Left Hanging: John C. Woods and the botching of the Nuremberg Executions
The IMT famously sentenced 10 prominent Nazi members to death after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials, and established a credo that “crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.” Now that the IMT had effectively convicted the 10 men, the question arose as to how they would be executed. The French individuals on the IMT felt that it would be appropriate to execute the military men (Goring, Keitel, Jodl), but the US and the Soviets felt that with their reprehensible actions, they did not deserve the battlefield honor of death by firearm.
The IMT set up an execution site in the gymnasium of Nuremberg prison, and enlisted Army Sergeant Major John C. Woods to oversee the hangings. Woods had a checkered past within the military, having joined the Navy in 1929 and subsequently going AWOL. He was court-martialed and found to be “poor service material,” and was then discharged from the Navy. With the onset of WWII, he was redrafted into the Army and remained a private until he volunteered for the Nuremberg hanging position, citing (later to be discovered false) experience as a hangman back in the United States. He describes his duties at Nuremberg: “I hanged those ten Nazis… and I am proud of it… I wasn’t nervous…. A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business…. I want to put in a good word for those G.I.s who helped me… they all did swell…. I am trying to get [them] a promotion…. The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it. I got into it kind of by accident, years ago in the States….”
Hang them he did, but properly is a different story. Various news reports indicate that many of the men did not die instantly, but rather lingered for 10 or more minutes. Field Marshall Keitel was reported to have taken 28 minutes to die, and the size of the trapdoor had caused many of the men to suffer contact wounds while falling through, reflected in their postmortem photos. (Flagpole Magazine 2002, p.6)
Journalist Kingsbury Smith reflected on Streicher’s lengthy death in an article for the International News Service:
“That instant the trap opened with a loud bang. He went down kicking. When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body of and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled.” (Smith 1946)
Woods was also known for participating (and theretofore bungling) the executions of the 96 men of The Fifth Field fame.
Smith, Kingsbury. “The Execution of Nazi War Criminals.” International News Service, October 16, 1946.
“The Trial of the Century–and of All Time, Part Two.” Flagpole Magazine, July 17, 2002, 6.