Dachau liberation reprisals
The Dachau liberation reprisals were a series of incidents in which German prisoners of war were killed by American soldiers and concentration camp internees at the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, during World War II. It is unclear how many SS members were killed in the incident but most estimates place the number killed at around 3 or 4 dozen. In the days before the camp's liberation SS guards at the camp had murdered thousands of the camp's internees and sent tens of thousands more on death marches in which thousands were murdered by their guards. When Allied soldiers liberated the camp their reactions varied from being shocked, horrified, disturbed and angered by the masses of dead they found and the combativeness of some of the remaining German guards who initially fired on them and refused to surrender.
Just before the soldiers entered the complex, they found thirty-nine railway boxcars containing some two thousand skeletal corpses. Brain tissue was splattered on the ground from one victim found nearby with a crushed skull. The smell of decaying bodies and human excrement, and the sight of naked, emaciated bodies induced vomiting, crying, disbelief and rage in the advancing troops. Advancing soldiers from H Company, 22nd Regiment used a loudspeaker to call on the SS to surrender, "but they wouldn’t". The American troops were then fired on by machine gunners in a guard tower and a building.
Upon moving deeper into the complex, and the prisoner area itself, more bodies were found. Some had been dead for hours and days before the camp's capture and lay where they had died. Soldiers reported seeing a row of cement structures that contained rooms full of hundreds of naked and barely clothed dead bodies piled floor to ceiling, a coal-fired crematorium and a gas chamber. "The stench of death was overpowering."
According to Harold Marcuse, the camp commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Martin Weiss, together with the camp guards and the SS garrisons, had fled the camp before the arrival of U.S. troops. SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker (killed after the surrender) was left in charge and had roughly 560 personnel at his disposal; these came from conscripted inmates of the SS disciplinary prison inside the Dachau concentration camp and Hungarian Waffen-SS troops.
On 29 April 1945, Dachau was surrendered to Brigadier General Henning Linden of the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army by Untersturmführer Wicker. According to Linden, he arrived at the command post in Dachau at about 15:00, and then proceeded to make his way across the Amper River to the site of the complex approximately one half kilometer south of the bridge he crossed. He proceeded to take control of the camp in some tumult; thereafter, he toured the camp with a group of reporters (including Marguerite Higgins). A description of the surrender appears in Brig. Gen. Henning Linden's memorandum to Major Gen. Harry J. Collins, entitled "Report on Surrender of Dachau Concentration Camp":
As we approached the southwest corner, three people came forward with a flag of truce. We met them about 75 yards north of the southwest corner. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative, Victor Maurer, and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and his assistant. They had come here on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of surrendering the camp to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative said there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower.... He had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 "half-crazed" inmates, many of them typhus infected... He asked if I were an officer. I replied, "I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42nd Infantry Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the United States Army...."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a communiqué regarding the capture of Dachau concentration camp: "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."
Military historian Earl Ziemke describes the event:
The Americans came on April 29, a Sunday. Work had stopped in the camp on Wednesday, and an evacuation was being organized. One transport of 4,000 prisoners was able to get away, but the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions covered the 40 miles from the Danube faster than the Germans expected. At noon on Sunday the camp was quiet, and the SS guards were at their posts in the towers when the cry "Americans!" went up. A prisoner rushed toward the gate, and a guard shot him. Outside, a single American soldier stood looking casually at the towers while the guards eyed him and others who were two or three hundred yards way. When the Americans opened fire, the guards in the gate tower came down, hands in the air. One held a pistol behind his back, and the first American shot him. In the next few minutes a jeep drove up; in it were a blonde female war correspondent and a chaplain. The chaplain asked the prisoners, now crowding to the gate, to join him in the Lord's Prayer. ...Troops of the 42nd and 45th Divisions who liberated Dachau in the afternoon on 29 April were fighting in Munich the next morning and by nightfall had, along with XV Corps' other three divisions, captured the city that was the capital of Bavaria and the birthplace of Nazism.
Killings by the American soldiers
Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks, a battalion commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, Seventh United States Army, wrote about the incident. Sparks watched as about 50 German prisoners captured by the 157th Infantry Regiment were confined in an area that had been used for storing coal. The area was partially enclosed by an L-shaped masonry wall about 8 ft (2.4 m) high and next to a hospital. The German POWs were watched over by a machine gun team from Company I. He left those men behind to head towards the center of the camp where there were SS who had not yet surrendered; he had only gone a short distance when he heard a soldier yell "They're trying to get away!" and then machine gunfire coming from the area he had just left. He ran back and kicked a 19-year-old soldier nicknamed "Birdeye" who was manning the machine gun and who had killed about 12 of the prisoners and wounded several more. The gunner, who was crying hysterically, said that the prisoners had tried to escape. Sparks said that he doubted the story; Sparks placed an NCO on the gun before resuming his journey towards the center of the camp. Sparks further stated:
It was the foregoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly did not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure. The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau.
In the U.S. military "Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau" conducted by Lt. Col. Joseph Whitaker, the account given by Howard Buechner (then a first lieutenant in the United States Army and medical officer with the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry), to Whitaker on 5 May 1945 did not contradict the Sparks account. Buechner's sworn testimony was that around 16:00 he arrived in the yard where the German soldiers had been shot, and that he "saw 15 or 16 dead and wounded German soldiers lying along the wall". He noted that some of the wounded soldiers were still moving, but he did not examine any of them. He answered "Yes, sir" when asked if he was the surgeon of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, at that time, and did not know if any medical attention was called for the wounded.
According to Buechner's 1986 book, Dachau: The Hour of the Avenger: An Eyewitness Account, U.S. forces killed 520 German soldiers, including 346 killed on the orders of 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead, in an alleged mass execution in the coalyard several hours after the first hospital shooting. Buechner did not witness the alleged incident, and his sworn testimony was that he "saw 15 or 16 dead and wounded German soldiers lying along the wall." His sworn testimony in the official investigation report also did not include any mention of a second shooting. David L. Israel disputed this account in his book The Day the Thunderbird Cried:
Buechner's inaccuracies and arbitrary use of figures in citing the untrue story about the total liquidation of all SS troops found in Dachau was eagerly accepted by Revisionist organizations and exploited to meet their own distorted stories of Dachau.
According to Jürgen Zarusky (originally published in a 1997 article in Dachauer Hefte), 16 SS men were shot in the coalyard (one more killed by a camp inmate), 17 in Tower B, and perhaps a few more killed by U.S. soldiers in the incident. Anywhere from a few to 25 or 50 more were killed by inmates. Zarusky's research makes use of the detailed interrogation records contained in Whitaker's official May 1945 investigation report, which became accessible in 1992, as well as a collection of documents compiled by General Henning Linden's son.
The Dachau liberation reprisals were documented among others by US Army photographers Paul Averitt, George Gaberlavage, Sidney Rachlin and Ed Royce, Sr.
Killings by the inmates
Walenty Lenarczyk, a prisoner at Dachau stated that following the camp's liberation "prisoners swarmed over the wire and grabbed the Americans and lifted them to their shoulders... other prisoners caught the SS men... The first SS man elbowed one or two prisoners out of his way, but the courage of the prisoners mounted, they knocked them down and nobody could see whether they were stomped or what, but they were killed." Elsewhere in the camp SS men, Kapos and informers were beaten to a pulp with fists, sticks and shovels. There was at least one incident where American troops turned away from two prisoners beating a German guard to death with a shovel, and Lieutenant Bill Walsh witnessed one such beating. Another soldier witnessed an inmate stomping on an SS Trooper's face until "there wasn't much left." When the soldier said to him, "You've got a lot of hate in your heart," he simply nodded.
An American Chaplain was told by three young Jewish men, who had left the camp during liberation, that they had beaten to death one of the more sadistic SS guards when they discovered him hiding in a barn and dressed as a peasant.
United States Army investigation
Lt. Col. Joseph Whitaker, the Seventh Army's Assistant Inspector General, was subsequently ordered to investigate after witnesses came forward testifying about the killings. He issued a report on 8 June 1945, called the "Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau" and also known as "the I.G. Report". In 1991, an archived copy was found in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and was made public.
Whitaker reported that close to the back entrance to the camp Lt. William P. Walsh, commander of Company "I", 157th Infantry, shot four German soldiers in a box car who had surrendered to him. Pvt. Albert C. Pruitt then climbed into the box car and performed a coup de grâce on the wounded men.
After he had entered the camp Walsh, along with Lt. Jack Bushyhead, the executive officer of Company "I" organized the segregation of POWs into those who were members of the Wehrmacht and those who were in the SS. The SS were marched into a separate enclosure and were shot by members of "I" Company with several different types of weapons.
The investigation resulted in the U.S. Military considering courts-martial against those involved, including the battalion commander Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, while Lt. Howard Buechner was cited in the report for dereliction of duty for not giving the wounded SS men in the coalyard medical aid. However, General George S. Patton, the recently appointed military governor of Bavaria, chose to dismiss the charges. Therefore, the witnesses to the killings were never cross-examined in court.
Colonel Charles L. Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate, concluded in late 1945 that, while there had probably been a violation of international law, "in the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken".
- The caption for the photograph in the U.S. National Archives reads, "SC208765, Soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Seventh Army, order SS men to come forward when one of their number tried to escape from the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp after it was captured by U.S. forces. Men on the ground in background feign death by falling as the guards fired a volley at the fleeing SS men. (157th Regt. 4/29/45)."
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- The Liberator : One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. Alex Kershaw. 2012. Crown. New York. pages 282, 283, 290
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