When 11-year-old Nancy Nugent first laid eyes on the 21 Nazi war criminals seated across the room from her, she could hardly fathom the full extent of the atrocities those men had committed. “I was kind of overwhelmed,” Nancy Meier, as she is known today, shares with me 72 years later.
Nancy and I are at her great-grandson’s birthday party just outside of Eau Claire, and as the children play, she tells me about her unlikely journey from Merrill, Wis., to the Nuremberg Trials.
Her front row seat to history was hardly happenstance, but the result of being the daughter of Capt. Ambrose H. Nugent, an artilleryman in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, who, in the aftermath of World War II, remained in Germany as part of the Allied forces’ occupation of the region. For two weeks in August of 1946, Nancy, her 14-year-old sister, Barbara, and their two younger siblings, traveled unaccompanied for 4,000 miles from Merrill to Nuremberg to reunite with their father. Upon their arrival, the children were astonished to find a country that, though recently defeated by Allied troops, was generally welcoming to their newly-arrived American neighbors. Nancy’s younger siblings regularly played alongside German children, while she and her sister Barbara were allowed to walk to the Kaserne where their father was assigned. Other explorations of the area were restricted due to dangers posed by the ruins caused by extensive bombing.
Though no formal schooling was offered to the American children at that time, Captain Nugent lost little sleep over it. “My dad said frequently that it would not be any problem for us missing school … because we would learn more about history (by experiencing it) than we would in any improvised classroom. And,” Nancy says, “he was right.”
The children’s education began on the train journey from the port in Bremerhaven to Nuremberg. From out the window, Nancy observed glimpses of German life in the aftermath of war: from the pair of young German children rummaging in garbage barrels near the U.S. Army barracks to a countryside ravaged by bombs. Not long after settling in their home just outside of Nuremberg, Nancy and her siblings accompanied their father to Dachau concentration camp, where between 1933 and its liberation in 1945, more than 30,000 prisoners were killed.
The camp too, had been the site of inhumane medical experiments, killing nearly 100 prisoners in the process. Though Nancy had some understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust, Dachau brought those horrors into sharper focus. The barracks still stood, as did the nearby crematorium, both of which had been in use just 16 months prior. Weeks after that haunting visit to the camp, when Nancy’s father arranged for her and Barbara to attend the Nuremberg Trials, they prepared themselves to watch justice being served.
For two days in September of 1946, Nancy sat quietly alongside her sister in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. Pressing the translation headset to her ears, she listened as one damning testimony after the next made clear the unconscionable actions precipitated by the men seated in the nearby dock. There was Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s second in command; Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer; as well as 19 other Nazis, all but three of whom would be found guilty of war crimes, and 12 of whom would be sentenced to death.
“I could very easily see the face of Göring,” Nancy recalls. “I remember watching him, and he would react to some of the stuff being testified to. He was always dressed very neatly. They all actually were.”
Throughout the testimony, Nancy kept a close eye on their facial reactions, a range of emotions displayed from the docket.
During her months in and around Nuremberg, Nancy saw few visual reminders of Nazism. By August of 1946, the once omnipresent swastikas had been wiped clean from the city, including the enormous swastika that had protruded atop the grandstand overlooking Zeppelinfeld, an open-air arena where Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies were once held. Shortly after the war, when the Nazi Party’s former rally grounds were repurposed to serve as parade site for Allied Forces, the Axis’s defeat was undeniable, even to the most committed Nazi sympathizers. Nancy and her siblings visited the grounds often. “To think that had been a field where once Nazis had marched and gathered, and then to see our military there with the flags flying, that was very nice,” Nancy says.
Though one war was over, another was soon to begin, and once more, the Nugent family would find themselves on the frontlines. On July 5, 1950, shortly after celebrating her 15th birthday, Nancy learned that her father, while on a military operation in Korea, had gone missing. The Battle of Osan became the opening salvo for the Korean War — a battle which resulted in a clear victory for the North Korean Army, whose 5,000-infantryman dwarfed America’s 540. Sixty American soldiers lost their lives and 82 were captured, though for three months, Nancy didn’t know into which statistic her father fell. Though relieved to learn that he was still alive, for the next 35 months as a prisoner of war, his status remained in constant question. In all that time, Nancy received only two letters from him. Still, it was enough to give her hope.
Nancy’s high school experience was far different than her classmates. While most students enjoyed the indulgences of school dances and extracurricular activities, Nancy lived in a world apart from her peers. “When I look back, I always felt old,” she says. The circumstances of the world demanded she grow up quickly.
In 1953, Captain Nugent was released, only to find himself court-martialed on 13 counts, including, as his New York Times obituary reads, “making propaganda broadcasts and signing leaflets urging American soldiers to surrender.” It was an astonishing blow for a man many considered a war hero. Seven years after taking her seat at the Nuremberg Trials, 19-year-old Nancy found herself in another courtroom, this one at Fort Sill, and this time, her father was the defendant.
“He always believed he would be acquitted,” Nancy says, and indeed — after arguing that he’d acted to save his fellow prisoners’ lives — he was found not guilty on all charges.
In recent years, as Nancy has had time to reflect on the many historical and personal trials she’s faced, she’s double-downed on a code for living that her father — by way of his own adversity — had a part in instilling within her.
“Be curious, but in a good way,” she tells me. “And don’t isolate yourself. We shut ourselves off and we live in our own little world, and it’s not healthy.”
A better option, she says, is to live one’s life with courage and faith.
To learn from the past, no matter how dark, in the service of a brighter future.
Next Saturday: Patti See reveres her septic guy.