The men of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion wore uniforms, carried rifles and had been in combat zones, but they were not what anyone would consider frontline troops.
Their job was what their name implies, providing support to American artillery. Lightly armed and unaccustomed to waging war on their own, they knew they had no recourse when they were surprised by an elite German unit a day into what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
So they surrendered, and what happened next would become one of the darkest tales in the annals of the Second World War. Waffen-SS troops of the notorious Kampfgruppe Peiper opened up with vehicle-mounted automatic weapons and gunned down dozens of Americans who were standing in a muddy field at a crossroads near Malmedy, Belgium, with their hands in the air.
Dozens of American prisoners were massacred that day, among them a 34-year-old who ran a confectionery shop and luncheonette in Wilmington, Delaware, T/5 Max Schwitzgold.
When the horror began, Schwitzgold was standing alongside Staff Sgt. Bill Merriken of Bedford, Virginia. The Americans didn’t know quite what to make of the heavily armed enemy troops in front of them, but some grew nervous as machine-gunners in halftracks and tanks began to sight their weapons at the prisoners.
Suddenly, the guns opened up and bodies began to fall, whether involuntarily or diving for cover that didn’t exist. Merriken made it to the ground unscathed, but two bullets entered his back as he lay prone. Schwitzgold wasn’t as fortunate, taking a machine-gun bullet to the chest in the initial volley. As recounted decades later to author Danny S. Parker for his book “Fatal Crossroads,” Merriken felt the wounded Schwitzgold’s body fall on top of his own.
Schwitzgold writhed on top of Merriken, moaning, as countless others around the field screamed out in pain. Merriken whispered “Be quiet, be still,” but Schmitzgold was too far gone. German soldiers wandered the field, delivering “mercy shots” to the wounded, and it wasn’t long before they made their way over. Merriken lay still, playing dead and soaked in his and Schwitzgold’s blood.
One of the SS men soon finished off Schwitzgold with a shot to the temple. The bullet continued through Merriken’s knee, but he managed to stifle his pain and the Germans moved on. It would be two hours before Merriken felt he could risk moving from his position.
Word of the 82 men killed at the Baugnez crossroads spread rapidly throughout the Ardennes sector, where Allied troops were just beginning to understand the magnitude of Hitler’s last-gasp offensive. Fewer SS troops were taken prisoner in the weeks and months to come, and the incident that became known as the Malmedy massacre quickly spurred action at the highest levels of the American government.
By the end of December, the U.S. State Department had filed a formal complaint to the German government via neutral Switzerland, protesting “most vigorously against this gross violation of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention and the generally accepted international rules of warfare.”
Indeed, surviving members of Kampfgruppe Peiper were put on trial for war crimes after hostilities ceased, but all of the sentences were commuted by the mid-1950s and the men were released.
Those left to die in the field on December 17, 1944 didn’t have that luxury.
Nothing in the first three decades of Max Schwitzgold’s life suggested such an ending.
He was born in Gloversville, New York, on June 15, 1911, the second of two children of Polish immigrants Jacob and Rebecca Schwitzgold. As the town’s name implies, the upstate town in which the Schwitzgolds settled was a manufacturing center for gloves. Jacob worked in the industry at least through his mid-50s — he was employed as a cutter at LM & Son glove shop in 1940, according to census data.
The family lived at 29 Steele Avenue, and Max and his older sister Dorothy attended Gloversville High School, where Max was a member of the debate team. Not long after graduating in 1929, Max moved to Wilmington, Delaware. On April 29, 1930, Max — listing his age as 21 — married Rose Ruggiero in Wilmington.By August, a notice in the Wilmington Evening Journal announced he and his bride had taken over the Coffee Pot cafe.
Sometime in the interim, he eliminated the middle five letters in his last name and began going by Max Schold. Later references to him in the Wilmington newspapers — particularly in legal matters — generally refer to him as Max Schwitzgold, “better known as Max Schold.”
On June 28, 1933, Max and Rose welcomed a daughter, Joanne, born at Homeopathic Hospital in Wilmington. By the following year, they had set up shop at 901 W. Ninth Street, blocks away from the city’s downtown core. Business was still chugging along into the next decade; a September 1940 help-wanted ad in the Morning News seeks a female soda fountain clerk at Max Schold’s.
Max’s life had changed significantly by then, though. He and Rose were divorced on March 6, 1939, and she remarried a Mr. Merritt Schoonmaker on March 9, 1940, and Joanne would live with them. Max found a new bride the following year, marrying Ethel Rosevich in June 1941.
Max had registered with his local draft board in October 1940, his draft card listing him at 5-foot-6, 148 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair. That step put the wheels of his fate in motion.
Max wasn’t inducted into the Army until July of 1943. The July 29 News Journal lists him as offering his 1939 four-door Olds sedan for sale.
At about that time, the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was settling in at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where it would be tasked with training others on the craft of artillery observation. The battalion continued in that role until May 1944, when it was mobilized for deployment to Europe.
It shipped out in late August 1944, arriving in Cardiff, Wales, on September 1 and moving on to the continent within weeks. By the 19th, the entire battalion had come ashore in Normandy via Omaha Beach.
By this point, Max’s wife Ethel was about five months pregnant with the couple’s first child. That news surely occupied Max’s thoughts, but like everyone else around him, his primary focus was on getting home safely as soon as possible.
While not actively engaged in ground combat, T/5 Schwitzgold and Battery B of the 285th FAOB spent plenty of time around the front lines. Following the breakout from Normandy and the liberation of Paris in late August, the Allies found themselves within realistic striking distance of the German homeland.
Indeed, that’s where the 285th found itself as the Battle of the Bulge began on December 16. The battalion had been in Schevenhutte, Germany, since the first of the month, and Schwitzgold wrote a letter home on December 12 from “somewhere in Germany.” But the unit got orders once the Axis offensive began to head southwest into Belgium and lend a hand. Attached to the 7th Armored Division, the 285th was initially ordered farther south to Bastogne before being diverted to St Vith.
The battalion was barely 15 miles from its destination when it stopped for lunch north of Malmedy around noon on the 17th. As the convoy moved through, locals warned them that Germans had been spotted in the area, but the Americans weren’t alarmed enough to divert from their objective.
Before long, though, they stumbled into the teeth of a prime German thrust in the winter offensive. Turning at the Baugnez crossroads, they suddenly found themselves being fired upon by elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division, led by the notorious Joachim Peiper.
It didn’t take the Americans long to conclude surrender was the only viable option, and that they did. Marched into a field in the December cold, their thoughts must have turned to what might lie ahead of them in a German POW camp. Who could have imagined that would have been the best-case scenario at that moment, and an outcome that they were cruelly denied.
On January 7, 1945, the War Department informed Schwitzgold’s family that he was missing in action. Thirteen days later, Ethel gave birth to a daughter, Annalee.
In between, American forces had returned to the scene of the slaughter at Baugnez and discovered a horrific scene — the bodies of the soldiers gunned down by Kampfgruppe Peiper, lying frozen solid in the snow.
One by one, they were collected and identified, and the sad task of notifying the families began. The Schwitzgold family received word on Max’s fate February 3. “Relatives had been prepared for the reception of this sad news,” The Leader-Republican of Gloversville and Johnstown wrote, but had been holding out hope regardless.
With any glimmer of optimism now gone, the family mourned its loss. And in a final, cruel twist, it soon had another tragedy to process. Max and Ethel’s infant daughter, Annalee, died July 23, barely six months old.
On December 14, 1947, nearly three years to the day after he was killed, Max Schwitzgold’s body arrived back in upstate New York. Funeral services were held the following day, a Sunday, and he was laid to rest at the Knesseth Israel Synagogue’s cemetery.