His World War II experience began as an infantryman on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge and ended as a sergeant of the guard at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
Jim Sharp, a retired Farm Bureau staffer and longtime resident of Manhattan, shared his military experiences, ripe with historical significance, with Hillsboro’s noon Kiwanis Club last Tuesday.
“I would just say my two-plus years in the United States Army, beginning when I was 19, 20 years old, was a transformational experience in my life,” Sharp said. “It’s followed me ever since.”
His son Doug, who manages Midland Farm Services Inc. in Hillsboro, introduced his father to the group. Doug Sharp said while family members were aware of some of his father’s exploits, they didn’t learn the details until after Jim’s retirement in 1987.
“In 2000 he presented our family with a manuscript from his diary, which we had never heard about,” Doug said.
The diary eventually led to the publication of two books, “Diary of a Combat Infantryman” in 2010 and “Sgt. of the Guard at Nuremberg” in 2012.
Prodded to serve
Jim Sharp was a junior at White City High School in December 1941, when his parents and four siblings heard the radio news bulletin that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.
His two older brothers soon enlisted for military duty, one in the Air Force and the other in the Navy. His older sister moved to California to work in the defense industry; his younger sister eventually followed suit.
“I was going to go, like all of my buddies, into the service,” Sharp said. “It was a patriotic time. Everybody was behind the effort. Well, the draft board said we need people like you on the farm to produce food for the soldiers, sailors, Marines and the civilian population. So I accepted that.”
But not for long.
“About six months later, the parents of these friends were getting notices that their sons, daughters and maybe grandkids were killed, wounded or captured,” he said.
“It didn’t take very much of that to convince me I really should be helping the war effort in another way. I told my dad, we had a farm sale, Dad and Mom moved to Herington, and I went off to the Army.”
After 13 weeks of basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, Sharp found himself sailing to Europe in a convoy of 40 troop ships.
“Our troop ship was so crowded we couldn’t move around, so I got a fifth-tier bunk and just stayed there,” he said.
To pass the time, Sharp pulled out the dairy and pencil he had received in a Red Cross goodie bag as the troops boarded the ship, and began writing about his experiences.
Sharp and his comrades eventually got off the ship in Calais on the northern coast of France. It was December 1944.
Sharp recalled: “A French engineer asked, ‘Where are you fellas going?’ We said we’re going to the front line. He said, ‘You better get there in a hurry, because (the Germans have) broken through the American lines and they’re winning the war.
“I was just a kid and didn’t realize the significance of what he said,” Sharp said. “This is what he meant: We were being thrust into the Battle of the Bulge.”
With some 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed, the Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II.
Within four months of the fighting, Sharp, barely 20 years old, became the old-timer in his company because of the many casualties. He himself experienced many close calls. He took shrapnel in his leg, but wasn’t treated by medics.
Sharp and his comrades eventually crossed over into Bavaria, where leaders thought Adolf Hitler would seek refuge as his regime crumbled. When that didn’t happen, Sharp’s company became military police after the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
“Our job was to go into these towns and villages and arrest the Nazis, whether it was a bergmeister, a regular Nazi or an aide to Adolf Hitler,” he said. “We brought them in for questioning.”
Sharp said the soldiers usually launched their searches at midnight, when the suspects were most likely to be home.
“We’d knock on the door, and of course nobody want to let their dad or their grandpa go with us,” he said. “But we would arrest anyone that resisted, and we brought them in for questions.”
Some of those arrested ended up at Nuremberg, where Sharp was selected to be a cell-block guard. Conditions in the city were challenging.
“Nuremberg to me was at least 95 percent rubble from the bombing raids we put over that city,” Sharp said. “The last one was on Feb. 2, 1945—800 planes, dropped 500-pound bombs and incinerator bombs.
“The incinerator bombs would drop through five floors of an apartment house and burn the thing down. The 500-pound bombs would destroy everything in sight.”
As sergeant of the guard, Sharp’s job was to supervise and post guards in the courtroom, the cell block and the interior and exterior security areas.
Officially called the 4-Power International Tribunal, the first trial brought 22 of the highest ranking Nazi officials to face justice before a panel of eight judges—two from each of the four primary Allied powers: the U.S., Russia, France and Great Britain.
“The Russians wanted to just shoot them all, including 50,000 of the top German officers, and not even have a trial,” Sharp said. “Our people thought the world ought to know what happened, so we did have a trial.”
Some of the more well-known defendants at the trial were Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer.
Sharp said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he first encountered the Nazi conspirators.
“They were terrible people—I thought they were going to look like green monsters,” he said. “But after I got to associating with them every day, I found out they were just like I was, only a lot better educated. They could speak two or three different languages.”
Sharp eventually secured autographs from nine of the defendants, including Goering and Speer.
During the trial, the Nazi defendants claimed they were not guilty because they were simply following the orders of their fuhrer (leader).
“The problem was, we did not allow standing orders as a defense,” Sharp said. “If you got an order to do something that was against international justice, and you did it, we still prosecuted you.”
In the end, 11 of the 22 defendants were sentenced to death by hanging, three to life in prison and four to shorter prison terms. Three men were acquitted.
Goering, perhaps the most notorious defendant of all, committed suicide an hour before he was to be hung.
“Hermann said he wasn’t going to die on the gallows—he sent a note to the judges to that effect,” Sharp said. “What they didn’t know was that he had a cyanide capsule.
“After all the searches the doctor did, the guards did and everybody else did, it was a big embarrassment that this man was ready to go to the gallows, and he had a cyanide capsule.”
Although the Army hasn’t substantiated the story, Sharp believes the version of events that surfaced in 2005.
An American soldier on guard duty, whom Sharp recalls, said he was convinced by his German girlfriend to smuggle some medicine to Goering in a ballpoint pen because, she claimed, the Americans were refusing to treat him. The “medicine” turned out to be cyanide.
“The Army investigated that for years and said (Goering) had (hidden) cyanide in his body cavities—I mean, he was in prison for years and we were checking him all the time,” Sharp said. “He didn’t have it in his body cavities.”
Before the trials ended, Sharp came home to get on with his life. He enrolled at Kansas State University in fall 1946, earned a business administration degree and settled in Manhattan.
Sharp takes pride in the fact that Hitler’s Third Reich did not last a thousand years, as the Nazi fuhrer had predicted. It ended in 12 years, but at the cost of more than 45 million lives.
“I’m glad to have been in basic training, and going across the ocean in a convoy, and being a guard at the Nuremberg trial—and living through front-line combat, which is amazing,” Sharp said. “I have an awful lot of blessings to count.
“I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go do it again,” he added. “All I hope for is that us so-called intelligent human beings, and our leaders, can get around the table and resolve our differences there rather than kill millions of people.
“We’ll pray for peace and hope for the future.”