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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.

The following day, after knowledge of Compton’s execution of the enemy had traveled up the chain of command, Lieutenant General Bradley personally questioned the junior officer about his actions. Compton insisted that he was only following orders. He told Bradley that General Patton had said in a speech prior to their landings in Sicily that, in the case “where the enemy was shooting to kill our troops and then that we came close enough on him to get him, . . . he must die.”

What was to be done about these two massacres at Biscari? General Bradley “was horrified” when he learned what West and Compton had done and “promptly reported them to Patton,” his superior commander. Patton not only “cavalierly dismissed the matter as ‘probably an exaggeration,’” but told Bradley “to tell the officer responsible for the shootings to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press, so nothing can be done about it.”

But Bradley was a man of principle and refused to follow Patton’s suggestion. On the contrary, Bradley directed that West and Compton be tried for murder.

Sergeant West was the first to be tried. He was charged with murdering 37 prisoners, and his court-martial began on September 2, 1943, and concluded the next day. West pleaded not guilty, and his defense counsel (none of whom were lawyers) portrayed him as “fatigued and under extreme emotional distress” at the time of the killings. This “temporary insanity defense,” however, was not successful, and West was found guilty.

The general court-martial of Captain Compton was a very different affair. Like West, Compton was charged with murder—in this case, 36 prisoners of war. But Compton’s trial went very differently, especially after Compton testified under oath that General Patton had said that “if you officers in leading your men against the enemy find him shooting at you and, when you get within two hundred yards of him and he wishes to surrender, oh no! That bastard will die! You will kill him. Stick him between the third and fourth ribs. You will tell your men that.”

Compton did not waiver in insisting that he had been following orders. As he put it, “Right or wrong, a three star general’s advice, who has had combat experience, is good enough for me and I took him at his word.”

On October 23, 1943, after the prosecution declined to make a closing argument in Compton’s trial, the court found Captain Compton not guilty of the charge of murder.

When Lieutenant Colonel William R. Cook, a military lawyer serving as the 45th Infantry’s Staff Judge Advocate, reviewed the West and Compton records of trial in November 1943, he immediately recognized that he had two problems. The first was that, when charged with very similar war crimes, a sergeant had been convicted while an officer had been acquitted, and because that sergeant had been sentenced to life in prison, this might be perceived as unfair.

But perhaps more troubling was that Compton had been acquitted because he claimed that his execution of enemy prisoners had been sanctioned by General Patton’s orders. Cook did not want to criticize the court members directly, and he acknowledged that Patton’s speech to the 45th’s officers provided both a moral and a legal basis for the panel’s conclusion that Compton had acted pursuant to superior orders. But Cook nevertheless believed that an order to execute POWs was illegal on its face, because no unarmed person could be made to forfeit his life without the sanction of some tribunal.

To keep what had happened from public view, both records of trial were classified “Secret” and the media was kept in the dark about the two episodes. Captain Compton, who had been reassigned to another unit after his acquittal, was killed in combat on November 8, 1943. Like it or not, his death solved the problem of keeping his case confidential.

Not so with West. He was shipped to an Army prison in North Africa, making it less likely that the Germans and Italians would learn of the Biscari killings. After reviewing West’s record of trial, General Eisenhower decided to “give the man a chance” after he had served enough of his life sentence to demonstrate that he could be returned to duty. On November 23, 1944, Private West was restored to active duty and continued to serve as a soldier until the end of the war, when he was honorably discharged.

The War Department Inspector General’s Office launched an investigation into the Biscari killings, and General Patton was questioned about the speech that Compton and others had insisted was an order to kill prisoners. Patton told the investigator that his comments had been misinterpreted and that nothing he had said “by the wildest stretch of the imagination” could have been considered to have been an order to murder POWs. The investigation ultimately cleared Patton of any wrongdoing.

Remembering that military criminal law and the law of armed conflict today are much different than they were in World War II, what are the lessons to be learned from the events at Biscari? One might conclude that an officer serving in 1943 could expect to be treated differently at a court-martial than an enlisted soldier being prosecuted for a similar offense. Another lesson might be that culpability for war crimes very much depends on who wins the war (so-called victor’s justice). But perhaps the most important lesson is that commanders must be careful when giving a speech designed to instill aggressiveness and a “warrior” spirit in their subordinates. Word choice does matter, and soldiers do listen to what commanders say to them. And sometimes those soldiers are the ones who end up in court.

Fred L. Borch

The author is the regimental historian and archivist for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Army.