Helsel Tells Of Time At Nuremberg Trials
Some people learn about historical events such as World War II through television, books and even the World Wide Web. Others, such as Wells Tannery resident Harry D. Helsel, have not only lived it but also played a key role.
One of six children born to Harry and Eva (Lowery) Helsel, the 84-year-old Fulton County native spent his youth on the family farm located just on the outskirts of the small northern village. Attending Pine Grove Elementary and Robert Smith High School during his early years, Helsel assumed it would be his destiny to someday operate his own farm.
However, with eight classmates answering the call of duty to the Air Cadets, the youngest member of the Class of 1944 would have to wait until shortly after his 18th birthday the following year to become a member of the United States Army infantry.
Never having granted an interview before, Helsel’s stories about his military involvement have only been shared to date with his four children and extended family members. In fact, some details have been so private that only his wife of 66 years, Mary, has knowledge of them.
Helsel was fortunate to fall in love with and exchange vows with Mary Parlier, who hailed from Robertsdale, just prior to his being sent to Camp Wheeler, Georgia, for basic training in 1945. Mary would eventually join him down south, taking up residence with the wife and child of a fellow soldier in a chicken coop renovated into a three-room apartment of sorts. Each woman received $50 monthly from the government at that time to help with their living expenses. That income was supplemented very slightly by what Helsel would make for his duties, making life difficult at times for the newlywed couple.
Eventually, Mary returned home to family, while Helsel boarded a ship for a 14-day ride across the choppy seas to Germany.
“The war was pretty well over by that time, but we did a lot of the scraping up,” he said. His first time away from home as well as being overseas, Helsel maintained you “just fell into the groove and did the best you could.”
His duties in Germany were varied as the men in his company served as guards at several Nazi prisoner of war camps, including one located near the town of Hammelburg.
“Most of the people in the camps weren’t the cold-blooded Nazis you heard about,” said Helsel, who added the individuals he met were working-class people ranging from farmers and artists to government employees having sworn their allegiance to Adolf Hitler’s movement.
A polar opposite of the treatment of Jewish prisoners held at Hitler’s concentration camps, the 15,000 German people overseen by Helsel’s company were treated “right.” Helsel stated the prisoners were treated well, fed properly and had adequate housing at barracks onsite.
“They were just everyday people,” he noted. In fact, one gentleman with an artistic flair even painted a portrait of Helsel during some downtime.
In addition to being a guard, which earned him a graze across the left cheek from a ricochet bullet while on tower duty, Helsel also served as a supervisor for incoming prisoner mail. Heading to town daily to pick up packages and mail, Helsel stated he oversaw a group of 21 prisoners who translated the letters and kept a watchful eye for anything suspicious. Having to fully trust the prisoners and take them at their word as to what they observed, Helsel recalled one particular letter being of interest. Penned by a priest, the letter contained “some funny writing” and was sent on to a commanding officer.
“They (the prisoners) were looking for anything written that could lead to the overthrow of the Allies’ movement or start trouble,” he said. Each of the 15,000 prisoners housed at Hammelburg were entitled to one piece of mail and one package on a monthly basis. There was no outgoing mail.
Additional duties through the motor pool would eventually lead him to the city of Nurnberg (Nuremberg), considered by many as the “ceremonial birthplace” of the Nazi Party. Shuttling an Army chaplain to the Palace of Justice for the ongoing court proceedings of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), Helsel found himself sitting in the visitor’s gallery of the Nuremberg Trials for several days. Held between November 20, 1945, and October 1, 1946, the trials were convened by the Allied Forces for the prosecution of 24 “major war criminals” involved directly with Nazi Germany’s political, military and economic leadership.
Twenty-one of the accused appeared in person before the IMT comprised of one judge, alternate and prosecutor from Russia, United Kingdom, United States and France. Those under indictment faced at least two of the four counts, which included participation in a common plan or conspiracy; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.
Those charged but not in attendance at the Nuremberg trials were Martin Borrman, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and Robert Ley.
Borrman was successor to Rudolph Hess as the Nazi Party secretary. He was sentenced to death in absentia. His remains were eventually located in Berlin in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, Von Bohlen, a Nazi industrialist, was deemed medically unfit for trial. Labor Chief Ley committed suicide in his cell less than a month before the court proceedings got under way.
In order to enter the trials, Helsel was issued a pass or ticket. Much like a ticket you would receive at a modern day concert or sporting event, the pass specified both row and section. His seat would land him only 20 feet from the major war criminals led by Hitler’s “right-hand man” Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, chief of the four-year plan and the original leader of the Gestapo.
Only three of the accused were acquitted, while Goering and multiple others were sentenced to death by hanging. He escaped punishment, however, by swallowing a cyanide pill the night before his execution.
Thinking back to the proceedings, Helsel recalls having to don earphones, which allowed you to pick your language of choice in order to hear a translation of the testimony given. Sitting so close to the indicted as well as judges and chief prosecutors, Helsel stated he was struck by the fact everyone involved looked like an ordinary, everyday person.
The testimony ranged from repentance to horrific tales of inhumanity. What was likely as equally terrifying was the sound of the trapdoor heard in the palace’s prison complex swooshing open during the hangings.
Helsel was able to take in the palace; Zeppelin Field where many of Hitler’s famous party rallies were held; and the remainder of the walled city during his visits to Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany. The Pegnitz River wound its way through the city, allowing travelers to reach their final destination by paddle boat. Surrounding the banks of the river was the devastation of ongoing bombing. Amid the rubble of fallen buildings were bodies that left the area swamped in the smell of death and decay.
Inside the confines of the palace. Helsel observed the cellblocks used to house war criminals. Guarded 24/7, the cells included a commode, sink, table, chair and bed. Unlike what is shown in some documentaries and movies, Helsel said the only lighting was a solitary lightbulb hanging just outside the cell door.
Helsel and fellow infantrymen also travelled to Switzerland for a little rest and relaxation between August 15 and 23, 1946. Touring different cities, the men adhered to a strict schedule to visit the towns of Villars, Montreux, Bex and Basle. He said they could literally set their watches to the train schedule as it ran like clockwork.
Months passed and with the military wanting their men home for holiday season, Helsel along with 3,000 GIs and 300 nurses boarded a victory ship bound for home on December 15, 1946. Fourteen days later, Helsel found himself back in the United States trying to reconnect with family so he could hitch a ride home.
Helsel eventually made his way to Robertsdale Mountain Christmas Eve, where he surprised his wife and caught the first glimpse of his firstborn son, Joe. Even though they wrote to one another during his absence, Helsel said Mary had no idea he was on his way.
“There wasn’t a phone on every corner back then,” he stated. Possibly the best Christmas gift she ever received, the couple moved back to Fulton County in 1951. Their family grew to include three sons, Joe, Byron and David, and daughter Rena.
“A lot of people say there were things made up about World War II and the Holocaust, but I have proof. I was there,” said Helsel, surrounded by photo albums and memorabilia he saved during his time abroad. Among those are the tickets granting him access to the trial’s viewing gallery; photos of Nuremberg and the Palace of Justice; and posters from the courtroom area denoting the charges against each of the accused, their photo and penalty. The historical items are in as pristine condition as Helsel’s memory.
“I’m just like every other guy. All of this probably would have been worth a million dollars, but I wouldn’t give a penny to go back and relive it,” he noted.