The series of photographs of a strafed ambulance of the 5th Infantry Division is well known to people interested in this American unit of the US Army. According to the original captions and several books, the American ambulance crashed and burnt out after it had been strafed by an aircraft behind combat lines near Gonderange, Luxembourg on Christmas Day. As the orignal caption of the photograph below points out: “Plainly marked American ambulance, just after it was strafed by (according to eye witnesses) German piloted P-47s. Driver and patients were killed.”
A Luxembourg local researcher, Guy Eisen, pointed to the work of local historian Fred Karen’s, Kriegeseignisse im Frontsektor der Untersauer, who wrote that the US ambulance was strafed by an American plane by mistake. Another author, Stanley Weintraub, in 11 Days in December, went as far as saying that ‘an ambualance of the 5th Medical Battalion carrying casualties from Echternach, was shot up and set afire near Gonderange by a P-47. ‘When the ambulance crashed into a tree, killing all aboard. American infantrymen angrily shot down the plane. The pilot survived.’ As can be seen below, the men used the photographs in their book and used the original captions from the Signal Corps photographs.
According to the After Action Report of Company B, 5th Med Bn ‘enemy planes strafed ambulance at Gonderange, Luxembourg, while enroute with a load of patients to Clearing Station in City of Luxembourg. Sgt Edd Smith, driver of the ambulance was killed, and T/5 Stanley M. Shaw, assistance driver of ambulance was seriously wounded in the strafing. Ambulance burned and was riddled with bullet holes.’
So what is in the archive material? The very first message of the incident appeared in the Unit Journal of the 12th Infantry Regiment. At 1026, the 803rd TD Bn reported to the 12th Regiment: ‘2 P-47 with yellow spinners strafed some ambulances on rd 2km S of Junglinster – Men Hurt – send B Med in Ambulance. Planes nose was yellow – tail fin also yellow. Under wing is dark background with white circle.’ The same appears in the 12th IR S-2 Operation Report but also added that the same two planes strafed and knocked out one 2 1/2 ton truck of the 359th Engineer Battalion on road.
At 10:35am on the 25th of December, the 19th Field Artillery Battalion reported that their Command Post and vicinity was being strafed by planes. They were unable to find out whether the planes were friendly or enemy. In a short moment and discussion between General Leroy Irin, 5th Division Commander, and Major Paul Vanderheijden, General Irwin said to shoot back, because they were thinking ‘those are our planes flown by the enemy.’ About the same time, Major Woodrow W. Morse, 11th IR S-2, received a message from the 11th IR’s 2nd Battalion saying that that several P-47s had strafed their own troops.
Then at 10:45, 10 minutes after the initial report of the strafing, it was reported by the neighboring 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, that ambulances were strafed at Gonderange by ME 109s. The amount of aircraft was unknown, but they needed more ambulances to take care of people in the original ambulances. At the same time Colonel Horner, Executive Officer of the 5th Division Artillery, asked for confirmation of the order to shoot at own aircraft. Lt. Col. Randolph C. Dickens, Divisional G-3, checked back with General Irwin, who replied ‘No, we’ll stick to our policy of firing only at enemy planes.’ Horner explained the initial report of the 19th Field Artillery Battalion and also mentioned that the P-47s were clearing their guns. Dickens then replied, saying that they had received a report from the Air Support Party officer which said that the P-47s were lost.
Two hours later, at 12:51, the final report on the strafing came in. It was a conversation between Lt. Col. Dickens, Divisional G-3, and Major Morse took place . ‘Got any more info on the jokers who have been shooting at our people with 47s(P-47), Morse asked. Dickens replied: ‘At the time it was reported our planes were across the R. However some of them admitted they were lost. 2 Me 109s were definitely over strafing. They hit an ambulance and killed a couple of men.’ According to Dickens it was clear that the ambulance was strafed by at least an Me 109 and that the earlier reported P-47s were simply a bit lost.
Given the detailed report, it is most likely that the ambulance was strafed by an ME109. However, we have to take into account that there was a lot of confusion at the time of the strafing. The confusion is a result of the unlucky timing of the appearance of P-47s and ME-109s which also happen to look alike. The Luftwaffe started painting the nose and tail fins of their Me109 yellow to avoid friendly fire from their own side. However, American fighter planes also had these variations.
The question that now remains is: did the infantry shoot down the aircraft that strafed the ambulance? The matter was only written by Stanley Weintraub, but it remains unclear to what sources he used.
Both Sgt. Edd W. Smith and Stanley M. Shaw should be remembered for their highly important work of evacuating the wounded. Staneley M. Shaw’s official statement after the incident helped identifying Edd W. Smitth’s body which was burned beyond recognition. The work of US Army personnel who were not serving as frontline soldiers are often neglected or are unknown to the public. But it’s this type of work that is crucial to the smooth operating machine that we know as the US Army. For his important work Sgt. Edd W. Smith was posthumously awared the Bronze Star.
The Location Today
– Guy Eisen, local researcher from Luxembourg
– Fred Karen, Kriegsereignisse im Sektor der Untersauer (1989) 464.
– Roland Gaul, 1944/45 Schicksale zwischen Sauer und Our (1986) 355.
– Stanley Weintraub, 11 Days in December (2006)
– After Action Report, 5th Medical Battalion
– Unit Journal, 5th Infantry Division, December 25, 1944
– Unit Journal, 11th Infantry Regiment, December 25, 1944
– IDPF of Edd W. Smith
– US National Archives (NARA)