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September 12, 2013

Dachau Liberated: a dark-complexioned American Pole, pistol in hand, was the first soldier to enter the camp

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 3:37 pm

The first official book about Dachau, written by Americans, was entitled Dachau; it was published in May 1945. On the cover of the book were the letters SS, written with the alphabet called runes; the title is sometimes given as SS Dachau.  Another book entitled Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army was published in July 2000.  It contains all the text in the original book, that was published in 1945, plus additional information about the Dachau camp.

The following quote is from the book entitled Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army:


The Americans came Sunday, 29th of April. The arrival of the Americans was preceded by several days of frenzy. Wednesday was the last day of work and there was no more going out of the compound.  Scattered labor details living outside of camp returned suddenly. Radios were taken away and there was no more communication with the outside.

On Thursday, orders to evacuate the entire camp were given. Transports began to be organized on large scales, but the organization was poor and uncoordinated. The prisoners having jobs in the administrative department mislaid orders, suddenly did not understand commands, and generally seemed quite indifferent to the mounting nervousness of the few camp officials that were left.  Only one transport got under way.  It consisted of about 4,000 men, and they hiked with heavy guard in the direction of the Tyrol (the transport led by Dachau Commandant Eduard Weiter).

Then began the time of tense waiting.  Rumors swept through the barracks of regiments and tanks just over the hill, of plans of mass annihilation of the prisoners by the remaining SS men, of parachutists, and of an armistice.  The prisoners organized a secret police force to keep order after the liberation they knew was coming.  They built barricades to keep their own comrades from getting in the way of the jumpy guards. And all time was at a standstill for three days while the prisoners waited and the guards paced nervously, furtively, in their towers.

Sunday, just after the noon meal, the air was unusually still.  The big field outside the compound was deserted. Suddenly someone began running toward the gate at the other side of the field. Others followed. The word was shouted through the mass of gray, tired prisoners.  Americans!  That word repeated, yelled over the shoulders in throaty Polish, in Italian, in Russian and Dutch and in the familiar ring of French.  The first internee was shot down as he rushed toward the gate by the guard. Yet they kept running and shouting through eager lips and unbelieving eyes. Americans!  And at the gate in front of the hysterical mob were not the regiments or the tanks they had expected, but one dark-complexioned, calm American soldier, an American Pole, pistol in hand, looking casually about him; up at the towers were the SS guards watched apparently frozen; behind him two or three other American boys about a hundred yards away; and into the flushed wet faces of those thousand surging about in front of him.

A few shots were fired from behind the wall, the guards in the first tower came down, hands above their heads. A white blanket was hung out from another tower (tower B), but one of them had a pistol in his hand which he had held behind his back, and the dark-complexioned soldier shot him down.  At the far side of the compound, the guards were taken care of from the outside.

Then a jeep arrived. Where were the regiments and tanks?  The first American (probably 1st Lt. William Cowling) was hoisted into the air and two others, a 19-year-old farmer from the West, and a 19-year-old university student (possibly T/5 Guido Oddi and Pfc. C. E. Tinkham), were dragged out of the jeep and carried around the grounds on the internee’s shoulders.  A blond journalist (Margaret Higgins) in uniform was also in the jeep, and she climbed the tower by the gate with a young officer.

Suddenly the prisoners produced flags and colors which had been buried under barracks or hidden in rafters. These flags and colors were improvised from sheets and scraps of colored cloth.  It was a mardi-gras.  Over the loud speaker system the blond journalist said “We are just as glad to see you as you are to see us.” And then a chaplain (probably Captain Leland L. Loy) in broken German asked them to join him in the Lord’s Prayer. And for a few minutes in powerful earnest unison with bowed reverent heads and clasped hands, they prayed. The words echoed through the compound and through the hearts of the thousands still incredulous at the dark-complexioned American Pole, the 19-year-old farm boy from the West, and the student, and at the regiments and tanks that never came.

So who were the “dark-complexioned American Pole,” the 19-year-old farm boy and the student?

The “dark-complexioned American Pole” may have been 1st Lt. William J. Cowling, who is believed to be the first American soldier to have entered the camp.  Cowling was an aide to Brig. Gen. Henning Linden, who was the deputy commander of the 42nd Division, one of the divisions which liberated Dachau.

On the day of the liberation, 1st Lt. William J. Cowling, wrote a long letter to his family in which he claimed that he was the first soldier to enter the Dachau concentration camp, along with some “newspaper people.”

The next day Marguerite Higgins, a reporter with the New York Herald Tribune, filed a news report in which she claimed that she and Sgt. Peter Furst were the first two people to go inside the Dachau concentration camp. Furst was a reporter for the US Army Newspaper called the Stars and Stripes.

According to a book entitled Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, The True Account, written by John H. Linden, there were two guards who accompanied 1st Lt. Cowling when he entered the prison enclosure: T/5 Guido Oddi and Pfc. C. E. Tinkham.

But who was really the “dark-complexioned soldier” who shot one of the guards?

One of the men with the 222nd Regiment of the 42nd Rainbow Division was Ignacio Inclan Perez, a 17-year-old Mexican-American soldier from Cotulla, Texas. Gabriel Perez recalls that his father, Inclan Perez, talked about seeing the train at Dachau just before entering the camp. In an e-mail to me, Gabriel wrote, “I also remember my father telling me about a German soldier that he shot and killed as he was trying to get away. He also mentioned that he saw German guards in a mess area that had been gunned down by American soldiers. He stated that he was glad he never did that because it would have been difficult to live with later in life.”

Lt. Col. Walter J. Fellenz, an officer in the 222nd Regiment, gave the following information in his account of the liberation of Dachau:

Amid the deafening roar of cheers, several inmates warned us of danger by pointing to one of the eight towers which surrounded the electrically charged fence. The tower was still manned by SS guards! Half crazed at what we had just seen, we rushed the tower with rifles blazing. The SS tried to train their machine guns on us, but we quickly killed them each time a new man attempted to fire the guns. We killed at least 17 SS, then in mad fury our soldiers dragged the dead bodies from the towers and emptied their rifles into the dead SS chests.

Lt. Col. Felix Sparks of the 45th Thunderbird Division disputed this account; he said that his men had shot the guards in the towers with rifles from the cover of the many buildings surrounding the confinement area.

In his book entitled The Day of the Americans, Nerin E. Gun, a journalist who was a prisoner at Dachau, wrote:

Miss Higgins and a fellow journalist, Robert Fust (sic), on the highway leading to the camp, had picked up an SS man and ordered him to show them the quickest way to the Lager. The SS man had remained seated on the back seat of the jeep and, in the pandemonium that followed the arrival of the detachment, the prisoners, who had never seen an American uniform before and who at this point really had no reason to be choosy, thought the SS man was another one of their liberators. He too was showered with embraces, kisses, handshakes, and shouts of triumph. The SS man must have thought that either they had all lost their minds or else the hour of universal reconciliation had rung. It was only fifteen minutes later that O’Leary, head of the International Committee, ordered him arrested. That same evening, he faced a firing squad.

The shooting of disarmed German soldiers during the Dachau liberation was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General of the Seventh Army. Their report was finished on June 8, 1945 but was marked Secret. The report has since been made public and a copy of it was reproduced in Col. John H. Linden’s book entitled Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 April 1945. One of the soldiers mentioned in the report was Tec 3 Henry J. Wells, a Jewish soldier who may have been the “dark-complexioned” soldier at the liberation of Dachau.

Here are four paragraphs from the IG report which pertain to the shooting of the guards at Tower B:

11. After entry into the camp, personnel of the 42nd Division discovered the presence of guards, presumed to be SS men, in a tower to the left of the main gate of the inmate stockade. This tower was attacked by Tec 3 Henry J. Wells 39271327, Headquarters Military Intelligence Service, ETO, covered and aided by a party under Lt. Col. Walter J. Fellenz, 0-23055, 222 Infantry. No fire was delivered against them by the guards in the tower. A number of Germans were taken prisoner; after they were taken, and within a few feet of the tower, from which they were taken, they were shot and killed.

12. Considerable confusion exists in the testimony as to the particulars of this shooting; however Wells, German interrogator for the 222 Infantry, states that he had lined these Germans up in double rank, preparatory to moving them out; that he saw no threatening gesture; but that he shot into them after some other American soldiers, whose identities are unknown, started shooting them.

13. Lt. Colonel Fellenz was entering the door of the tower at the time of this shooting, took no part in it and testified that he could not have stopped it.

18. It is obvious that the Americans present when the guards were shot at the tower labored under much excitement. However Wells could speak German fluently, he knew no shots had been fired at him in his attack on the tower, he had these prisoners lined up, he saw no threatening gesture or act. It is felt that his shooting into them was entirely unwarranted; the whole incident smacks of execution similar to the other incidents described in this report.

Captain Leland L. Loy, the Chaplain of the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Thunderbird Division, may have been the American who led a prayer at the liberation of Dachau.

The original book about Dachau, written by the  American liberators and published in May 1945, described the Dachau gas chambers (plural) on page 52:

Then they entered the gas chamber. Over the entrance, in large black letters, was written “Brause Bad” (showers). There were about 15 shower heads suspended from the ceiling from which gas was then released.  There was one large gas chamber, capacity of which was 200, and five smaller gas chambers, capacity of each being 50. It took approximately 10 minutes for the execution. (There were actually only 4 “smaller gas chambers at Dachau.)

In the gas chamber with the sign “Brausebad,” as seen today, the shower heads are NOT suspended from the ceiling.  All of the shower heads have been stolen by tourists over the years and there are now 15 empty holes in the ceiling with NO PIPES.  However, tour guides at Dachau tell gullible tourists that the Dachau gas chamber was used.