Sessler was still talking to the Americans, with very little success. The captured Ginny men now were giving only name, rank, and serial number. Then an unusual thing happened. One of the enlisted men suddenly said, “I know you, you were on a German Merchant Marine vessel that I provided ice to in the New York harbor.”
It was true, Sessler had served on a merchant ship in the 1930s. For him, suddenly the whole thing was personal. He met with Klaps and Koerbitz, and the three were convinced not only that the execution order was premature, but that the men did not fall under this order. At midnight, Klaps retired to his quarters, convinced that the execution order would be withdrawn. Unable to quell his fears, Klaps began to telephone headquarters to talk to Dostler again to find out if he had read the telegram. Finally, around 4:30 am. Dostler came on the phone. Dostler asked his staff to show him the telegram. He then told Klaps the case was decided, the order had been given, and that it must be executed. Nothing could save the Ginny men. Their fate was sealed.
Sessler went back to talk to the Americans. Now they were aware of their fate. Sessler told them that everything possible had been done but there was no chance for a change. In one last desperate attempt to help the Americans, Sessler left his pistol hanging on the door so one of the prisoners could steal it. He hoped it might be of use in an escape attempt.
Led to the Firing Squad
On Sunday morning, March 26, 1944, only three days after the men of Operation Ginny landed on the Italian shore, two trucks arrived to take them to the place of their execution. Lieutenant Rehfiel arrived with an escort guard of 25 men to collect the American prisoners. It was still dark as the men were loaded in two trucks with guards in each. Lieutenant Traficante had the gun stolen from Sessler and planned one last attempt at escape. The bad luck of the Americans continued. As Traficante started to pull the gun out of his sheepskin jacket, it hung on the edge. The guard opposite him simply lowered his rifle to cover the lieutenant. The convoy stopped as the guards disarmed Traficante and searched the other 14 men.
At 6:30 am, the trucks arrived at the grave site where Bolze was waiting. Rehfeld informed him that the prisoners in the trucks were not dead yet. Bolze directed him down the road another five kilometers to where the execution was to take place. Bolze realized that they had not summoned a doctor to pronounce the men dead and called the battalion doctor, Heinz Kellner. At 7:15 am with the doctor present, the men were taken off the trucks and marched to the execution site. To add more horror to the event, the Germans could not decide whether to place them against a rock wall or at a cliff with the sea to their backs. It was decided that in order to avoid a possible ricochet they would stand with the sea to their backs.
In a scene of almost indescribable terror, a group of eight was marched up to face the German firing squad. As the second group looked on, they were shot down with their hands tied behind their backs. The Germans covered their bodies with planks and then marched the second group to face the firing squad. At 7:20 am, the second volley rang out and the final curtain fell on the tragedy of the Operation Ginny soldiers. The German lieutenant in charge then administered a pistol shot to the back of the neck of each body to ensure death.
Bolze had walked as far down the road as he could to get away from the execution site. After the second volley, he returned as the bodies were being loaded into the trucks. The convoy then drove back to the site where the grave had been dug. The bodies were placed in the pit and covered with dirt. Then clumps of grass were placed on top. The grave was left unmarked.
Later in the day, in an ironic twist of fate Kesselring rushed a cable to Dostler’s headquarters with orders to hold up on the execution. Both the German and Italian Fascist headquarters realized that this execution was a mistake and if the war did not go their way someone would have to pay. German radios began to broadcast stories about a group of American commandos that had been wiped out in a skirmish with German troops. They enlarged on the lie by adding a statement that the Americans had shot some of the German troops during the fight. Kesselring, feeling very ill at ease with this execution, ordered all headquarters concerned to destroy documents on the incident.
Discovering the Fate of the Ginny Men
Immediately after war’s end, two men from the 2677th showed up in Bonassola searching for information on the missing Ginny men. Captains Albert G. Lanier and Nevio J. Manzani searched the files at the local Facist archives. They found a copy of the prefect’s report of the capture of the Ginny team and the names of Vittorio Bertoni and Giobatta Bianchi. The two were arrested and detained as POWs. They next found the farmer, Franco Lagaxo, and from his statement learned that a German patrol was also involved.
The first real lead came when they found Lieutenant Bolz in a POW camp. Questioned on May 10, he described his part in the execution and burial. Bolze also named Major Almers and 1st Lt. Koerbitz as the officers that gave him the orders. Sessler, the interrogator, was also found in a POW camp and confessed his part in the war crime. He wrongly named General Rudolf Toussaint as the person who gave the execution order. This information sent the American team searching in the wrong direction for some time.
When Koerbitz and Klaps were found and interrogated, they identified General Dostler as the man who issued the order. The investigation now began to pick up speed. Dostler was located in the U.S. 85th Division POW camp and had been formally charged with committing a war crime. He was charged with violating the “Law of War under the Hague convention of 1907” by having unarmed prisoners of war shot.
Armed with the information given by Bolze, a team of medical personnel went to the area to look for the mass grave. On May 23, 1945, excavation began and the bodies were discovered. All 15 still had their hands tied behind their backs. None had any boots or shoes, and two wore no outer clothing. Identification was made with dogtags or marks in the uniforms except for the two with no clothes. The remains of Tech/5 Joseph M. Farrell and Tech/5 Liberty J. Tremonte could not be identified with certainty.
The mysterious disappearance of the OSS men of Operation Ginny was solved. Since they were never brought before a court or given a hearing, it was clear to the Americans that this summary execution constituted a war crime.
The Trial of Anton Dostler
General Anton Dostler was transported to Rome for his war crime trial. A military commission of nine officers was set up by Headquarters Mediterranean Theater of Operations to conduct the trial. This trial was widely covered by the press for two reasons. First, Dostler was the first German general to stand before a United States military commission and, second, the outcome would set a precedent for a wide-ranging set of upcoming war crime trials, including Nuremberg.
All of the German and Italian prisoners of war were also in attendance except Almers. He had been captured but escaped before a statement could be taken. Lt. Gen. Joseph M. McNarney, U.S. commander in Italy, appointed the following officers to the commission: Maj. Gen. L.C. Jaynes, Brig. Gen. T.K. Brown, Colonel H. Shaler, Colonel James Notestein, and Colonel F.T. Hammond. Major F.W. Roche (Judge Advocate) served as prosecutor. The defense was headed by Colonel C.O. Wolfe and Major C.K Emery. General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin was appointed as special German counsel and interpreter.
The defense immediately presented a plea that a military commission did not have jurisdiction to try the accused but that he should be tried by a court-martial. The commission ruled that the defendant did not commit the war crime as a prisoner of war but before hostilities ceased.