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In April and May 1945, I was a first lieutenant in the 9th Air Force, attached to the 7th Army Headquarters, temporary duty, for the purpose of flying officers from Eisenhower's headquarters into the various camps as they were liberated. Our unit had moved from France into Germany near Frankfurt. We continued to fly combat missions from that location until the war ended in May of 1945.
The rumors became reality as three L-5 Observation planes were dispatched to Buchenwald. Our passengers--medical officers, military police, legal and intelligence officers--were to assess the situation and report to General Eisenhower.
After we landed on a makeshift airstrip, we were taken into the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by American troops. As we neared Buchenwald, the odors became nauseating. I commented to the driver about this, and he said "You ain't seen nothing yet. There's dead bodies all over the place, and the clean-up hasn't even started." He took me on a tour of Buchenwald. I can't begin to describe the heinous scene. The officials went about their business, and we flew back to Frankfurt. I felt more anger against Germans that I thought possible.
About April 29th, we flew to Munich. We reached the area, and were informed by radio not to attempt landing, as fighting was still in progress. We headed toward the town of Dachau, the site of the second Nazi camp to be liberated. We circled the area seeking a safe spot to land, requesting ground troops to clear a nearby road of rocks and other debris. We made tricky and bumpy landings on the road. Command cars and jeeps took us to Dachau.
I thought Buchenwald had been bad; Dachau was much worse. The camp had been liberated that morning, and as we drew near the gates we heard sporadic gunfire. Our driver warned us to be careful. Some inmates had weapons and, only a few hours before, troops had a shoot-out with SS guards.
We entered the gates, and were met by a Major General who disappeared with our passengers. The smell burned my nostrils and permeated my pores. Every direction I looked, I saw dead bodies and former prisoners running around. Soldiers gathered in groups, bayonets fixed on their rifles. Chaos like I had never seen before. We observed crazed inmates beating and clubbing their former tormentors to death.
The jeep driver asked me if I wanted to look around. He wore a shoulder patch from the 45th Infantry Division, an outfit I had trained with in 1940-41. We drove toward a long freight train, eighty-six cars. Medics were checking the open coal cars and some regular cars with locked doors. Frost still covered the ground, and the hundreds of skeletal, naked corpses were piled into every car and overflowing onto the tracks. An unimaginable sight.
Later I learned each car held fifty to eighty prisoners and had been shuttled all over trying to stay away from our troops. The prisoners starved, or froze, or perished from disease.
We drove toward the main camp. Dead and dying prisoners were piled in heaps near the crematorium. Soldiers sorted through the bodies, trying to locate the living. It didn't matter, they all died anyway. We turned a corner just as machine-gun fire erupted nearby. The driver stopped and we could see Nazi guards lined up against a building being cut down by the guns. I have no idea how many Nazis died, but the firing went on for thirty or more minutes.
Before the end of May, I had flown to five Nazi camps, Bergen-Belsen twice. Twenty-six thousand people had died between trips. Anne Frank and her sister were among the dead.
Most of us have some idea of the horrors the Nazis perpetrated on the European Jews. No one knows how many humans suffered and died at the hands of these "ordinary men." We do know millions were murdered by the Nazis in ways too cruel to imagine.
After Dachau, I burned my uniform in a vain attempt to rid myself of the death smell. It's still with me, fifty years later. Only recently have I begun talking about the Holocaust. One reason is because I read that as many as seventeen percent of Americans recently polled expressed some doubts that it happened at all. The greatest tragedy in modern times. And some doubt it happened. Others compare the Holocaust with special interests, to fight this or that cause. Political groups even compare each other to Nazis, which I find ridiculous.
My wife and I have returned to Europe several times. We visit friends in Austria and Germany. I have revisited some of the Nazi death camps. It's an emotional experience for me. Some European friends apologize for their country's role in WW-II, others argue that the Jews brought it all on. There must be a lesson here someplace. I wish I could find it. Go to the Top of the Page
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"Why'd they shoot that guy, Major?"
I'd seen this dead man crumpled up in sort ofa fetal position in a field near the road from our airstrip to the village wherewe were billeted in German homes. A lone young soldier with bayonet fixed to hisM-1 rifle stood guard near the body. The dead man wore white clothing, like somany other recently liberated inmates from Nazi concentration camps.
"I'm notsure." the major replied, "But those people in the D.P. camp have been botheringthe villagers, stealing food and animals. Guess they cook them in the camp. Theycleaned out the factory of all the cloth the Krauts used to make pockets foruniforms. Orders went out to stop the raiding, so I heard he was shot carryingoff a lamb or something."
Germany had surrendered a month before. Our squadronhad been assigned to fly as targets for an anti-aircraft outfit so they couldtrack us with their new radar guns. It was very boring; we just flew a pattern,changing altitude to see if the new guns could stay on us. Two hours each time,then some other pilot took over, and we had the rest of the day off.
On take off,we flew over the Displaced Persons Camp at about 500 feet. We could see thousandsof people milling around inside the barbed wire. Their toilet facilities were outin the open, slit trenches, with canvas providing a little privacy. But from theair, we saw everything, except what went on inside the huge fortress-likebuildings and hundreds of tents and barracks. Orders were to stay away from thecamp itself. It could be dangerous. The D.P.s had been collected from many Nazicamps and brought to this point for processing and sent back to their nativecountries. Americans working to sort the people out told us stories of howdifficult their job was. Many displaced persons didn't want to return to theirhomes. Jews didn't want to return to Poland, Gypsies had no safe place to go,Russians were afraid to return for fear of being put to death as traitors. Mostexpressed a desire to go to the States or Palestine.
Some of us attended anindoctrination session where we were informed of the vast numbers of displacedpersons all over Europe, an estimated thirty million in all, with eight or ninemillion in the Western zones of occupied Germany.
The fighting was over for meand my buddies and we would head home soon. In the meantime we saw Europe. Itwasn't my job to see that these victims of Hitler made it home to their familiesand loved ones. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit historicalEuropean cities which only months before we had tried to destroy.
I put out of mymind the trips I had made to Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen andother sub-camps. I tried to forget the gruesome sights of thousands of deadvictims, the indescribable odors of so much death and suffering. Trying to copewith so many humans totally broken in body, mind and spirit had been just toomuch. We just could not comprehend the enormity of it all. Some of the men whohad not seen these hellish places doubted the reports anyway, so why try toconvince skeptics.
I remember telling a buddy about the dead man beside the road."Let's go take a look." He said.
"Jimmy, a dead man is just a corpse. I don'twant to go back there, maybe he's gone by now anyway. They wouldn't leave him outthere in the sun all day."
"Come up, I'll drive." Jimmy said.
So we hopped in ajeep and headed for the airstrip. I felt squeamish. "Let's just forget it, pal.Okay?" I hoped Jim would turn the jeep around. But he spotted the body andskidded to a halt. The guard was gone and it was late afternoon. The sun beatdown on us as we walked over to the former Nazi prisoner. He had been shot in theback by a high powered American rifle. The blast had blown his belly open. It wasmessy. Jimmy gasped and vomited.
"Jesus! He's a D.P. why did they have to shoothim because he was hungry and stole some Kraut's sheep?"
"Yeah, that's what Iasked the major this morning. The guy was running with food for the hungrybastards in the camp. It ain't right."
We drove back to the village in totalsilence, each deep into our own thoughts. We went to the command house andrequested that the body be removed. "Why'd they shoot the poor guy, Major?"
"Heand the others bothered the villagers. Bet they don't steal any more sheep."
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