I didn’t write about the liberation of Dachau yesterday, on the 70th anniversary of this big event, because I thought that I had already covered that story very extensively on my blog. As it turns out, I was wrong!
The reason that the subject of the liberation of Dachau is so important is because the liberation of Dachau is symbolic of the liberation of Germany from the Nazis. It is symbolic of the Allied victory over Fascism and the preservation of the freedom of Americans, which had been threatened by the mere existence of Hitler’s Third Reich.
It is symbolic of the Allied liberation of the Jews from the persecution of the Nazis, and the end of the Final Solution which claimed the lives of 6 million Jews. The liberation of Dachau was one of the most significant events of World War II and one of the most important events in world history.
All of the soldiers in the 45th and 42nd Divisions of the US Seventh Army can rightly claim to be heroes because they participated in the liberation of Dachau, no matter who was the first man to set foot inside the camp.
This newspaper article tells the story of George Rose, who claims that he was the first soldier to enter the Dachau camp on the day that the camp was liberated. The following quote is from the article:
RALEIGH, N.C. – He was just 18 years old when he helped liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp at the end of World War II.
On Wednesday, 70 years later, George Rose of Wilmington met with North Carolina legislators, who honored him with a special resolution commemorating the anniversary of the U.S. Army’s liberation of the camp and his role in it.
“We went through the gate and that’s when we saw all the boxcars and bodies thrown one on top of another,” Rose said. “Also (we saw) a wall with bodies like rag dolls laying against it. I was 18 years old at this time, but it is something I will never forget.”
Wait a minute! He went through THE GATE and he saw boxcars and bodies? What gate? The train with the bodies of prisoners was parked OUTSIDE the gate into the Dachau concentration camp.
American soldiers examine the bodies found on the “death train” outside the Dachau camp
The train, that was parked outside the camp, had been strafed by American planes, killing prisoners that had been evacuated from the Buchenwald camp for their own safety.
In his book entitled The Rock of Anzio, Flint Whitlock quotes a statement made by Lt. William Walsh of the 45th Division in a documentary called The Liberation of KZ Dachau.
The following quote is from Lt. Walsh’s statement:
We finally get up to the main gate [into the Dachau concentration camp]. This is the gate that says, “Work makes you free”….And when I get to the gate, I asked if anybody spoke English, and there was an Englishman there [Albert Guérisse, also known as Patrick O’Leary]. I think he was a naval officer….and I said to him, “Are there any Americans in there?” And he says, “I don’t know…I think so, but there may be only one or two.”
And then I said, “…. I can’t open the gates, but I want you to know there’s all kinds of medical supplies and doctors and food and stuff like this coming behind us, and they’re going to take care of you.” And he said, “I want you to come in here first….I want you to see what was going on.”
And then he finally prevailed on me. I said, “Okay, I’ll go in.” and I went in with [Jack] Busheyhead and a sergant (sic). Of course, we had to squeeze through the gate because they’re all inside, screaming and hollering.
The man named “Busheyhead” was 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead, a “full-blooded Cherokee Indian” who was the Executive Officer of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, the unit which allegedly murdered 346 Waffen-SS soldiers in cold blood, on Bushyhead’s orders, on the day of the liberation.
John Degro was a member of this unit. The massacre took place after 1st Lt. Bushyhead had seen the concentration camp and he wanted to avenge the wrongs done to the prisoners, according to Col. Buechner, who wrote a book entitled Dachau, The Hour of the Avenger. 1st Lt. Bushyhead was the Avenger in the title.
However, Col. Buechner wrote that the massacre took place before 3 p.m. and other accounts of the events that day say that the 45th Division soldiers did not arrive at the gate into the prison enclosure until after 3 p.m.
Albert Guérisse was a prominent member of the International Committee of Dachau, a Communist organization which was in charge of the camp after the Commandant and the regular guards had left. He was from Belgium and was actually a British SOE agent or a spy in layman’s terms.
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 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.
On the day of the Dachau liberation, 1st Lt. William J. Cowling, an aide to Brig. Gen. Henning Linden who was the deputy commander of the 42nd Division, 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.
It was around 10 years ago that a newspaper reporter named Grant Segall, who was working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, e-mailed me to ask for my help in a story that he was writing about the liberation of the Dachau camp.
The following quote is from the newspaper article, which he wrote:
Accounts differ as to which units liberated which camp when. But no one [except scrapbookpages.com] 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.
When the troops saw the train’s cargo, says Degro, they spun and vomited. “Then we went out of our heads.”
Disdaining cover, the Thunderbirds stormed the camp. They dragged German soldiers from a hospital, never mind their wounds. They shot many unresisting foes [an atrocity whose documentation was reportedly shredded and burned by Gen. George Patton].
Though historians [including me] particularly question this part of the story, Degro insists that he raised his M-1 rifle and shot a padlock off a gate. The rescuers were hugged by screaming, skeletal prisoners.
“We were gesturing them back. We didn’t want to hurt their feelings after what they went through,” says Degro, but “they smelled like hell.”
Note that Segall starts off by saying: “Accounts differ.” This was because I told him that there are several different accounts of the liberation of Dachau. After acknowledging that there are several different accounts, Segall reported on the account of John Degro, and didn’t mention the other accounts, which I had told him about.
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.
According to Sparks, 45th Division soldiers arrived at the concentration camp gate shortly before the three jeeps carrying officers of the 42nd Division.
However, Whitlock quotes Pfc. William Donahue of the 42nd Division who said that he was already at the gate into the concentration camp when the men of the 45th Division arrived. Some of them had been drinking, according to Donahue.
Flint 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.
In his book, John H. Linden mentioned that it took an hour to get all the prisoners safely back inside, once the gate had been opened by the men of the 42nd Division.
According to Lt. Col. Sparks, as told to Flint Whitlock, he met Brig. Gen. Henning Linden 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. Cowling claimed in his letter to his family that he had entered the concentration camp while the General was still talking to Lt. Wicker.
It is clear from these quotes that the lock on the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the concentration camp did not need 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 of them surrendered to 1st Lt. Cowling, according to John H. Linden, the author of Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, the True Account.
Both Cowling and Higgins disagree with Sparks’ version of the story, as they both claim that there were no prisoners in sight when they first entered the concentration camp. The similarity in their stories indicates that they entered the concentration camp at the same time, and each claimed to be the first person to set foot inside the prison enclosure.
John H. Linden confirms in his book that Cowling, Higgins and Furst entered the camp together, along with T/5 Oddi and Pfc. Tinkham, who were assigned to guard them.
On the day of the liberation, the concentration camp was under the control of the International Committee of Dachau, which consisted of a group of Communist political prisoners.
The last Commandant of Dachau, Wilhelm Eduard Weiter, had left the camp with a transport of prisoners on April 26th and had put Martin Gottfried Weiss in charge. As the acting Commandant, Weiss had turned the camp over to the Committee on April 28th and had then escaped with most of the regular guards that night.
The Committee had ordered all the prisoners to stay inside the barracks, so as not to provoke the remaining guards into killing them all.
End of story