The former Army soldier slowly walked past the exhibits, stopping at several that grabbed his attention and reminiscing of a journey he witnessed more than seven decades ago.
For 93-year-old Frank Pinkerton, he focused on the visual displays at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. — the train car, discarded shoes, a miniature display of a concentration camp and photos of American troops liberating the victims shown behind wire.
The final floor, though, resonated with the Elko County rancher, who was with the 53rd Reinforcement Battalion after World War II ended in May 1945. What he saw at the museum were deeply embedded memories of soldiers mingling with freed Holocaust survivors and postwar photos of German military leaders on trial at Nuremberg for their atrocities committed against humanity.
THIRD REICH ON TRIAL
An International Military Tribunal conducted at Nuremberg, Germany, between Nov. 20, 1945 and Oct. 11, 1946, tried almost two dozen of the most influential, ruthless leaders of the Third Reich. Other courts tried additional Nazis who faced serious charges for their part during the war.
“The trials were held in the Palace of Justice,” Pinkerton said, noting the building was large enough to accompany all those involved with the numerous trials and also housed a large prison.
Nuremberg, located 273 miles southwest of the capital Berlin, also held a special meaning for the Allies holding the trial there: The city was known for the rise of Nazism and the Nazi party, and the symbolism provided a somber backdrop to the trials and crimes committed by the defendants. During the war trials, Pinkerton’s command assigned him to transport soldiers from Bamberg to a field hospital in Nuremberg for outpatient services.
“I had to wait for them,” Pinkerton said. “I got there about 9:30 (a.m.) and picked them up around 3 (p.m.). My doctor told me since I was there, I should go to the war crime trials.”
While the soldiers received their treatments, Pinkerton drove to the Palace of Justice to attend the trials from April 1946 to September of the same year.
“Seeing the trials was history,” Pinkerton recalled of the International Military Tribunal. “I always remembered the Palace of Justice heavily guarded. When you went in, two MPs (military police) were behind sandbags and barbed wire. There was a long hallway, and at the end were two more MPs behind sandbags with machine guns. They were playing for keeps.”
Pinkerton sat near a side gallery facing the main floor. He grabbed his headphones and dialed into the English language option so he could follow the proceedings.
“I can almost see these guys sitting there,” Pinkerton recalled, his thoughts racing to 1946 when he was only 19 years old. “There were two MPs standing behind each prisoner.”
GÖRING AND THIRD REICH
The 22 prisoners sat in the last two rows of the courtroom. The one Nazi that stood out for Pinkerton was the second most powerful Nazi, Hermann Göring, commander of the German air force charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Others who Pinkerton recognized included Rudolf Hess and Alfred Jodl, one of the highest-ranking military offices who signed the German Instrument of Surrender on May 7, 1945.
“The only people allowed to take photos were the press,” Pinkerton recalled, his thoughts shifting toward the defendants. “They looked pretty grim. They weren’t smiling. They were told to speak when spoken to.”
After the prosecution laid out its case, Göring’s defense presented its information in March 1946. Pinkerton said Göring was full of himself when he appeared in court.
“He was the guy who had the world by the tail and nothing could go wrong,” Pinkerton said.
Although his memory isn’t as sharp as it was 75 years ago, Pinkerton said, from what he understood, the German people loved Göring. Furthermore, he said Hess, Hitler’s deputy führer, never said anything and kept quiet.
“I’m glad I went,” Pinkerton said. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”
The tribunal judges handed down their verdicts in late September. Göring received death by hanging, but he never kept his date at the gallows.
“Göring escaped the hangman’s noose,” Pinkerton recalled. “He had a secret cyanide pill.”
Pinkerton said the trials revealed the dark secrets of the Third Reich and those who committed indescribable crimes, especially against the Jews. Half the defendants received the death penalty and hanged including Jodl. The Allies then cremated the bodies and either released them to the families or scattered the ashes
“A lot of people don’t have an idea,” he said of the atrocities the Germans committed during the war.
After his short stay in Bamberg, Pinkerton transferred to Stuttgart where he met the master sergeant who was the hangman. Pinkerton said Master Sgt. John Woods executed a number of war criminals. During the second month of the Korean War, though, Pinkerton said Woods was in the South Pacific where he was electrocuted working on a lighting set.
Pinkerton also met a doctor assigned to the 45th Infantry Division’s field hospital. The doctor told Pinkerton the advancing American soldiers could smell the Dachau Concentration Camp before they arrived because of the stench emitting from the piled bodies and the coal-fired crematorium ovens.
“The doctor said the commandant of the 45th gathered the people in town and marched them out,” Pinkerton said. “They helped bury the dead prisoners. They had to dig four trenches because there were so many bodies.”
By accounts, the townspeople buried more than 9,000 men, women and children.
“He told me he had dreams … the worst he ever had,” Pinkerton said, describing one conversation with the doctor.
POST WAR ASSIGNMENT
Once Pinkerton settled into his quarters at Stuttgart, he was asked to join a horse platoon to patrol the Russian zoned boundary (Soviet Occupation Zone of occupied eastern Germany) to the east. Pinkerton said the winter of 1946 was one of the snowiest locals had seen in years. PInkerton's section became responsible for manning three outposts, 24 hours a day.
“If there were enough people, two of us would ride 15 miles out to the end of the border and back,” he described. “The snow drifts were huge.”
Because of Pinkerton's love for horses and riding experience, he finished his time at Stuttgart as a veterinarian technician with the 14th Constabulary Regiment and then transferred to Frankfurt near the end of his tour in Germany in 1948. His time with Uncle Sam, though, continued. After arriving in New Jersey, Pinkerton extended his enlistment in the U.S. Army Reserve, and when he was recalled for the Korean War, he served at a military hospital in Battle Creek, Mich.
Pinkerton, though, feels luck was on his side in the 1950s. He qualified to attend helicopter flight school where he could also be promoted to a warrant officer. He wrestled with the idea of extending his military obligation and flying helicopters. Pinkerton told his future wife what the Army offered, but she replied “it’s either the Army or me.”
He didn’t hesitate with his reply.
“I chose marriage,” Pinkerton said.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the Nevada News Group has featured numerous articles on the men and women who served stateside or overseas. Frank Pinkerton was one of more than 16 million Americans who fought during World War II.