My Uncle Harold died at 91 recently, he was a veteran of World War II and survived the Battle of the Bulge, that alone would make him a hero to me. But it was what followed this battle that showed the courage of these men and all they witnessed.
These are his words:
Our 11th Armored Division was moving faster each day as we pushed through Austria. Enemy action was reduced to small pockets of resistance and sniper fire. We were moving through the beauty of the Austrian Alps. The roads were narrow and the countryside was covered by a thick forest which we knew was excellent cover for an attack on our forward units. Our 41st Cavalry which was the point of our advance was notified that there were two German Concentration Camps near them. It turned out that the German Army Guards wished to surrender themselves and th camps to the Americans. They wanted to avoid any contact with the Russians. The regular SS guards escaped into the country side as we got close. The two concentration camps turned out to be KZ Gusen and KZ Mauthausen. The two camps contained about 2500 prisoners held by the Nazi’s.
My unit bypassed Gusen and arrived at Mauthausen the day after it was turned over to the Third Army. The camp was located on a hill above a long beautiful valley. All around the camp was a high electric fence. In the camp and on the road were many people, men, women and some children waiting to be picked up and sent to hospitals for treatment. All were in very poor health and looked starved but so happy to be rescued. Inside we could see a headquarters building which was used to house the SS Guards and row upon row of one story wooden barracks which housed the inmates, Down below we saw a brick building with two high smoke stacks. Out side this building were piles of dead bodies, some still in their black stripped uniforms and some without any clothes at all. It was a sight of horror. Inside this building was the cremation furnaces and death room where prisoners were gassed.
Mauthausen was a death camp. The inmates were in waiting to die. Many from poor treatment and starvation and others to murdered by the guards or sent to the gas chamber and held for cremation. The ovens had been working 24 hours a day but could not keep up. There were piles of bodies piled along the road out side. This mess was cleaned up by rounding up civilians in the countryside and forcing them to dig a mass grave to bury the bodies as it was becoming a health problem. Action had to be immediately taken to restore order in the camps and to provide medical assistance to the starving inmates. Conditions were beyond belief and the people able to walk were walking skeletons in their striped uniforms. Every thing possible was done to bring medical relief to these poor people.
When I attended his funeral, they played Taps, folded the flag and presented it to his widow on behalf of “a grateful nation.”
Truer words were never spoken.