Most have heard of the ugly events surrounding World War II and the systematic executions of European Jews by Adolph Hitler’s notorious Nazi regime. There has been much written about what those victims endured, but perhaps what is less known is the effect the discovery of the Holocaust had on the common Soldier, more specifically the Colorado Soldier. To help others better understand, a handful of Colorado Soldiers assigned to the 157th Infantry shared their personal experiences of the liberation of the Dachau Labor Camp in April of 1945, 65 years ago.
A common recollection of those who liberated Dachau was that most felt they were not prepared for what they encountered there.
Brig. Gen. Felix Sparks explained in his personal account of the liberation of Dachau, “Veterans of six campaigns, to whom death was commonplace, sickened and vomited at Dachau. Not the sight and smell of death did this, but the decaying evidence of human cruelty that was beyond the understanding of the normal mind.
“The scene there robbed the human mind of reason. It was such a horrible, terrible, unbelievable scene that it was even difficult for me to even think rationally there for a while … By that time I was a real battle hardened veteran. … I was used to death and I was used to combat, it was part of my job at that time, but I was not prepared for what I saw in Dachau. Nothing could prepare you for that.”
John Lee, 157th Infantry rifleman, described his emotions. “You try to hold yourself together. You try to tell yourself that you can control yourself. But then I looked at my buddy, and he was just in complete tears, so then I busted out. And looking around, most of the guys were all completely teary-eyed. You almost get a savage feeling out of it, like trying to think of some way to get revenge.”
A medical officer, then-Lt. Howard Buechner, who was attached to the 157th Infantry, offered his perspective as well. “You expect to see many things on trains – coal, cattle, wheat or lumber or almost anything – but seeing a train loaded with dead bodies is a particularly horrifying sight, and a sight that none of the Soldiers had ever seen in their life. I’m not sure if anyone had seen 2,300 bodies loaded on trains.”
Ralph Fink, 157th Infantryman said the experience was exceptional. “As we went along in combat, seeing dead bodies was an almost everyday occurrence, so I think that probably we all got hardened to it to some degree, but the volume of death at Dachau and the bodies just barely skin with the bone showed us that there was a lot of cruelty and starvation, and everything involved was just overwhelming.
“One of the most poignant moments of my whole time in camp was as we moved into this portion of the camp [where] no one was around. The prisoners in those barracks were so weak that they could barely drag themselves to the doorways. Keep in mind those that could function were up at the main gate. So now, we’re coming down the street very slowly, being very cautious and so on, it turned out that the prisoners that could still move a little bit were in the barracks or hiding behind barracks trying to avoid any possible line of fire.
“Finally, there’s one brave soul, a man who started down the street towards us. He was so weak that he would fall down and hit his face on the black top. Then he would crawl and try to get up again and try to come toward us and keep falling. He struggled and finally got to us and he was hysterical, crying and hugging and kissing us. I still wonder where he is today.”
Adding to the horrors of mass cruelty, was the magnitude and the number of victims involved in this single camp alone. Sparks explained, “The orders for the Germans were to kill all inmates from the concentration camps before they fell into allied hands, so they were afraid to show their faces that the Germans guards in the towers would kill them. So when they saw us take over the towers, they came out by the thousands. I didn’t know if there were a hundred in there or 10,000 or what. As it turned out there were 32,000, which overwhelmed me.”
While the allied victory in Europe may be as fascinating as the Holocaust was horrifying, it is important to not gloss over the psychological wounds of the Soldiers who became the first non-participants on the scene of this death operation. As the nation pauses this month to remember the victims of the Holocaust, remember also the liberators who also became victims on a personal and intimate level. The preceding accounts were taken from the documentary film “The Liberation of KZ Dachau” by James Kent Strong, ©1990.