Henry F. McKenney and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials
By William F. Hanna
One Saturday morning in the winter of 1988, a tall, graying, good-natured man walked into the Old Colony History Museum with a few Reed & Barton silver-plated spoons in his hand. He was moving to Florida, he said, and wondered if the museum would accept his gift of the silverware. Lisa Compton, the executive director, expressed her appreciation but explained that the museum already had several spoons of that type and there really wasn’t room for more. The man took the news well, even jovially; perhaps he had expected as much. He said his good-byes but as he turned to leave, something in the office caught his attention, and he began to talk about how much he enjoyed history. As it turned out, he had seen a great deal of it.
Local historians know that everyone has a story to tell, and after more than forty years this man was about to tell his. He was Henry F. McKenney, a Raynham native who had lived most of his life in Taunton. Recently retired after a career as a hydro-therapist at the Taunton State Hospital, he was packing up for a move to Jacksonville, Florida. Like many men of his generation, he had devoted a part his youth to the war against the Nazis. But unlike most of his contemporaries, McKenney was present when several of Hitler’s ex-minions were called to justice. As a 19-year old soldier, he had been a guard inside the Nuremberg, Germany courtroom where twenty-one former officials of the Third Reich were on trial for their lives. A twenty-second defendant, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia and later found to have died before the trial.
McKenney had enlisted in the army in August 1944 and by Christmas he was in Europe. He saw combat in the last months of the war and as the Allies mopped up what remained of the German army, McKenney saw for himself the unfathomable cruelty of the Nazi death camps. This was one memory that would stay with him for the rest of his life. When the fighting ended McKenney stayed in Germany as part of the American occupation force, and while stationed in the city of Furth he was randomly selected for duty in nearby Nuremberg. The International Military Tribunal was set to open there in the third week of November 1945, and the young soldier was ordered to report immediately for a series of briefing sessions.
McKenney soon realized that this was a fortunate posting. Awaiting him in Nuremberg were new uniforms and the best accommodations that an army private could hope for. The food was excellent and while thousands of his fellow G.I.s prepared for outside duty in the cold German winter, McKenney looked forward to working in a warm, comfortable building.
The War Crimes trial was held in the Palace of Justice, a stately, early twentieth-century building and one of the few in Nuremberg that had escaped heavy damage from Allied bombing. Each day twenty-one defendants were brought into the courtroom under heavy security. Seated on long wooden benches they faced a panel of four judges (with four alternates) and a large room packed with lawyers, clerks, translators and representatives of the world press. All of the court’s business was translated into four languages and the defendants frequently needed headphones to understand what was happening. Some also wore sunglasses to shade their eyes from the high-powered lights used by the newsreel cameramen. Years later, McKenney would remember it as a “spectacular show.”
The proceedings began each day at 10 A.M. and lasted until 5 P.M., with occasional brief recesses when requested by the judges or lawyers. McKenney and the other G.I.s worked rotating 30-minute shifts, standing at the parade rest position. Their commanding officers insisted that with the eyes of the world upon them, American military personnel must appear impeccably dressed, completely professional, and relentlessly stoic. They were to have no personal interaction with the defendants, and even the slightest infraction would bring an immediate transfer to someplace far from Nuremberg.
For the next seven months, McKenney spent his working hours just a few feet away from some of the most notorious architects of the Third Reich. Charged with crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity, each of the accused had an assigned seat on the defendants’ bench, and as the trial unfolded McKenney had the opportunity to closely study each member of this rogues’ gallery. Among them were Hermann Goering, the World War I flying ace and early Nazi, who had overseen the creation of the Gestapo and commanded the Luftwaffe during the war just ended. Rudolf Hess was Hitler’s earliest compatriot and served as Deputy Fuhrer from 1933 until 1941. Karl Doenitz was a career military man designated by Hitler to succeed him as Reich President and Supreme Commander of the German military. Joachim von Ribbentrop had been Hitler’s adviser in foreign affairs. His work as Foreign Minister had opened the door for the 1939 German invasion of Poland. Wilhelm Keitel and Erich Raeder were career military men who helped carry out Hitler’s aggressive policies in Europe, while Baldur von Schirach had built the Hitler Youth movement into an organization with millions of members. Fritz Sauckel, a member of the party since 1923, had been a ruthless Nazi Gauleiter and later governor of the German state of Thuringia. Other defendants included Alfred Jodl, the German army Chief of Staff who ordered the cold-blooded slaughter of prisoners-of-war, and Albert Speer, “Hitler’s Architect,” who had helped stage the massive Nazi rallies and later served as Minister of Armaments and War Production.
Inevitably, as the trial progressed, the strict ban on interaction between guards and prisoners relaxed a bit, and McKenney found frequent opportunities to converse with several of the accused. Even as an older man, he remembered some of their eccentricities. A few, like Franz von Papen and Doenitz, refused to be associated with the other defendants. “We are not criminals,” von Papen said to McKenney. He remembered that Doenitz sometimes joked with the guards, as did von Ribbentrop. McKenney said that as the evidence mounted against him, the hypochondriacal Hess frequently complained of stomach pain. He paid almost no attention to the proceedings and passed the time by reading paperback novels.
Looking back on the trial four decades later, McKenney clearly remembered how unexceptional most of the defendants were. “They were such ordinary men,” he said. They frequently bickered among themselves and several took pleasure in informing the guards of even the most minor infractions committed by a fellow prisoner. “They kept picking at each other,” McKenney remembered. “They were really such crybabies.”
Of all the defendants, McKenney found Hermann Goering to be the most interesting. Standing 5' 10" tall, the former Luftwaffe commander had once been a heavyset man with an imposing demeanor. Even though he had lost a great deal of weight at the end of the war, McKenney remembered that Goering still took great care to appear dignified and stately before the cameras. He insisted on wearing his uniform to the trial and McKenney said he suspected that Goering used cosmetics to try to improve his appearance. It was all to no avail, however. “He was a big man, “ McKenney remembered. “All of the badges were stripped from it, and the uniform just hung off him.”
In McKenney’s opinion, Goering was also the most engaging of the prisoners. The arch-criminal frequently asked about the health of McKenney’s mother back in the States, and he always addressed the young soldier with respect and good humor. “I knew what [the Nazis] had done,” said McKenney forty years later. “I had even seen one of the concentration camps. It was just horrible.” And yet, he said, “I realize it sounds crazy. To me, Goering was a nice guy. But sure, I know what he really was.” Goering’s pleasant nature didn’t keep the young guard from being appalled one day when the prosecution showed a film which graphically detailed Nazi brutality. A few of the prisoners refused to look at the screen, and at least one burst into sobs. Goering, however, appeared to enjoy it very much and kept prodding Hess to pay closer attention.
One day, during a brief recess in the trial and without much thought beforehand, McKenney decided to ask Goering for his autograph. This was a major breach of protocol which if discovered would have had serious consequences. Nevertheless, McKenney thought that Goering’s signature would be the highlight of his mother’s weekly coffee klatch back in Taunton, so he decided to take the chance.
After removing a fountain pen from his jacket pocket, McKenney reached into his wallet and retrieved a one-dollar bill that his mother had given him as a good luck token when he left for the army. In hushed tones McKenney told Goering why he wanted the autograph and asked if he would sign the currency. Goering cheerfully agreed and when McKenney handed him the dollar bill, the German pointed to the engraving of George Washington on its face and said, “Look, Private, there’s your Uncle George.” This brief, successful interaction emboldened McKenney and in the ensuing days, sometimes with Goering’s assistance, he secured other autographs. In fact, he amassed quite a collection of trial-related memorabilia.
On October 1, 1946, after an eleven-month trial, the court handed down its verdicts. Eleven defendants, including Hermann Goering, were sentenced to death. Three, among them Rudolf Hess, were sentenced to life in prison, while four others, including Karl Doenitz, received prison terms ranging from ten to twenty years. Three defendants were acquitted.
Ten of the eleven men condemned to death at Nuremberg met the hangman on October 16, 1946. Goering, in a final act of defiance, had committed suicide by ingesting potassium cyanide in the hours before he was scheduled to hang.
By then, Henry McKenney was far away from Nuremberg. Discharged from the army in June 1946, by October he was back in Taunton and driving for the City Cab Company. He said he felt no sadness as he read the headlines announcing the executions. He shared a few of his experiences with his fellow drivers and he also posted the famous dollar bill on the company’s bulletin board for a few days. A Gazette reporter showed up for a brief interview and then life returned to normal.
Forty-two years after leaving Nuremberg, Henry McKenney learned that the OCHM didn’t want his spoons, but his memories of Nuremberg were another matter entirely. He was generous with his time that day, first offering a summary of his experiences for those in the museum’s office, and later sitting for a two-hour, much more detailed recounting of his days in the Palace of Justice. It was mid-afternoon when he finished, and as he prepared to leave, he asked if the museum would accept his gift of all the material that he had brought back from Nuremberg. The answer, of course, was yes, and today the memories of a quiet, unassuming 19-year old soldier hold an important place in our collection.
Henry died in Jacksonville, Florida on October 29, 1996. He was 70-years old.