One of a Kind

The case of Anton Dostler is unique in American History. It’s the only instance where a German general officer was tried and executed for war crimes on the sole authority of the United States.

photo of Dostler on trial
Anton Dostler (right) and his interpreter Albert O. Hirschmann are shown here during Dostler’s trial in 1945 at the Palace of Caserta in Italy. Screenshot from YouTube and TheUntoldPast

Far Behind Enemy Lines

During the evening of March 22, 1944, fifteen American soldiers (two officers and thirteen enlisted men) waded ashore on the Italian mainland some 60 miles north of La Spezia, about 250 miles behind German lines. These were members of Company D, 2677th Special Reconnaissance Battalion, a covert operations group working under the guidance of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Operation Ginny II’s mission was to destroy a tunnel on the critical rail line between La Spezia and Genoa, a line the Germans were using to supply forces fighting on the Cassino and Anzio beachhead fronts. The men undertook this dangerous ground mission because Allied bombers had already tried and failed to destroy the rail line.

Each of the Americans was of Italian ancestry and was chosen for the mission because most of them spoke Italian. All wore regulation US Army field uniforms (including insignia) and did not attempt to hide their identities. That’s an important point to note.

OSS organizational chart
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) organizational chart. Image from the 1945 OSS Training Manual.

The men of Company D were a day and a half into their mission when a patrol of Italian militiamen and German soldiers discovered them. A brief firefight ensued, and the outnumbered Americans were forced to surrender.

The prisoners were taken to La Spezia and confined near the headquarters of the Wehrmacht’s 135th Fortress Brigade. That unit, commanded by Colonel Kurt Almers, was subordinate to General Anton Dostler’s 75th Army Corps.

The American prisoners were brutally interrogated by German military intelligence. First Lieutenant Vincent Russo, on what was not his finest day, was tricked into revealing the details of the operation after his interrogators told him that one of his men had already revealed all. In truth, that had not happened.

An Illegal Death Sentence

As soon as the Wermacht gained the information they wanted, Almers proudly reported the American’s capture to higher headquarters. The following day, March 25, 1944, the brigade received a telegram with one line of text. It read,