The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Wennerstrum, Charles Frederick
(October 11, 1889–June 1, 1986)

–lawyer and chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court—was born in Cambridge, Illinois, the son of Charles and Anna (Vinstrand) Wennerstrum. Charles F. Wennerstrum graduated from Des Moines West High School in 1908, Drake University in 1912, and Drake University Law School in 1914. In 1915 he began private practice in Chariton, where he also entered local politics. He served as an artillery officer in World War I. In 1925 he married Helen F. Rogers. They had three children. In 1941 he was elected to the Iowa Supreme Court.

    As part of the post-World War II German "denazification" process, the powers occupying Germany created the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to try Germans accused of war crimes. In 1946, 24 of the top Nazis were indicted and convicted of "crimes against humanity."The trials then continued down the Nazi hierarchy of accused military and civilian war criminals. In 1947 Judge Wennerstrum was asked to be the presiding judge of the Office of the Military Governor, United States (OMGUS) Tribunal V.

    That trial, known as the "Hostages Trial," was held before an exclusively U.S. Military Court. Wennerstrum, as presiding judge, was joined on the bench by George J. Burke (Michigan) and Edward F. Carter (Nebraska). The trial lasted from July 8, 1947, to February 19, 1948. The accused faced charges of war crimes for the mass killing of hundreds of civilians in Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia. Of the 12 Germans originally indicted, 8 were convicted and received sentences from seven years to life imprisonment.

    The tribunal had to consider whether "partisans" (guerrillas) were "lawful belligerents" and thus entitled to the status of prisoners of war and whether the taking of civilians as hostages was a lawful military defense against guerrilla attacks. The tribunal found that par tisans (guerrillas) were not lawful belligerents and could be executed under the laws of war and that, under certain conditions, the taking of civilian hostages and reprisal killings might be an allowed line of action against guerrilla attacks. The court held, however, that the defendants were in violation because the reprisals were far more numerous and brutal than warranted. The verdict and the sentences were unanimous.

    The day after the trial ended, Wennerstrum gave an interview to Hal Faust of the Chicago Tribune. (Wennerstrum later claimed that he did not know of the Tribune 's editorial leanings and national influence and thought that his comments would be only for local consumption.) Although Wennerstrum made it clear that he believed that the defendants had received just punishment, that there was adequate international law upon which to base the judgments, and that the war crimes trials should continue in spite of their shortcomings, he also made some rather negative statements about his war crimes trial experiences. His main concern was that "the victor is never an unbiased judge of war crime guilt. A neutral, third party should have held the trials."The day after the interview, General Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor, had the Army Public Relations Office publish a stiff open letter to Wennerstrum, which ended, "Instead of making any constructive moves while you were here, you have chosen to give out a baseless, malicious attack during the last hours of your eight months stay and then leave town rather than confront those whom you have so outrageously slandered. I would use stronger language if it did not appear that your behavior arises out a warped, psychopathic mental attitude."Telford's letter was made public before the Tribune had even published the Wennerstrum interview. Faust claimed that the army had "tapped" the newspaper's communication circuits. All this further inflamed the flap. (It was later discovered that the packet containing the interview text was sent, in error, to the wrong communications office, which, in turn, sent the text to Taylor.)

    Wennerstrum's colleagues always considered him a strict "law judge," fair in his decisions, and not a publicity seeker (certainly not one to foment an international crisis). Some who knew Wennerstrum believed that he was "conned" by the anti-administration Tribune 's Faust into making such strong statements.

    Wennerstrum continued to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court until 1958, when he was defeated, along with the three other incumbent Republican justices, in a national Democratic landslide. Wennerstrum then entered private practice in Des Moines, where he died in 1986. He was buried in Chariton.
Sources include the Wennerstrum Papers at Drake University, Des Moines; Des Moines Register, 9/1/1958, 10/13/1958, 11/4/1958, 6/3/1986, and 3/1/1998; Chicago Tribune, 2/24/1948; and New York Times, 6/4/1986.
Contributor: Chet Doyle