“The buck stops here.” That phrase, popularized by President Harry Truman, tells us that responsibility ultimately rests with the person in charge. This concept has long been embraced in international law.1 So too has it been adopted by the military. Army Regulation (AR) 600-20, para. 2-1 says “Commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do.”2
But this was not the case for Colonel James A. Kilian. Known as the “Beast of Lichfield,” he presided over the “most shocking Army scandal of World War II,”3 where countless American Soldiers were reportedly tortured—to death in some cases—by their overseers. Yet Colonel Kilian escaped with little punishment, even though some of his subordinates received harsher sentences. His story illuminates the difference between legal ideals and practical realities.
Although war produces many deaths, it produces many more injuries. Take the Battle of the Bulge: for every one man killed, four men were left wounded, missing, or captured.4 While some injured Soldiers remained permanently so, others could be nursed back to health and redeployed. To accomplish this task, the Army set up various reinforcement centers during WWII to rehabilitate men released from military hospitals and prepare them to rejoin units in the field. The 10th Reinforcement Depot in Lichfield, England, was one such center.
The British loaned the Lichfield Depot to the U.S. Army in 1942 to use as a staging area for the invasion of Normandy. After D-Day, it was converted into a reinforcement center. The compound consisted of three buildings. In addition to holding recuperating Soldiers, one building—the guardhouse—served as a prison for Soldiers who had committed offenses such as absence without leave or theft of Army property.5 The entire Depot could house as many as 32,000 people at once.6
Colonel Kilian was the commanding officer for the Depot. His permanent rank was lieutenant colonel, but he had been temporarily promoted to a full-bird colonel during the war.7 He ruled the compound like his own fiefdom. After all, he was invested with broad authority over the installation. Under AR 600-375 (1943), the commanding officer had “[f]ull responsibility for the security, management, and rehabilitation of all prisoners.”8
That same regulation stated that the commander’s policies must conform to “well-established principles of . . . humanity.”9 But dark rumors about the Lichfield complex started to spread. Specifically, rumors of the harsh conditions at the guardhouse where prisoners were housed and about the commander’s sadistic methods, including lethal punishment. Soldiers recovering in hospitals in England “knew the words Lichfield and Kilian as well as [they] knew the location of the nearest pub.”10
If even half of the rumors were true, the prison was ghastly. According to the New York Times, the facility was an “ugly red brick building, begrimed by industrial smoke, [that] sat on a treeless limestone hogback. Most of the barracks windows were broken. There were no lawns or plantings around the camp.”11 Guardhouse latrines were filthy and sometimes only a single broken toilet was provided for hundreds of men.12 Blood was ever-present on the walls.13 Prison barracks were so crowded that some slept on wall lockers.14
The brutal conditions, however, paled when compared to the brutal treatment of the prisoners. The daily schedule, including weekends, called for three and a half hours of calisthenics in the morning, followed by ten minutes to eat. Black Soldiers were singled out to crawl on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed.15 Anyone complaining of hunger was required to take triple helpings and then force-fed laxatives.16 Others were forced to eat cigarettes.17 After lunch, there would be four or five more hours of calisthenics. Everyone had to participate, even the wounded. All the while, guards patrolled the ranks with eighteen-inch billy clubs and used them freely. Those beaten did not receive medical treatment.18
And that was far from the end of it. Various accounts told of men being beaten with fists, clubs, and rifle butts until unconscious, and when they awoke, ordered to clean up their own blood.19 Guards deliberately jabbed the wounds of Purple Heart veterans and claimed that shooting a prisoner could get them a promotion.20 Colonel Kilian was reported to have advised one of his lieutenants to take a prisoner and “work him over” and added, “just don’t break too many bones.”21
A favorite punishment at Lichfield was to have inmates stand in the stress position of toes and nose against the wall for hours on end.22 Worse still, the inmates could be forced to stand against the wall while running in place. This placed Soldiers in a terrible dilemma. They either had to slam their knees into the wall with each step, or risk being beaten for not jogging vigorously enough.23
Another punishment called for prisoners to scrub the floor—made miserable by the fact that the compound was largely unheated and temperatures routinely fell below freezing. As a result, Soldiers who scrubbed the floor had to do it as water froze solid—along with the brush—all without even so much as a jacket for warmth.24 The Army newspaper Stars and Stripes called Lichfield “a concentration camp run by Americans for American soldiers.”25
Attempts to report the abuse suffered by those at Lichfield were severely punished,26 but word got out eventually. On 19 July 1945, Stars and Stripes published a letter from a Soldier who claimed to have been beaten at the Depot, and the Army received separate reports of abuse from other Soldiers around the same time.27 Soon enough, papers all around the United States picked up the story.28
After investigating, the Army convened a court-martial against Sergeant (SGT) Judson Smith, the chief-noncommissioned officer at the guardhouse.29 Sergeant Smith first enlisted in the Army at fifteen with an eighth-grade education. He was subsequently discharged, went to work as a coal miner, and then decided to reenlist in the Army before being assigned to the 10th Reinforcement Depot. During his military tenure—until being investigated for his time at Lichfield—SGT Smith consistently received “excellent” ratings on his performance reviews.30
The court-martial of SGT Smith started on 3 December 1945. Smith’s attorneys were first lieutenants, recent law school graduates, and inexperienced—but at least they were lawyers. That was not a foregone conclusion since the Articles of War at the time did not require defense counsel to be learned in the law. But the defense counsel were not alone in their inexperience. The prosecutor, Captain Earl Carroll, had only been sworn in as an assistant trial judge advocate a few hours before testimony began.31
Testimonial accounts about the prison varied wildly. As many as seven different versions were put forth on some points, and Smith underwent a grueling eight-hour cross-examination.32 Smith’s defense was eerily similar to the Nazi officers who were being tried at Nuremberg around the same time: he was just following orders.33 This strategy worked as well for him as it did for those tried at Nuremberg: Smith was convicted and sentenced to three years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge.34 The sentence did not stick, however. Sergeant Smith was released after three months, restored to service, and left the Army with an honorable discharge. He went back to coal mining and died a few years later.35
During Smith’s court-martial, prosecutors set their sights on the commanding officer of the Lichfield Depot, as well as roughly a dozen officers and enlisted men. All in all, sixteen additional defendants were charged for the abuses at Lichfield. Thirteen of them were convicted.36 Six of the defendants were officers, and ten were enlisted. Most received fines that amounted to roughly a month’s salary, but no prison time.37
On 16 May 1946, the court-martial of Colonel Kilian began. His trial was even more chaotic than Smith’s. There were “frequent bitter clashes” between the participating attorneys, and defense counsel Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Ford was held in contempt for shouting “hot words” in trial.38 After losing on a technical ruling, the defense counsel charged that the court had “prearranged” the outcome to favor the prosecution.39 Kilian, for his part, went from tan to pink to red to purple as his rage grew on the stand.40
The whole case was almost derailed by a score of prosecution witnesses going on strike and refusing to testify. The witnesses were outraged by the fact that numerous defendants had gotten off nearly scot-free even though the witnesses themselves had experienced the charged torture.41 The witnesses, somehow, had received far longer prison sentences for far lesser crimes. For example, one witness received a twenty-year sentence for taking an unauthorized trip to London while waiting to testify.42 At one point, witnesses even tried to tunnel their way out of the holding cell.43
After ten weeks of testimony in the Kilian trial, the panel took only two hours to deliberate. The panel acquitted him of “aiding and abetting” the very same cruelties for which nine enlisted guards and three subordinate officers were convicted. Kilian was found to have “permitted” cruel and unusual punishment, but not of having “knowingly” permitted it. As such, he was given a $500 fine, a formal reprimand, and sent on his way.44
We may never know why the sentences of those responsible for the abuses at Lichfield were so light, particularly for the man in charge, but we can guess. First, the defense in Kilian’s court-martial presented evidence of how incredibly busy the Depot was to lend credibility to the notion that Kilian did not know about the abuse at the time it occurred. The prison was at double its intended capacity and could process anywhere from 200,000 to 250,000 people a year.45 Although at least twenty-three prisoners and six guards testified about the abuse, the defense called thirty-five witnesses—including chaplains, medical officers, and inspectors—who claimed that they saw no abuse.46 Despite the fact that AR 600-375 (1943) required Kilian to “personally assure himself by frequent inspections as to the proper enforcement of all prison regulations,”47 the panel may have believed that Kilian was in the dark.
Second, perhaps the panel saw the draconian treatment as a necessary evil. The purpose of a reinforcement Depot is to take wounded warriors and send them back into harm’s way. If the Depot was seen as too accommodating, troops might deliberately try to go there, or get imprisoned there, to avoid combat. It would not be the first time Soldiers were tempted to commit crimes to avoid fighting.48 Plus, some of the first men sent to the Depot were, in fact, criminals who had been convicted by military courts in the United States of everything from robbery to rape.49 These men had no scruples about deserting, so the cadre may have adopted heavy-handed techniques to keep them in line.
Whatever the rationale, the light touch punishments of the Lichfield abusers ignited a firestorm of criticism. Time Magazine called it a “wrist-slap [that] satisfied no one but the Army’s brasshats.”50 Senator Chapman Revercomb groused that the penalties against Kilian were too light and “entirely out of keeping with his conviction.”51 Before Kilian’s sentence was even handed down, Captain Carroll resigned in protest of what he called a deliberate attempt by the Army to protect the high officers in the case.52
Colonel Kilian remained defiant until the end. Maintaining his innocence of the charges and his ignorance of the abuse, he claimed a review of his case would “vindicate [him] and inform the people of the truth.”53 His appeal for relief under Article 53 of the Articles of War was rejected after review by the Secretary of the Army and The Judge Advocate General.54 Undaunted, he launched a libel lawsuit against books and newspapers that stated he was complicit in the torture.55
After Kilian’s conviction, a journalist noticed his name was on a routine promotion list to be raised to permanent full bird colonel on the basis of seniority. Congress balked.56 President Truman eventually relented, taking Kilian’s name off the list and removing his eligibility for promotion. Shortly thereafter, Congress changed the promotions process to include merit rather than be strictly based on seniority, a system that still exists today.57
The Litchfield trials laid bare many of the shortcomings of the previous court-martial process: inexperienced counsel, explosive exchanges between attorneys, and disparate outcomes in sentencing for officers and enlisted. But they also were one of the factors that prompted the development of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the development of a more detailed Manual for Courts-Martial58—both of which help ensure that trials are regularized and that just results can be reached. TAL
1. E.g. In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 15–16 (1946).
2. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 600-20, Army Command Policy para. 2-1 (6 Nov. 2014).
3. Lorenzor, Colonel Kurtz in our Midst, Tamworth Time Hikes (Oct. 17, 2011), https://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/colonel-kurtz-in-our-midst/; National Affairs: The Colonel & the Private, Time (Sept. 9, 1946) [hereinafter The Colonel & the Private], http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,855387,00.html.
4. Kennedy Hickman, World War II: Battle of the Bulge, ThoughtCo. (Mar. 23, 2017), https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-the-bulge-2361488.
5. Jack Gieck, Lichfield: The U.S. Army on Trial 10 (1997).
6. Memorandum Opinion, Application for Relief under Article of War 53 in the Case of Colonel James A. Kilian, 0-5133 (CM-318513), at 177 (1950) [hereinafter Memorandum Opinion].
7. Gieck, supra note 5, at 17.
8. Memorandum Opinion, supra note 6, at 175 (1950).
10. Irvin M. Herowitz, Cabbages and Kings, Harv. Crimson (June 21, 1946), https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1946/6/21/cabbages-and-kings-peto-veterans-who/.
11. Gieck, supra note 5, at 9.
12. Id. at 98.
13. U.S. Soldier Prisoners Tortured, Altoona Tribune (July 20, 1945), https://www.newspapers.com/image/57739064/?terms=%22lichfield%2C%2Bengland%22.
14. Herowitz, supra note 10.
15. Gieck, supra note 5, at 7, 15–16.
16. The Colonel & the Private, supra note 3.
17. Gieck, supra note 5, at 6.
18. Id. at 15–16.
19. The Colonel & the Private, supra note 3.
21. Memorandum Opinion, supra note 6, at 174, 176.
22. The Colonel & the Private, supra note 3.
23. Gieck, supra note 5, at 16.
24. Id. at 11, 19.
25. Lorenzor, supra note 3.
26. Gieck, supra note 5, at 18.
27. GI Complaints of Beatings In England Guardhouse Probed, Lincoln Star (July 19, 1945), https://www.newspapers.com/image/65276796/?terms=%22lichfield%2C%2Bengland%22.
28. See Army Probing Beating Story, Detroit Free Press (July 20, 1945), https://www.newspapers.com/image/98156555/?terms=%22lichfield%2C%2Bengland%22; Letter Charges Guards Beat U.S. Prisoners, Palladium-Item (July 20, 1945), https://www.newspapers.com/image/253251949/?terms=%22lichfield%2C%2Bengland%22; Army Investigating Stories of GI Beatings, Courier-News (July 20, 1945), https://www.newspapers.com/image/221247049/?terms=%22lichfield%2C%2Bengland%22.
29. Herowitz, supra note 10.
30. Gieck, supra note 5, at 3.
31. Id. at 39.
32. Id. at 74, 75.
33. Id. at 15.
34. Herowitz, supra note 10.
35. Gieck, supra note 5, at 239–40, 259.
36. Officer Acquitted in Lichfield Trial: Last of Cases Involving Camp Heard—13 of 16 Who Were Charged Were Convicted, N.Y. Times (Sept. 8, 1946), https://www.nytimes.com/1946/09/08/archives/officer-acquitted-in-lichfield-trial-last-of-cases-involving-camp.html.
37. Major Fined in Lichfield Cruelty Trials, Schenectady Gazette, at 10 (Aug. 28, 1946), https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19460828&id=PYouAAAAIBAJ&sjid=qIYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=750,3273200; Associated Press, Officer Is Fined $250 And Reprimanded For Lichfield Beatings, at A-9, Evening Star (June 16, 1946), https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1946-06-16/ed-1/seq-9.pdf; Herowitz, supra note 10.
38. Gieck, supra note 5, at 236.
39. Associated Press, Lichfield Witnesses’ Escape Thwarted as Tunnel Is Discovered, at A-13, Evening Star (June 18, 1946), https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1946-06-18/ed-1/seq-1.pdf [hereinafter Lichfield Witnesses’ Escape Thwarted]; Gieck, supra note 5, at 236.
40. Gieck, supra note 5, at xvii.
41. Id. at 226.
43. Lichfield Witnesses’ Escape Thwarted, supra note 39.
44. Col. Kilian Is Convicted At Hearing, Burlington Daily Times-News (Aug. 29, 1946), https://newspaperarchive.com/burlington-daily-times-news-aug-29-1946-p-1/.
45. Memorandum Opinion, supra note 6, at 176, 178.
46. Id. at 177.
47. Memorandum Opinion, supra note 6, at 175.
48. See Fred L. Borch, Command Influence ‘Back in the Day,’ at 1, Army Law., Jan. 2018, https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/01-2018.pdf.
49. Gieck, supra note 5, at 10.
50. The Colonel & the Private, supra note 3.
51. Congressional Probe of Lichfield Prison Is Urged: Kilian’s Small Fine Questioned, Biloxi Daily Herald (Sept. 4, 1946), https://newspaperarchive.com/biloxi-daily-herald-sep-04-1946-p-1/ [hereinafter Congressional Probe].
52. Associated Press, Army Court in Europe Stacked Against Accused, Senator Says, Evening Star (July 8, 1947), at A-3, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1947-07-08/ed-1/seq-3.pdf [hereinafter Army Court in Europe Stacked Against Accused].
53. Congressional Probe, supra note 51.
54. Memorandum Opinion, supra note 6, at 174, 183.
55. Kilian v. Doubleday Co., 367 Pa. 117 (1951); Army Court in Europe Stacked Against Accused, supra note 52.
56. Brian McAllister Linn, Elvis’s Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield 21 (2016).
57. Associated Press, Col. Kilian Protests Denial of Promotion As “Contrary to Law,” Evening Star (Apr. 17, 1947), at C-10, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1947-04-17/ed-1/seq-61.pdf.
58. Gieck, supra note 5, at 245.