MERCER — Their encounter began in the most mundane manner possible, with talk about the weather.
Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, during World War II and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s handpicked successor, remarked that it was a nice day.
Army Staff Sgt. Ralph Sykes — who had been yanked from a comfortable existence working on his brother’s farm near Fredonia into the most violent war the world had ever seen in part because of Goering — responded in kind.
“‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘It’s a beautiful day out there,” Sykes said, as he recounted the conversation nearly 75 years later.
The two men were deep in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, venue for the Nuremberg War Crimes trials of Germany’s Nazi leaders. Sykes supervised guards, including the iconic white-helmeted military policemen later seen in photos and archival newsreels, at the trials.
Goering, a World War I fighter ace, had been one of Hitler’s closest associates. With the suicides of other Nazi leaders, including Hitler, Goering was the biggest fish in the Allies’ net.
“As far as I was concerned, he was Number 1 in that prison,” Sykes said.
On this day, Sykes had the job of escorting him to the courtroom.
In a situation and a setting with thunderous historic import, the two men — the Reichsmarschall and the farmer — chatted about more than the weather.
Sykes said he asked Goering how the trial was going, and said the Nazi leader was relatively upbeat, especially considering that he faced possible execution.
“‘Don’t worry,’” he said, a smile creasing his face. “‘They aren’t ever going to hang me.’”
Sykes, who turned 95 on March 22, might be the world’s only living person to have spoken with the man who was, arguably, second only to Hitler in the Nazi hierarchy.
A farm boy goes to war
Nuremberg turned out to be the final act in what had been an eventful two years in Sykes’ life.
Born in Greenville, he grew up in Peters Township, Washington County. His father had been a mill worker and envisioned that Sykes would be a machinist’s apprentice. He had other ideas though.
In 1939, with the flames of war growing in Europe, Sykes returned to the county to help the oldest of his three brothers on a poultry farm near Mercer. Even before he could drive legally, Sykes was drawn to the lure of motorized transport.
“The wages weren’t great but he had a tractor and a sedan. That was a powerful magnet to a teenage boy,” he said. “When school was done my sophomore year, I built a bicycle and went from Peters Township to Mercer.”
That’s a distance of more than 80 miles.
He graduated from Fredonia High School just as the United States entered World War II.
Over the next couple of years, he worked on the poultry farm, alongside an Amish man. On weekends, he would drive his brother’s truck into Mercer for social events, even though he still didn’t have a license.
Sykes’ brother said that wouldn’t be a problem.
“He said, ‘How often do you see a cop around Mercer County? Dang seldom, I’ll tell you that.’”
In early 1944, the local draft board called for Sykes’ brother. By that time, he said a number of his classmates were already in uniform.
“They said, ‘This isn’t about you. It’s about your brother.’” Sykes said. “They told him, ‘You don’t have enough stock to have two hired hands.’”
In the Army now
Sykes’ invitation to join the war complicated what had been a simple life of working on the farm, weekend driving excursions into town, and Sykes’ romantic life.
He had started dating a woman named Myrtie “Marie” Fry. The couple had been considering marriage, but his induction into the Army accelerated those plans.
“My intended looked at me and said, ‘We should get married.’”
They were wed on Aug. 8, just before Sykes shipped out for basic training in Texas.
“It was a hellhole as far as I was concerned,” he said of the training regimen. “It wasn’t home.”
Before long, he and Marie figured out an escape. His newlywed wife rented an apartment near Sykes’ base.
That left them only one problem — getting him off the base so they could spend quality time together before he shipped out. But Sykes had already learned an important lesson, even at the ripe age of 20, that would serve him well, both as a husband and a soldier.
“Someone told me along the line, if you want to do something, be careful of who you ask, or even if you ask,” he said. “I thought if I asked, they were going to say ‘no.’”
So, on the presumption that it was better to seek forgiveness than permission, Sykes crept off base one Saturday evening to be with his wife.
“I got on the bus, sat down, and who do you suppose sat down beside me?” he said, laughing at the memory. “My platoon sergeant.”
Sykes’ instincts proved correct.
“I said ‘I won’t lie to you. I don’t have a pass,’” Sykes said. “He said, I’ll tell you what. I’ll never turn you in. Just be dang sure you’re here Monday morning for reveille.’”
With that, Sykes became a soldier with banker’s hours. He went home almost every evening with Marie and returned to training early in the morning.
That arrangement continued until Sykes’ training was completed, and the newlyweds were separated.
She went to Peters Township and worked as a dental assistant at a VA hospital in Pittsburgh. He went to New York, where the Queen Mary, a luxury ocean liner converted to a troopship, ferried him to Europe, and war.
Joining the ‘Ozarks’
Sykes was a “replacement soldier,” filling the boots of men killed, badly wounded or captured after the D-Day invasion of Normandy in France. The Army assigned him to the 102nd Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Ozarks” because it had originally been formed from National Guard troops from Arkansas and Missouri.
He joined his new comrades in Belgium along the Rur River, with the 102nd Division on one bank and the Germans on the other, nearly within earshot for conversations, and definitely close enough to hear the enemy talking from across the water.
That created an unsettling situation for Sykes on his first night in the combat zone. The Germans had mounted loudspeakers on their side of the Rur, and had them blaring an English-language propaganda broadcast.
Sykes said he largely ignored the noise until he heard his own name. The speaker had welcomed the Ozarks’ two new members, including Sykes, by name, ranks and serial numbers.
“That made me interested, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Not long after Sykes arrived, one of his sergeants said the Americans would eventually cross the river — which Sykes said was “not much more than a creek” — and fight the Germans. Sykes noticed that there wasn’t much cover along the banks. The sergeant set him straight.
“He told me, ‘You don’t go from bush to bush. There aren’t that many bushes,’” Sykes remembered. “‘You’ve got to put more lead at them than they can put at you.”
On Feb. 23, 1945, the Ozarks got their orders to cross the Rur. Sykes was assigned to carry ammunition for one of the unit’s Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, operators. The weapon, a machine gun designed to be carried and operated by a single soldier, was a key tool in putting lead on the enemy.
The sergeant told Sykes to stay on the gunner’s hip and he did, as long as he could.
“That’s when I saw my first combat,” he said, his quivering voice betraying emotions that still run raw almost three-quarters of a century later. “I was watching the fellow with the BAR and he went into the air, and I knew he wasn’t going any further. I stuck my rifle into the ground, put his helmet on top of my rifle, grabbed his BAR and I was on my way.”
For guidance, Sykes said he looked to a more experienced BAR gunner. Every third bullet from the weapon was a tracer, which left a trail of light toward a German machine gun nest.
“I saw where he was shooting, so I did the same thing,” he said.
The Ozarks rolled with little opposition across northwest Germany after crossing the Rur and the Rhine after that. By March and April of 1945, the German army was all but vanquished as a fighting force.
But it still had enough power to commit one of the war’s most notorious atrocities. With the Soviet army pinching from the east and the Americans, British, Canadians and French closing from the west, the Schutzstaffel, the notorious SS force that operated Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, marched survivors from the Dora-Mittelbau camp in an effort to move them to other camps out of reach of the Allies.
When the caravan of more than 1,000 concentration camp survivors reached the town of Gardelegen in northern Germany, the SS troops, supplemented by home guards, Hitler Youth and elderly men conscripted for the effort, found the 102nd Division blocking their progress.
On April 15, 1945, the SS troopers found a barn just outside Gardelegen.
“They herded them into a barn,” Sykes said. “They had straw and stuff in that barn. They put machine guns at each opening and they herded them into that barn and set it on fire.”
The few concentration camp inmates who managed to evade the fire were gunned down as they tried to escape from their burning deathtrap.
Two days later, the Ozarks arrived at the barn. The division’s commanders brought them to the barn to see exactly what they were fighting against.
“The stench was so bad that you just couldn’t stand it,” Sykes said. “There wasn’t a one of us who could eat supper that night.”
Germany surrendered a few weeks later, on May 8.
Appointment with history
Sykes remained with the 102nd through the surrender and occupation of Germany. He served as his company’s supply sergeant and, as a staff sergeant, was acting first sergeant, until the following March, when the Ozarks were disbanded.
At that point in the war, discharges were awarded on a point system, with soldiers receiving points for time in combat, decorations earned and other accomplishments. Since Sykes had joined the 102nd only a few months earlier, he didn’t have nearly enough points to be sent back home, so he was transferred to the 1st Infantry Division.
Known as “The Big Red One,” the 1st Division was handed one of the occupation force’s most important assignments — security for the trials at Nuremberg. The Allies tried 24 high-ranking German officials for war crimes, with the trials running from November of 1945 until Oct. 2, 1946.
With a shortage of non-commissioned officers because most of the Big Red One’s combat-experienced sergeants had made their points and been discharged, men like Sykes were thrust into supervisory positions over the Nuremberg guards.
“That’s why they got me in there,” he said. “I was just another guy with stripes on his arm.”
Each cell door had a small opening, which military personnel used to serve meals. The guards watched the prisoners through the same openings, with orders to keep them under constant surveillance.
In one case though, a guard prevented trouble not with his eyes, but his ears. One of the American soldiers reported hearing a scraping noise from a cell, even though he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.
So Sykes ordered the prisoner searched, and found that he had pulled a piece of metal from the sole of his shoe and tried to sharpen it into a weapon.
“He was making darn good progress, so we put a stop to that,” he said.
Sykes was a direct superior of the guards who worked in the courtroom, even though he never set foot inside the actual trial venue.
“I was in charge of those guys but I couldn’t go in there because I didn’t have a pass,” he said.
That didn’t prevent him from crossing paths with Goering, the most notorious of Nuremburg’s defendants.
Goering’s vow — that he wouldn’t be hanged — proved prescient. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1946, the scheduled day of his execution, guards found him dead of cyanide poisoning.
Someone smuggled the poison to the man who had, for a time, been Hitler’s closest associate. Goering’s death was an embarrassing security breakdown for the Americans.
But it hadn’t happened on Sykes’ watch.
As the Nuremberg trials proceeded through the summer of 1946, he made his points. Sykes arrived back at home in Mercer in July of 1946.
He learned that Goering had cheated the hangman from radio reports and an article in The Herald.
“I was gone by that time,” he said. “It didn’t surprise me at all. I expected it.”
After the war, Sykes returned to Marie and got a job working at a factory near Greenville. The kid who drove Jeeps in the military without a driver’s license wound up as a truck driver.
In his first driving job, during the 1950s, he said the company gave him a truck that had seen better days. But he was happy.
“It was a poor excuse for a truck, but it was a truck,” he said. “I took the job.”
Sykes started driving trucks in an era before construction of interstate highways. He ended it in 2001, when trucks were equipped with signaling devices, which he called “tattletales,” that transmitted information on truck drivers’ speed and other information back to their terminals.
He retired to care for his beloved Marie in her final days. She died later that year.
“That’s where I really belonged,” Sykes said.
In early March, with the approach of his 95th birthday, Sykes had the firm handshake of a much younger man. On a snowy day in Mercer, he needed a cane to walk up a snow-covered hill, but covered the ground with the vigor he once displayed as he crossed the Rur.
He lives on his own in Mercer with his daughter, Bonnie, a former college professor, and still drives, just like he did back in Nuremberg.
While Sykes realizes that he was part of an important historical event, he downplays the role he played.
“It was part of what I had to do to go home and be done with it,” he said.