Colonel Burton Andrus assumes command of Nazi-war-crimes interrogation center and holding facility on May 6, 1945.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 3/31/2015
  • Essay 11046
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On May 6, 1945, U.S. Army Colonel Burton C. Andrus (1892-1977) becomes commandant of a new prison holding senior Nazi leaders facing war-crimes trials following Germany's defeat in World War II. The interrogation center and holding facility is initially located in a former hotel in Mondorf les Bains, Luxemburg. In August 1945 the prisoners will be moved to a prison in Nuremberg, Germany, adjacent to the Palace of Justice, where International Military Tribunal trials (often known as the Nuremberg trials) will begin on November 20, 1945. Andrus will command the Nuremberg prison and, following two suicides, will attempt to make the jail suicide-proof. However, security features Andrus institutes will not prevent Hermann Goering from killing himself hours before he is to be hanged. Andrus will be relieved of duty following Goering's suicide and for the rest of his life will blame himself for Goering's escape from the hangman. After retiring from the army Burton Andrus, who was born in Washington while his father served as an officer at Fort Spokane, will become a professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, fulfilling a lifelong desire to live in the Puget Sound region.

Burton Andrus

Burton C. Andrus Sr. was born at Fort Spokane while his father, Captain Frank B. Andrus (1859-1924), was an officer at the post. The family lived at Fort Spokane until 1895, when Captain Andrus received orders to Fort Sheridan in Illinois. Frank Andrus retired in 1908, with the rank of major, and settled the family in Buffalo, New York. Burton attended a Buffalo high school and graduated in 1910. He attended Buffalo University for two years and while at the university joined the Officer Reserve Corps.

Andrus left college and went to work for Standard Oil as a plant manager. In April 1916 he married Katherine E. Stebbins (1891-1972), with whom he had four children. When the United States entered World War I Andrus was a second lieutenant in the Officer Reserve Corps. He was commissioned in the regular army on October 25, 1917, as a cavalry officer, but was soon running a prison.

Army Officer

In 1917 Andrus was made commander of the stockade at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. When he arrived the stockade was one of the worst in the army. Prisoners were in kept in illegal leg irons. An inmate kangaroo court largely ran the prison. There were frequent escapes and general disorder. As soon as he reported for duty at the stockade, Lieutenant Andrus imposed tough strict rules. He placed anyone who caused problems in solitary confinement. He issued an order that guards could shoot to kill anyone trying to escape. Soon he had restored order.

In July 1919 he was promoted to captain and sent to the Presidio of Monterey in California, where he headed security. Andrus then served in cavalry units including tours at Fort Riley in Kansas and Fort Kent in Kentucky. In 1933 he was made commander of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Oregon. While commanding the CCC facility Andrus attended training at Fort Lewis in Pierce County. He loved the Puget Sound area and promised himself that he would live in the region. The Andrus family expected to make the Puget Sound area their permanent residence, but it would be 20 years before that happened.

Additional cavalry assignments followed Andrus's Pacific Northwest tour. On August 1, 1935, he was promoted to major and then in 1940 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and left the cavalry. Lieutenant Colonel Andrus was made a security officer at the New York Port of Embarkation. He then trained in air-ground communications, learning the techniques for ground forces to effectively communicate with pilots attacking nearby enemy positions.

On June 6, 1942, six months after the U.S. entered World War II, Andrus was promoted to colonel and assigned to General George Patton's (1885-1945) Third Army as an air-ground observer using the lessons learned in the air-ground communications school. He became an admirer of Patton and copied the general's style, wearing a highly polished helmet and pressed uniforms and carrying a riding crop.

Nuremberg Jailer

With the war coming to an end in Europe, Supreme Allied Commander General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) selected Colonel Andrus to command a prison for German officials who would be facing trial for war crimes. Andrus's selection was based on his experience in security. On May 6, 1945, Andrus opened an interrogation center for senior Nazi leaders at Mondorf les Bains, Luxemburg. The center's code name was "Ashcan." Ashcan occupied a former hotel that underwent modification to remove any signs of luxury. On August 12, 1945, the Ashcan prisoners were moved by air to Nuremberg, where they would be held during International Military Tribunal trials that started on November 20, 1945.

Colonel Andrus served as commandant of the prison, which was located to the rear of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. The top Nazi officials tried at the International Military Tribunal were held there while on trial in the Palace of Justice. The first security issue at the prison was the suicide of Dr. Leonardo Conti (1900-1945). Conti had been the German health officer responsible for the Nazis' euthanasia program. He hanged himself in his cell on October 6, 1945. Later that month, on October 24, 1945, Robert Ley (1890-1945), a Nazi labor leader, became the second prisoner to hang himself in his cell. With his death Colonel Andrus promised that there would be no future suicides: The convicted would not be able to avoid the executioner.

American guards were required to maintain constant surveillance to prevent suicides, checking each cell every 30 seconds. Andrus also required that the inmates sleep with their hands outside their blankets. Tables that would collapse under a man's weight were used in the cells so prisoners could not stand on them to hang themselves. Razors, neckties, and shoelaces were taken away. When the prisoners had their daily exercise period, guards searched every cell. However, the anti-suicide efforts failed to prevent Hermann Goering (1893-1946), from taking his life, by means of a cyanide capsule, on October 15, 1946, hours before he was to be executed. Goering, who had headed the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was the top Nazi scheduled for hanging. Ten other Nazi leaders went to the gallows in the early morning hours of October 16.

The failure to prevent Goering's suicide led to Colonel Andrus being removed from his command in December 1946 just as a new group of prisoners arrived for new trials. Andrus accepted responsibility for Goering's suicide. The mystery of how Goering obtained the cyanide capsule has never been definitely answered. However he did so, the suicide severely tarnished Andrus's reputation. Colonel Andrus had not been popular with the press, and with the third suicide of a Nazi leader attacks on him grew. Time magazine in its October 28, 1946, issue called Colonel Andrus a "pompous, plump, unimaginative, thoroughly likeable officer who wasn't up to the job" and added that the colonel looked "like an inflated pouter pigeon" ("Down Without Tears"). The Time article dismissed Andrus's security measures as ineffective and placed the blame for Goering's suicide on him.

In a book written more than 20 years later, Andrus claimed he was not plump, but in fighting trim at 160 pounds and 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He did not challenge the Time assessment as to responsibility for Goering's suicide. After being relieved of his Nuremberg command, Andrus returned to the United States and was assigned to Headquarters, Military District of Washington, D.C.

College Professor

In 1948 Andrus completed Strategic Intelligence School. His next assignment was to Israel as Military Attache. After one year in Israel he was sent to Brazil with the same duties. He returned to the United States in April 1952 and a brief stateside tour.

Colonel Andrus retired from the army on April 30, 1953, and realized his wish to live in the Puget Sound area. He moved to Tacoma and attended the College of Puget Sound (later University of Puget Sound). Andrus studied under Professor Charles T. Battin (1888-1964) and assisted him in directing the debate team. Andrus earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration in 1955 and a master's degree the next year.

The college asked him to stay on and teach in the School of Business Administration and Economics. He was teaching there when the college became a university. Andrus was a powerful advocate for veterans at the university. He was also active in the Boy Scouts. While a professor, he promoted the release of Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) from Spandau prison. Colonel Andrus was portrayed in a number of movies and television documentaries. Burton C. Andrus died at Fort Lewis's Madigan Army Hospital in 1977. He and his wife Katherine Andrus are buried in the Fort Worden Cemetery in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

Their son Burton C. Andrus Jr. (1917-2004) graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1941. During World War II he became a bomber pilot serving in Italy and Commanding Officer of the 783rd Bombardment Squadron, 465th Bombardment Group. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while commanding the 783rd Bombardment Squadron. Burton Andrus Jr. retired as an Air Force colonel. He died in 2004 and was buried at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Sources: Burton C. Andrus, I Was the Nuremberg Jailer (New York: Coward-McCann, 1969); "Down Without Tears," Time, October 28, 1946, p. 37; John D. Keliher, "And a Lot More on Andrus," Arches (University of Puget Sound), Vol. 36, No. 3, Spring 2009, pp. 3-5 (available at; "Goering Suicide Provides Mysterious Case of Poison Vial," The Oregonian, October 17, 1946, p. 1; "Chief Ousted at Nuremberg," Ibid., December 6, 1946, p. 4; "Nuremberg Security Officer Retires Here," Tacoma News Tribune, April 5, 1953, p. 8; "Retired Military Men Will Get CPS Degrees," Ibid., August 17, 1955, p. A-14; "Jailed Nazis Watched Every 30 Seconds to Avert Suicide," The Seattle Times, August 23, 1945, p. 8; "Burton Andrus, 'Nuremberg Jailer,' 84, Dies in Tacoma," Ibid., February 3, 1977, p. E-17.

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