasus, May 5, 1918 ... entered voluntarily the German army because he comes from a tribe [the Kabardinas] that has always opposed Bolshevism and because his father and brother had been shot by the NKVD.
"WASSILI TARRASUK, Private. Does not know place of birth. Was a Partisan [fighting the Nazis] in the Smolensk area. The Partisans, he said, were a disciplined organization until the Soviet comissars were sent into it, then they rebelled. Asked whether he was afraid to go back [to Russia], replied: 'I am not afraid. I was 13 times a prisoner of the Germans and escaped each time. I am a man with no fear of death.' "
On June 28, the White House told the Soviet ambassador to expect the POWs to be transported the very next morning.
It was supposed to be a secret, silent and swift operation. But the POWs found out about it, and resolved to spoil things, even if it cost them their lives.
They dismantled their cots and wielded the legs as clubs. They sharpened their mess knives and concealed them in their uniforms. At 9 a.m., their executive officer, Richard Riewarts, ordered them in German to fall out. "Nein!" they shouted.
Tear gas canisters were thrown through the barracks window to force the men out. Shouting, crying, they came out -- swinging their homemade weapons and trying to provoke a mass shooting.
"They didn't appear to care for their lives at all," Riewarts later told Army investigators. "They pointed to their hearts and said, 'Shoot at it.' "
Three Dix guards were stabbed or clubbed, none seriously. In the melee, seven Russians were also hit by gunfire, but the Americans fired low so as not to kill anyone.
After the uprising was over, however, MPs discovered three Russian soldiers hanging from the beams above their cots. Fifteen other nooses were strung up but unused.
The riot at Dix made headlines across the country the next day and prompted Harry S. Truman to give the men a presidential reprieve. He asked Army investigators to study whether the men really wanted to go back to Russia, and whether all of them really were Soviet citizens.
The State Department's legal counsel, R.W. Flournoy, insisted that the U.S. had an obligation under the Geneva Convention to shield the POWs. "I find nothing in the Convention which either requires or justifies ... sending the unfortunate Soviet nationals in question to Russia, where they will almost certainly be liquidated," he wrote.
And from Moscow, Ambassador Averell Harriman was reporting that trainloads of Russian POWs returned every day from Europe -- and every deserter was summarily shot.
Still, Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew on July 11 signed the order to send the Russians back. Soviet cooperation, it was believed, would prove necessary to remake the face of postwar Europe.
Besides, the Soviets would shortly invade Manchuria and take possession of American POWs held by the Japanese. Reprisals were best avoided.
The remaining Russian POWs were kept under 24-hour suicide watch at Dix, They lost their shoelaces, knives, forks, bed frames, belts and suspenders. They stayed on through July and August, unaware what their fate might be.
There were 153 of them now, since three had died and nine were added to their ranks from other POW camps. Seven lucky prisoners were able to prove they were not, in fact, Soviet citizens, and avoided repatriation.
The POWs' final departure was kept top secret and never reported in any newspaper. Declassified documents show that they shipped out on Aug, 31, acting "docile," and were turned over to Soviet authorities at Hof in Eastern Germany.
From there, the 153 POWs of Fort Dix disappeared into a void.
Their ultimate fate is unknown. Perhaps the answer still lies somewhere in the archives of the Soviet prison system, along with the names of millions other vanished victims of the Stalin terror.