This post contains details some may consider graphic.
This is the ninth in a series of posts in which I’m transcribing a document that belonged to my father titled “History of the 81st Field Hospital.” It details the hospital’s preparations in the U.S. before deployment and operations in Germany during WWII. This field hospital eventually reached German concentration camp survivors. Read from the beginning here.
There was no building fit to establish a hospital in, much less to live in. Nor was the muddy, soggy terrain suitable for pitching tents. The unit had to scout around for a place to set up.
Several members of the unit went over to Dachau and obtained entrance to the notorious concentration camp. It was a place of unbelievable horror and a sight that no one can forget. Guided by one of the prisoners, we visited the gas chamber where prisoners marked for extermination were sent. Outside the building was a huge pile of naked dead bodies, grotesquely sprawled one upon the other. The bodies were scrawny, emaciated, like wax dummies of skeletons. Slightly to one side lay a number of SS troopers beaten to death in sadistic revenge by the liberated prisoners. A stench of death hung in the air. It was all macabrely unreal.
Stepping inside the building, one entered the reception room where incoming victims slated for extermination were told to undress in preparation for showers. Each person was given a bar of soap and a towel. Scarcely suspecting, they were told to enter the adjoining room which was marked “Shower-Bath” and a heavy steel door closed upon them. There was nothing alarming about the room which was of ordinary size. A number of apparent shower jets protruded from the ceiling. When the 250 victims were crowded into this room and the heavy steel door shut and locked, the “shower” was turned on. In approximately two minutes, the entire 250 would be dead of asphyxiation.
Through a bin-like door that opened from the other side of the room, the bodies were shoveled into the crematorium. Here in a row stood four or five huge furnaces with square openings large enough for one or possibly two bodies to be thrown in. We could still see bones lying in the furnaces. Across the room, through an open door, we could see the storeroom for bodies awaiting the fiery ovens. It was a most sickening sight. Piled high to the ceiling was another mass of grotesque naked skeleton-like bodies, horribly unreal in death. The stench emanating from the room was overpowering.
According to the inmate, perhaps a million people had been exterminated in Dachau’s gas chamber and crematorium — the largest percentage being persons brought there solely for the purpose of extermination and never seeing the inside of the prison stockade.
Going out of the crematorium and around the building, we saw another open warehouseroom, loaded with another mass of dead bodies. Here the stench was even greater. The horrors of the camp were indescribable, but among the things we saw was a little garden-like enclosure where high-ranking military prisoners were made to kneel with bowed heads and were shot in the back of the neck, the long rows of kennels where huge-ferocious dogs were kept and set upon living prisoners hung just off of the ground, and the string of 50 boxcars on a siding just outside the camp crammed full of dead bodies. There were prisoners just arrived at Dachau who were awaiting entrance into the camp. For eight days they remained crammed inside the boxcars without food, water or sufficient air. A few that managed to break out and attempted to escape were shot and found with legs or arms hanging outside the cars.
It was arranged for the entire unit to visit Dachau and see the horrors of the camp. It was something that every GI should have a chance to see.