Life and Death

Color Blind

Herzo Base map circa 1965

Herzo Base map circa 1965

15:15 hours (3:15 PM local time), mid-July 1976. Back road from Erlangen to the U.S. Army’s Herzo Base, Herzogenaurach, West Germany

America’s Bicentennial celebration came and went. I was just back from three weeks of stateside leave and working an 8 AM to 8 PM dayshift. I opened the snack bar-bought bag of chow.

“How can you eat with him staring at us,” Murph asked.

It was his third day on the job after MP school and he was seeing his first dead body. Newbie Military Policeman Private First Class Sean Murphy of Massachusetts was not feeling well. Our jeep was parked off the road a few feet from Mr. Herman’s passenger-side windows. We had an eye-level view of him. He was dead, yet his eyes were open.

“Our lunch is two hours cold, and my burger is under cooked. Do you want your fries,” I asked.

“No,” PFC Murphy replied, with a look of disgust on his face.

I was thinking, not being callous. Herman’s tires had left no skid marks. I wondered if he had turned his head to the right in fear or for some other reason.

We had missed lunch at the mess hall (Army dining facility) because of an earlier call and might miss dinner there due to other calls after this one. Because we lived in the barracks, we were issued meal cards and could eat for free in the mess hall. But if we missed meal hours, we either purchased food out of pocket or went hungry.

A blanket – from our emergency aid kit – was draped over the driver’s side windows and part of the front windshield. While several German civilians from houses north across the field had walked over and gathered together across the road from Mr. Herman’s car, the blanket concealed him from prying eyes and unauthorized photography and concealed us from view by spectators.

“You forgot to ask Specialist 5th Class Windham P. Stansfield his M.O.S. and if he has scars or tattoos. Go ask him, but don’t read him his rights because CID already did,” I chided.

“I’m not stupid,” he said, with a hint of anger in his voice.

I replied, “You are new. Never mind. Watch our German friend here. I’ll go ask him myself.”

Stansfield had asked Murphy three times if he would read him his legal rights, aka Miranda warnings, and he had dodged answering. Not bad for a rookie cop.

CID stood for C.I.D, the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. MPs referred to that august agency and its detective agents as CID, as in Sid Cesar the actor or Cyd Charisse the dancer.

“Hey Sumner. I need you to hold the tape again,” Agent Hawk requested.

“Sure Chief,” I replied.

CID Agents were a 50 / 50 mix of NCOs and Chief Warrant Officers who worked in civilian clothes and were to be called either Chief or sir. They are highly trained. Hawk had been a Special Agent for more than a decade. He was smart, experienced, and informative.

The wind was still, the temperature mild, and the sky was a bit hazy but otherwise clear.

We measured the width of the roadway, edge to edge, and straight through the tightly clustered debris field. The two-way road was not painted with a dividing line. Yet the center of that cluster matched the measured center-point of the roadway. The force of gravity caused broken glass and lightbulb filament dust to drop straight down. It indicated that both cars were several inches across the center of the roadway when they collided head-on. Stansfield’s Plymouth was much heavier than Herman’s Karmann Ghia. The latter was built with its engine in a rear compartment.

Hawk whispered, “If either of them had stayed to the right, Herman there would be awake and far from here.”

I replied, “The tape don’t lie, Chief.”

Then I walked the 50 yards to the German ambulance where Stansfield was receiving first aid.

“What’s your Military Occupational Specialty and do you have any scars or tattoos?”

“35 Delta (D) Meteorological Equipment Repairman, and no and no. Aren’t you going to read me my rights,” Stansfield replied.

“The Chief will. How’s the nose,” I asked.

“Doc here says it is broken. I’ll have two black eyes and probably headaches for a few days.”

“Stay awake tonight. You’ll be okay.”

“As if I could sleep. … Is he really dead,” Stansfield asked. “He looked like he was asleep with his eyes open, but he wasn’t bleeding or breathing.”

Hawk had read him his legal rights, and, while Stansfield declined to answer potentially incriminating questions, he was required to provide administrative information and take a field sobriety test. He refused the latter, so his commander had a duty to revoke his driver’s license.

“You can still take the test,” I added.

He replied, “Are you going to read me my rights?”

Either Stansfield had a short-term memory problem from a concussion, or he was being deliberately uncooperative.

“Stay loose, Soldier.”

“Thanks!”

I rejoined Murphy. An Army chaplain came. We prayed.

A German doctor closed Herman’s eyes. The swift blow had broken his neck and killed him instantly. While I had seen far worse as a MP patrolling Bavaria, veterans like Stansfield surely had seen the unimaginable in Vietnam. But 27 is too young to die.

And Mr. Herman was the descendant of a famous German 15th century inventor.

I began writing the MP report. Agent Hawk interrupted and we discussed the case. CID was the lead investigative agency in all serious felony cases; as Hawk planned to charge Stansfield, I was duty bound to also charge him with those crimes on the MP report. But we differed over also citing Herman as being ‘at fault’ in the accident. When Murphy and I returned to the MP station, the Desk Sergeant directed me to only list Herman as a victim on the MP report. Yet my sworn statement was mine alone to author and attest to.

Adjudication of the matter would be up to the U.S. Army. As was often their practice, German prosecutors waived their right to primary jurisdiction under the Status of Forces Agreement.

The Commanding General ordered Stansfield to stand trial by General Court Martial. Just after Labor Day, the light-skinned African-American pled “not guilty” to charges of Reckless Driving and Negligent Homicide. If two-thirds of his jury – what our military calls a court martial board or panel – voted to convict, he would face up to six years in a military prison.

All but one of the jurors was white. The foreman was an Army Major and the panel’s junior member was a Staff Sergeant. Hawk was white. I am a fair-skinned 14th generation American.

After the jury was seated, a forensic expert, two German Policemen, the on-scene German doctor, and Agent Hawk testified for the prosecution. Captain Kidd was also to testify. He had a Degree in Science, was purported to be an expert witness, and headed the Army’s Traffic Investigations School in Europe. I had been notified that I was a ‘standby’ witness, so I reviewed the case file the week before the trial to refresh my memory. Murphy was not called.

There was no living eyewitness to the accident, other than the accused.

Captain Kidd was challenged by the defense and disqualified by the trial judge. While he reviewed CID’s report, photographic and forensic evidence, and the accident sketch, he had neither visited the scene nor ever conducted an on-scene traffic accident investigation himself.

The prosecutor’s office called me at the barracks and instructed me to come to the court.

Defense counsel had made a perfunctory objection. The prosecution stated that I was being called as a non-expert yet experienced witness to the accident. The judge ruled that I would be allowed to testify if the prosecutor could first establish my credentials for the court.

I took the stand and was sworn in …

None of us were stupid.

I was the senior MP on duty out of the Erlangen MP Station the day of the accident and fairly well experienced. After two years on the job, it was my sixth traffic fatality case. I had investigated upwards of 250 traffic accidents, a number of DUIs, barroom brawls, domestic disturbances, dozens of simple and aggravated assaults, a couple of suicides, two accidental discharge shootings, a double homicide, property crimes, numerous drug-related offenses, sexual assault, and more. (This was soon after Vietnam. More than 300,000 GIs were stationed in Europe; MPs were usually too busy.) Since joining the Army in early 1974, I had attended college in my off-duty time and had amassed 21 credit hours with a 4.0 G.P.A. And I had completed most of the traffic investigations correspondence course.

“Overruled. The witness may testify,” the judge stated.

Strangely, the prosecutor first cautioned me to limit my testimony to what was in the MP report.

Heads snapped up at the defense table and Stansfield’s lawyer smiled.

The prosecutor selectively walked me through some of my investigation’s findings. He then asked me two questions that he needed answered for the jury’s consideration. They were why he called me to testify when Captain Kidd was disqualified.

“Based upon what you saw at the scene, was Specialist Stansfield’s vehicle across the center-point of the roadway and did his vehicle strike Mr. Herman’s vehicle?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did the left-front-headlight-to-left-front-headlight collision cause the frontal collapse of Mr. Herman’s vehicle, its steering column to be forced backwards and upwards, and its steering wheel to strike Mr. Herman hard on the side of his neck just below his left ear?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’ve no further questions.”

“Cross examination, counselor,” the judge asked.

Stansfield’s lawyer replied, “Yes your honor.”

“Specialist Sumner, have you investigated other accidents on that road?”

The prosecutor objected, “Relevance, your honor? Stansfield is not on trial for other accidents.”

“Counselor,” the judge asked.

Stansfield’s lawyer replied, “Specialist Sumner was allowed to testify as an experienced witness. With the court’s permission, I wish to ask him about it as it pertains to something in his sworn MP investigator’s statement for this accident which is attached as an enclosure to his MP report.”

“Objection overruled,” the judge declared.

“Have you investigated other accidents on that road?”

“Yes sir.”

“How many?

“One.”

“When and where on the road did it occur?”

“Back in April and the point-of-impact was approximately at the same place, just over the rise immediately after coming out of the sharp curve.”

“Describe that accident, please.”

“An MP jeep sideswiped a German woman’s car. More specifically, both of their drivers’ side mirrors were across the unmarked center-point of the roadway. That was the point-of-impact. The German Police and I cited both drivers as ‘at fault’ in the accident. There were no injuries.”

“You cited both a fellow Military Policeman and the German woman in that accident?”

“Yes sir.”

“Okay. So why did you not cite Mr. Herman in your MP report as also at fault in the matter before this court?”

“Objection: It is not in Specialist Sumner’s statement or in the MP report.”

“I’ll allow it. Overruled.”

“I was ordered by the MP Desk Sergeant to not cite Mr. Herman as he was a victim because he was dead, and we don’t charge dead Germans.”

“We don’t,” Stansfield’s lawyer asked.

“We do, sir. While the Army does not prosecute foreign nationals for criminal offenses as they are not subject to the UCMJ, we do cite them in the subject/suspect block of MP reports when they are at fault in traffic accidents involving military personnel or Army property.”

“So, you wanted to also cite Mr. Herman as being ‘at fault’ in this accident?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did the German police also cite Mr. Herman in this accident?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you disagree with the MP Desk Sergeant at the time?”

“Yes sir, respectfully, and then I noted the Army regulation authorizing the citation of foreign nationals for traffic offenses in my sworn statement.”

“Is there anything else that you wish to add to your testimony,” Stansfield’s lawyer asked.

The prosecutor again objected, but again the judge overruled him.

“Yes sir. I also noted in my statement that Agent Hawk determined both vehicles had room to safely pass had either vehicle been to the right in their lane. Because a person had died, the German Police had blood drawn from both drivers. No alcohol was found in Herman’s blood. Stansfield admitted to them he had one beer during lunch, yet his blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit and he was not charged with Drunk Driving. We determined that neither vehicle was speeding, the roadway’s shoulders were soft, and they had little time to react before the crash. I have often traveled that back road. The curve needs ‘extreme danger’ warning signs. The speed limit needs lowered. And the road needs painted with lane markings.”

“Thank you,” Stansfield’s lawyer said to me.

He then stated, “I have no more questions, your honor.”

“Redirect?”

“Did the headlight-to-headlight impact cause the frontal collapse of Mr. Herman’s vehicle, its steering column to be forced backwards and upwards, and its steering wheel to strike Mr. Herman on the side of his neck just below his left ear?”

“Yes sir,” I replied.

“I have no further questions,” the prosecutor said.

The judge replied, “The witness is excused.”

“The prosecution rests, your honor.”

The judge then addressed the court martial panel: “We will take a short break and then proceed.”

The visibly angry prosecutor, a Captain, caught up with me in the hallway as I was leaving.

“You blew my case; there is no way they will vote to convict,” he said.

“Sir, I told the whole truth. Regardless of whether they find Stansfield guilty or not guilty, I will sleep soundly tonight,” I replied.

I turned and saw on the wall a painting of Lady Justice with her blindfold firmly in place. I saluted her and walked away.

Epilogue

That back road was later straightened and better marked. It currently forms the northern perimeter road for the Adidas Shoe Headquarters complex.

We cannot know if Mr. Herman was inattentive, looking off to his right, staying well clear of the soft shoulder, and never saw the Plymouth coming. Perhaps he saw the danger, turned his head to look for an escape route, and had no time to maneuver.

Conversely, faint skid marks from two of Stansfield’s tires were left on the road for a short distance leading up to the point-of-impact. It indicated he made a split-second decision to brake but could not stop in time. The jury acquitted Specialist Stansfield.

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.”