Life and Death

Blue Lights and Blood

Google map of Drausnick and Schumacher Strasses intersection.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
by Tim Sumner, U.S. Army Military Policeman (retired)

Fall, 1975, Road bordering U.S. Army base, Ferris Barracks, Erlangen, West Germany

It started out as a quiet midnight shift. That changed when a Soldier turned east out of the Main Gate and headed our way. I was driving west in our clearly marked Military Police jeep.

Private First Class (PFC) James Scott was my junior partner.

“He hasn’t turned his headlights on,” Scott remarked.

I flashed my high beams a couple of times. The VW kept coming with its headlights off. There was no front license plate. The driver passed by us with his head turned our way and his mouth wide open. I checked my side mirror; there also was no plate on the rear of the car.

I thought to myself the Soldier was going to get somebody killed.

“Call it in,” I told Scott. “White male in uniform driving a Volkswagen Beetle, with no lights, passengers, or plates, travelling east on Artillerie Strasse.” (Artillery Street.)

He picked up the radio mike and started transmitting.

I made a U-turn.

As the VW was quickly pulling away from us, I shifted into high gear and floored it. Army jeeps were built for war, not speed; at best, they would do 65 MPH. He was running and would likely lose us. But I hoped to get close enough to spot a decal or body damage, some distinguishing information. There were no bars opened at that hour nor military bases in the direction he was headed; he had to be headed home. We’d track him down.

The VW did not slow down at the stop sign as it made a left turn and headed north.

I turned on our blue flashing police light, down-shifted, slowed, and looked left as we neared that same corner. Nothing was coming.

“Clear right,” Scott called out, so I turned.

Seconds later we saw the VW pass under the blinking red traffic light at the main intersection one block ahead. It had slowed but did not stop.

A car travelling west on that main road slammed into it.

It struck the VW’s right-front fender, tipping the VW violently up onto its right wheels and spinning it rapidly counter-clockwise, 180 degrees around. It bounced back down onto all four tires and came to rest facing south in the middle of the intersection.

“Jesus,” Scott exclaimed.

“Tell the Desk we need a German ambulance, ASAP, and a doctor, at Drausnick and Schumacher Strasse,” I said to Scott. (In Germany, doctors routinely accompanied ambulance crews to incidents when there was an immediate threat to life.)

The hospital was about a mile away.

I pulled into the intersection and stopped where vehicles could see our flashing blue light in all directions.

“Check the German, Jim,” I said. It was an Audi with German license plates, and it had come to rest on the bike path lane and sidewalk just past the northwest corner of the intersection.

I ran to the passenger side of the VW. The GI was leaning against the door. I opened it. He was unconscious and fell into my arms, so I pulled him the rest of the way out.

Blood from a deep 2-inch long gash in his temple shot skyward and was pumping out. He hadn’t worn his seatbelt. The force of the spin had thrown him to his right and his head struck the curved metal window frame just below the passenger side window. I applied a pressure bandage (we carried one in a pouch on our pistol belts), but blood kept pouring down my arm.

U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Craig (SFC, pay grade E-7) was dying. I had to take a chance.

With my fingers, I probed around on his neck, found an artery, and applied pressure. The flow subsided, yet some still drained out and on to my bare hands.

PFC Scott ran back over to us and said, “The German is okay.”

Shut off his ignition,” I said. It was SOP due to the potential for fire and an explosion.

Less than two minutes later I saw blue lights fast approaching from the west. An ambulance and German Police car came rolling in. My silent prayer had been answered.

Dr. Zimmerman, who I recognized from a previous accident, emerged and came to us.

“Don’t let go of him while I have a look,” she said sternly, in perfect English.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

She removed my hand from the pressure dressing, quickly examined him, and then said, “I am going to do some surgery. You must keep pressure on the artery and hold him still.”

“I got him, doc,” I replied.

She went to work.

A minute or two later she announced, “You can remove your hand from his throat.” She had clamped the artery. Thankfully, I did not see much of the “surgery.”

She told the ambulance crew to take him. They soon sped off towards Erlangen’s hospital.

Epilogue

Investigating the incident was not at all difficult: We found a key in Craig’s car with ‘Impound lot’ printed on a tag attached to it. Whenever a GI’s privately owned vehicle’s registration expired, the car was supposed to be immediately moved to the impound lot on base.

The base’s SDO/SDNCO office maintained a key to the lot’s gate in case a GI’s car was towed in after normal duty hours. We finished at the accident scene. I washed up, changed uniforms, and we went there. We learned Craig walked to work that day from the apartment he shared with his wife just a few blocks north of the intersection where he later crashed. His VW’s registration expired before he could get the inoperable lights fixed. He had turned in its license plates to the vehicle registration office at the MP Station. Craig was on-duty that night as the Brigade’s Staff Duty Non-Commissioned Officer (the SDNCO in charge during off-duty hours). He told the Staff Duty Officer (SDO), a Lieutenant, there with him that he was going to run home and grab some food. Craig used the key and attempted to drive home in his unregistered and defective car.

Two days later, I visited Dr. Zimmerman at Erlangen’s University Medical Center. Craig went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance. They revived him. He had brain damage caused by his head striking the metal car door.

I asked if my action added to that damage. She replied, “If you hadn’t, he would have bled to death before we got there.”

Good Times! That Dark Night North of Nuremberg

Map of Ferris Barracks, circa 1975.

Map of Ferris Barracks, circa 1975, with an enlargement and graphics added.

May 1975
U.S. Army base, Ferris Barracks, Erlangen, West Germany

The two unarmed Unit Police (UP) soldiers called the Military Police (MP) Desk a block away and reported a “Blond-haired white male driving an older tan Fiat” had twice rolled slowly down the street outside and passed the Main Gate, staring hard at them. (The other two gates were closed. MPs often checked IDs after midnight and major crimes.)

Further, they reported the rear license plate matched the ‘Be on the lookout’ BOLO alert that I had sent them, except the last two numbers were reversed; they read 37, not 73.

Bingo!

But I had a problem: My three MP patrols were miles away on cases, investigating that rape outside a disco bar, a stabbing in a Gasthaus up north, and a fatal traffic accident on the autobahn.

I told our awesome and ancient interpreter, Mr. “Senior” Wasner, to lock the front door and then call the German Police. Then I tossed the arms room’s keys into the evidence safe and locked it, grabbed my flashlight, and went out the back. I once ran the 100-yard dash in high school in 10.6 seconds; the gate was a mere 75 yards away.

I ran fast past the Post Chapel. Yet my fear that I had missed catching him subsided for ahead of me, beyond the fence line, I could hear the faint sound of a vehicle approaching on Artillerie Strasse.

As I reached the street, I slowed to a walk about 40 feet from the gate shack. The suspect turned slowly left into the gate, with his speedy Fiat in neutral. The driver, Sergeant “W” (name changed), saw me and gunned his engine, grinding the gear. But he would soon hit the clutch and run me down out there directly in front of him.

He must have noticed my Army-issued .45 Caliber Model 1911 pistol was aimed his way. Or perhaps he saw the MP armband on my left shoulder and heard me shouting “Halt or I’ll shoot” for he turned the wheel hard to the right and hit the 18-inch-high painted stone curb.

His car conked out.

The UPs in the gate shack had dived for cover. I talked “W” out of his car, handcuffed him, locked the car, and told them to not let anyone other than MPs and GPs touch it.

I perp-walked him through the MP station backdoor less than 3 minutes after I had left there and secured him in the detention cell. After unlocking the front door, I read him the standard legal rights warnings, which he waived. The collected evidence was damning. He confessed and weeks later plead guilty to Rape and Assault with Intent to Commit Grievous Bodily Harm.

However, it was only zero-300 (3 AM). I had eight cases to type into the MP blotter, three Serious Incident Reports (SIR) to have a patrol co-op to the Nuremberg MP Station and Provost Marshal’s Office, and an Army Master Sergeant with four slashed tires sleeping in his car blocks away waiting for me to send a “spare” patrol.

No problem. I was done by change-of-shift at zero-800. I went back to the barracks, ate breakfast, and hit the rack.

At noon, Sergeant First Class (SFC) “D.C.”, my Platoon Sergeant who was from South Carolina, flipped my mattress and me onto the barracks room floor.

“The MP Station Operations Sergeant wants to see you – right now. Throw on some civvies. A patrol is waiting outside.”

No, I had not forgotten anything, except that SFC “B” was “by the book.”

I was not expecting coffee and a medal, but a chewing out and threat to have me court-martialed for “going AWOL” from the MP Desk for three whole minutes was a bit much. I took it at the position of attention, requested permission to obtain a lawyer before answering his questions, and was dismissed.

I returned to report to “D.C.” – as ordered – and briefed him. He was livid and put me on the phone with First Sergeant Repass, our MP Company’s “Top” Soldier. The latter was former Infantry, former Special Forces, and a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran.

Repass said, “Great work! Get some sleep. I will speak with SFC Black.”

I slept like a baby and was back on the MP Desk that evening. “W” went to prison at Fort Leavenworth. Sometimes you have to improvise. I was a mere Specialist Fourth Class – with all of fifteen months in service – and was filling in on the Desk for they were short of Sergeants, and later awarded an Army Commendation Medal.

Good times.

Epilogue

SFC Black was white and a decent guy, but he was difficult to deal with at times. He soon retired. Before leaving, he invited me over to his house for lunch where his wonderful half-black and half-German wife served us a fine meal. He went on to become a successful black-and-white photographer.

His equally stringent replacement, the brilliant and funny Staff Sergeant Thomas Jackson – who was black and no one’s Uncle Tom – “tolerated” me for a few weeks until new Sergeants arrived and were assigned to the MP Desk.

I went back to road MP patrol duty where I belonged.

Sergeant “W’s” court martial panel could have sentenced him to life in prison for raping a 16-year old drunk German girl in that parking lot. Yet he came face-to-face with his own mortality and to rest facing God’s house that dark May night. He expressed deep remorse to the girl. He repeated his confession to the jury, and they gave him 6 years.

The Almighty will render final judgment.

Updated May 30, 2020