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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dachau on a beautiful spring day

It had to have been in 1958 during the month of May. I remember driving through some Alpine meadows sparkling with spring flowers. And I remember the acrid sooty smell of the barracks buildings at Dachau that has lingered on my mind ever since.

It was a short visit, but that was sufficient. The images left a permanent stain on the memory.

I was a surface-to-air guided missile crewman and instructor stationed at a little town on the Rhine. My brief visit to Dachau was not planned. In fact, to us soldiers it was an annoyance imposed on us by the convoy commander. I was not selected to make the trip to Bavaria. The truck I was assigned was chosen. In a guided missile battery, every soldier is assigned to a truck. If it is necessary to move the missile battery, the truck will haul the missile equipment you work on. I worked in the launching control trailer, so I, along with the other launching control specialists, was assigned to maintain and operate a 5-ton truck that would pull the launching control trailer and haul one of the generators that supplied the power to the launching area. In the time I was in Germany, that trip was one of the few times we actually operated the truck. Mostly we washed and maintained the truck during the weekly motor pool duty.

On this occasion, there was some equipment stored at our post that was needed at a post in the Bavarian Alps. The truck that the launching control crew maintained was assigned to haul it. And as the trip was scheduled for a day that I was not scheduled to be on the missile equipment, I was assigned to drive the trip. There was a certain air of mystery about the trip, but it was a very low-key assignment.

A senior non-commissioned officer came to our post to supervise the loading of the equipment and rode with me to Karlsruhe where we picked up a jeep and another truck and some more personnel who were acting as guards and relief drivers.

The trip to the post in the Alps was about 300 miles, but it was an all-day affair. Driving the 5-ton trucks in the German traffic--Comrades were not known to be the best drivers in the world--required vigilance and we had to traverse some mountain roads. The NCO in charge would sometimes switch places with the relief drivers and ride in the truck cabs instead of the jeep. He was a very competent and conscientious man.

His history was similar to that of a number of the NCOs in my battery. They were World War II veterans who participated in the invasion of Germany and met and married German women during the occupation. This NCO from the headquarters spoke fluent and flawless German and knew where we were going without having to use a map. I, with a couple of years of college German, was struggling to use the language and our conversation while he was riding with me was about learning the language and the GI presence in the country.

We made it to the station where we delivered the equpment, spent the night in transient barracks, and left early the next morning for our return trip. At that time, the NCO said we would be making a short detour to Dachau. I did not understand if this detour was part of the official trip or if the NCO had some personal reason for it. While there seemed to be some official task to be completed, the NCO had also indicated that he was involved in the liberation of Dachau.

The mountains were lush and the flowers were in bloom on the drive to Dachau. When we arrived, we found that the concentration camp was being used to house refugees. However, one of the barracks buildings was being used as a memorial. The NCO told us we would find it interesting to look at the displays, which were largely a collection of photographs taken during the liberation of piles of bodies and emaciated prisoners. But what struck me and the other members of the detail was that pungent acrid, sooty smell. We wondered if we were smelling the residual smoke from the crematorium where the bodies of the dead prisoners were disposed of.

Shortly, the NCO returned from wherever he went and we got into our trucks to return to our respective posts. While the NCO was riding in the cab of my truck I mentioned that disturbing odor. He said our assumption was correct. The oily smoke of burning human flesh had penetrated the wood of the barracks and left that reminder of what took place at the concentration camp. Then he said that the horrors of what the liberating troops confronted caused overreactions in some of the them. They killed German guards after they had surrendered. The NCO commented that the violence and atrocities of the concentration camps were "a contagious cancer on the minds and morale" of all who came into contact with it. We can't let this happen ever again, he said. And said no more.

I found out later from one of my NCOs that the shooting of guards by Americans at Dachau was called the Dachau Massacre and some soldiers were cited for discipline. The number of guards killed was put at more than a hundred. When the men were brought in front of Gen. Patton, he said they were trained to kill, that's what they did, and he dismissed the charges.

Many years later, one of the medical officers who was at Dachau the day of its liberation published a book which put the number of German guards killed at 560. He claimed that more than 400 were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned down. However, an official report by an officer who commanded the liberating force disputed that number and said about 120 guards were shot.

President Obama's appearance at Buchenwald and the commemoration of D-Day recalled these events. At the time I was stationed in Germany, Buchenwald was in East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain, and it was not a place tourists could go to visit at that time. However, about a year after my visit to Dachau, it was established as an official memorial site. I often thought that the NCO who led us on the visit was somehow involved in the establishment of Dachau as a monument to what should never be allowed to happen again.

The horrors committed upon the inmates there pushed good men over the edge into hateful violence. That NCO did not say so outright, but his concerned attitude made it clear that the reactions of the G.I.s were included in what should never happen again.

I for one can still smell that sick sooty odor of death by atrocity.


Todd D. Epp said...

Nuke, one of the best things you've written on this blog. Bravo. Thanks for sharing a touching and important story.

Todd Epp
Middle Border Sun

TLF+ said...

You were there the year I was born. Later, I also served in divided Germany with the 3/37 Field Artillery, and paid a visit to Dachau.

Obviously,it was not the raw experience you had. The whole place was a monument, so it had been sterilized quite a bit. Stark, depressing and with exhibits that documented what had happened - but not the odors and other reminders to infiltrate the memory.

As the WWII/Holocaust survivors are dying off, we need to document their witness every way possible.

What you present about the power of evil to overwhelm us, even when we are busy stamping it out, should be a strong caution to any of us when we get caught up in our various agendas.

The Rev. Timothy Fountain
"Northern Plains Anglicans"

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