A couple of days later we were in a village. I guess it was north and east of Linz. All night we heard a continuous artillery bombardment. They were not firing on us.
They were the last German artillery and antiaircraft guns in the Linz area, which were firing everything they had at the Russians who were approaching from the east. They hoped the Americans would arrive first.
In midmorning the rumor was spread that the Germans had surrendered. The fellows were so jubilant they ran outside—we had taken quarters in the houses of the town—and fired their personal weapons in the air. It was like the 4th of July. They were wild with joy. The war was over!
After about 15 minutes the word was passed that it was not true. I am suspicious that the second message was passed to stop the shooting for fear someone would get killed by accident.
That day and the next a number of German prisoners were brought in. We put them in an open field next to the village. I was one of two men assigned to guard them. First there were fifty, then 100, then 150. We didn’t know what to do with them. Then we saw entire units, hundreds were marching down the road toward us to surrender. They wanted to surrender to us before the Russians got them. It was a little ridiculous for one or two guards to be guarding so many. Then the word came. We were to mount up. We were leaving.
“What should we do about the prisoners?”
We did not know, and they did not know, that there was an agreement that after the war these prisoners would be turned over to the Russians.
ON THE MOVE
We did mount up and soon we were on the move. We received a warning as to what was ahead and also some instructions. We were approaching a concentration camp. We would see thousands of prisoners in terrible condition, but we were not to give them food. The army never explains why.
They just give orders.
We drove for sometime along winding, narrow roads, through a couple villages and then we saw them. Hundreds and hundreds of prisoners, all dressed in these same pajama-like suits with wooden clogs on their feet. Their heads were shaved and all had numbers tattooed on their bodies. They wandered aimlessly in the area. If we stopped, they begged for food. Seeing these living skeletons begging for food; we ignored the orders and gave them all the food we had. We proceeded to the narrow gate of the concentration camp, Mauthausen.
It was surrounded by an electric barbed-wire fence, with guard towers at the gate and various other places around the perimeter. Inside the main gate rose a large stone structure like some of the penitentiaries in the U.S. We were surrounded by thousands of starving, sick and dying people. The stench of death was intense. The smell of burned flesh. Some of the GI’s who had seen a lot of death and violence in recent months were vomiting. What could we do in the face of such need? 18,000 people, starving, sick and dying.
Actually the camp had been liberated a couple of days earlier by one of our reconnaissance units. They opened the gate, set the prisoners free and took the guards prisoner.
In the lower area of the camp, outside the stone walls, but surrounded by wire, was the “hospital” area, but there was no real medical care there. There were several thousand housed in long barracks, sleeping on straw in bunks, several in each, from floor to ceiling. These were the prisoners who were ill or no longer able to do any constructive work. They were in the vestibule of death, a living hell. People were dying right before our eyes. They would be walking a few, weak steps—suddenly fall down and die.
Next to the barracks were stacks of dead bodies, all naked; men, women and children. There were several piles like wood—about 100 bodies in each pile. The conditions in this camp are impossible to describe. We were all in a state of shock. How could any human beings do this to other humans?
In the upper prison, inside high stone walls and tight security, was the death camp. First one passed by the swimming pool (for the guards), then by a motor pool for their vehicles and then by the administrative offices, then through a gate with tight security before one entered a large courtyard surrounded by the high stone walls. Along one side was a building with a few doors and windows. In it was a section of typical prison cells and a large kitchen.
On the lower level we went down into a room. On the floor lay half a dozen, large, bloated German guards lying on a floor covered by their blood. It looked like it was an inch deep. Those most cruel and hated guards were killed by the prisoners when the camp was liberated.
Nearby was the white-tile, sterile looking room about 12×15, made to look like a shower room. It was a gas chamber. Next to it was a room with a concrete table—with drainage troughs for the blood. Those taken from the gas chamber were checked for gold teeth or valuables. Then put in the crematorium—immediately adjacent.
There were a number of killing schemes in this area. One was a stairway down from the courtyard about 10 steps. There were two large steel bars across the bottom of the stairway. One of these was charged with electricity—the other was a ground. Prisoners in groups of 8 to 10 would be marched to the top of the stairs. Those in back would be shoved—they in turn would cause the others to fall down the stairs. When those in the front fell on the bars, the entire group would be electrocuted.
On a wall near the gas chamber was a measuring scale. Prisoners would be asked to stand against the wall. In the wall, about head-high, was an opening into the adjacent room. We were told that guards and officers would have their young sons come and with pistols shoot the prisoners in the head as they stood expecting to be measured.
Below the Hospital Compound and Main Prison was a stone quarry. The prison had been built by the prisoners with stones cut from the quarry. They were cut and placed on the backs of the prisoner. Some as much as 100 pounds. They formed a human chain going down and up from the quarry, on steep, uneven steps hewn into the rock. Every prisoner could tell you how many steps there were, 186. If anyone fell and could no longer make it up, they would be beaten or shot on the spot, and some were forced over the edge by the guards and their vicious dogs. The average life expectancy in the quarry was less than 2 weeks!
We left the camp and drove to a housing area about a half mile away. These were a group of nice homes, quite new, comfortable and modern by American standards, and above average in Germany. These were homes where the officers and their families lived who ran the camp. We took them for our quarters. They had nice gardens in the back.
CARING FOR PRISONERS
In the next few days, a medical team came to the camp and brought food. They used the kitchen in the man prison and made large pots of very thin soup. We now learned why we were ordered not to feed the prisoners. People who have not had enough food are not able to digest solids or any rich foods. Those we gave the food to probably died from our kindness.
In a few days an Army Hospital Unit set up a tent hospital about a half mile away to care for the most seriously ill. Army bull dozers were brought in and a huge trench–6ft deep and 150 ft long—was made near the camp hospital. Some people from nearby towns (previously good Nazis) were brought in to lay the bodies in long rows in the trench. When the row was finished, the bodies would be covered with a couple feet of dirt and another row of bodies would be placed in the trench. I heard that nearly 3,000 were buried that week. It had been a soccer field for the S.S. just outside the wire fence.
From what we could see nearly all the camp prisoners were Jews, but some were Russians and Poles who were there for crimes against the Nazi regime. One was from the U.S. of German descent. He had been visiting his homeland when the war broke out and was unable to return to the U.S. He was later arrested for listening to an English radio broadcast and ended up in this concentration camp! When he arrived there, he vowed that he would survive and would one day piss on the graves of his captors. He survived by doing whatever it took to survive—by being an eager worker and slave for the German officers. He got a job in the motor pool taking care of the officers’ vehicles and there was able to get a little more food than the other prisoners. He spoke plain English and said, “I am happy to say that today I went over and pissed on their graves.”
For us GI’s, except for occasional guard duty at night, life became quite comfortable. We guarded the various areas of the camp to keep intruders out and prevent any violence in the camp. Only a few days after the liberation violence broke out between the Russian and Polish prisoners, as the Poles had not forgotten the invasion of their country by the Russians.
Personally, it disturbed me a lot that people who had suffered so much violence were ready to fight one another. Truly the heart of man is wicked. God is our only hope.
At this point the Russians were only about a mile away. Their officers came over to visit our Commanders. It appeared they had lots of rank. One was a woman. We learned that nearly all doctors and dentists in Russia are women. She was probably a doctor.
The friction between the Russian troops and the GI’s became so intense, all contact had to be stopped. They were forbidden to enter our territory and we were forbidden to enter theirs.
CAMP CLEAN UP
Some daily tasks and clean up work had to be done at the camp. We would go to the inner prison (former guards) for a group to take on a work detail.
In the hospital camp there was a large central community latrine. When the former prisoners began to get some food, diarrhea was universal. As a result the latrine was inadequate and feces were all over the floor and everywhere.
One day, we took a work crew of about ten men to clean the latrine. There was a large water hose with good pressure to use. I was then a Sergeant in charge of the detail, but a young private, a Greek fellow (I think his name was Tony Nickapolis), who knew some German, assumed authority. He barked orders like he was a five star general.
The workers did not want to enter the latrine. They looked at that room and stood at the door directing the hose in side. But Tony soon had them all in there washing and sweeping it down. I will not describe the scene for you, but it was not a neat place to be. In less than twenty minutes that place was washed down, shiny clean. About that time it started to rain. Tony had them line up in formation at attention where they stood for thirty minutes getting a good shower, which they definitely needed. Then he marched them back to the prison. When he walked near them they would click their heels like he was an S.S. general. I was amused because Tony was only a private.
On another occasion I took a couple of the prisoners (former guards) on a garbage detail. One young man, strong, healthy and good looking asked me privately in German, “What will they do to us?”
I could only reply, “Ich veiss nicht.” (I don’t know.)
Then he said, “What have we done?” He explained that he was only a guard at the gate.
Perhaps he had never been cruel to any prisoner or personally killed anyone. He evidently felt no responsibility for what went on there. This was a common attitude among German soldiers and civilians.
This illustrates the question, what responsibility do we have for the evil that is in this world? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I do not know what became of this young man, but I think he was hung with about fifteen others for war crimes at Mauthausen.
To me, the dreadful horror of the camp was not the number of the prisoners, not the violence or the starvation. These things can happen for various reasons and circumstances. The awesome horror of this camp was that it was a well planned, efficient factory with one purpose: to kill people. It was a slaughter house for human beings.
After about six weeks at the camp the conditions were better, health had returned and many former prisoners were relocated. We received orders to move out. Actually, all this time we were in territory that had been assigned to the Russians in the agreements at Yalta. When we left, they occupied the camp.
As our half-tracks lined up for departure, I noticed a human skull on the machine gun mount in the center of one vehicle. On the top was a silk top hat and a cigar in its mouth. I tried to buy it from a GI for $5.00 but he would not sell. This skull had been a decoration in one of the homes of the S.S. officers. Not surprising as the insignia on their uniforms was a skull and cross bones.
Thus we departed from an event in human history that should never be forgotten. Man’s inhumanity to man. The utter depths of degradation of the human race.