Copyright ã 2002 Don Rodda. All Rights Reserved. Dachau, May Day, 1945 By Don Rodda
Dachau, May Day, 1945
By Don Rodda
Don Rodda, in a photograph taken in wartime Italy, and inscribed:
"Mom Darling. Much love from your favorite Dogface."
By Don Rodda
Until May 1, 1945, I had never heard of a place called Dachau.
After that date more than a half-century ago, Iíve never been able to forget it... Not that anyone should-- ever.
Dachau, as we later learned, was Hitlerís first concentration camp which took its name from a nearby town 12 miles from Munich. Only a few days earlier, our troops had taken important cities in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, Nuremberg and Munich.
On this May Day morning quite unexpectedly I became part of a hastily-organized contingent of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division which had fought its way deep into Germany from NorthAfrica via Sicily, Italy, Anzio and Southern France.
None of us knew what this hurry-up mission was about. But since representatives of other attached units were included, I speculated that it might have something to do with our Division newspaper to which I had contributed stories involving men of our ack-ack battalion.
As it soon turned out, no special talents or orientation were required, only eyes to see-- Dachau, with its dead, dying, and living skeletons.
Until Allied forces had begun to overrun concentration camps, not much was known about them, certainly not at the ordinary GIs (my) level. Regardless of what anyone may have known, or suspected, about the camps, nothing could have prepared him for the horrors of Dachau.
Our group entered the camp through a railroad siding. The first things we saw were mostly roofless freight cars which, judging from legends painted on their sides, came from towns all over France and Germany. Some of these were World War I vintage "40 and 8s" that originally were designed to carry "Hommes" (Men) 40, and "Chevaux" (Horses) 8. But Hitlerís minions had found other uses for the old cars.
Up ahead, soldiers from our group began climbing the sides of cars to look down into them. I followed suit --and wished I hadnít. Dead bodies lay in most of the 30 or 40 cars. It appeared that these poor shrunken, emaciated people either died enroute to Dachau, or upon arrival, lacked the strength to drag themselves out of the box-cars.
Some men were almost nude or covered with scraps of clothing. Some lay in convulsed positions on the car floors. Others apparently had wedged themselves in corners of the cars, sitting upright to await the inevitable.
An officer conducting our contingent speculated that this may have been the last trainload of prisoners of the Nazis who had been shipped to Dachau for slave-labor, for medical experimentation, or simply to be eliminated. Historians of what later became known as The Holocaust have said that more than 32,000 Jews and other so-called "enemies of the Reich" were killed at Dachau.
As we moved further into the camp, we saw bodies of prison guards and German soldiers who had been killed when American infantrymen had over-run the camp about 48 hours before our arrival. Some of the defenders, including black-clad SS troops with their lightning insignia, had been tossed into a moat or canal about six feet wide and perhaps two feet deep, which was immediately outside of the campís broad compound. Face up or face down, some of the dead soldiersí blondhair floated eerily in the gently moving stream.
We next approached a large building, outside of which were racks of the striped pajama-like prisonersí uniforms. All were methodically sorted, jackets and pants, and hung apparently for future use. Nearby was a huge mound of this clothing that hadnít been sorted.
When we entered this empty building, it appeared to be a large shower room with the usual fixtures near the ceiling. It came as a shock when our guide explained that these fixtures were gas jets by which countless men, women and children met their deaths in the Nazi extermination program.
Our macabre tour progressed to two more large rooms which provided even greater shock because each was packed, literally floor-to-ceiling, with naked dead. Now it was easy to guess where and from whom the pile of unsorted clothing had come.
Everywhere the results of starvation and harsh treatment were obvious. All of the bodies were emaciated. Many had bloody indications as to how these prisoners had met their end. And even in this abattoir, vaunted German efficiency prevailed in that bodies were stacked alternately head-to-toe, seemingly to conserve space and to assure stability.
As I moved out of these rooms as quickly as our single-file permitted, I almost stepped on a human hand which had somehow become extruded into the narrow walkway.
It didnít seem possible that there were more horrors, but there were, for we had come to the actual crematoria at the end of the building. There were five ovens, or furnaces, each of which was in full use. This day, the cremation was being conducted by, we were told, captured Yugoslav and Russian soldiers supervised by a kapo (prisoner trustee).
We had seen hundreds of dead bodies, and were told many more were to be found elsewhere in the camp and in barracks. Apparently the cremation was continued as a means of removing the bodies, or, because at this early date, no other method had been decided upon.
We were informed that in the three months before the campís liberation, 10,000 people had been cremated at Dachau. Every soldier I talked to was glad to get out of these infernal quarters.
A far better sight awaited us outside where thousands of liberated souls were celebrating their new-found freedom and, in many cases, perhaps life itself. These people were assembled on the very ground where Nazi officers and guards once had held the dreaded appell, or roll call, which required prisoners to stand for hours in the bitter cold or under the relentless sun. The camp held an estimated 30,000 inmates at its liberation.
After our dismal walk-through of Dachau, I became convinced that higher authority had decreed Nazi inhumanity and atrocities never should fall into the rumor category so often rampant in military organizations; that soldiers must see these things for themselves.
It may have been our Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was responsible for our being at Dachau that May Day. As the camps were being overrun, I read in "Yank" a quote from Ike who said, "I hope every American newspaper will print the story of German bestiality in detail."
Surely the Herald-Tribune must have because its correspondent, Marguerite Higgins, on Sunday April 29 became the first news person at Dachau, which she entered with soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division.
Now, fifty-odd years later, and despite all that has been written about the infamous camps, there are those who today deny The Holocaust.
But not I... Not anyone who had seen Dachau.