When McKay Smith started researching WWII-era military records to learn more about his late grandfather who'd served on a B-17 bomber, he chanced upon a copy of a once-classified "escape and evasion" report that changed his life.
The report detailed the shooting down of Smith's grandfather Lieutenant Raymond Murphy's B-17 over occupied France in April 1944.
Murphy had survived and spent the next few months behind enemy lines before travelling the countryside for months, evading German patrols and eventually making it to the safety of England, reports news.com.au.
Smith, who is a lawyer at the US Department of Justice as well as a former staffer with Senator John McCain, was horrified when he saw further details in the declassified intelligence report.
Murphy had written in pencil: "I saw a town within four hours bicycle ride up the Gerbeau farm where some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified."
What Murphy had seen was the aftermath of the notorious massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane.
Then Smith discovered that a former Nazi soldier who had been involved in the massacre had never been tried for a war crime — and he was still alive, living in Germany. Now Smith is on a mission to bring that surviving Nazi soldier, Werner Christukat, to justice.
On June 10, 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" descended upon Oradour and the Germans surrounded the village. According to Smith, the more experienced soldiers had learned their craft on the eastern front, where mass murder was a common tool of occupation.
"The first shots rang out as rifle and machine gun fire struck down villagers working in the fields. Once the village was encircled, it was clear that the men in the cordon had no intention of stopping innocent civilians from entering. Rather, their goal was to ensure that no one could escape the slaughter to come," Smith said.
"A systematic roundup commenced, with every soldier directing men, women, and children to the village fairground. The SS went house to house, pushing citizens into the streets, shooting the old and infirm in their beds.
"Camouflaged soldiers burst into the schools. Children diligently followed their teachers as they were led away. One terrified boy waited behind. He called out to his sisters and then sprinted from the classroom. Seven-year-old Roger Godfrin was the only child to survive the massacre."
At a nearby fairground, the SS divided the villagers into two groups: women and children were marched off to the church while the men were forced into six other buildings. When the signal was given, the killing began.
According to Smith, the few who survived pretended to be dead. Then the building was set on fire. Robert Hebras escaped the killing machine that day, along with only four other men.
"Inside the church, the SS laid down a large box at the front of the nave. The women and children looked on nervously. When the bomb exploded, it filled the air with thick black smoke. Gunners rushed in, throwing grenades and spraying the crowd with bullets.
"Mothers fell dead in front of their babies. The SS stoked the fire, piling broken pews and straw on top of the bodies. Behind the altar, one woman pulled herself to her feet. With her last ounce of strength, she clawed her way up to a window and jumped," Smith said.
Marguerite Rouffanche was the only woman to survive the massacre, managing to run to freedom as the Germans firebombed the remaining buildings, hunting for any survivors.
The massacre claimed the lives of 642 people, including more than 200 children to become the biggest mass killing in occupied France during WWII. Today, only a shell of the village remains leading the French refer to Oradour as the "ghost village."
While Smith hasn't taken part in the US government's official hunt for former German soldiers and concentration camp guards, he's spent several years and thousands of dollars of his own money building up an archive of around 10,000 pages of documents and photos he was able to get hold of under the US Freedom of Information Act.
"For decades, Waffen-SS soldiers have avoided responsibility for their horrific wartime acts. However, in 2011, the legal landscape in Germany shifted with the trial of a guard from Sobibor extermination camp and the prosecution of Reinhold Hanning, who was convicted of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder," Smith said.
"As a matter of law, it's no longer necessary to prove direct involvement in a specific killing." All that's required is a showing that you were part of a larger killing apparatus, or a cog in machinery designed entirely for the purpose of murder. In other words, mere presence and support are enough to establish guilt. Yet somehow Werner Christukat remains free.
According to Smith, in June 2016, a German court in Cologne ignored relevant legal precedent and dismissed Christukat's case.
"As one of Hitler's most elite combat soldiers, Christukat was charged with murdering 25 defenceless men in Oradour, as well as helping to burn alive hundreds of women and children," Smith said.
"In 2010, Nazi hunters located a document in the archives of the Stasi, the former East German secret police. It was a company list for the Das Reich Division that included Christukat's name alongside other known perpetrators of the massacre.
"When questioned by German prosecutors and journalists, Christukat acknowledged that he was a machine gunner and that he was present at Oradour. He was part of the cordon that sealed off the perimeter, preventing the villagers from escaping.
"His duties brought him into the centre of the village where he saw the bomb placed inside the church. He even admitted that he was close enough to hear the women and children scream as they met their horrible fate. Nonetheless, he denied all responsibility for the crime.
"On that day in Oradour, even the men on the perimeter ensured that no one could escape. It was a systematic attempt to exterminate a village. Just the day prior, men from your division hanged 99 civilians in a nearby town. Their corpses dangled from lampposts and balconies as SS officers listened to music on a gramophone."
AFTER THE WAR
Following WWII, 20 former German soldiers were found guilty for their involvement in the massacre, but they were set free without serving any time in prison.
In 1983 an officer was convicted and imprisoned, but he was set free after 14 years (and he lived for another decade.)
According to Smith, in 1978 Christukat was questioned about the massacre, but German prosecutors failed to provide enough evidence to charge him with murder. Then, in 2013, German investigators uncovered fresh evidence and were able to formally charge Christukat with murder and accessory to murder.
But, because Christukat is only mentioned once in the official documents (as having been present in the village on the day of the massacre) there was "insufficient evidence" to take him to trial.
In a statement, the district court in Cologne said, "this mere presence cannot legally be considered as assisting in murder without the presentation of additional proof".
According to Smith, the German prosecutor declined to officially close Christukat's case, so if any new evidence is discovered, there's a small chance he could still be tried.
JUSTICE FOR THE VICTIMS
Christukat is the last living Nazi who was there on that horrific day in June 1944 and to Smith, the fact that he is still free is an appalling injustice. Smith claims he wants justice but, for him, justice goes beyond seeing Christukat behind bars. He'd like the 93-year-old to confess everything he took part in on the day of the massacre.
"I want him to prove his humanity. Confess everything he did that day and everything he saw. Apologise to the last living survivors for causing them such tremendous pain. His time in this world is growing short. Doing anything else at this late hour would only confirm what I have thought all along; he is a monster," Smith said.