John Woods is a name likely not known to the layman.
According to the Fifth Field, Master Sergeant and U. S. Army hangman John Woods, was born in Wichita, Kansas on June 5, 1911. Prior to his induction into the Army on August 30, 1943, he lived in Eureka, Kansas; he was married with no children. After his parents separated, Woods attended high school for one year, before dropping out. In 1933, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, but was dishonorably discharged on September 27, 1933, after being AWOL for six days and refusing to work. At his induction, he was listed as having blue eyes, brown hair with a ruddy complexion, standing 5’4½” tall, and weighing 130 pounds. He reported to basic training on September 19, 1943; in early 1944, he deployed on a troopship to England and was assigned to FFRD #4. On March 30, 1944, he was assigned to Company B of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion in the 5th Engineer Special Brigade. Morning reports for that unit do not indicate that John Woods was ever absent from the command in the first six months; he therefore likely took part in the Normandy Invasion, where Company B invaded Omaha Beach, losing 4 KIA, 15 WIA, and 3 MIA in just the first day.
Prior to the D-Day landing, American military executions in the European Theater of Operations were carried out in England by civilian executioner Thomas Pierrepoint and other British personnel. However, in late 1944, the U.S. Army looked for an enlisted man to take over the execution of American personnel and John Woods was one of the applicants for the position.
Asked about his prior experience, Woods lied, telling Army officials that had been the “assistant hangman twice in the State of Texas and twice in the State of Oklahoma.”
Woods’ application was formally accepted in October 1944, and he was attached to the 2913th Disciplinary Training Center as a hangman. The consensus among historians is that Woods lied his way into the job to avoid the possibility of returning to combat duty. Col. MacLean writes:
“He did not get wounded on Omaha Beach, but he saw a bunch of guys get killed. I’m sure he thought, I do not want to go through that experience again… He volunteers to get out of the combat engineers. He is accepted and promoted from private to master sergeant, and his pay goes from $50 to $138 a month.”
John Woods served as the primary executioner in the hangings of at least 34 American soldiers in France the remainder of 1944 and 1945. He also assisted in the hanging of at least three other soldiers and Army reports suggest that at least 11 of those executions resulted in bungled hangings.
His first execution in Germany occurred on June 29, 1945, when he hanged three Germans for the murder of an American Lt. Lester E. Reuss. Then, on November 10, 1945, he hanged five Germans involved in the Rüsselsheim massacre of U.S. Airmen of August 26, 1944.
During this period, Wood caught the attention of Herman J. Obermayer, a clerk in the office of the Theater Provost Marshal, who later went on to become a well-known journalist and publisher. Less than impressed by Woods, Obermayer wrote: “John Woods was a short, muscular sort of a man, and I would describe him as kind of the world’s flotsam. He talked the language of the hobos and flotsams and the people who do these kinds of jobs.”
John Woods continued serving as the U.S. Army hangman in Germany throughout the Winter and Spring of 1946. His most notable executions during this period were those of 14 men convicted of committing concentration camp atrocities at Dachau over two days, May 28 and 29, 1946.
He was convicted at a general court-martial and subsequently examined by a psychiatric board on April 23, 1930. He was diagnosed with “Constitutional Psychopathic Inferiority without Psychosis”, was found “poor service material” and discharged. Before being inducted into the United States Army in August 1943, Woods was intermittently employed in construction as a laborer and was working part-time at a feed store in Eureka, Kansas, when he was registered for Selective Service in 1940.
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