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Master Sergeant John C. Woods: The Controversial Executioner of the Nuremberg Trials


The Nuremberg Trials, held from 1945 to 1946, were a seminal moment in the annals of justice, where the principal architects of the Nazi regime were held accountable for crimes against humanity. However, amidst this quest for justice, one figure emerged who has since become synonymous with controversy: Master Sergeant John C. Woods, the executioner responsible for hanging several of the convicted war criminals. His role, marked by botched executions and allegations of sadism, casts a grim shadow over the final acts of retribution at Nuremberg.


The Man Behind the Noose

John C. Woods was born on June 5, 1911, in Wichita, Kansas. Despite a checkered past that included desertion from the U.S. Navy and subsequent enlistment in the Army, Woods found himself thrust into the role of an executioner during World War II. His lack of formal training did not deter him; rather, it seemed to embolden him. Woods famously proclaimed, “I hanged those ten Nazis... and I am proud of it... I wasn't nervous... a fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.”

John C. Woods with his wife in 1946


The Nuremberg Executions

On October 16, 1946, Woods oversaw the executions of ten high-ranking Nazi officials. The condemned men were:

  1. Hans Frank - Governor-General of occupied Poland

  2. Wilhelm Frick - Minister of the Interior

  3. Alfred Jodl - Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command

  4. Ernst Kaltenbrunner - Chief of the Reich Main Security Office

  5. Wilhelm Keitel - Chief of the Armed Forces High Command

  6. Joachim von Ribbentrop - Foreign Minister

  7. Alfred Rosenberg - Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories

  8. Fritz Sauckel - Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment

  9. Arthur Seyss-Inquart - Reich Commissioner for the Netherlands

  10. Julius Streicher - Publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer


The Botched Hangings

Woods' handling of the executions has been widely criticised. Reports from the time and subsequent analyses suggest a series of grievous errors that transformed the executions into gruesome spectacles rather than swift acts of justice.


  1. Incorrect Drop Lengths: Proper hanging requires precise calculation of the drop length to ensure a quick death by breaking the neck. However, Woods reportedly miscalculated the drop lengths, resulting in several of the condemned men suffering prolonged deaths by strangulation. Some sources claim that several of the executed took between 10 to 20 minutes to die, rather than the instantaneous death expected.

  2. Poor Execution Technique: Witnesses described the hangings as chaotic. The condemned were dropped through the trapdoor in a manner that led to severe bruising and visible agony. Joseph Kingsbury-Smith, a journalist who attended the executions, noted, “The trap fell open and with a crash, Streicher was hurled down into the black interior. When the rope was cut at the foot, the corpse lay bloody and motionless on the platform, the face contorted and black with suffocation."

  3. Deliberate Sadism?: Some historians and witnesses have speculated whether Woods’ actions were born out of incompetence or a more sinister motive. His apparent pride in his work, coupled with the visible suffering of the executed men, led to rumours that Woods took a perverse pleasure in his role. However, definitive proof of sadism remains elusive.



Woods demonstrating on a journalist.

Was It Deliberate?

The question of whether Woods botched the hangings on purpose is a matter of debate. His quoted bravado and lack of formal training could suggest a degree of recklessness rather than malice. Yet, the methodical nature of his errors, repeated across multiple executions, leaves room for speculation. Regardless of intent, Woods' actions left an indelible mark on the proceedings.


Early Death

On July 21, 1950, Woods was reportedly working as an engineer on Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, part of the Pacific Proving Grounds used by the United States for nuclear testing. He died as a result of an accident involving an electrical transformer.


The specifics of the accident are somewhat unclear, but it is generally agreed that Woods was electrocuted while working on the transformer. Some accounts suggest that he was repairing or maintaining electrical equipment when the fatal incident occurred. The circumstances of his death did not receive extensive public attention at the time, and few detailed reports were published, contributing to the air of mystery surrounding the exact nature of the accident.


Woods' death at the age of 39 brought an abrupt end to the life of a man whose career was marked by controversy and notoriety. His passing, much like his life, was sudden and dramatic, adding another layer of intrigue to his already enigmatic persona.


Reflections and Legacy

Woods' role in the Nuremberg executions highlights the complexities of administering justice for heinous crimes. While the condemned were undoubtedly guilty of unimaginable atrocities, the manner of their deaths has been criticised as a further blemish on the process.


In reflecting on Woods' legacy, one is reminded of the fragile line between justice and retribution. As the world sought to turn a page on the horrors of the Nazi regime, the grim inefficiency of their final moments serves as a stark reminder of the imperfections inherent in even the most righteous causes.


Woods himself, ever unapologetic, once remarked, “Ten men in 103 minutes. That's fast work." His words, devoid of empathy, encapsulate the disquieting reality of his role in one of history’s most pivotal moments of justice.

 


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