History of the Liberation of Dachau: 75 years ago — April 30, 1945. Part 2
In Part 1, I discussed the Nazi Concentration Camps and the initial movement of US Army divisions into Dachau.
As my father and the 42nd “Rainbow” Division moved into the Dachau Concentration Camp, of the 32,000 survivors still alive in the main camp, the largest groups included over 9,000 Polish and almost 4,000 Russians. There were 1,200 Catholic priests, the largest contingent of the 1,600 clergymen imprisoned. There were now only 2,100 Jews. Most Jews in the Dachau system were in the sub-camps. Their numbers were continually being augmented, though they were used up faster and shipped out more frequently to the extermination camps.
At Dachau, there were thousands of inmates who were dying of a typhus epidemic that had been ravaging the camp since the previous fall. Between February and April, over 13,000 prisoners died. Even in the month after liberation, 4,500 would die of typhus, malnutrition, and other diseases.
It was a clear day when my father’s division moved into the camp to clear and capture the eastern section, which contained the inmates’ enclosure. Within a half-mile of the camp, a stench permeated the air like burning garbage and singed chicken feathers. My father had seen a lot of action and death for several months. But nothing could have prepared him emotionally for what he was about to see.
Initially, as he told me, “The inmates could not believe it was true that after so long, they were finally being liberated.” The liberated looked like the dead. “They were skeletons” in ragged, dirty clothing.
It was only later that their fear gave way to joy.
“They screamed and hollered and cried. They ran up and grabbed us… and kissed our hands, our feet and all of them tried to touch us.”
— William J. Cowling, III, 1st Lieutenant ADC, Aide to Assistant Division Commander Linden
In the prison hospital, as the American officers moved through, those patients who knew English muttered, “Oh, thank you, God, thank you!”
As the Americans made their way throughout the rest of the camp, they discovered over 4,000 bodies in a warehouse in the crematorium “stacked like cordwood” almost ceiling-high and over 1,000 dead bodies in the barracks within the enclosure. Unlike Auschwitz, where the Gas Chambers and crematorium were largely demolished by retreating SS troops, at Dachau, the evidence remained: doughboys discovered and severed the wire of a time bomb that would have set off the charge. The entire crematorium building was a maze of booby-traps.
The next day: April 30, 1945
It snowed in Dachau when my father took his squad into Munich, being one of the first into the nearby city, 9 miles from Dachau. In the southern part of Munich, he captured the Nazi general in charge of all the German anti-aircraft artillery for Munich. The general’s lieutenant came out and told my father
“My general will surrender only to someone of equal or greater rank.”
My father was only a lowly staff sergeant, but he wore no stripes, which was not uncommon for Non-Commissioned Officers in the field. “Otherwise, they’d be the first ones shot by the enemy,” he told me. So John Petro, all of 23 years old, said, “OK then, bring him out!” The general surrendered and handed over to my father his pistol. It was not a Luger; that was for lower-ranking officers. This was a Sauer & Sohn. I still have it.
Meanwhile, across town at the famous Munich Biergarten, Hofbrauhaus, where over 25 years earlier Adolf Hitler had proclaimed the 25-point program of the National Socialist program in front of 2,000 people, a sign was scrawled above the door in letters for all to see:
Command Post — 157th Infantry, 45th Division.
With the Russian Red Army two blocks away from his bunker in Berlin, at 3:30 pm Adolf Hitler sat down at his table. Behind him on the wall was an oil painting of the German leader Frederick the Great, who Hitler had used to inspire his general staff in the waning months of the war. Having heard that two days earlier, his Italian ally Mussolini had been captured, executed, and hung upside-down on a meat hook — Hitler placed the barrel of his Walther PPK pistol to his right temple. Eva Braun, his wife of only one day, was already dead after swallowing a lethal dose of cyanide.
The news spread quickly through the bunker.
“The chief is dead!”
A week later, WWII in Europe was over.
continued in Part 3
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian