Task Force Baum: George Patton’s Controversial Mission To Rescue His Son-in-Law From A POW Camp

Photo Credit: Joseph A. Bowen/ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records via Public Domain and PhotoQuest/ Getty Images)

How far would you go for your family? This is the question General George Patton had to ask himself in March of 1945 when he set up a controversial unit known as Task Force Baum. The overall goal of this mission was to liberate POWs in camp OFLAG XIII-B, but many people argue the real reason for the task force was to rescue George Patton’s son-in-law, who was being held prisoner in that camp. Here, we’ll break down why Task Force Baum was not only controversial but also a complete failure.

Patton’s ‘special assignment’

General George S. Patton
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton in charge of American soldiers in Sicily, 1943. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

In late March 1945, General George Patton received intelligence that several hundred American prisoners had been moved to the German POW camp, OFLAG XIII-B, located near Hammelburg – around 40 miles behind enemy lines. Upon learning this, Patton summoned 23-year-old Army Officer Abraham Baum into his tent for a special assignment.

Baum remembered thinking, “what the hell and I doing here,” when he was summoned to Patton’s tent. Abraham also recalled Commander Manton Eddy, Commander William M. Hoge, and Creighton Abrams were also present for this meeting. None of them liked the task force idea that Patton proposed.

General John K. Waters
General John K. Waters, George Patton’s son-in-law. (Photo Credit: United States Army/ Wikimedia Commons via public domain)

According to Baum, Patton “said he’d get me the Congressional Medal of Honor. I told him I had orders; I didn’t need to be bribed. I had no idea the mission was about his son-in-law.”

On the other hand, General Patton was worried that when the Americans invaded Germany from the West, the fleeing Nazis would kill any Allied POWs in German prisoner camps. Patton was aware that his son-in-law, John K. Waters, who had been captured in Tunisia in 1943, was held at OFLAG XIII-B. Patton was located only 60 miles away from the camp, and his son-in-law, which may have impacted his enthusiasm for creating this task force.

Rescue mission turned disaster

George Patton inspects his army
American military commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton (1885 – 1945) inspects troops of a unit in his command, April 26, 1944. Note that the soldier’s unit patches have been censored. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest/ Getty Images)

Abraham Baum was ordered to take 300 men and 50 vehicles behind enemy lines to liberate OFLAG XIII-B. Task Force Baum had six M5A1 Stuart light tanks, 10 M4A3 Sherman medium tanks, three self-propelled 105mm guns, 27 half-tracks, and eight jeeps. No one knew the camp’s exact location or the exact number of POWs being held there.

Baum noted that the only thing the task force had going for them was the element of surprise, “and that was eliminated right away.” The task force set out on March 26, 1944, and by evening had reached the town of Aschaffenburg. Here, the task force encountered heavy fire that disabled several of their vehicles, including one of the Sherman tanks. Nonetheless, the task force continued pushing forward. However, at this point, the task force had alerted the Germans of their presence.

The task force was met with more resistance as they went deeper into Germany. They needed to cross the River Saale near the town of Gemünden to get to Hammelburg. However, they didn’t realize that this was an assembly area for a German infantry division. The German army blew up the bridge as the Americans began crossing, killing and wounding several men. Baum himself was injured, and the task force lost three tanks. Baum now had to change his route to get to Hammelburg and got a German civilian to guide the task force.

Abraham Baum, October 2005
Abraham Baum in Hammelburg, October 2005. (Photo Credit: Scheurebe2000/ Wikimedia Commons via public domain under CC BY-SA 3.0)

On March 27, the task force finally reached the town of Hammelburg, where the Germans continued to ambush them. By the time Baum and his task force reached OFLAG XIII-B in the afternoon, they had been operating nonstop for half a day against increasing German resistance.

For about two hours, the Americans fired at the German defenders of the camp but never stormed the gates. After two hours, camp commander General Gunther von Goeckel called for Colonel John K. Waters to act as an intermediary to try and arrange a truce. Several men, including Waters, volunteered to talk to the American task force. To do so, these volunteers had to leave the camp. However, Waters was shot by a German soldier putting up resistance before the situation could be explained to him. Waters was taken back into the camp and was treated by Serbian doctors who were also held at the camp.

American tank crashes through barbed wire of the POW camp near Hammelburg
Allied POWs, imprisoned near Hammelburg, cheer as an American tank crashes through the barbed wire enclosure of the prison camp, April 8, 1945. (Photo Credit: Joseph A. Bowen/ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records via Public Domain)

The Americans eventually broke through the prison gates, only to realize the camp contained far more than the 300 prisoners they were planning to liberate. Baum realized that only a small portion of the POWs could actually be taken back to Allied territory on the remaining fleet that hadn’t been destroyed getting to the POW camp. It was decided that only field-grade officers would be allowed to ride back with the task force, while any remaining men could march beside the fleet back to Allied territory. The vast majority of these POWs interned at the camp could barely walk and opted to stay behind. Due to his injuries, Patton’s son-in-law also stayed behind at the German POW camp.

Soon after their departure from the camp, the task force was quickly surrounded and outnumbered by German forces in the area. Despite their efforts, Task Force Baum was annihilated by the German army. In total, 26 men on the task force were killed in action, with the majority of the men forced to surrender and taken prisoner at the very camp they were trying to liberate. Only a handful of men were able to make it back to Allied lines.

What did Patton really know?

American infantrymen at Hammelburg Prison
6th April 1945: Full-length image of American infantrymen and tankmen shooting the lock on a prison gate before releasing Allied officers inside at the Hammelburg Prison, Germany, World War II. (Photo Credit: US Army/ Getty Images)

Ultimately, Abraham Baum did meet Colonel John K. Waters. Waters’s hospital bed was only a few down from Baum at the Serbian hospital at the Hammelburg camp. Both Waters and Baum remained in the hospital until the 14th Armoured Division liberated the camp on April 6, 1944 – nine days after the failed liberation attempt by Task Force Baum.

Whether or not Patton knew his son-in-law was being held at OFLAG XIII-B has since been disputed. To counter any criticism, Patton claimed that Task Force Baum was a diversion for the Third Army’s move northward, and stated that he was not aware of his son-in-law’s whereabouts. When Patton visited the recently freed Baum in the hospital, Baum commented, saying “you know, sir, it is difficult for me to believe that you would have sent us on that mission to just rescue one man,” to which Patton responded, “That’s right, Abe, I wouldn’t.”

General MacArthur in Philippines
1944- Leyte, Philippines: United States General Douglas MacArthur standing with soldiers in Leyte. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

The 2018 book, Patton’s Last Gamble: The Disastrous Raid on POW Camp Hammelburg in World War II, written by Duane Schultz, reexamines Patton’s motivations for Task Force Baum’s mission. Schultz offers two explanations for Patton’s motivations – both of which reflect poorly on the General.

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Schultz suggests that Patton did know about his son-in-law’s whereabouts and the mission was, in fact, set in motion to rescue John K. Waters. Schultz also suggests that the raid could have also been Patton’s attempt to one-up his rival, General Douglas MacArthur. Two months before Patton launched Task Force Baum, MacArthur’s troops successfully rescued over 500 Allied POWs and civilians from a Japanese camp near Cabanatuan City in the Philippines. Schultz suggests that Patton resented the media attention MacArthur was receiving from this stint, and was determined to recapture the spotlight. Either way, General Patton remains the only individual who really ever knew his true motivation behind Task Force Baum.