At the age of 20, when most young people dream of seeing the world, Kent Ross had one goal in mind – getting home.
The young man had no idea he was going to be part of history when, while serving in the Army at the end of World War II, he was assigned duty as an escort guard at the Nuremberg trials. He became acquainted with some of the most notorious villains from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Ross recently began sharing his experience with groups in the Dodge City area.
Long time friends Larry and Kathy Schugart of Great Bend had no idea their long time friend of 30 years had been a part of history, until one day, over lunch, he mentioned the talks, and the Schugarts became excited.
“We had recently travelled to Nuremberg on vacation, and had been in the very courtroom Kent had served in so many years ago,” Kathy said.
They invited him to share his program at the Barton County Historical Museum. Monday evening, a large group filled the library at the museum to hear about his eight months service during WW II.
He served as an escort guard, he escorted prisoners from their cell to the courtroom, and stood behind them as a guard during the proceedings.
The road to Nuremberg
Ross credits his father for saving his life when he was a young man. Its because of him, he said, that he is here today to share his story.
“One day, I’d already had one physical for the army, and I passed that and was home waiting for the next shoe to drop.”
Unbeknownst to him, his father had travelled to the county seat at Liberal, and asked the Selective Service representative for his son to be granted a one year deferment so he could help work on the farm. Ross did not know about it until he received the deferment notice in the mail. As it turns out, it saved his life
“I missed the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy invasion,” he said. “One or the other would have got me. I know this because that is what I went over for – replacements for the soldiers that were killed in these two big offenses they had.”
In fact, the squad he was assigned to had only one man left from the Battle of the Bulge. “They lost all their weapons, and it was a terrible thing,” he said. “It was wintertime and they had to fight in the snow and the cold. I thank my Lord that I was not there.”
He started his tour of duty in Marseilles, France. From there, he was loaded onto a train and travelled to Belgium. There, he managed to contract the mumps, so went back behind the lines to the hospital, and missed the crossing of the Rhine. When he was finally well enough to resume his duties, he recalls seeing some of the many German soldiers who had begun to surrender en masse.
“They were happy, laughing and waving at us as we passed because they knew they would finally have good food,” he said.
At the end of the war, Ross hadn’t served long enough to accumulate enough points to be sent home, so he was assigned to duty at a Russian displaced person camp. From there, he was sent to Czechoslovakia where he experienced a shortage of rations that left him and the other soldiers in his platoon getting by on bread from a local bakery and a butter-like ration. They stole turnips from a local farmer’s field until he complained to the army captain and they were ordered to stop. Finally, food arrived.
Then, he was transported to Nuremberg. He was one of 35 soldiers who were chosen to be escort guards at the Nuremberg trials. He spent the next eight months, waking the prisoners the likes of Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering every morning and waiting for them to get dressed.
“These prisoners were terrible men. They had done terrible things. They were responsible for terrible things,” Ross said. “Each night, they took away their belts and their ties and their shoelaces away from them, and they had to put them back on in the morning before they went to court.”
He remembered leading them through a 1,000 foot-long covered tunnel and climbing a 30-foot staircase to an elevator. He would take three defendants and guards at a time to the courtroom. There were 21 defendants total in the court.
Seven escort guards at a time would stand at parade rest behind the defendants, trading off every two hours. When they weren’t guarding, they would check passes of people entering the courtrooms at the hallways and gates. Each day, the color of the passes would change, and if a person did not present the right color, they could not get in. This rule didn’t only apply to spectators. It applied to everyone, even the judges, he said. They checked briefcases and purses, making sure no weapons or cameras came into the buildings.
While standing guard, he heard and saw evidence of the atrocities the prisoners were accused of.
“They took pregnant women, and tie their legs together so both mother and baby would die,” he said. “I don’t know how they could go home to their families after ordering these things to be done.”
During one part of the trial, two tables were brought into the courtroom upon which evidence was displayed. Among those items, Ross saw bars of soap made from human fat, tools like crude looking pinchers, and pins used to drive under fingers and toenails.
“They had grippers that ripped off finger and toenails,” he said. “I don’t know how they lived with themselves, but this was done.”
They had hanging pictures, purses and billfolds made from tattooed human skins. The better the tattoo was, the better they liked it he said. He also recalled a shrunken head, coal black. To get it as small as it was, they had to remove all the bone and keep shaping it to make it look like a head, he said
“I’m trying to forget some of the worst things they did,” he said.
Among some of the souvenirs Ross has from that time is a copy of the marriage certificate and the will left behind by Adolf Hitler. A friend worked in the documents room at the trials, and made a copy of each for him.
He was left with the impression of one prisoner, Herman Hess, sentenced to life in prison, as being disconnected during the trial.
“He refused to talk, and spent the entire trial reading a book,” he said.
Sharing the story
Ross married Marie in 1972, and the couple recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. She said he has never been back to Nuremberg, and has no interest in doing so. She has accompanied her husband to several programs. Whether the audience is young or old, they all have one thing in common.
“They’re highly interested, and they all have questions,” she said. “They just really want to know all of what happened.”
Earlier this year, Ross presented his program to a history class at Dodge City High School. He was quite surprised that the young kids had as many good questions as they did, she said.
Now, with years of reflection, Ross knows he needs to pass on his experience. He’s doing his part to keep the story fresh, he said so as the words on the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. read, “Lest we forget.”
Watch sound slide of Ross’s talk on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-orH4swpt4&feature=youtu.be.