Manhattan resident Jim Sharp remembers the first time he saw Nazi leaders Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Sharp, an Army staff sergeant who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded during World War II, was undergoing orientation and training in September 1945 as part of the "select" senior security personnel for the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Bavaria, in Germany.
Goering, Hess and von Ribbentrop were among the 22 Nazi leaders, Nazi party members and SS troops who were to be tried for war crimes.
"I was amazed because I originally thought these men would look like sadistic monsters or something similar — because these were the leaders of the Third Reich now accused of the most dreadful crimes. But when I saw them in the exercise yard for the first time it was a shock as they were neatly dressed, strolling and visiting in small groups," Sharp wrote in his new book, "Sgt. of the Guard at Nuremberg."
Sharp said his first thought was that the Nazis looked like ordinary men he would expect to see walking in a park back in the United States. His second thought: "I wonder if I could get an autograph from some of these Nazi leaders of the Third Reich."
During the 71/2 months he served as sergeant of the guard, Sharp was able to obtain autographs from nine of the defendants. His book — based on a diary he kept throughout his military service during WWII — contains photographs of those signatures, first-person accounts of the trial, biographies and photographs of the defendants, and other information.
Sharp, 88, said he grew up on a farm near White City in Morris County, and although he had an agriculture deferment, he decided in 1944, at age 19, to join the Army.
"My buddies were getting wounded and captured, so I thought I should go," he said.
After he completed combat infantry training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, he was deployed to France and then sent to the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the Americans in WWII. American forces suffered more than 89,000 casualties, according to the Department of Defense.
When the Battle of the Bulge ended in January 1945, Sharp served as a tank driver and combat infantryman. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, his combat infantry unit became military policemen in Germany.
"We were to arrest Nazi leaders and members of the Nazi party and SS troops that were camouflaged (as everyday people) and bring them in for interrogation," he said. "We went out in 2-ton trucks, usually at midnight — 10 pairs of soldiers with one name, one town and one address — to bring them in."
Page 2 of 2 - Sharp said 22 Nazis were arrested and charged with war crimes. Shortly after the Nuremberg trial started on Nov. 20, 1945, one of the defendants, Robert Ley, committed suicide.
Sharp said his job was to supervise and post guards who provided courtroom, cell block and exterior security. He occasionally helped escort defendants to meetings with their attorneys or to a doctor if they became ill.
The security personnel were told not to converse with the defendants and to limit their interaction to giving orders or responding to questions.
"When I signed up, they told me it would be a three-month project," Sharp said. "At the end of the three months, the trial was just getting started."
As the trial drew out, the guards and the defendants began to talk more informally. Sharp remembers a conversation he had with Goering while waiting for his attorney to arrive. Goering asked Sharp about his family and how long he had been in the Army. Then he asked if he knew who Charles Lindbergh was. When Sharp responded he did, Goering pointed out that he and Adolf Hitler had given the Iron Cross to the American aviator.
After seven months of guard duty, Sharp decided he wanted to start college in the fall under the GI Bill and began the process of being discharged. As a result, he wasn't present when the judgments against the Nazis were read on Sept. 30 -Oct. 1, 1946.
Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to die by hanging. Goering committed suicide before he could be hanged. Seven defendants were sentenced to prison, and three were acquitted.
By the time the hangings were carried out on Oct. 16, 1946, Sharp was a freshman at Kansas State University working on a degree in business administration.
Sharp, who in 1986 retired from Kansas Farm Bureau as manager of information systems and then worked as an independent business systems consultant for several years, returned to Nuremberg in June.
This time, the tables had turned. When other tourists realized he had been a guard at the Palace of Justice, they asked for his autograph and to take a photo with him.
"It's been a transformational experience," Sharp said of his military service, "but I wouldn't take a million dollars to go through it again."