The Mad Russian: The Life and U.S. Army Service of Alexis Ureyvitch Sommaripa
Written By: Paul Roberts
A lot of people get hurt in this business,
If anything happens to me remember this:
I’m a deeply religious man,
I have no fear of dying.
—Alexis Ureyvitch Sommaripa
These, prophetic words were spoken by Alexis Ureyvitch Sommariba to Lieutenant Colonel Louis Huot shortly before his untimely death near Reinhardshain, a town east of the Rhine River in Germany, on 28 March 1945. He was serving with Combat Command B, 4th Armored Division, doing what he did best (and what he loved to do): convincing the enemy to surrender, and succeeding. His adventures after landing on the beaches of Normandy have been forever remembered in military lore and official military reports. However, his exploits are largely unknown by the general public. He truly is an unsung hero. Considering what he accomplished in his role as a psychological warfare specialist, it can be stated that his exploits probably contributed to the hastening of the war’s end, if even by a day, and that is something.
Alexis Ureyvitch Sommaripa was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1900 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. As a teenager, he witnessed the October and Bolshevik Revolutions. After graduating in 1918 from the Imperial Law School in Petrograd, he came to America, where he was able to surmount language barriers and graduate from Harvard with a master’s degree, paying for tuition with the proceeds from the sale of his extensive stamp collection. Not long after graduation, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company (DuPont) of Wilmington, Delaware, hired him as the manager of new fabric and yarn development, where he supervised experimental spinning and weaving. During the 1920s, DuPont was attempting to interest designers and manufacturers in a new market of synthetic fabrics for apparel and interior decorations. They realized that textile mills were having a problem with adapting techniques in weaving the new rayon fabric. DuPont sent Sommaripa to Europe in 1935 and 1937 to buy different types of luxurious silks, with which he worked with technicians to adapt the silk patterns to rayons, which up to then behaved differently from other natural fibers. He traveled to DuPont’s textile mills across the country, teaching new techniques of working with man-made fibers. He was then promoted to director of national sales surveys.
While working full-time for DuPont, Sommaripa also worked part-time as a technical advisor for field testing for the Army’s Quartermaster Board. Later, he was chairman of the Rayon Fabric Subcommittee of the American Society of Testing Materials. In addition to his work for DuPont and the Army, he managed to write ten technical articles and delivered over twenty technical addresses to various organizations. Where all this know-how influenced Sommaripa’s future path in combat is puzzling, but as a former superior explained, “He has the facility of getting at basic facts of a problem without wasting time.”
With the United States entering World War II in December 1941, Sommaripa attempted to enlist. He finally prevailed in spite of his advanced age of forty-one. His desire to enlist largely came from his profound hatred of the Nazis, triggered by the venal autocractic memories of his native Russia under the Czar and the Communists.
Sommaripa convinced the military that with his skills with languages, he could be used very effectively. He believed he would be a perfect spy, but this was not to be. He applied for a Navy commission and was put on a short list. Eventually, he was sent to Camp Lee, Virginia, by the Quartermaster Board, where field testing of materials was done. Here he went through the rigors of training with recruits in order to test the accoutrements of war to determine how they stood up under extreme conditions. He went on a forced sixty-six-mile march with full field pack for three days with men half his age, and he outlasted many of them. After additional training, he was sent to England as an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) civilian technician with an “assimulated” rank of captain. This afforded him the privilege of wearing an officer’s uniform without the equivalent symbols of rank or adhering to the rigorous rituals of military courtesies that govern its wearer.
Upon arriving in England, Sommaripa reported to the legendary Colonel David K. E. Bruce, head of OSS operations in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and later ambassador to France, West Germany, and the United Kingdom. Bruce assigned him to the OSS’s Special Operations Branch. On 9 June 1944, Sommaripa landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy and began gathering intelligence, a task he found boring and unchallenging, especially when working with the underground French partisans. He conducted extensive investigations of French civilians who might contribute some information regarding the German order of battle and how they had faired under the occupation. He was later in the thick of combat in both Carentan and Mortain and wound up helping evacuate French civilians in a weapons carrier while under heavy machine-gun fire.
It was at this time that Sommaripa got the idea that he could be of more value by putting his language skills to effective use by talking the enemy into surrendering, as he observed at Carentan. Without any formal training in psychological warfare, he was assigned to the 2d Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company (MRBC), the propaganda arm of U.S Army forces in Europe which had been organized to accompany the First and Third Armies in Operation OVERLORD. They were charged with disseminating leaflets fired in 105mm shells to encourage Germans to give up; battlefield broadcasts from loudspeaker-rigged half-ton trucks; keeping French civilians in the loop during operations; setting up broadcasting stations in conquered cities and towns; and monitoring enemy propaganda broadcasts. Sommaripa was given minimal instructions, but he eventually established an unbelievable record in terms of the amount of enemy soldiers he convinced to surrender. The end results would exceed all expectations.
Transferred to the 2d MRBC, Sommaripa was listed as a noncombatant civilian. He devised his own modus operandi during armored assaults, speaking over a loudspeaker in a harsh and arrogant way, while at the same time reassuring German troops that they would be treated fairly and humanely, in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention, if they laid down their arms. Doing broadcasts from loudspeakers mounted on a half-ton truck, he aided units of the struggling 82d Airborne Division paratroopers who were meeting stiff resistance after their initial drop in Normandy. He was later attached to the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division, Third Army.
After the liberation of Paris in late August 1944, Sommaripa began recruiting agents for the OSS Morale Section, but he was not happy with the task and certainly was not good at it. His heart was “in the highlands…a-chasing the deer,” as Scottish poet Robert Burns so succinctly put it, and soon was back in front-line work again where he was in his element and where he could be employed forward with the Allied spearheads marching east.
Sommaripa became a pioneer in the front-line use of loudspeaker systems directed at the enemy. The techniques and equipment that he developed came about mostly by trial and error and included a “Super Baloney Wagon” capable of making itself heard and understood over the din of battle, at ranges of over two miles through its souped-up speaker. It was also tough enough to accompany the lead tanks of an armored column into battle. He later switched to a tank and was placed at the number three spot in a tank column, permitting him to broadcast without interfering with the two point tanks. When he seemed to be on the verge of success, the other tanks cooperatively held their fire until the surrender was effected.
Part of his success can be attributed to the actions of the Psychological Warfare Division operating under the control of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). The division was responsible for the printing and distribution of over three billion leaflets urging German soldiers to give up. Allied bombers dropped large amounts of fliers on German cities along with their deadly payloads of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Along the fighting front, the Allies inserted leaflets into artillery shells and fired them at the German lines. The actions of the Psychological Warfare Division made Sommaripa’s job easier. A typical leaflet dropped on or fired at the Germans, would read (translated from the German):
Capitulation means that the hopelessness of the local situation is being recognized.
In this war Allied commanders capitulated in Singapore, Tobruk, and on Corregidor. German surrenders took place last summer locally at several places in the East and West, where it was recognized, strictly for military reasons, that further loss of life was no longer justified. In all these instances, the surrender took place in good order and with full honors.
When many German soldiers surrendered, they invariably had similar leaflets on their person, and were waiting for the right moment. Then along came Sommaripa, with the superior force of American arms to help him, and soon, it was mission accomplished. This probably not only contributed to the shortening of the war, but laid the groundwork for the formation of the 5th Loudspeaker and Leaflet Company in 1951. This unit became a psychological warfare asset of Seventh Army that helped counter the Soviet Union and its propaganda tactics at the height of the Cold War and the Berlin Crisis.
At first, Sommaripa had the loudspeakers mounted on armored trucks that pushed ahead of the lead tanks, but later switched to an M5A1 Stuart light tank, or what was commonly referred to as a “psychwar” tank. He soon gained the distinction of being the only civilian tank commander in the U.S. Army and led a team of highly aggressive, field-savvy, and motivated volunteer soldiers, who supported his forays. These techniques were subsequently picked up by other elements in the Psychological Warfare Division with similar successes.
Recognizing Sommaripa’s success, William S. Paley, the man responsible for building the Columbia Broadcasting System empire and the chief of the Radio Section, Psychological Warfare Division, Office of War Information in London, circumvented the chain of command and flew to Washington, DC, on his own special mission. Paley, who held the rank of colonel, managed to get an appointment with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. He described to Marshall the efficacy of the loudspeaker psychological warfare program in the ETO and, within a few weeks, twenty “super” loudspeakers were on their way to the 2d MRBC for distribution to other tank units.
To modify the tanks to his specifications, Sommaripa had an armorer weld the speaker in its steel case to the top of the turret just behind the hatch to protect it against shrapnel. A gasoline driven PE75 generator was welded behind the turret on the slopping rear of the tank and a medium 100-watt RCA amplifier (MC225) was fitted inside the tank where extra ammunition cases normally would be stored. In August 1944, he was able to switch to a 200-watt amplifier, giving him additional reach and greater clarity. His position in the tank was where the co-driver normally sat. Sommaripa also had a lip microphone installed, which helped exclude battlefield noises and eliminate feedback from the speakers. Although he was essentially a noncombatant, he was also given a quick course on how to operate the tank’s .50 and .30 caliber machine guns.
Sommaripa and other soldiers in similarly equipped tanks were positioned with forward elements of tank units in the thick of combat, where they used propaganda broadcasts to exploit and gather intelligence, especially if there were indications of low morale within enemy ranks, and encourage the enemy to give up. Using these jury-rigged loudspeaker systems, commonly called horns, he would broadcast in his stentorian Russian-accented German that they were surrounded. This was followed by a statement saying that if they surrendered, they would be accorded all the rights under the Geneva Convention. Sommaripa soon discovered that an enemy’s motivation to surrender is during the heat of battle when the danger is greatest.
The assurance of protection under the blanket of the Geneva Convention was the key. This procedure was predicated on what was known, from intelligence gathering, about the enemy’s defenses; that the leaders could not prevent their men from hearing what was broadcast; issuing ultimatums to towns holding up an advance and making it known that the weight of Allied artillery and air superiority would fall on them; and especially the reassurance that they would be treated humanely. He was thus credited with the capture of thousands of German prisoners in engagements from St. Lô, France, into the very heart of Germany, and obtaining the surrender and capture of many towns and strong points without a shot being fired by their garrisons. Sommaripa employed broadcasts ranging from 200-300 meters to many miles, with little regard for his personal safety as he was often exposed to enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire. Like a stoic avenging angel, he and his team advanced to a position where he could broadcast his “evangelistic” messages. Miraculously, his small tank was spared destruction despite coming under enemy fire.
In is his memoirs, General George S. Patton, commanding general of Third Army, later remarked, “It was a very simple and honest method. ‘This is the Fourth Armored Division,’ Alex would call out on a megaphone. ‘You can’t see us and we can’t see you, but eventually we’ll find you. If you don’t care to engage 4th Armored in battle, surrender now!’ And they did, scores of them. Alex would finish his pitch, and then there would be a pause, a rustle, then a volley of frightened calls. Like the dead on Judgement Day, they emerged from the unmitigated dark and begged for mercy!”
Sommaripa’s cheerful enthusiasm, personal bravery, and unstinting cooperation with tank battalion commanders made a deep impression on the men who served alongside him, making many converts to this type of “bloodless” warfare. One enthusiast was the commanding general of the 4th Armored Division who urgently contacted Third Army headquarters for the same type of equipment and dedicated team for other tank units. The 4th fought its way into Germany at the forefront of Third Army’s advance, but no one stopped to accurately figure out how many prisoners were captured through Sommaripa’s efforts. The effect of his broadcasts were considerable and saved countless American, as well as German, lives.
In a V-mail to his son Amory, Sommaripa stated that his attempts at encouraging Germans to surrender “reminds me of fox hunting,” something he excelled at as a civilian. The amount of intelligence extracted from surrendered Wehrmacht soldiers was considerable. On 8 March 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower praised Sommaripa and his assistants for their outstanding work. The following month, Reichführer SS Heinrich Himmler broadcast a condemnation of the American psychological warfare tactics, declaring they were tantamount to “tricks the enemy tries to make German localities hand themselves over by intimidating the population.”
Sommaripa’s use of his specially equipped tank was not his only method of capturing the enemy. During the fighting in Normandy, he got a report that two Wehrmacht soldiers were hiding out in a farmhouse. In his oversized trench coat that almost touched the ground and a steel helmet that fitted so low down over his eyes it obliged him to absurdly cock his head to one side in order to see, he dismounted his tank and approached the house. Twenty minutes later, he returned to his unit, a broad, quirky smile covering what you could see of his face. Holding a mud-caked M1 Garand rifle, Sommaripa marched the two Germans back to friendly positions. He later recalled, “Did you ever see anything as easy to scare as these Krauts? They were so sure I was going to shoot them, and they were glad to give up. With that weapon? There was mud in the breech mechanism, the bolt was jammed and the barrel also caked, and, even if I knew how to use it, it wouldn’t have fired.” He had picked up the rifle from a dead GI and, using it as a prop, convinced the two Germans to give up. This incident was just a microcosm of his intrepid, devil-may-care attitude.
A similar incident occurred on 15 July during the battle in the St. Lô sector, as American forces were advancing through vicious enemy artillery fire. Sommaripa and his crew moved within forty yards of German positions, ahead of the supporting infantry and along ground covered by enemy machine-gun and small arms fire. He calmly broadcast twice in German and twice in Russian (directed at Polish and Russian prisoners from the Eastern Front impressed and forced to fight in the Wehrmacht), resulting in the capture of eighteen prisoners. His actions proved to be instrumental in breaking the back of resistance in the area. For these actions, Sommaripa and his six assistants were awarded a special commendation.
On another occasion, Sommaripa joined up with Colonel David Page, chief of the press and psychological warfare section for First Army, and another American OSS civilian, Severin Kaven, a Polish-born former concert manager, to help a battalion commander effect the surrender of German units that were holding up the Allied advance just outside the town of Equerdreville on the way into Cherbourg. It was a hazardous mission, with roving bands of Germans armed with machine pistols and grenades among the hedgerows. After evading the enemy troops, they came upon a German soldier who was anxious to surrender, having just killed his officer. They soon stumbled on another group of soldiers, comprised of Poles pressed into German service, who were anxious to give up, having killed an officer trying to kidnap a young French girl. The local German commander was willing to give up as well, but only after a staged firefight, which Sommaripa and his team were happy to do. At that point, however, they received the disquieting news that about 250 Germans of a crack outfit were nearby, preparing to assault American units in the immediate vicinity. They immediately went into loudspeaker mode, with Sommaripa talking in Russian, and Kaven in Polish, announcing that more than 300 of their comrades had given up, and that over a thousand were negotiating to do the same. At first, there was no response. Then, through the rain, an initial group of around 100 Germans came forward with leaflets that had been shot to them. More enemy soldiers followed. “Repetition of the message pays off,” Sommaripa told the German officer. A similar encounter in bombed-out Cherbourg netted hundreds of additional prisoners, raising the total to 2,100. “Just like advertising, not bad for twenty-six hours!” mused a tired Kaven.
As Third Army forces pushed through Brittany, they were stopped at the gates of Concarneau, a tuna fishing port that was heavily fortified. Sommaripa was in charge of a loudspeaker with a high powered address system, mounted on a light truck. As his friend Lieutenant Colonel Louis Huot described in a magazine article, “He approached an isolated detachment of enemy troops with his loathsome ‘Baloney Wagon,’ and broadcast that they were cut off and that further resistance was useless.” The town had great strategic importance as it was located on the coast, making it very desirable for a potential Allied supply port, but it was held with a sizable force and surrounded by minefields and well-positioned artillery. As a result, Sommaripa could not get close enough to broadcast to the main force defending the town. Carrying a white flag of truce and unarmed (without any side arms, which he never carried anyway), he walked about one kilometer to the outlying enemy positions to try to negotiate, all the time shouting in German, “Here comes an American officer.”
The defending Germans were so shocked that they held their fire and led Sommaripa back to their commanding officer in the town. Surprisingly, the German commander had been contemplating a surrender, and was willing to negotiate, but the two SS officers attached to the unit refused. Sommaripa, taking the commander aside, whispered an outrageous suggestion—that he shoot the SS men, which, of course, he refused. “What are we going to do?” Sommaripa asked. One of the German officers countered with a suggestion: “You must shell us, then perhaps we may be able to persuade them to surrender. Sommaripa agreed, but only if they would evacuate the civilians from the town, which they ultimately did. He was led, blindfolded, back to the edge of town and was able to peek and see where the Germans laid landmines. After the shelling, he returned to the commander’s headquarters, but the two SS men were still adamant. Returning to his lines, the American infantrymen, with the information provided by Sommaripa, were able to skirt the minefields and seize the town the next day, along with the two recalcitrant SS officers and an enemy hospital with over 200 German patients and two wounded American pilots.
Many Germans who surrendered provided valuable intelligence, such as the location of minefields and artillery positions, along with unit strengths. More important, however, was the mere fact that there were less of the enemy firing on Allied troops, thereby minimizing casualties, military and civilian, while saving ammunition and other resources.
Sommaripa continued serving with the 4th Armored Division as it raced across France and reached the German border. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 4th broke through to the encircled garrison at Bastogne and helped to put the Germans in full retreat back to the Fatherland. After the Ardennes-Alsace campaign, the Allies pushed eastward, driving towards the Rhine River. In early March 1945, Simmaripa practically took the key town of Andernach on his own, netting over 2,000 prisoners. His actions helped facilitate the 4th Armored’s breakthrough from the Kyll River to the Rhine River and earned him a Bronze Star. The citation for the medal, authorized by Major General William M. Hoge, the 4th Armored Division’s commanding general, read:
“Prior to the start of operations Mr. Sommaripa carefully laid plans with the Combat Command, Tank and Infantry Battalions. During the operation, he followed the tanks in his tank, and broadcast while on the move. On two occasions during the fighting he dismounted from his tank, sometimes exposed to enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire, to interrogate wounded and surrendering German soldiers and civilians for tactical information of immediate interest. His broadcasts helped to capture at least 500 prisoners of war, and, in many cases, resulted in keeping the Germans from firing on our troops. His outstanding services reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Another admirer of Sommaripa was Major P. D. Nolan, a psychological warfare officer. He later spoke of how Sommaripa always wanted the dangerous, how he reveled in hardships, often went days without eating, and endured artillery barrages. Nolan said, “I always felt that this strange obsession of his, and it was an obsession, for danger and flirting with death, had some curious beginning in his background.”
It was shortly after the Allied forces crossed the Rhine that Sommaripa met his ignominious end while assisting in the elimination of pockets of resistance near the Frankfurt-Cologne Autobahn. On 28 March 1945, during an attack on Gobelnrod, two companies of the 35th Tank Battalion and one company of the 51st Armored Infantry Battalion were bogged down about 1,200 yards from the village. As Sommaripa slowly crawled toward the main thoroughfare, constantly under enemy observation, he kept up a constant patter over his two loudspeakers, instructing the German defenders to cease firing and surrender. As he neared a building he dismounted, calling and shouting to the Germans within to come out and surrender, instructing them to put their hands on their head and shout “Kamerad!” Within twenty minutes, they came out of all the buildings in which they were holed up, and a garrison of over 1,000 slowly swarmed into the street. Sommaripa calmly instructed them to keep their hands raised after stacking their arms in one spot, and then formed them into a column, marching them off to the rear. Such was the result of his simple message, that they would be treated humanely, according to the Geneva Convention. Then the American infantry easily walked in and took over the town. Four hours later, fifteen miles from this victory, while maneuvering to target another group of German soldiers, Sommaripa’s M5A1 tank was strafed by a fighter aircraft (possibly American). The strafing wounded the tank’s driver, and as he fell, his feet hit the controls, causing the tank to rear wildly and overturn into a bomb crater, throwing Sommaripa out of the vehicle. The tank then landed on top of him, crushing him to death.
For his actions, Sommaripa was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. The citation accompanying the medal reflected that he had “contributed gallantly to the success of American arms on 28 March 1945 during an attack on Gobelnrod, illustrative of duty of the highest order, unsurpassed bravery and remarkable daring.” This medal was sent to his teenage son, Amory, along with his Bronze Star awarded for meritorious service for actions 5-8 March 1945 in Germany, while serving with the 37th Tank Battalion, when the 4th Armored Division broke through from the Kyll River to the Rhine.
Alexis Sommaripa was truly a rara avis amongst men. He lived and died a true hero, and possessed qualities that few people have. The story of his exploits really cannot be truly put into words. In his earlier years, before serving with the Army, he could swim a full mile, was a fox hunter, and jumped hurdles on his favorite horse, Tovarish. In his early 40s, as he attempted to prove that he was fit for military service, he participated in a long forced march with men half his age, and outlasted many of them. He used to brag to son Amory how “our ancestors sailed out of Venice around 1200 headed for the Greek Cyclades Islands to do business and eventually, “wound up in Russia, crazy for battle and joined the wild Cossacks fighting the Turks in the Crimea.” Indications of his superior progenitors are talents such as the great prima ballerina, Alexandra Danilova, a first cousin; his father, a judge and major general in the Imperial Russian Army; and another ancestor who was granted the title of count by Catherine the Great for heroic actions in battle. Perhaps this was the clue to his uniqueness and intrepidity. He died the way he lived, heroically. The eternal tribute to him is his burial spot, the only civilian amongst his fellow military comrades, and very close to the grave of General Patton in the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg.
Twenty years after the end of the war, his surviving son, Amory, a retired physician, unexpectedly received his father’s diary in the mail from an old flame. From this, letters, and correspondence from him that he had saved, and memories of his youth, he was able to put together a charming, brief biography, Diary of a Mad Russian, which was published in 2005. This sobriquet, “Mad Russian,” was affectionately given by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, commander of the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division. With all the connotations of what mad meant, Abrams was likely referring to Sommaripa’s deep-seated hatred of Nazis. It was Abrams who pulled his lifeless body out from under his overturned tank. At the time, he was observing enemy columns in retreat and was maneuvering his tank into a position to address some German troops in a nearby farmhouse when he was attacked. “The progress of the Division was greatly enhanced by Alex’s batting average of surrenders,” Abrams lamented, adding “His brave actions were beyond the call of duty.” If anything, Sommaripa will be forever known as a skilled psychological warfare soldier who waged his own unique kind of war.