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August 20, 2013

What was the role of the U.S. Army Evacuation hospitals in World War II?

Filed under: Buchenwald, Dachau, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 11:45 am

In case you are having trouble answering the question in the title of my blog post today, I will make it a multiple choice question:

1. Did the U.S. Army Evacuation Hospitals search out the Nazi concentration camps and liberate them?

Or 2. Did the Evacuation Hospitals follow the infantry and the tanks to the concentration camps, after the camps had been liberated, and set up hospitals in the barracks of the camps to treat the inmates who were sick with typhus and other diseases?

Soldiers of the 139th Evacuation Hospital take sick prisoners out of Ebensee

Soldiers of the 139th Evacuation Hospital take sick prisoners out of Ebensee sub-camp of Mauthausen

Date:    Saturday, May 12, 1945 – Wednesday, May 30, 1945
Locale:    Ebensee, Austria
Credit:    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Fred Anderson
Copyright:    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Healthy German prisoners at Ebensee march out of the camp after it was liberated

Healthy German prisoners at Ebensee march out of the camp after it was liberated

The correct answer, to the question in the title of my blog post, is No. 2.

For example, three days after the Buchenwald camp was officially liberated by U.S. Army soldiers, the 120th Evacuation Hospital arrived in the city of Weimar with a staff of 273 service personnel to take care of 3,000 sick prisoners at Buchenwald.  Prior to that, the 120th Evacuation Hospital had been taking care of soldiers who had been wounded on the battlefield.

A hospital was set up at Buchenwald, by the 120th Evacuation Hospital, in the barracks of the German SS soldiers who had been stationed at the German Army garrison at Buchenwald. The staff members of the 120th Evacuation Hospital stayed in a beautiful castle, which had formerly been the summer home of German royalty. A path through the woods connected the castle to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Typhus ward set up by the 120th Evacuation Hospital at Dachau

Typhus ward set up by the 116th Evacuation Hospital at Dachau

On 2 May 1945, the 116th Evacuation Hospital arrived at Dachau and set up operations. The Dachau camp had been liberated on April 29, 1945.

According to a U.S. Army report, made on 20 May 1945, there were 140 prisoners dying each day in the Dachau camp AFTER the camp had been liberated.  The principle causes of death were starvation, tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery. Before the Americans arrived, there had been 4,000 sick prisoners in the Dachau hospital and an unknown number of sick prisoners in the barracks who had been receiving no medical attention.

Warren Priest, a soldier with the 120th Evacuation Hospital, told about how he himself had contracted typhus at Buchenwald, but was saved by recently discovered medicinal drugs which the Germans did not as yet have available.

The subject of my blog post today was inspired by a comment made by a reader named “The Black Rabbit of Inlé“.  He mentioned a new book, written by Dr. Richard MacDonald, which tells the story of how the 139th Evacuation Hospital liberated the Ebensee sub-camp of Mauthausen, but has never been given credit for the liberation.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives the credit for the liberation of Ebensee to the 80th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.

You can read the list of liberators of the camps on the website of the USHMM here.  No Evacuation Hospitals are listed as liberators.  To be counted as liberators, an Army unit had to have been at a concentration camp within 48 hours of the first soldiers to arrive.

There is a great deal of confusion, about who liberated which camp, because General Eisenhower ordered that every soldier in the U.S. Army, who was anywhere near a concentration camp, should be transported to the closest camp so that they could see the dead bodies of prisoners who had died in the typhus epidemic.  As a result, virtually every U.S. soldier, who served in World War II in Europe, can claim to be a liberator of a concentration camp.

You can read about Dr. Richard MacDonald’s new book on this website.

This quote is from the website, cited above:

The Konzentrationslager (KZ) Ebensee Concentration Camp was established to house prisoners tasked to further the research and production of the V-2 missile program run by Nazi SS Officer Wernher von Braun. This camp was liberated on May 6, 1945. Most historical accounts state that the Eightieth Infantry Division liberated this camp; however, this particular division was around forty miles behind the tanks of the actual group that brought freedom to the 16,694 labor inmates in KZ Ebensee. The Third Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the Third Cavalry Group came up the road to the camp at around 10AM on that fateful Sunday; at 2:45PM, the Third Platoon of F Company opened the gates.

Unfortunately for the men of these military units they, together with the U.S. Army 139th Evacuation Hospital, became phantom units in historical archives. Their contributions to the liberation of the camp were never recorded. Inside the Gates hopes to change this by detailing the 139th Evacuation Hospital’s involvement in freeing the thousands of inmates in the said Austrian Concentration Camp.

Ebensee was not in Austria, when it was liberated, because Austria was not a country at the time that the Ebensee camp was liberated. Ever hear of “der Anschluss”?  It’s a long story, but Dr. MacDonald can catch up on history by reading this page of my website.

Sick prisoners at Ebensee sub-camp of Mauthausen

Sick prisoners at Ebensee sub-camp of Mauthausen

According to Martin Gilbert, the author of a book entitled Holocaust, Ebensee was an “end destination” for Jewish prisoners who were evacuated from camps farther east as the Soviet Army advanced toward Germany. In the last months of the war, the Ebensee camp was seriously over-crowded with these exhausted prisoners, many of whom had just arrived in the weeks prior to the liberation.

Gilbert wrote the following regarding the evacuations and the death marches:

Jews who had already survived the “selections” in Birkenau, and work as slave laborers in factories, had now to survive the death marches. Throughout February and March [1945] columns of men, and crowded cattle trucks, converged on the long-existing concentration camps, now given a new task. These camps had been transformed into holding camps for the remnant of a destroyed people, men and women whose labor was still of some last-minute utility for a dying Reich, or whose emaciated bodies were to be left to languish in agony in one final camp.

According to Gilbert’s book, a train loaded with 2,059 Jews arrived at Ebensee on March 3, 1945. They had survived the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and had first been sent to the Gross Rosen concentration camp, then on to Ebensee.

Forty-nine of the Jewish prisoners died on the train, according to Martin Gilbert, and on their first day in the Ebensee camp, 182 died during the disinfection procedure. New arrivals had to be disinfected to kill the body lice which spreads typhus. There was a typhus epidemic in Mauthausen and the sub-camps and, according to Martin Gilbert, 30,000 prisoners died in these camps in the last four months of the war.

Ebensee survivors have shaved heads to prevent the spread of lice

Ebensee survivors have shaved heads to prevent the spread of lice

According to Martin Gilbert, the last death marches of the war began on May 1, 1945 as the American Army approached; prisoners from the main camp at Mauthausen and the sub-camps at Gusen and St. Valentin were marched to Gunskirchen and Ebensee. Hundreds of them died from exhaustion, or were shot because they couldn’t keep up, or as they attempted to escape.

When American troops in the 80th Infantry Division arrived on May 4, 1945, there were around 60,000 prisoners from 25 different countries at Ebensee.

Evelyn le Chene, the historian of Mauthausen, wrote that, as the American armies approached Ebensee, all thirty thousand prisoners in the camp were ordered into a tunnel packed with explosives. There were similar reports of plans to kill all the prisoners at other camps, such as Nordhausen, and even Dachau, but none of these plans was ever carried out.

Hitler did not want the prisoners in the concentration camps to be released to get revenge on German civilians. In fact, the Russian liberators at Theresienstadt did release the Jewish prisoners there, and according to Theo Richmond, the author of the book Konin, One Man’s Quest For a Vanished Jewish Community, the former inmates did get “nekomeh” or Revenge. Richmond quotes Louis Lefkowitz, a Jewish survivor of Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, who recounted the following story regarding German civilians who were trying to flee from the Russian soldiers who were also exacting vengeance on the Germans:

I saw nekomeh in Theresienstadt. For two days after the liberation, the Russians let us do whatever we want. I was too weak to join in, but I saw our boys bring in Germans who were running away on horse and wagons. They brought them in – whole families on the wagons. They put gasoline over the people and burned them up. Wagons with whole families were burning day and night for two days.

The following quote, regarding the plan to force all the Ebensee prisoners into a tunnel, is from Evelyn le Chene:

The prisoners, to a man, blankly refused. The SS guards were paralyzed with indecision. The hordes of humans swayed and murmured. For the first time since their arrest, the prisoners who were not already dying saw the possibility that they might just survive the war. Understandably, they neither wished to be blown up in the tunnel, nor mown down by SS machine guns for refusing. But they knew that in these last days, many of the SS had left and been replaced by Ethnic Germans. […] With the war all but over, they were thinking of the future, and the punishment they would receive for the slaughter of so many human beings was something they still wished – even with their already stained hands – to avoid. And so the prisoners won the day.

Ebensee was the last chance for the Allies to spread lies and propaganda.  The photo below shows the movie cameras that were brought in to photograph the liberation of Ebensee.

Film crew is ready to film the Ebensee camp

Film crew is ready to film the Ebensee camp