In March 1945, Capt. Abraham Baum, a 23-year-old Army officer fighting in Europe, was summoned to the tent of Gen. George S. Patton for a special assignment.
“What the hell am I doing here?” Baum remembered thinking to himself.
Ostensibly, Patton was worried that once Americans invaded greater Germany from the West, the fleeing Nazis would massacre Allied POWs in prison camps. It just so happened that one of those prisoners was Lt. Col. John K. Waters, the general’s son-in-law. With Patton’s army just 60 miles from the camp, the threat must have weighed heavily on his mind.
Waters was captured by the Nazis near Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia in 1943. He would remain in Nazi hands for much of the duration of World War II, until his legendary father-in-law’s Third Army entered Germany – but he would not be rescued by Baum’s task force.
Baum’s orders were to take 300 men 50 miles behind enemy lines to liberate the prison camp near Hammelburg. No one knew the exact location of the camp or how many prisoners were held there.
But the rescue mission turned into a disaster.
The sight of 303 men, 16 tanks, 28 half-tracks, and 13 other vehicles rumbling through western Germany probably came as quite a shock to the locals. Historian John Toland, in an interview with Baum for World War II Magazine, said the hysteria caused by the Task Force caused the Wehrmacht to “throw a huge number of troops at a pint-sized threat.”
Task Force Baum met more and more resistance as it drove deeper into Germany. When the column reached Hammelburg, they were ambushed and lost the initiative. By the time Baum reached the gates of the camp, the defenders were ready, despite being outnumbered.
For two hours, the camp commander tried to hold off Baum’s forces. When he finally issued the surrender order, Waters was shot in the stomach by a German soldier who didn’t get the memo. Worse still, Baum was slowly being surrounded as the Germans moved in on his force.
As the column moved back toward allied lines, it was attacked and harried in force by elements of the Wehrmacht they defeated on the way in. Baum’s men fought alongside liberated POWs and on damaged vehicles as they struggled to fight their way out of German territory. Baum himself was injured (shot in the groin), captured, and hospitalized.
Task Force Baum was almost completely annihilated. According to historian Charles Whiting, only 20 of Baum’s original men made it back to the Allied lines and 100 were captured by the Germans. 130 are completely missing in action.
In the end, Baum did catch up with Waters. Abe Baum’s POW hospital bed was just a few down the row from Waters’. They both remained there until the 14th Armored Division captured Hammelburg. Waters would stay in the Army, eventually becoming a four-star general.
Patton, heavily criticized by his superiors for the risky move, was unwavering. He denied knowing that Waters was at the camp and maintained that he was worried the POWs would be executed. Patton awarded Baum the Distinguished Service Cross, which the General pinned on Baum personally. Patton would be dead within a year.
Baum and Waters became close friends, even though Baum’s Army days were numbered. Baum advised the Israelis during their 1948 War of Independence but ultimately returned to his family’s business. He died in 2013, buried in Arlington National Cemetery.