Thomas (Tom) Stafford was born in Washington, DC (June 1923) and raised in Petersburg, VA (Colonial Heights) where he lived during all of his early years. Tom was drafted (March 1943) out of college (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) into the Army during World War II.
Assigned to the 6th Combat Engineer Special Assault Brigade upon arrival (January 1944) in England, he was promoted to Corporal and participated in the invasion of France during the early stages of the assault on OMAHA Beach (D-Day, June 6, 1944). He continued serving with the Brigade through the Normandy and Northern France Campaigns. Transferring (December 1944) to Company L, an Infantry Rifle Company in the 347th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division, he was soon promoted to Platoon Sergeant, Second Rifle Platoon and, after replacing his Platoon Commander (who was wounded) continued to lead the Second Platoon during the Battle of the Bulge; the assault on the Siegfried Line; the assault crossing of the Mosel and Rhine Rivers; the Central European campaign and into Czechoslovakia, where he received a battlefield Commission (2nd Lt.) shortly after the surrender by the German forces on May 8, 1945.
Immediately upon the war's end in Europe, Tom accompanied the 87th Infantry Division upon its return (July 1945) to the States. The Division, having been selected to participate in the invasion of the Japanese Island of Honshu, was preparing to move to California for shipment to Japan when President Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs to persuade the Japanese also to surrender.
Having received five battlefield promotions during combat, (Corporal to 2nd Lt.), Tom decided to remain in the Army after the war finally ended. Selected to serve as Aide-de-camp to General Phillip Gallagher, Commanding General (CG), 25th Infantry Combat Team at Ft. Benning, GA (1946), Tom later accompanied the General to the Philippine Islands where General Gallagher became CG of the 14th Philippine Scout Division. Tom then accompanied Gen. Gallagher back to Germany (1947) as his Aide-de-camp when the General became Deputy CG of the US Constabulary; Director of all US Army Military Posts in USAREUR and later CG of the Berlin Airlift Command during the "Cold War."
Upon his promotion to Captain, Tom was given (1950) command of a 1st Infantry Division Rifle Company assigned the mission of securing the German-Czechoslovakia border prior to returning to the States (1951). He then served two tours of duty in Korea: first tour, (1953-1954) as Headquarters Company Commander of the 7th Infantry Div. and later as Civil Affairs Officer of the 25th Infantry Div.; second tour, (1960 - 1961) as Budget Officer for the Eighth US Army following his promotion to Major. Between his two tours in Korea, Tom was stationed in Hawaii (1954-1957) with the 25th Infantry Division upon its withdrawal from Korea in 1954.
Returning to the States (1961) after his second tour in Korea, Tom was assigned to the Office of the Comptroller, Military District of Washington. He retired from active military duty (Major) with a medical disability in 1963 but continued to serve as a Dept. of Defense civilian employee (Comptroller, GS-15) until he retired again in 1987, having completed 43 years of Federal service.
During his active military service, Tom received a total of twenty-four decorations and medals, including The Combat Infantry Badge; The Silver Star with one OLC; The Bronze Star with Letter V device and one OLC; The Army Commendation Medal with one OLC; The Presidential Unit Citation (D-Day); The French Croix de Guerre with Palm (D-Day); the French Fourragere(D-Day) plus five campaign stars and D-Day invasion arrowhead. He also was awarded the Army Civilian Meritorious Service Medal.
East Meets West - The Movement Toward Czechoslovakia
Immediately following the capture of Plauen, the 347th Infantry Regiment shoved off again. This time our objective was to reach the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, approximately 15 to 20 miles away. On April 17, the 1st Battalion captured Oelsnitz, apparently with little opposition, while the 2nd Battalion moved into Ober Losa, and the 3rd Battalion cleared the small city of Theuma, cutting the Autobahn (a super military highway) between Theuma and Ober Losa. Although the border of Czechoslovakia now was well within range of our division’s artillery, we were told that Major General Culin, our Division Commander, had been ordered by higher headquarters to stop our advance shortly after we captured Plauen. Rumors began to circulate that we were to remain in place to await the coming of Russian forces which had been reported to be approximately twenty-five kilometers eastward of our positions. After driving across Germany to the Czechoslovakian border, usually as the left flank division of General George S. Patton's Third Army, our corps (The US VIII Corps) was transferred to the First Army on April 22, 1945. We were ordered to remain in defensive positions on the First Army's right flank; continue patrolling along our front adjacent to the Third Army (on our right) while waiting for contact by the Russians.
During the next two weeks, having captured a number of towns and villages seven or eight miles east of Oelsnitz and Theuma, including Bergen, Steinigt, Lottengrun, Tirpersdorf, Werda, Arnoldsgrun, and Marieney, the 347th Infantry established and held a front line which ran generally from Falkenstein and Poppengrun on its left flank through the villages of Werda and Schoneck to Wohlbach on its right. While holding this line, nightly patrols were conducted and scattered contact with the enemy to our front continued. During this time period we received considerable incoming rifle and machine gun fire, plus occasional artillery shelling on a daily basis to let us know there were German units in front of us who still were willing to fight. Just south of our lines a group of saboteurs with a load of demolitions was captured by 347th Infantry combat patrols, while several men from our 2nd Battalion were ambushed and captured, in turn, by the Germans. We heard numerous rumors that Germany was on the verge of surrender, but none of those tales proved to be true.
While marking time, waiting for the Russians who were slowly approaching our lines from the East, we were told by Capt. Kidd, our Company Commander, that higher headquarters wanted several men from each company to take a jeep and visit a recently liberated German concentration camp at Buchenwald -- a small village located near Weimar about 70 miles behind our lines -- to bear witness to the unspeakable atrocities which had been found there. Lew Goad and I volunteered to visit Buchenwald and, upon our arrival, will never forget what we saw. Etched forever in my memory were piles of dead bodies, at least 10 to 15 feet high, stacked on the ground in several places. Many more corpses had been loaded in open rail cars, apparently waiting to be moved to the crematory ovens or away from the camp. I remember seeing a number of German civilians inside the camp who had been ordered to go from their homes in Weimar and nearby villages to also bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
One of the horrors that Lew and I remember seeing was a small shack located near the crematory ovens, which contained a number of cans with numbers stamped on their lids. We were told that the cans contained the ashes of cremated inmates which could be purchased for a fee by their families. I assume this offer applied only to the families of non-Jewish political prisoners because I am certain no Jewish family member, who might have been hiding somewhere within reach of the Gestapo, would have made their presence known by responding to such offer. I also recall seeing a number of former prisoners milling around inside the camp, so I believe our visit to the camp must have occurred shortly after its liberation.
In fact, I learned later that Buchenwald actually had been discovered on or about April 11, 1945 by a motorized patrol consisting of Capt. Frederick Keffer and three enlisted men from Task Force 9 of 6th Armored Division, while the 87th Infantry Division, having captured Bad Blankenburg to the south, was moving rapidly towards Saalfeld and Plauen. I also learned that shortly after Buchenwald was discovered, a detachment of soldiers and medical personnel from the 87th Infantry Division were sent to the camp to help in providing emergency care and evacuation of the camp’s survivors, most of whom were near death or in extremely poor condition.
Although higher headquarters understood that, having captured Plauen we and other allied forces had advanced far beyond the point agreed to by the Allies and the Russians, many of us at the battalion and company level were hoping we would continue to remain in our present positions and wait for the Russians to reach our lines. In fact, during this period, several officers and enlisted men in the 3rd Battalion, including Lt. Isidore Vallorani, had been given “rest and recuperation passes” to visit Paris, France. Vallorani, who had led the 3rd Platoon, Company L from the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, took over as our Company Executive Officer, thereby becoming second in command of Company L shortly before we entered Plauen.
On the night of May 5, however, we received word that we would wait no longer -- the 347th Infantry Regiment was ordered to attack the next morning, May 6 at 0700 hours, to be followed by the 346th Infantry which was ordered to attack at 0800. The 1st Battalion, 347th Infantry was given the objective of capturing Klingenthal, approximately six miles to the east, while the 3rd Battalion, 347th was given the objective of capturing Tannenbergsthal and Jägersgrün, approximately five miles from our present locations, and close to the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Moving out, with Company I headed for its objective of Tannenbergsthal and Company L headed for Jägersgrün, both companies encountered a number of roadblocks (abatis), sometimes only 100 or 200 yards apart for the first mile or so after jumping off enroute to their objectives. These roadblocks consisted of many trees blown down across the narrow roads passing through heavily forested areas. The enemy apparently had erected them when we were forced to hold up, shortly after we had captured Oelsnitz and Theuma. Resistance, however, by the retreating German forces was light, and was soon overcome or bypassed, resulting in the capture of a number of German soldiers.
As Company L approached the outskirts of Jägersgrün, with my platoon (the 2nd) and the 3rd platoon under T/SGT James Scruggs leading the way, Capt. Kidd radioed me saying that a German unit, possibly platoon-size or larger, had been observed in the middle of that village by one of our artillery spotter aircraft. The Germans appeared to be in the process of setting up demolition charges to destroy a bridge that spanned a small river parallel to the railroad tracks that divided that little village. Capt. Kidd ordered me to coordinate with T/Sgt Scruggs, and move our platoons as quickly as possible into Jägersgrün, to prevent the Germans from destroying the bridge. T/Sgt Scruggs had became “acting platoon leader” of the 3rd Platoon after Lt. Vallorani moved up to become our Company Executive Officer.
Setting up a skirmish line and firing as we entered Jägersgrün, the German defenders quickly scattered, thereby permitting the 2nd Platoon to cross over the bridge and allow me an attempt to neutralize the demolition charges that had been placed under the bridge. Hoping that I could do so before the charges could be ignited, my prayers were answered and the bridge was secured. Then, moving quickly through to the far side of the village after the bridge was secured, the 2nd and 3rd Platoons set up perimeter defensive positions as the remainder of Company L moved into Jägersgrün to await further orders.
During this action we captured approximately 25 to 30 German soldiers, including a German Colonel, and what I thought to be several female soldiers who were hiding with him in one of the houses in the village. I was told later the females actually were part of a German entertainment group similar to our USO troupes. The colonel, who spoke fairly good English, apparently had changed into civilian clothing as we were moving into Jägersgrün, because I found his uniform hidden under a bed. After I told him he could be shot on the spot as a spy for masquerading as a civilian, he claimed to be a staff officer assigned to a division headquarters, the command post (CP) of which he said was located 4 or 5 miles deeper inside Czechoslovakia. He told me he believed his division commander was convinced time was running out for the German forces and would prefer to surrender to the Americans rather than to the Russians, who he had heard were nearing Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. I suggested to the colonel that he contact his division commander and advise him that the members of his division certainly would be far better off if he surrendered to the Americans, rather than be captured and imprisoned by the Russians. The colonel said he had no radio or wire contact with the Division Commander and asked if I would be willing, under a flag of truce, to accompany him through the German lines to locate a German front line unit, which was in contact with division headquarters.
I then made two very stupid mistakes. First, after having survived five campaigns, and foolishly believing by then that “the Germans didn't have a bullet with my name on it”, I agreed to go with the Colonel. Second, I did not personally inform Capt. Kidd of my intentions and obtain his permission to venture behind enemy lines. I told S/Sgt Howard L. Crawford and Eldridge “Frenchy” LeBlanc (my platoon messenger) what I hoped to accomplish, and to inform Capt. Kidd if I was not back in an hour or two. I then hung part of a white sheet over the front of my jeep. Placing the colonel in the front seat, I sat behind him (with my pistol stuck between his shoulder blades) and instructed Jones, my driver, to follow the Colonel's directions.
What transpired then, and for the next six or seven hours, was like watching one of the prewar "slap stick" movies. Moving slowly southeast of Jägersgrün on a forest road leading towards Carlsfeld (located about 6 miles east of Jägersgrün and close to the Czechoslovakia border), we luckily passed without trouble through the first German outposts. The Wehrmacht soldiers, with their weapons ready, eyed us like visitors from outer space. Although the German Army units had been steadily retreating as we pushed them eastward towards Czechoslovakia, I do not recall observing any confusion in their ranks as we drove deeper behind the German lines. The German units that we observed appeared to be well organized and ready to defend their positions until compelled again to continue their retreat. One clear memory, however, still stands out in my mind. I remember seeing a German soldier walking along, a mile or two further down the road, carrying a huge armload full of bread to a field kitchen that had been set up near the road. Turning around and seeing us as we approached, he dropped the entire load of bread as, wild eyed, he frantically attempted to un-shoulder his rifle. Thankfully, the Colonel screamed something at him in German, which settled him down. A few minutes later we were met by a German officer, who obviously had been alerted of our approach by the first outposts we had encountered.
After a short conversation in German, the Colonel arranged for a German motorcycle escort to precede us to his division's headquarters. I estimated the headquarters to be 3 or 4 miles inside Czechoslovakia near the towns of Prebuz and Rudne, and approximately 12 miles from Jägersgrün. Upon arriving, the Division Commander, whose name I do not recall, was informed by the Colonel that I was there to accept his surrender. The Commander told me, in excellent English, that although he knew there was little hope left for Germany, and as much as he would like to save his troops from further harm, he could not willingly surrender his division unless ordered to do so by his Corps Commander.
I suggested to him that he contact his Corps Commander and advise him that he, too, would be far better off if he surrendered his entire command to the Americans, rather than waiting for his troops to be captured by the Russians. I told him if his Corps Commander wasn't ready to surrender, then I expected him, the Division Commander, to provide safe passage for my driver and me back to Jägersgrün and the American lines, since we had come under a flag of truce. Before agreeing to contact his Corps Commander, the General asked me why the American forces had stopped their advance after having driven the German Army almost into Czechoslovakia. I told him I had no knowledge of why we had stopped, but he could rest assured that we were moving again and this time we wouldn't stop until we were eyeball-to-eyeball with Russians. Apparently that was all that was needed to convince him to contact his commander.
What seemed to me to be an eternity, but was probably less than an hour -- while the Division Commander, the German Colonel, Jones and I sat casually drinking wine on the verandah of a beautiful home which was the division headquarters -- the Division Commander received word that the Corps Commander wanted to see me at his headquarters.. During our wait I learned that in the German Army a brigade-sized unit was commanded by a "Generalmajor" (major general), a division was commanded by a "Generalleutnant" (lieutenant general), and a corps was commanded by a "General der Infanterie or Panzertruppe, Artillerie,etc." (full general).
So, off we went again -- this time escorted by a number of Wehrmacht motorcycle troopers, sirens wailing, leading the way and traveling even deeper behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia. Arriving at the Corps Headquarters, which was located in a large building on the outskirts of Karlsbad (now named Karlovy Vara), I was escorted into the Corps Commander's office. Speaking English, he immediately asked what my rank was. I, like all front line American infantrymen, was not wearing any insignia of rank. Combat infantrymen quickly learned that non-commissioned and commissioned officers were “targets of choice” for German snipers. I certainly wasn't about to tell him that his surrender was being demanded by a Technical Sergeant wearing muddy and dirty clothing -- so I told him I was a Captain, commander of an infantry rifle company. He looked me over, commenting that the American Army also must be running out of officer materiel if it, like the German Wehrmacht, was forced to fill its officer ranks with youngsters barely out of high school. Although I had not yet reached my 22nd birthday, I told the General that I was 24 and had been fighting the Wehrmacht since June 6, 1944, having participated in the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach (the latter part being the truth). He then told me that he had been a German officer for more than 30 years, and would not surrender unless ordered to do so by his higher command.
Fearing that my venture behind the German lines was about to end in failure, I told the Corps Commander what I had earlier said to his division commander -- that my division and the rest of the American Army was moving again and this time we wouldn't stop until we were eyeball-to-eyeball with Russians. Knowing absolutely nothing of the rules of war, the Geneva Convention or anything else having to do with surrender formalities, I told him that if he formally surrendered to the American forces, the Russians would have to honor that formal surrender document. Although I knew only a few German words, hardly appropriate for the moment, several of his staff officers, appearing anxious to convince him to surrender, apparently offered their opinion (in German) to the General that my statements were correct. The General told me to wait outside his office while he discussed the situation with his staff.
My driver, Jones, and I sat in the hallway just outside of the general's office for what seemed like another eternity, hearing what sounded like a heated debate between the General and his staff. While waiting for the General to make up his mind, Jones and I watched with growing uneasiness while numerous staff personnel and dispatch messengers ran hurriedly up and down the halls, eyeing us warily as they entered or exited their offices. While I understood from the beginning that our venture deep behind enemy lines would not be a "cake walk," I began to realize that the situation in which I had placed Jones and myself was growing more serious with each passing minute, possibly ending with deadly results.
Not knowing what was going on in the General's office, I must admit that for the first time since leaving our lines, I realized that Jones and I might very well be taken outside and shot because of my brazen and foolhardy actions. After what seemed like another eternity, I was called back into the General's office and informed that after weighing the predicament facing the soldiers and officers under his command, he was prepared to surrender his entire Corps, including the division which I had visited earlier -- but would only do so to an American officer of equal rank. I told him that was not possible; that time was running out for him and his troops. The Russians were rapidly moving from the east and would soon overrun and deal harshly with his forces. I told the General that I had been sent by my Division Commander (which was not true) to accept his surrender, and if he wasn't ready to do so, then I expected him to provide safe passage for me and my driver back to the American lines.
After thinking this over for several minutes, the General agreed to surrender his entire command to me, but said he would not do so in his headquarters, preferring to surrender in the field among his troops and at a location halfway between his headquarters and my division’s command post (CP). I thought this insistence to be rather strange, but gladly agreed, knowing that it would take Jones and me closer to our lines. The General asked me to point out on the large battle map in his office the approximate location of my division’s CP.
By this time, it was getting late in the day and I did not want to be behind enemy lines after dark. Neither was I going to give him the location of my Division CP, nor even my Regimental or Battalion CP -- none of which, truthfully, I had any knowledge. Looking at his map, I found Jägersgrün, which I quickly estimated to be at least 25 miles or more from our present location. Pointing to a road junction near Carlsfeld just inside the German-Czechoslovakia border, I told the General that I believed that particular junction was approximately halfway between his headquarters and my Division's CP. I simply wanted us to be close to the American front lines when we finally departed company with the General and his entourage. The General then ordered several of his senior staff officers to accompany him. Jones and I, along with the Colonel I had captured earlier in Jägersgrün, following in my jeep -- which was sandwiched between the General's staff car and several other German staff cars -- with even more Wehrmacht motorcycles, sirens wailing, leading the way, we headed for the road junction which I had selected.
Arriving at the junction, we found what looked like a small hotel or beer hall, the proprietor of which was hiding with his family in the cellar. The General asked for some paper on which to write his surrender, but none of his staff apparently had brought any. He then told the proprietor to bring him some paper, and was informed by the poor fellow, who was shaking and scared nearly out of his wits, that all he had was some ledger sheets used to record his hotel transactions. As I remember it, the documents -- one in German and one in English -- were then written on several sheets of cheap and poor quality ledger paper. Both recorded, at my insistence, the unconditional surrender of what turned out to be more than 40,000 Wehrmacht troops, including what I thought at the time was a Lieutenant General, several Major Generals and a number of Brigadier Generals. I learned later, after researching the National Archive records, that this surrender action included at least twenty German generals, whose name and rank are listed below.
After receiving my copy of the surrender document, I (recalling a scene from a movie I had seen before the war) asked the General for a token of his surrender. Without hesitating, he gave me his personal pistol -- a small automatic. I then requested that the German Colonel I had captured in Jägersgrün be allowed to accompany me back to my lines, and that a motorcycle escort lead the way. That request was granted and, with considerable relief, we headed straight for our lines. Needless to say, the German officer later thanked me for including him in my request -- grateful to be a prisoner of war and safe in American hands.
Upon reaching Jägersgrün, Jones and I estimated we had driven at least forty-five miles behind the German lines. When I informed Capt. Kidd, my Company Commander, where we had been, and handed him the surrender document, he said words to the effect that I was one crazy fool, adding -- with a wide grin -- that he didn't know whether to courts martial me or recommend me for another medal. Capt. Kidd immediately sent the document to Major Withers, our Battalion Commander who, I assume, sent it immediately to Division Headquarters. I learned shortly afterward that while Company L had captured Jägersgrün, Company I had driven the Germans out of Tannenbergsthal and the 1st Battalion was in the process of capturing Klingenthal, during which it and it’s accompanying Tank Destroyers killed and wounded a number of enemy troops.
During our travel behind enemy lines, we observed a number of heavily camouflaged strong points, including a number of tanks which were located at strategic positions offering good “fields of fire” along the densely wooded and narrow roads. We also saw a number of artillery pieces, some located at bends in the roads with their tubes depressed so that they could fire at anything coming towards them. Many trees immediately adjacent to the roads that passed through heavily forested areas had been rigged with demolitions, to permit them to be blown down across the roads to help impede our advance. Had the German Corps Commander decided not to surrender, these defensive measures undoubtedly would have resulted in significant American and German casualties. These sightings were duly reported to Capt. Kidd upon our return.
Major Tom Stafford