The Army's World War II Executioner Lied His Way into the Job

U.S. Army Pvt. John Woods is shown aboard a troop ship. (U.S. Army)

It turns out "fake it till you make it" has been around a long time.

In World War II Europe, U.S. Army Pvt. John Woods volunteered for executioner duty, claiming he'd been a hangman in Texas and elsewhere before the war. The service didn't bother to check his claims, opting instead simply to promote him to master sergeant and ship him off to Paris.

He would become world famous as the Army's executioner.

The truth, however, was that Woods never had been an executioner. He joined the Navy in 1929 at age 19, quickly went AWOL and was drummed out of the service in 1930 based on the recommendation of a psychiatric board. In the decade-plus before World War II, he worked odd jobs and was a clerk in his native Kansas.

He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and landed at Normandy on D-Day with Company B of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion.

That's how he ended up in France with the decidedly not politically correct opportunity to tie nooses around Nazi necks.

As the resident hangman at Paris' Disciplinary Training Center, his job was to travel around Allied Europe to perform executions by hanging.

An inexperienced hangman's mistakes are difficult to miss, and unsurprisingly, Woods made a few. In more than two years as the Army's executioner in Europe, he performed an estimated 70 executions by hanging and bungled more than his fair share, denying those sentenced to death the right of dying quickly and painlessly.

Woods even carried out executions of convicted Nazi war criminals after the war ended, including as many as 10 of the men convicted at Nuremberg, including former Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; field marshal Wilhelm Keitel; Col.-Gen. Alfred Jodl; former head of the SS, Ernst Kaltenbrunner; and Julius Streicher. Woods didn't seem to mind that some deaths took longer than the Army's regulations required, according to onlookers. Streicher even spat in his face and gave one last "Heil Hitler" before falling.

An illustration of the execution of a Nuremberg prisoner in 1945. (Life Magazine)

"I hanged those 10 Nazis, and I am proud of it," Woods told assembled war correspondents. "The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it. I got into it kind of by accident."

He eventually went back to his regular Army duties as a combat engineer after the war's end. He stayed in the service, working as an engineer on an assignment in Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific. One day in July 1950, while repairing an engineer lighting set, Woods accidentally was electrocuted and killed. He was 39 years old.

There are many legends surrounding Woods. After the Nuremberg trials made him famous worldwide, he became suspicious of how Germans would look at him and began carrying pistols in case he needed to defend himself. Some even claim the former Nazi scientists recruited for Operation Paperclip on the atoll carefully planned his electrocution, making it look like an accident.

As for Woods' lying about his execution experience, the Army either never knew or was just happy to find a soldier who wanted the job. According to retired Col. French MacLean, who recently published "American Hangman: John C. Woods: The United States Army's Notorious Executioner in World War II and Nürnberg," the truth was probably somewhere in between.

"Well, he was lying," MacLean told the website Ozy. "But the Army didn't check up, because we didn't want to find something we didn't want to find, or we tried to check up, and it was too hard."

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at

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