Shortly after midnight on March 12, 1943, a U.S. Army chaplain and two military policemen walked into a cell in Shepton Mallet Prison, a grim, centuries-old facility in southwest England. The two MPs handcuffed the cell’s sole occupant and, with the clergyman trailing behind muttering prayers, escorted the prisoner down a hallway, through a crude wooden door, and onto a sturdy wooden gallows built within a two-story brick room.
The MPs halted the prisoner a few feet from the square trap door in the floor of the gallows and 73-year-old Thomas Pierrepoint, one of England’s official executioners, quickly stepped forward and with the help of his nephew Albert wrapped restraints around the prisoner’s upper torso and legs. The condemned man stood quietly as an American officer read both the charges against him and the sentence that was about to be carried out. The formalities over, the elder Pierrepoint slipped a white linen hood over the prisoner’s head, moved him into position atop the trap door, placed a simple slip-noose around his neck, then stepped back and quickly pulled the large handle that opened the trap and dropped the man to his death.
Though the execution mirrored in most details the hangings of Axis spies and Allied traitors during World War II, the man who died that day almost exactly 73 years ago was neither. He was, in fact, a 21-year-old U.S. Army private from Alabama named David Cobb, and he was the first of 18 American service members put to death at the British-owned but U.S.-operated prison between 1943 and 1945.