Years ago I visited the hamlet of Fraiture with my friend Jan Ploeg (3rd Armored Division specialist). The reason for this visit was a rumour that several men of the 3rd Armored Division were murdered in early January 1945.
During that time we did not find any evidence of this. Lack of good contacts in the National Archives (NARA) and lack of other sources made us decide to look at this story another time.
Sadly Jan passed away on 21 august 2020.
During the following years, access to various archives became more and more easy. With the help of Myra Miller and Joey van Meesen a couple of projects came in sight again. One of the most important for me at that time was the Ottré massacre.
While researching one of the other projects I came across an incident card in the folder “war crimes” on Fold3.
And there was our first lead:
Cardnummer 6-11, with the name of Sgt. Krause, referring to a statement of Joseph A. Gorczyca, mentioning the execution of several American tank crewmen, members of the 3rd Armored Division/ 33rd Armored Regiment by German soldiers near Manhay on 7 January 1945.
This was exactly the subject Jan and myself tried to research some years ago.
Friend and colleaque Joey ordered the file and some weeks later I was looking into it.
On 16 January 1947, T/5 Joseph A. Gorczyca made a testimony about what he had witnessed on 7 January 1945 near Manhay. Joseph was a member of the 3rdAD/ 33rd Armored regiment, Company C.
“Our battalion had moved into the vicinity of Manhay, Belgium, around the 5th of January 1945.
On the 7th of January we received orders at one o’clock in the afternoon to leave the town and make contact with two combat commands that were several miles from town. My platoon was under command of Lt. John Modrak. There were five tanks in the platoon. The members of my tank crew were William Forsythe, Waitman Simons, Lt. Modrak and myself. We proceeded about three quarters of a mile from the town in the southwest direction and made contact with the first combat command “CCB”. There we learned that there had been small arms fires further down the road. We reported this to our headquarters by radio and received orders to ‘button up’ and proceed. We then continued in a northwest direction for about three quarters of a mile and came to a bend in the road on both sides of which there was a clump of woods. I was driving and received orders to continue. As we started past the woods our tank apparently hit a land mine. The entire crew was stunned for a few minutes. I awoke first and yelled to the crew to try to snap them out of it. The other members of the crew jumped out and headed down the road in the wrong direction. I attempted to get out of the tank and follow them, but my legs gave away. My left foot had been blown off by the mine and the right foot was badly damaged by a piece of shrapnel. The other crew members came back and started to carry me when some German soldiers in the woods opened fire on us. We sought cover near the tank. About this time the second tank pulled up and we went over to it for protection. The crew members of this tank attempted to open fire but their guns were iced up and they could not offer any help. A member of the second crew, Baker by name, jumped out and came over to carry me. He was wounded twice in the hand while attempting to get back on the tank and then a bullet struck him in the back, knocking him completely off the tank. Simons and Forsythe had seized two carbines from the back of the tank and were attempting to return fire to the Germans. As they could not see the troops in the woods, they were not very effective. In the meantime, I was lying alongside the tank where I had been carried by the other crew members. Simons attempted to board the second tank and was hit in the heel of his foot. He fell from the tank on top of me. Forsythe was wounded and in falling dropped his helmet. I picked it up and put it on my own head as I had lost mine when I left the tank. Lt. Modrak was kneeling in front of me. A bullet had struck him in the groin, passed through my hand and ricocheted off my helmet. By this time the second tank had backed up about fifteen or twenty yards when it was struck by a bazooka shell. Two men of the crew then jumped out of the tank. Hardin, from Texas, and Krause, a new man in our platoon, James Clark, the other member of the crew, remained in the tank, for he had been hit in the arm. Ten Germans came out of the woods and proceeded toward us. Lt. Modrak called out towards them, asking for a doctor. On hearing him, one German raised his rifle and fired. I could not see whom the bullet struck, but I heard no more from the Lieutenant.
I believe the Germans went to the Lieutenant first. Next they came to Simons and myself and pulled Simons off me. They searched his pockets and one straddled me and patted my sides and pockets. They stood mumbling a few minutes and then proceeded back into the woods, leaving me lying there. They took Clark, Hardin and Krause back as prisoners with them. I could see the activities of some of the other Germans in the area from where I was lying. One was swinging a pick, trying to dig a fox hole in the frozen ground. Others were getting straw for bedding from a nearby hay stack. All this time they were calling back and forth among themselves from about one hundred yards up the road.”
According to Joseph, who could not identify the German troops, there was a company of infantry and four tanks in the woods. He also says that he believes there was a small German group that had been cut off from the other German forces in the area.
When the German troops left, Joseph tried to get out of the area.
“My leg was bleeding quite a bit so I thought I had better get out of there. I started crawling toward the ditch but some wires were strung out along its edge. I did not know whether they were cut telegraph wires or booby traps, so I crawled back to the same position I had as before. About ten or fifteen minutes later, two Germans came over from the woods on the other side of the road. I was closest to them, so they walked to me first. After seeing what had happened the last time when someone called out to them , I thought it would be best if I pretended to be dead. They lifted me up by both wrists while I made myself limp. They must have thought I was dead for they threw me back down. One reached over and took the gloves of my hands and ran his hands up my wrists, looking for a watch. I had none so he took the class ring off my fingers. They turned and went to Forsythe and one flipped him over with his foot. He was dead. He reached down and took a ring from his finger.”
Joseph could not see his Lieutenant, John Modrak. So, he did not know if he was still there.
He laid in the same position during the entire night. Just after dawn on 8 January, he saw a platoon of American infantry. Although he yelled at them, they apparently did not hear him.
Joseph finally was rescued around 8.30-9.00 o’clock by a Staff sergeant and a medic of the 83rdID.
Around 10.00hrs, Joseph was picked up by a jeep with two men of his Battalion and a soldier of the 83rdID.
The War Crimes Office interviewed Lt. John Modrak already in February 1945.
But before I go to his statement, I want to take a look at the official US documents.
The Morning Report of 9 January 1945 is mentioning the seven men as Missing In action in Belgium on 7 January 1945. 2nd Lt. Modrak is also mentionened as Missing In Action on the same date.
The records of events tell: “5 Jan, 6 Jan and 7 Jan Co in Divisional Reserve. Tanks used as road patrols from the rear of task force Kane and Res to key roads open. 2 tanks damaged by mine and anti-tank fire, (7 Jan 45) 6 miles South-West of Fraiture, Belgium.”
The mentionened 6 miles are certainly not correct.
Joseph Gorczyca shows up in the Morning reports on 10 January as seriously wounded in action.
John Modrak is reported in the Morning Reports on 11 January as slightly wounded in action (SWA).
In the Morning Report of 19 January we see the name of Ralph Baker back as Killed in Action.
On 25 January we see the name of Waitman Simons back as KIA in Belgium on 7 January 1945.
Hardin, Forsythe and Krause are not mentioned in the Morning reports of January 1945.
The 33rd Armored Regiment logbook did not provide new information.
I also could take a look at the Regimental Combat Interviews.
Let’s describe the days before the incident so you can follow the exact line of attack the men of Task Force Hogan (part of CCR) were following.
Task Force Hogan moved to an assembly area in Manhay. Their mission was to attack and occupy the cross roads 575852 (Baraque de Fraiture) with attached troops of the 1st Battalion/330th Regiment, 83rdID. During nightfall Task Force Stallings (Co A and B/ 330thIR in connection with Co G/3rdBN, 33rdAR) was to move by the secondary road from Manhay to Malempre (560890) which was in friendly hands, then proceed on down to the main road and occupy the crossroads. The attack met slight opposition but the infantry would not move forward. Company G had to follow trails and the attack stopped in the edge of the woods at 561884 (just outside of Malmepre) where they remained for the night. The remaining troops of the Task Force stayed in Manhay.
At 0800 Company A and B and Company G of the tanks were to jump off on their original route through the woods. A report was given to Colonel Hogan that the roads were impassable because of mines and snow. At 14.30 the rest of the task force moved to the crossroads of Belle Haie at 545875.
(Map number: 3)
Tanks of company H and infantry company C of the 330thIR were ordered to proceed. Company C and tanks of H reached 550886 where they stayed for the night. Companies A and B did not advance aggressively through the woods and no contact was kept with the task force and stopped for the night at Croix St. Jacques (566866) for the night. (Map number: 4)
At 0800 both forces were to attack. Co H and company C spotted an enemy roadblock at 562864 (Map: Red B) which consisted of felled trees, mines and booby traps. Three tanks and one Tank destroyer were knocked out by a German armored vehicle at the roadblock. The rest of the task force withdrew in the woods and waited for engineers to clear up the roadblock.
At 1500 company G was ordered to pull back and assemble for the night at 545882. (Map: 3)
At 1700 companies A and B/ 330th reported to Hogan that they had reached the crossroads, but in fact they were on the trail and road junction at 568859. (Map number: 5)
Around 0300 AM the roadblock was cleared by engineers. Company H moved down the road and made contact with the infantry at 568859. (Baraque de Fraiture)
In the meantime task force 2 (CCB/ Stallings) had reached Fraiture and house to house fighting followed and a full battalion was surprised by the task force and 300 German soldiers were taken POW. They continued the next day into the direction of Regné to support Task Force 1. The southern part of Fraiture was still in the hands of German troops.
The task force jumped off at 0800 and met no opposition and the objective was reached and secured at 11.30.
One tank was knocked out at the edge of the woods at 575854.
At 1400 Company C with two light tanks in support were to patrol to Fraiture (586862) and make contact with friendly troops. Upon reaching road junction 584854 the light tanks were knocked out by mines. While the crews tried to bail out they were fired upon from the edge of the woods (585852/ number A at Fraiture woods) and six were killed and two wounded.
The task force held positions around the crossroads with roadblocks set up at 580848 and at 571851. (Map number: 6)
German point of view:
The War Crimes office had, of course, special interest in the identification of a German corporal who shot US POW’s and the organization of which he was a member.
So, I looked up who was in the area on January 6, 7 and 8 and tried to find out more about their whereabouts.
In manuscript B-027, page 74 I found information about the 12th Volksgrenadier Division.
“On the morning of 6 January 1945 about 2000 infantrymen, including the local reserves, were occupying a front line of about 9 km in length as the crow flies, in extremely uneven terrain sprinkled with villages and dotted with patches of woodland. At the right side (Hierlot area) stood Grenadier regiment 48 with subordinated Army Engineer Battalion. In the center (Jevigné area) stood Grenadier Regiment 89 with subordinated Rifle Battalion 27 and a Grenadier Battalion of the 326th Volks Grenadier Division; at the left (Malempré area) stood the Armored Reconnaissance Battalion of the 12thVGD/ 27th Fusiliers. The Division Command Post was at Petite Langlire.”
According to this document, the American troops did not continue their attacks, except for strong artillery harassing fire being sent over into rearward terrain. At 0800 AM the US troops resumed their attacks with a focus on Lierneux and Fraiture. The pressure on the right side of the German troops was worse. US troops attacked with heavy tanks and were able to push back the weak defensive front to the towns of Brux and La Vaux. Hand to hand fightings took place. The villages of La Vaux, Brux and Lierneux were lost during the day. The village of Baneux was still in German hands, but the village was evacuated during the night of the 6th.
The German division command had no vision on the fighting on the west side of Baneux, Pifosse and Belle Haie. During the night of the 6th, it was assured that the east bank of the Gehe stream (flowing west of Fraiture toward Lierneux) was kept as the main Line of Resistance. The losses in La Vaux, Brux and Lierneux were very heavy on German side.
On 7 January 1945:
The attacks from US side were resumed with redoubled ferocity, with artillery and armored forces. The focus was, again, on Grand Sart and Fraiture. During the fighting the Americans could push back the Division to the general line, the Northern edge of Joubieval, Hebronval and the road crossing 1,5 km southwest of Fraiture. (Baraque de Fraiture; BK).
“The fighting was particularly fierce around Fraiture and Regné. These towns, although stubbornly defended and in various parts repeatedly retaken during counter thrusts, in spite of weakness of infantry and small numbers of tanks, were finally encircled by the enemy and forced to capitulate.”
The losses on German side were huge and there was no way they could be replaced.
On two maps, provided in manuscript B-027 you can see the 27th Füseliers Regiment. On the first map (6 January) the 27th Füsiliers are situated in Malempre, together with 4 Sturmgeschütze.
In the Belle Haie area you can see an Aufklarungs Abteilung (Reconannaissance) from the 2nd SS Das Reich.
On 7 January the 27th Füseliers are withdrew to Fraiture, including the 4 Sturmgeschütze. The Pz A.A is not visible on that map.
The statement of John Modrak.
In the document, dated 7 November 1946, I also found a short text about what happened to Lt. Modrak.
“On the evening of 7 January 1945, a man named Lt. Mordrack, company C, Third Battalion, 33rd Armored Regiment, led a patrol of light tanks to an area then designated 585852, Map series 92, 1/50,000, France and Belgium. The lead tank struck a mine and was wrecked. Lt. Modrak and one enlisted man were injured seriously. The Germans opened fire on the personnel attempting to leave the tanks, pinning them down. The Lieutenant however was able to drag himself out of range and escaped. He was picked up by S/Sgt A.L. Jelly, 3rd battalion, 33rd AR, Medical Detachment on the morning of 8 January 1945.”
And: “It is believed that Modrak saw the Germans shoot the prisoners as he is alleged to have mentioned this to Sgt. Jelly when he was being evacuated to the 48th Medical Battalion, 2nd armored Division.
The six bodies were found by Sgt. Jelly, lined up near the road area 585852. They had been stripped and apparently machine gunned. Gorczyca was found alive in the tank and evacuated to the rear. Gorczyca stated his companions were definitely shot by the Germans.”
Keep in mind that they are talking about 6 bodies.
In the files I found that 1st Lt. John S. Modrak was interrogated on 22 February and 7 august 1945, while he was staying in the Woodrow Wilson hospital in Staunton/ Virginia.
Modrak was also Company C and his superior officer was Captain Shumaker and his Battalion Commander was Colonel Hogan.
On 7 January 1945, approximately 13.00hrs, John Modrak was injured on both arms and both legs.
He was leading a platoon of 5 light tanks. While bypassing G company, they heard the troops were harassed by light arms fire and the commanding officer did not think it advisable for them to continue further. However, Modrak had his orders from his commanding officer, so the five tanks containing his men moved further forward.
After following the road for quite some distance they reached a road branching off to the left in the direction of the town of Fraiture, and which they were to follow.
Modrak’s tank turned into this road first and proceeded only a short distance until it struck a land mine.
On 22 February 1945 John Modrak made the following unsworn statement:
“There was a terrific blast and for the next few minutes I was not conscious of my actions. The next thing I knew I was outside the tank and had dragged my driver, T/5 Joseph Gorczyca, with me. In the blast Gorczyca’s right foot had been blown off above the ankle and was hanging by threads of skin. My assistant driver, Pfc. Willard Forsythe, and gunner T/4 Abe Simmons, had managed to escape from the tank. Meanwhile the enemy opened up with light arms fire and it became necessary for us to move to the protection of our disabled tank. I fired my pistol until I received a wound in my left hand, at which time I took up an M-1, and started firing it. By this time the second tank in the platoon had entered the road and had come to a stop. Pvt. Baker, the gunner in the second tank, jumped out and ran over to give us assistance. In a short time all of us had become more or less seriously wounded. The first and second fingers on my right hand had been shot away and the third was badly mangled. There were also deep gashes in my right leg that I presumed were caused from shell fragments. T/5 was bleeding badly from his amputated foot so I removed my belt and made a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood. About this time German soldiers, some in field gray and others in black uniforms, started coming out of the woods and running and shouting across a field towards us. I saw our situation was hopeless so I ordered the second tank to turn around and leave without us. The second tank had no sooner reached the road junction than it was knocked out by a heavy shell fire or a bazooka gun. Shortly thereafter the Germans were upon us and we were taken prisoner. My men were badly wounded so I begged the Germans to see that they were given medical treatment and taken to a hospital. Instead, one of the Germans in a black uniform walked over and shot Gorczyca, Simmons and Baker as they lay helpless on the ground. One of the other German soldiers walked over to me and asked if I was an officer. I said I was and demanded that my men be given the treatment accorded prisoners of war. Instead the Germans started looting our persons. From me they removed my wrist watch, pistol, compass and a compass case containing a large amount in German money. Besides taking our money and valuables the Germans removed part of our clothing, exposing us to the snow and bitter cold. Around 1600 hours Pfc. Willard Forsythe and myself were carried across the field into the woods where the Germans had their CP There they laid us on the ground. Again I asked that we be given medical treatment and be carried to a hospital. Finally one of the German medics put a light dressing over my wounds, but did nothing to relieve the suffering of Forsythe. During the next few hours it started snowing again. I noticed in the woods that the Germans had several tanks. One of the Germans in a black uniform and with the rank of corporal seemed to be in complete charge. All the enlisted men would obey his every order instantly like puppets on a string. I am sure that it was this Corporal that shot Gorczyca, Simmons and Baker out in the field. Later Sergeant Joseph E. Clark, commander in charge of my second tank, was brought to the C.P, but in a little while he was carried further back and I do not know his ultimate fate. Meanwhile a German officer came over and for a few moments looked us over casually but he did nothing to prevent his men from further stealing of money, valuables and clothing from our persons. In a short time the officer left and I never saw him again. While we were at the C.P. they removed my wallet, containing a good sized sum in French francs, photographs of my wife and baby, my artic shoes, and had started taking my combat shoes, but for some reason did not take them. Among other things I saw them remove a field jacket from Forsythe. Along about this time our own troops started laying down a heavy mortar fire in our immediate vicinity. I tried to crawl over to the protections of one of the German tanks but was ordered away. By now I was suffering so with my wounds that I didn’t care whether I lived or died, so it did not concern me too much having to lie out in an exposed position. Forsythe all this time had been crying for medical attention. His condition was critical and he kept talking about his wife and family. At times I believe he was somewhat delirious. Around 2100 hours the German’s position in the woods appeared to be untenable and they showed signs of preparing to move out. Again I asked one of the medics to take us to a hospital, but he replied that we were to stay where we were. Just before leaving, the German corporal that I thought was the one that shot my other men, walked over to Forsythe and shot him and then he came over to me and shot me also, the bullet passing through my groins and coming out at an angle almost severing my private parts. After that I lost consciousness and knew nothing more until around noon the next day. When I came to it I was lying in a pool of blood. I made several attempts to get to my feet, but was too weak to make it. I finally started crawling out of the woods and across the field to the road. It wasn’t long after this that I saw the most welcome sight in the world when one of our tanks came down the road. They picked me up and carried me to a hospital. I learned later that on the previous day the other three tanks in my platoon had escaped to safety.”
According to John Modrak the Germans did not have any reason to shoot the three men. All was quiet and there were no US patrols in the area.
“There is every reason to believe that it was the intention of our German capturers to dispose of Simmons, Forsythe and myself before moving their headquarters.”
Modrak made two statements. The second was on 7 August 1947. He made an interesting addition to his first statement:
“At daybreak I crawled to Forsythe and Simmons and could readily tell they were both dead. I had no protection on the front of my body and attempted to take the jacket from one of my men but was so weak that I collapsed. When I again recovered consciousness I was then approximately 1200 on 8 January and I was picked up by an engineer unit of our forces at the edge of the woods and evacuated.”
The remark about the engineer unit is special.
A Signal Corps photographer, David A. Loehwing, made a picture, which was said to be taken on 7 January 1945.
“Sappers of a US Army Engineer Battalion search for mines on snow-covered Manhay Houffalize road, near Fraiture, Belgium. 3rd Armored Division tank under tree in background was knocked-out by enemy mine. (B)
23rd Eng BN; 3rd Arm Div, Manhay-Houffalize RD, Belgium, near Fraiture, Belgium.”
Is this the unit that found Modrak and evacuated him? And is this the unit that is pictured with the knocked out Sherman tank of Modrak?
And here the story would have ended.
But I had ordered two Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPF’s): the one of Ralph Baker and that of William/Wilbert Forsythe.
The IDPF of Forsythe gives a strange twist to this story:
Wilbert was buried as unknown soldier X-369.
When he was found, “in a wooded area east of the road junction of the N-28 and N-15”, (Fraiture junction) he had a gunshot wound in the right chest. The 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration Company believed this man was a German soldier, wearing an American uniform.
The reason was that the soldier was wearing German socks, had a German watch and chain in his pocket and German equipment was found all about the area in which the body was found.
But other evidence, found 15 feet away from the body, indicated that he could be an American soldier:
– US Postal money order receipt #4228 for $10.00, postmark illegible;
– Front portion of an envelope: Postmark (US) —“Kokomo, Ind.” Nov. 16 5PM 1944.
Addressed in pencil to:
Pvt Wil——–ythe (Illegible)
Co. C ——— (faded out)
Number on envelope believed to be ASN “3—41541”
– Mimeographed form reading as follows:
Money order form A
Co C, 33d A.R. (Unit) 12/1/44 (date)
Received from Wilbert Forsythe, 102 Marks for money order in amount of $10.00, payable to (blank).
Signed by Clarence (?) Mo(?)e, company Mail Clerk
It is further stated that the mentioned watch did not accompany the remains to the cemetery.
And: there is no registration of dog tags. It is clear the belongings are from Wilbert Forsythe.
And Modrak stated that all men were looted from their personal belongings.
But: The physical characteristics, mentioned in the IDPF, do not match with the characteristics on his army registration card.
Registration card vs IDPF:
Heigth: 5,9” vs 5,8”
Weight: 135lbs vs 160lbs
Eye color: Blue vs Brown
Hair color: Blonde vs Brown
Because no positive ID could be given, Lt. John Modrak was being asked to identify this man.
Another record stated on 5 May 1945 that they could compare fingerprints, thanks to the FBI, and that matched with Wilbert Forsythe’s prints.
On 21 July 1945 Modrak identifies the man as being Pfc Wilbert Forsythe.
So: Forsythe already was identified based on his fingerprints, but they also wanted Modrak identified the victim. Why was that? Weren’t they 100% sure?
Ralph Baker too was KIA by a gun shot wound in the chest. He was wearing his dog tags. (evidence page 16 of his IDPF.)
And he was carrying several items in his pockets. (IDPF page 29)
Looking at the physical characteristics, they do not seem to match. His fingerprints were taken and sent to the FBI. On 5 May 1945 the fingerprints were compared and the Graves Registration Service stated that they belonged to Forsythe.
But still: why are the physical characteristics so different? I was hoping I could find the dental card in the OMPF (Official Military Personnel File).
But unfortunately the OMPF was empty….. The question remains: was this really Wilbert Forsythe?
– William Forsythe (Kokomo – Indiana), executed on the field.
– Waitman Simons (West Virginia); executed near the tank.
– Ralph Q. Baker; executed near the tank
– Lt. John Mordrak , Sgt. Clark and Gorczyca were WIA.
Three men became Prisoner of War:
– Sgt. James E. Clark.
Birthdate: 1911 (Illinois)
Passed away: unknown
Became POW on 7 January 1945.
– Louis C. Hardin
Birthdate: 6 June 1911 (Dallas/ Texas)
Passed away: 30 Maart 1987
Became POW on 7 January 1945.
– Fred Krause. (no futher information found)
Passed away: Unknown
Became POW (Stalag 4B Muhlberg Sachsen 51-13) on 7 January 1945.
– War Crimes documents, with statements of Modrak and Gorzcyka
– Morning reports 33rdAR, January 1945
– Combat interviews 3rdAD, January 1945
– 3rdAD website:
– The book “La Neige et du sang” by Eddy Monfort
– Reports from 560thVGD
– ETHINT-22/ National Archives
– Manuscript B-027: 560th Volks Grenadier Division (15-29 Dec. 1944) and 12th Volks Grenadier Div. (1-28 Jan. 1945)/ National Archives
– Füsilier-Regiment 27: Lexicon der Wehrmacht and Balsi.de.
– Sons of the Reich, Michael Reynolds
– Das Reich V, Otto weidinger
– Comrades to the end, Otto Weidinger
– Im Feuersturm letzter Kriegsjahre – Wilhelm Tieke
Many thanks to:
– Kristof Nijs for editing the text!
– Joey van Meesen, Myra Miller and Carter Cashen of Footsteps Researchers for providing several documents.
– Erwin Verholen for technical support.
Short film with environment will follow soon!
Dedicated to Jan Ploeg (13 August 1963 – 21 August 2020)