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Former soldier recounts Nuremberg trials

A documentary about the Nuremberg trials, one of the greatest dramas in history, will be shown tonight in Grand Forks. And one of the people most eager to see it is Reginald Urness, who had a virtual front-row seat at the real thing in 1946.

Reginald Urness
Reginald Urness, Grand Forks, as 19-year-old "baby boy" soldier serving in occupied Germany in 1946 attended the Nuremberg trials. Urness spent two days at the trial seated 20 feet from Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. Herald photo by John Stennes.

A documentary about the Nuremberg trials, one of the greatest dramas in history, will be shown tonight in Grand Forks. And one of the people most eager to see it is Reginald Urness, who had a virtual front-row seat at the real thing in 1946.

Urness, then 19, was a "baby boy" soldier serving in occupied Germany, stationed at an Army base at Weiden, about 60 miles east of Nuremberg.

He may have been young, said the retired telephone communications worker, but even then he recognized the historic significance of the international military tribunal. At Nuremberg, the Allies tried 22 top Nazi officials for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"For some reason, I knew I wanted to be there," Urness said Tuesday, seated in his sunlit living room. "I thought of being part of a very famous event."

So, even though none of his buddies would join him, he caught rides by train to Nuremberg and spent two days at the trial, seated about 20 feet from Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess.


Tonight at 7, the 1946 documentary "Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today" will be shown in the Empire Arts Center, presented by the UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Written and directed by Stuart Schulberg (an Army sergeant and the brother of famous screenwriter Budd Schulberg), "Nuremberg" never was shown in the U.S. before this year. Sandra Schulberg, one of the persons who restored the film and Stuart Schulberg's daughter, will be in the Empire tonight for the showing.

Urness said some of the details of his time in Nuremberg have become hazy. And it doesn't help that a booklet he received about the trials when he was there in 1946, like most of his pictures from Germany, were destroyed in the 1997 flood.

His time in the courtroom was just before Goering committed suicide Oct. 15, 1946. Goering, who had been found guilty, escaped the executioner by swallowing poison just hours before he was scheduled to die by hanging. (There's never been an official explanation for how he managed to obtain cyanide.)

Urness said he was prohibited from taking pictures in or of the courthouse (unless he stood outside the fence that surrounded the place), but he remembers the scene in the courtroom. Behind the dock of defendants stood white-helmeted guards. Goering seemed "very fidgety," Urness said.

"I remember Goering moving constantly and Hess sitting next to him was very quiet," he said. It was a busy courtroom with lots of coming and going. Goering and the other defendants often wore dark glasses, he said.

Urness and others in the courtroom had access to headsets so they could hear the proceedings translated to English, or one of several other languages.

Urness grew up at Leeds, N.D., and graduated in 1945 from Leeds High School. July 10, 1945, he was drafted. Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, so he became part of the occupational forces in Germany, completing basic training at Camp Fanning near Tyler, Texas.

He spent 10 days on a ship bound for Germany, nine of them seasick, landing in France, and then transported with his fellow soldiers in a 40 et 8 railroad boxcar (so named because it cold hold 40 men or eight horses) with no seats and no heat. Around them, in the industrial Ruhr Valley, everything appeared to be bombed to the ground.


On Christmas Eve near Bremerhaven, Germany, it got so cold he and his fellow soldiers removed a stove from an adjoining boxcar by sawing through the floor. Urness said he took coal from a Soviet train so they'd have something to burn. It was stamped with a hammer and sickle.

"It was a rude awakening for us young boys who always had enough food and enough coal for heat and always had our parents there," he said.

Urness was assigned to the newly established 11th Constabulary Regiment, whose mission was to keep the peace and tour southern Germany with light tanks to impress on the German people that the American soldiers were still there. Many of the German people were homeless, jobless and starving. It was common for children to line up to eat out the Army's garbage cans after meals, he said.

Urness traveled a bit while he was stationed in Germany, including a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau, where he saw a 20-foot pile of men's, women's and children's shoes.

After 19 months in the Army, Urness returned to North Dakota, attended North Dakota State University and joined the North Dakota National Guard. In 1950, he was federalized with the National Guard because of the Korean conflict, assigned to the Cando (N.D.) Guard unit and spent 19 months at Camp Rucker, Ala. Urness served during two wars, but he never saw action.

Urness worked as a civilian with Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. For 25 years, he was manager for the telephone company at Grand Forks Air Force Base. After retiring, he farmed for four years at Leeds and still has a farm there.

He and his wife, Ardelle, had two children -- Cindy, who teaches at NDSU, and Scott, an artist who died in 1991 of apparent heart failure. He was 35. They had two grandchildren. Ardelle died in 2000, just days after their 50th wedding anniversary.

A few years later, he married Roselynn, and they are getting ready to spend the winter (except for Christmas) in Arizona, which is where they met. At 83, he looks at least 10 years younger, and credits his fitness to years of running four miles a day and now daily morning workouts.


Their home is filled with family pictures, an old clock that he bought after it fell off the wall of the Leeds library and restored, and dozens of Scott's paintings, prints and sketches. Urness owns several antique vehicles, including an award-winning Model T.

In 1983, he and wife Ardelle returned to Germany and visited the now-German Army base at Weiden, which hadn't changed much at all. They also were in Nuremberg, where Urness visited the courthouse where he'd witness part of the Nuremberg trials so many years before.

"I sat on the same bench that I did when I was 19 years old, and also where Goering sat," he said. "Again, I wasn't allowed to take pictures."

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com .

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