January 01, 2014

LEGAL LORE: War Crimes in Sicily

Fred L. Borch

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On the afternoon of July 14, 1943, near the Biscari airport in Sicily, Captain John T. Compton, a company commander serving in the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division, ordered his men to execute 36 prisoners of war (POWs). Only three hours earlier, Sergeant Horace T. West, also serving in same division, committed a similar war crime when he murdered 37 Italian and German POWs by shooting them. This is the story of those two events, the courts-martial of West and Compton for murder, and the very different outcomes of those trials.

The facts were that on July 14, 1943, a group of American soldiers had overcome enemy resistance and taken 45 Italians and 3 Germans prisoner. Thirty-three-year-old Sergeant Horace T. West was marching the prisoners to the rear when he halted the group. After sending eight or nine of these men on down the road, West lined up the remaining prisoners, borrowed a Thompson submachine gun from another sergeant, and then announced that he was “going to kill the sons of bitches.” Sergeant West singlehandedly murdered the disarmed men by shooting them. Investigators subsequently learned that, after emptying his gun into the POWs, West had “stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving.”

Three hours later, 25-year-old Captain John T. Compton was with his unit in the vicinity of the same Biscari airfield. After the Americans encountered “sniping . . . from fox holes and dugouts occupied by the enemy,” a soldier managed to capture 36 enemy soldiers. When Captain Compton learned of the surrender, he “immediately” selected soldiers from his company for a firing squad. Compton later told investigators that he lined the enemy soldiers up, single file on the edge of a ridge, and ordered the men in the firing squad to kill them—which they did.

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