Even in a war with more than its share of horrors, the Malmedy massacre stands out. Eighty-four American soldiers were brutally killed by their German captors in a shocking breach of the Geneva Convention’s rules for warfare. Forty-three more were left for dead, using all their will to remain completely silent and still as they lay amidst the dead on freezing, snow-covered ground.
Today, more than 70 years later, just three of those Malmedy survivors are still alive. The stories they have to tell about that day are the focus of a new film from Tim Gray and the World War II Foundation. “Survivors of Malmedy: December 1944” will premiere on PBS this weekend in honor of Memorial Day, and the stories it has to tell are crucial to our understanding of our world, the filmmaker says.
“People always say history repeats itself, and it may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes with itself,” says Gray. “The lessons [these men and women] leave have a lot to do with sacrifice, and belief in their fellow man, and belief in a cause, and belief in their country.”
Gray has a deep respect for the surviving members of the Greatest Generation he’s interviewed over the years as he’s made 20 documentaries about World War II. One of the people who impressed him the most was Harold Billow, a Malmedy survivor whose story is featured in the new movie.
“He was one of those guys who kind of witnessed everything,” Gray recalls, “and had to play dead in the freezing cold. He really went through the worst of it. He could give a perspective of men being shot to the right of him, and then being shot to the left of him, and he doesn’t know why he survived.
“What stood out was the amount of time the guys had to play dead lying there,” he continues. “They were afraid to even breathe. Because it was so cold out, they didn’t want the Germans to see their breath. They would see the boots of a German next to their head, and they were about to be shot, but then a guy would groan, maybe 15 feet away, and the German would lose attention with them and move on and shoot the next guy.”
Even the youngest of World War II’s veterans are now in their 90s, and for many, memories are starting to fade as they approach the ends of their lives. But an event like Malmedy sticks with you, Gray says. “It’s still very vivid in [Billow’s] mind, and I think that’s important. All three of the guys who are left remember what happened like it was yesterday. They struggle with their own day-to-day memory, but this is seared into their mind just because of how horrific it was and how random it was.”
The Malmedy massacre was just one small piece of the notorious Battle of the Bulge, a six-week slog through Belgium, France, and Luxembourg in bitterly cold temperatures. It was one of the German army’s last stands, and as their defeat loomed, their brutality increased to the point that, having overwhelmed a battalion and forced them to surrender, they ignored the international agreement that said prisoners of war must be treated humanely. “It was an incident where all the rules of war were thrown out the window,” Gray says—the largest massacre of American troops in Europe in World War II.
The Malmedy massacre isn’t the best-known piece of World War II history. From the distance of many decades, we’re more likely to be able to relate the details of battles that have been covered in recent hit films, like the battle of Dunkirk or the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Malmedy massacre has found its way into a few war dramas—“Judgement at Nuremberg” and “The Battle of the Bulge” stand out—but it’s overshadowed by other horrors of the war. Yet as we get farther away from that time, it’s important to preserve all the details, the personal memories as well as the official accounts—and honor the soldiers who died there as well as those who survived to tell the tale.
“If you look back at that time,” Gray says, “everybody played a role. I mean, kids were playing a role. They were collecting scrap iron on the home front; they were collecting newspapers; they were collecting rubber. The women went to work as Rosie-the-riveters. They proved that they could do anything that men could do. It’s the most fascinating time, because it really brought out the best of what America had to offer.”
See local TV listings for air times.