Unconventional Allies: Colonel Willis Everett and Ss-Obersturmbannfuehrer Joachim Peiper

By Weingartner, James J. | The Historian, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Unconventional Allies: Colonel Willis Everett and Ss-Obersturmbannfuehrer Joachim Peiper


Weingartner, James J., The Historian


The shooting of American prisoners of war on 17 December 1944 by German SS troops became one of the most notorious atrocities of World War II. Under the command of SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper, German soldiers surprised and captured an American motor convoy belonging to Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion at a road intersection south of the Belgian town of Malmedy. In what became known as the Malmedy Massacre, more than 100 prisoners were assembled in a field adjacent to the crossroads and mowed down by machine gun fire; approximately 30 survived. As a result of the massacre and ensuing international press coverage, Peiper became for many Americans the most hated man in the German armed forces. He and 73 of his comrades were tried by a U.S. Army court in 1946 for the Malmedy murders and other related war crimes. All were found guilty and 43, including Peiper, were sentenced to death. But none of the death sentences were carried out, the result in large part of the continuing efforts of Colonel Willis Everett Jr., an American lawyer from Georgia who was assigned to defend the accused war criminals.(1)

The case brought together former enemies whose involuntary association reflected the moral ambiguities of war and a shared sense of injustice at the manner in which the Allies conducted the trials of accused Germans, whose guilt often was assumed to be self-evident. The relationship of the Georgia colonel and the SS officer was nurtured by affinities both imagined and real. The story of Everett and Peiper juxtaposes two unlikely allies, one from the American South and the other from Nazi Germany, who found a small area of common ground in a world struggling to overcome the effects of history's most terrible war.

Willis Mead Everett Jr. was born on 25 January 1900 into a prosperous family in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, one of the city's leading attorneys, had been born during the Civil War in western New York. He married a young Georgia woman and settled in Atlanta, which by the mid-1880s had recovered from the ravages inflicted by Sherman's army 20 years earlier and was booming. Everett junior attended Atlanta's Boys' High School and graduated in 1921 from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where Robert E. Lee had served as president during his last years. Despite a lackluster academic record, he graduated from Atlanta Law School in 1924 and joined his father's successful law practice. With his wife, a young woman from a good Memphis family, Willis Everett settled into a comfortable life as a member of Atlanta's upper crust.(2)

Everett understood the importance of social responsibility. On his twenty-fifth birthday, his father wrote to him of the need to "help and live for others," and that he would discover "the purest gold among those who are always helping someone else and are thinking but little of themselves."(3) Evidence of Everett's sense of noblesse oblige can be seen in his later long and devoted service to the African American Gammon Theological Seminary, which is still remembered with respect and affection by older black Atlantans today.(4)

Everett also developed a lifelong interest in the military. Near the end of World War I, he took temporary leave from Washington and Lee for brief service in the U.S. Army. Although he failed to get closer to the battlefield than the Army's Coast Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia, the attraction clearly went beyond the hyper-patriotism of a popular war. While still a law student, Everett applied for a commission in the Army Reserve Corps and was appointed a second lieutenant of infantry in May 1923. Thus began a career that paralleled his practice of law for over 30 years. The Reserve Corps was a rather relaxed form of duty in peacetime, involving little more than occasional unit exercises and annual two-week excursions to summer training camp. Everett's service reflected an appreciation of both the military virtues and the status that being an officer carried in Southern society, as well as a generally conservative outlook characteristic of the officer corps. …

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