Retired Lt. Col. Granville Hearn Jr. celebrated his 98th birthday Saturday, which means the Charlotte World War II veteran has more good stories to tell these days than he has willing listeners.
Among the best of them is a brush with World War II history that Hearn swears happened only because his commanding officer pegged him as the one soldier under his command who had “nothing better to do.”
“I was the new guy, there in Germany only two weeks, and they needed somebody to fill a chair,” Hearn recalls.
And what a chair it was.
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In January of 1946, Hearn says he was ordered to the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, where he sat as a witness to what historians have called “the greatest trial in history”: an international military tribunal that marked the first time disparate nations sat together in judgment of a single defeated enemy.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first and best known of the 13 Nuremberg trials, which revealed to the world just how horrific Nazi leaders had been in their pursuit of exterminating 6 million Jews, along with homosexuals and other minorities.
It began on Nov. 20, 1945, and ended Oct. 1, 1946, with half the 20-plus defendants being sentenced to death and most of the others sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life. Three were acquitted. However, some committed suicide before their death sentences could be carried out.
“My job was to sit in the audience and listen,” says Hearn, who was then 27 and an administrative assistant to the chief surgeon of the 3rd Army. “I had no idea what I was doing. It was ‘go here,’ ‘take this seat’ and ‘sit.’ It was a detail the colonel apparently didn’t want to be involved in.”
Hearn still has the seven-page instruction manual the 3rd Army gave him to study in advance, with a courtroom seating chart and biographies of the defendants. On the yellowed cover, it says: “War-Crime Trials, Nurnberg, Germany, Nov. 20, 1945.”
In the margin at the bottom, he has scribbled “I have seen all Hitler’s henchmen. I have seen history.”
Twenty-four individuals were tried in first tribunal, including original Gestapo leader Hermann Göring, German Defense Minister Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann (tried in absentia), among others.
Hearn remembers them as being quiet, “cold sober” and emotionless, with the exception of Göring, who remained agitated and defiant, particularly when guards escorted him into the courtroom. Hearn punctuates his description with an imitation of Göring’s antics, twisting, throwing his shoulders around and jerking himself from the hands of guards.
Historians note he was forced to remain silent while seated in the dock but still tried to communicate his opinions about the proceedings with gestures, shaking his head, or laughing. He also tried to dominate the other defendants during breaks in the trial, forcing officials to eventually put him in solitary confinement. (He eventually committed suicide by poisoning because he thought being hanged was inappropriate for a man of his importance.)
“When Göring was brought in, he fought the guards. He wanted to make it clear that he was somebody important, too important to be touched by guards. He sat on the end and they had to keep a guard standing right next to him the whole time.”
It remains a mystery to Hearn why someone from the 3rd Army headquarters in Badtolz, Germany, needed to be in the courtroom – and why the assignment lasted only a few days.
Concentration camps didn’t come up in the time he was there, he says. Instead, prosecutors spent those days questioning Nazi officials about unnecessary bombings of cultural and educational sites in France, he says.
That might explain why keeping up with the trial wasn’t a priority early on for average soldiers at the time, he says. Hostilities had ceased in Germany and fresh recruitssuch as Hearn, who shipped into Germany as an artillery officer for the 102nd Infantry Division, were arriving to replace veteran fighters. He stayed in Germany only eight months but remained in the military all his life, including the Army Reserve.
Hearn, the son of a farm boy turned New York City chauffeur, now views those few days in Nuremberg as his “claim to fame.” But as is the case with many World War II veterans, the details are starting to fade, including the exact dates in January 1946 that he was in the courtroom.
He and his wife of 75 years, Pearl, have four children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and there’s a hint of sadness in his tone when he says the great-grandchildren don’t care to hear his stories.
Yes, his role in history was only a bit part, but the same is true of countless other Charlotte WWII veterans, who witnessed invasions, retreats, famous battles and little-known surrenders. All were small pieces of a bigger puzzle that younger generations have pieced together, deciding what is important and what is not.
Hearn says he and Pearl returned to Germany 15 years ago and visited the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. They tagged along with a tour group, and Hearn mentioned at one point to their German tour guide that he had actually been there during the trials, sitting 30 feet from defendants.
“They all got excited and couldn’t believe that someone from the trials was still alive, among them,” Hearn recalled.
He and Pearl also visited two concentration camps, Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland. Hearn says he believes the stones in Auschwitz still smelled of burned bodies.
It was only then that he says he realized the scope of the cruelty being judged in Nuremberg. And a thought crossed his mind for the first time in 70 years.
“They all got exactly what they deserved.”