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November 4, 2011

Who shot the lock off the Dachau gate when the camp was liberated by American soldiers?

Filed under: Dachau, World War II — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 5:33 am

Gate into Dachau was locked by a bar over the Arbeit Macht Frei sign on the door

Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army are being honored this week for their service to their country.  This quote is from a news article which you can read in full here:

“Two of our [442nd] guys shot the locks off the [Dachau] compound to let the prisoners out, but they wouldn’t come out because they thought we were the Japanese army,” said [Virgil] Westdale.

The 442nd not only liberated the Dachau prisoners, but shared food and blankets with them and scrounged supplies from the neighboring German town.

“The misery we witnessed was unbelievable. Some of the guys snapped photos of the bodies stacked like cords of wood. We saw the gas chambers and the ovens, which were still hot when we arrived,” said Westdale in his book “Blue Skies and Thunder,” released in January 2010.

What lock? There was no lock on the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the concentration camp that needed to be shot off. The gate could be opened from the outside by removing a bar which locked it. The gate was wide enough for a truck to drive through it, but there was also a pedestrian door in the gate that could be opened without opening the whole gate. The pedestrian door could only be opened by remote control from inside the gatehouse. There were SS guards inside the gatehouse, waiting to surrender. Twelve SS men who were guarding the gate surrendered to 1st Lt. William J. Cowling, according to John H. Linden, the author of “Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, the True Account.”

Gate into the Dachau Memorial site is the original gate into the camp

My photo of the gate into the Dachau concentration camp and the restraining bar which locked the entire gate is shown above. When the bar was removed and the whole gate was opened, the pedestrian gate was part of the right-hand half of the gate.   

Howard Cowan, an Associated Press newspaper reporter who was there on April 29, 1945, wrote a lengthy news story about the liberation of Dachau which was printed in the Chicago Daily News the next day. The following quote is from his news article, as quoted in the book written by John Linden, the son of Brig. Gen. Henning Linden:

When Lt. Col. Will Cowling slipped the lock in the main gate, there still was no sign of life inside this area. He looked around for a few seconds and then a tremendous human cry roared forth. A flood of humanity poured across the flat yard – which would hold half a dozen baseball diamonds – and Cowling was all but mobbed.

Did you catch that?  Lt. Col. Will Cowling slipped the lock on the gate.  There was no lock that could have been shot off.

But wait! There is another American soldier who claims that he “shot the lock off the gate” into the main Dachau camp.

On March 17, 1986, Private First Class John Degro, the lead scout of I Company, 3rd BN, 157th Infantry, 45th Division, wrote a statement regarding his claim to have been the first American soldier to set foot inside the notorious Dachau camp. Col. Howard Buechner, a 45th Division Medical Corps officer, included Degro’s statement in his book entitled “Dachau, the Hour of the Avenger.”

The following quote is Degro’s words from Buechner’s book:

As lead scout, I shot the lock off the gate and entered the compound. There were 32,000 inmates, screaming, between hugging and kissing us. The stench was unbearable. We backed out the gate, let a few inmates out and gave them weapons. We cleaned out the guard towers, took knapsacks off of the dead SS and threw them over the barbed wire into the compound.

The following quote, written by reporter Grant Segall, is from a newspaper article about Degro that was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on February 6, 2005:

Accounts differ as to which units liberated which camp when. But no one disputes that Private First Class Degro was the lead scout when GIs from the 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds, helped to liberate Dachau in southern Germany.

Though historians particularly question this part of the story, Degro insists that he raised his M-1 rifle and shot a padlock off a gate. 

Did you catch that?  There was a padlock on the Dachau gate and Degro shot it off with his M-1 rifle.  How did the Americans secure the gate after the lock was shot off?  The photo below shows Dachau prisoners trying to get out of the camp through the windows, but the gate seems to be secure, even after the lock was shot off by two different American soldiers in two different divisions.

Dachau prisoners trying to get out of the camp after American liberators arrived

In his book “The Rock of Anzio,” which is the history of the 45th Thunderbird Division, Flint Whitlock quoted extensively from what Lt. Col. Felix Sparks told him about the liberation of Dachau. Whitlock does not mention John Degro at all in his book, although Degro was a member of the 45th Division.

It is not clear when Degro would have shot the lock off the gate into the concentration camp, nor how the gate would have been secured again, once the lock was destroyed. Sparks told Whitlock that his orders had been to liberate the camp and then to secure it and not let anyone in or out. If Sparks passed these orders down to his men, then John Degro would have been disobeying orders when he shot the lock off the gate and then let some of the prisoners out, as he claims.

According to Lt. Col. Sparks, as told to Flint Whitlock, Sparks met Brig. Gen. Henning Linden of the 42nd Divison who had just arrived in a jeep at the concentration camp gate. Just prior to this, Linden had accepted the surrender of the concentration camp from SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker near the gate at the southwest corner of the camp. 1st Lt. William J. Cowling of the 42nd Divison claimed in a letter to his family that he had entered the concentration camp while the General was still talking to Lt. Wicker.

According to Flint Whitlock’s account, Linden told Sparks that Marguerite Higgins wanted to enter the camp to get the story on the famous people that were prisoners at Dachau. Sparks replied that his orders prohibited anyone but his men from entering the camp. By this time, the prisoners had come out of their barracks and were rushing the gate; they were also climbing up to the windows of the gate house and trying to get out, according to Sparks.

Whitlock wrote the following in his book:

Sparks reiterated his orders, adding, “Look at all those people pressing against the gate.” Undeterred, Higgins ran to the gate, removed the bar that was holding it shut, and was nearly trampled by the mass of prisoners attempting to get out. Sparks and his men were forced to fire warning shots over the heads of the prisoners to regain order and reclose the gate.

The quote above mentions that the gate was held shut by a bar that could easily be removed.

Whitlock also quoted John Lee of the 45th Division who was present:

While General Linden and Colonel Sparks were talking, Higgins went up to the gate and removed the restraining bar. This caused panic and the prisoners began rushing toward the gate. We were ordered to fire in the air and push the inmates back in behind the gates.

It is clear from the quotes above that the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the Dachau concentration camp could be opened without shooting off a lock.

On November 2, 2011, Nancy Pelosi gave a speech which you can read here. In her speech, Ms. Pelosi said this:

Now from my own district, Yoshio Wada helped liberate Dachau death camps. When we have the great ceremony in the rotunda of the Capitol, celebrating the liberation of the camps after World War II, at the end of World War II and our Japanese-American patriots are in that march.

Note that Ms. Pelosi said “Dachau death camps (plural).”  There was the main Dachau death camp and 123 smaller Dachau death camps.  She did not specify which Dachau death camp the Japanese-Americans liberated.

Note that Virgil Westdale helped to liberate the main Dachau camp. We know that it was the main camp because he mentioned the gas chamber.  The sub-camps did not have gas chambers.  He also mentioned that the ovens were still hot when he arrived at Dachau.  The Germans had run out of coal at Dachau and the bodies of the prisoners who were dying in the typhus epidemic had been buried in mass graves since October 1944.  Yet the ovens were still hot.

Another website gives a detailed account of the liberation of Dachau by Japanese-American soldiers which you can read here.

1 Comment

  1. Just heard Virgil Westdale speak. He mentioned that some of the individual buildings in the dauchau compound had locks on the doors. That might clarify how different soldiers could have shot locks off. But who knows, I have seen a head on collision where the witnesses did not agree 30 minutes later which car had crossed the center line.

    Comment by steve — February 16, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

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