History of the Liberation of Dachau: 75 Years Ago — a Personal Reflection
On April 29, 1945, 75 years ago, toward the end of World War II, the Allies captured and liberated Dachau. My father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, was one of the liberators. It was one of the few stories from The War that my father told me in full.
Three divisions were recognized as “liberators” of Dachau, who had arrived on the first day. Many came through after that. Each of the three has a plaque along the walls of the Jorhaus, the gatehouse entrance to the camp. As I concluded my modern visit to Dachau and stood in front of the plaque for his division, the Rainbow Division, I wept.
Dachau had been the first “concentration camp,” established in March 1933 near Munich, Germany. During its 12 years of operation, over 200,000 prisoners entered its gates. At first, Dachau held only political prisoners, but over time, more groups were imprisoned there. Unlike the later camp Auschwitz, it was not a “death camp” but instead was a work camp for slave labor, initially at a munition factory.
Nevertheless, 32,000 died at Dachau from starvation, maltreatment, and disease. Half of that number died in the last five months of the war as prisoners were moved from outlying concentration camps to more central ones like Dachau. By the time of the liberation, 200 prisoners a day were dying. And these counts include only the documented deaths.
After the liberation, General Eisenhower reported,
“Our forces liberated and mopped up the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. Approximately 32,000 prisoners were liberated; 300 SS camp guards were quickly neutralized.”
Indeed, the month after it was liberated, over 4,500 prisoners died of disease, especially from an epidemic of typhus.
Dachau was the prototype, the first of its kind, and the SS had a training camp next door. They first trained at Dachau and then went to work at one of the 3,000 Nazi concentration camps across Europe.
My father’s story was featured on HBO‘s website when they initially promoted their miniseries “Band of Brothers” for Episode 9 “Why We Fight” on the liberation of one of Dachau’s 123 sub-camps. I’ve received hundreds of emails from those who read it, asking me if my father knew their father or grandfather who was there.
You can read his full story at https://www.billpetro.com/johnpetro
A Modern Visit to Dachau
When I visited Dachau almost two decades ago, I mentioned to the tour guides who worked in various sections of the museum that my father had been among the liberators. Every one of them asked me the same question: “Do you have pictures?”
I pointed them to the website above and the pictures my father brought back. There had been over 60,000 visitors to the site. I used to get phone calls from old soldiers who served with him, one who told me how he took leave with my father in Paris, fought next to him in Operation Northwind, marched with him into Dachau, and was with him in Austria at the end of the War. But I don’t get those calls anymore. Each day 350 of these WWII veterans die. Fewer than 400,000 remain today of the 16 million Americans who served then.
These were, for the most part, men barely older than boys who had taken up the charge, and went overseas to fight a totalitarian regime that would have snuffed out the light of freedom across Europe. Except for their effort, that darkness almost happened. And for that, we rightly call them heroes.
My father wouldn’t have said that. At the end of the War, during the cleanup, he was in Austria in charge of three P.O.W., or what today we call Displaced Persons Camps. He was offered a field promotion. But he turned it down. I asked him why; he had earned it. His answer was:
“I’d had enough, I wanted to go home.”
During my visit to Dachau, I stood before a memorial featuring five of the languages of the prisoners. Over the English version a visitor that day had placed a white rose, in respect:
Lest we forget.
Bill Petro, son of John Petro