Chapter 8: Buchenwald
The first thing I saw getting off that train was the dogs. Big German shepherds restrained by strong collars and leashes held by SS guards. If the guards could snarl with the frothy, spit-filled, teeth bared growl like the dogs, I’m sure they would have. There were two rows of dogs and guards with just enough room between them for us to walk without getting torn apart. This was the gauntlet we walked through when we arrived in Buchenwald.
We, of course, thought we were going to Prisoner of War camp, that our life would be quiet and simple, with respectful wardens, and continual whispering plots of how we would escape and rejoin the fight. And we would be fed three decent meals a day, which right now was one of my greatest concerns. We knew nothing of concentration camps or death camps and certainly had no reason to believe any such thing would be our destiny. The world knew little to nothing of such atrocities on August 20, 1944 when we arrived. It would not know of such places and the Nazi plan to exterminate the world’s Jews and all others it hated until almost eight months after I arrived, on April 11, 1945. That’s when the first of these camps was liberated—Buchenwald. Because it was the first to be liberated, the first three weeks after the liberation saw the camp visited by reporters, photographers, officers, U.S. Congressional delegations, British Parliamentary delegations and many others. This was because General Eisenhower, after touring the camp on April 13, just two days after its liberation, determined that it was necessary that the world see the unbelievable atrocities of Hitler’s regime. He and others who first visited the camp were concerned that no one would believe them if they simply described what they saw. More eyes had to be there, more noses to smell it if the world was to take it seriously.
Eisenhower was so disturbed by what he saw that it was the main topic of conversation with Winston Churchill when the two met a few days later. They decided to rush a group of British journalists and members of Parliament to Buchenwald to see that the horrors there were greater than anyone could describe. And so Buchenwald became famous the world over, and a symbol of the darkness the human soul is capable of.
Buchenwald was not a death camp like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and others. The death camps were much smaller than concentration or labor camps because they never were intended to house people for labor. They had a single purpose: kill and dispose of as many people—mostly Jews—as the technology of the time permitted. Buchenwald, like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, was a camp originally intended to house political prisoners. It contained large industrial factories as part of or adjacent to the camp to take advantage of the “free” labor offered by the prisoners. Dachau was the first of these created by the Nazi party in March, 1933. Buchenwald was created in 1937 with German communists, the hated political opponents of Nazism, its primary intended victims. While created as a political prison and a work camp, Buchenwald largely crossed the line between a work prison and extermination camp. An estimated 56,000 prisoners died in the camp among the approximately 250,000 who were imprisoned. And a special method for efficient killing of Russian prisoners of war was devised. Most prisoners died, however, due to the horribly unsanitary conditions and brutal work without much in the way of food or medical care. In other words, they were worked and starved to death.
I knew none of this walking through the line of vicious guards and their more vicious dogs. I just knew we were off the train which was good. But as we were marched toward the main camp I could see beyond the line of dogs and guards an imposing fence and the dull gray-brown weathered wood of factory buildings. Now we see only black and white images from these places, but there was a dull grayness, a dinginess, and heaviness to the buildings that filled me with a sense of foreboding, despite my almost joyful relief at getting off that train. I felt a dread deep in my gut when I looked beyond the guards and through the fence at the faces staring at us: hundreds and hundreds of empty, vacant, bony skeleton faces. No smiles of encouragement. No empathy or pity. Nothing recognizably human in those faces. Just empty, dead stares. For a moment I wondered, could this happen to me? Could I be reduced to such a state? If this was POW camp, it was far, far worse than anything I imagined when trying to prepare myself to be a prisoner.
We did not enter the main gate of Buchenwald, the gate made famous in many pictures and captured in many tourist’s photo albums since then, including mine. In the stucco above the heavy iron gates were the words: “Recht oder Unrecht mein Vaderland.” It means, “right or wrong, this is my country.” The iron gate itself contained the wrought iron inscription: “Jedem Das Seine.” “To each his own,” it is literally translated, or “To each his due.” It is not as famous as the slogan over the gate to Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frie” or “Work Makes One Free.” But its cryptic message leaves much room for interpretation. The inscription’s origin is from ancient Rome, but what made them embed these words in the gate through which nearly a quarter million prisoners would enter? To each his own? Was it a statement of simple fate, that whatever happens to someone is just what it is? No meaning, no purpose, no real lasting value? Does it mean that those who end up in this hell on earth somehow have deserved it? That, somehow, in some twisted mind this camp represented justice? It is still inconceivable, almost 64 years after arriving at that place, to think that any human heart could become so hardened and hate-filled to think that a fellow human being could ever deserve such treatment.
We did not see that sign when we entered Buchenwald from the train station because we entered by the gate just past the camp zoo and just to the east of the crematorium. I didn’t know as I walked by this building that it was a crematorium; that it was the final stop for most of the more than 50,000 human beings whose lives ended here in what should be a peaceful tract of forest outside the medieval city of Weimar. I did see a chimney with thick smoke coming out of it. And I did smell something nauseatingly sweet and burnt. Of course I did not identify it as the smell of human flesh burning, but it was a smell that completely dominated the entire camp. I could not believe, as strong as it was, that the residents of Weimar, some six miles to the south east, could not smell it when the wind was blowing that direction. That smell has stayed with me all my life leading to a lifelong hatred of the smell of fried bacon.
The word went round our group not long after we got to the place where we would sleep that one of the guards who spoke English told one of our group as we marched by that building with the smoking chimney that we would not leave that camp except as smoke from that chimney. That was how I learned it was a crematorium. It was how I first started to realize that this was probably not a prisoner of war camp but something far worse than anything we could have imagined. It was a place where men and children were starved, worked to death and executed. Somehow, for reasons we could not understand, we had found ourselves in the deepest, darkest part of the heart of Nazi evil and hatred.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Buchenwald. We were marched past the building we would later know was the crematorium, past a number of other wood-sided, dirty and drab buildings, until we entered a larger one. This was, as we would soon discover, the disinfection facility. When we entered we were ordered to strip off all our clothes. As I removed my shoe, I saw again the missing toe and wondered if I would see that shoe again, the reminder of my very narrow scrape with death while parachuting from my plane. How long ago that seemed now, another lifetime ago. My clothes were filthy and smelly from my attempt to escape and then five days of far too close contact on the train. I thought a shower and a change of clothes would be good. But I had seen that all the inmates in this asylum wore ill-fitting pajama-like clothes that showed large gray stripes even through the unwashed grime. I’d rather have the smelliest US military uniform possible than such a degrading uniform.
After our clothes were removed we stood in a line, naked as the day of birth. Soon I saw what the line was for: a haircut. It will forever remain the rudest, nastiest, roughest haircut of my life. The “barber” moved quickly from one prisoner to the next without the slightest thought of even wiping off the clogged blades of his heavy, black electric clippers. I soon found myself facing him. Like the inmates, his face too was blank and unsympathetic. The clipper tore into my hair and I grimaced as it scraped and ripped. In a moment my head was a bare and after that the growth of beard which grew since I left the airfield a week before. The uniformed “barber” grunted at me and poked my arm. I raised both arms up and the hair under my arms was similarly half ripped and half cut away. I had seen the treatment of the men before so I knew my groin would receive the same painful treatment, which it did. Every part of me felt raw, scraped and abused. But from here we stepped into the showers.
It was a fast and freezing cold shower. There was no soap. It was a long room and nearly all of us flyers were together. For just a moment, being together, and feeling the week of sweat and grime and fear wash off me felt amazingly good. I felt a little life in me yet. And just a bit of hope.
A few minutes later we were in another line. From the stifled groans and cries from the men ahead of me in line, I knew whatever was up was not going to be pleasant. The closer I got the more afraid I became of the procedure that was being performed on my fellow fliers. And then I faced the guard. He was sitting on a stool with a big tub between his knees. He held in his hand a rough brush. I was told to close my eyes. The big brush was dipped into the tub containing a disinfectant, probably lye, and then swabbed over my raw and bloodied body from head to toe. My underarms and crotch burned like I had been stuck with a thousand burning cigarettes or stung by a hundred angry bees. Try as I might to keep it inside, I too yelped out in excruciating pain.
Still groaning, naked and terrorized, we were marched to a different building. There they handed us our prisoner uniforms. There was no concern for sizing and all were dingy gray with those distinctive broad darker gray stripes. They came in two parts, a pants and shirt. Some of the uniforms were large and some were small, and as some of the men were large and some small that would have worked fine if they had made any attempt to match the clothes with the wearer. But size didn’t matter to the efficient workers handing out the uniforms. So some big men got a very small pants and large shirt and some who were short got monstrously large pants or shirts. I was given a normal size pants but a shirt obviously intended for a prisoner much larger than my five foot six frame. It came down nearly to my knees and all that extra fabric was one of the absolute best things that happened to me in Buchenwald which I will explain later.
Some were given a pair of rough clogs, but most of us got nothing for our feet. Then we were handed a tin bowl about the size of a cereal bowl and told to keep it. All our so-called “meals” were served in this bowl. Then we were marched past what seemed an endless row of single story, long, desperately ugly barracks. Along on our right side we could see the sentry line and the electric barbed-wire fence. The fence circled around the prisoner section of Buchenwald, an area almost 100 acres in size. In total there were over 60 barracks.
We were marched to an open area at the northeast corner of Little Camp. Little Camp was a section of the barracks where the prisoners received the least food and harshest treatment. As we stood there in the darkening skies of that August evening we waited, expecting to be directed to one of the barracks near this open area. Instead, we were handed a blanket. Or I should say, a third of a blanket because it was made clear that we were to share one blanket between three of us. We looked at each other, puzzled. We’re supposed to sleep here? Someone in our group must have been given some instruction as he sat down, and soon we all started to sit down. The ground was not soft, clean dirt, but rocky with larger flat rocks interspersed with gravel. OK, I thought. We’ll wait here for a bit until they find some barracks for us. It was not to be. This was our barracks.
One hundred and sixty eight of us flyers slowly tried to make ourselves comfortable on the rough, rocky ground. Although we carried our tin bowls with us, it was clear we had missed the evening “meal,” (??) and so our ever present hunger increased even more. My eyes wandered around looking for an escape route and I saw others doing the same. Rows and rows of barracks to the south and west. Just beyond us was the Gardening Detail, a place where prisoners worked raising food, not for the inmates but the SS. (?) Beyond the garden area, about fifty to seventy five yards from where we laid was the ten foot high (?) barbed-wire fence that also carried a severe shock. A watchtower was placed about every fifty yards along the entire fence perimeter which itself was over two miles long circling the prisoner area of the camp. SS guards kept a watchful eye from each of these watchtowers. Making any sort of run for it did not look like a smart idea. We would have to wait and see what tomorrow would bring.
I settled in near Jim Hastin. We talked a little about food—always about food—about Jim’s vicious bug bites which covered his legs after his lengthy stay in Fresnes prison, about home and family. At least we could be together. It was comforting to share thoughts of home and family with someone who came from the same area and who longed as much as I did to see my family again. The August nights were hot and humid but the heat dissipated after the sun went down and we began to feel the cool dampness of the surrounding forest. We tried to make the one blanket work for three but it was largely hopeless. It could neither protect us against the sharp rocks we were laying on, nor serve as enough of a pillow, or cover us sufficiently to ward off the chill. We drifted off into an uneasy, rock-interrupted sleep—our first night in Buchenwald.
There are some nightmares you wake from that stay with you for hours, even the whole day. This was one nightmare that was to last for two months. We woke with the hazy late August sun coming up early and warming. For those few brief seconds of mental activity between being lost in sleep and growing increasingly conscious of the life you are in, my mind thought, as I’m sure the others did that this was all a very bad dream. You go from being certain that it is just a dream, to being afraid the nightmare might be real, to the sickening dread of increasing realization that yes, this is indeed my life. There is no escape from it—nor from this place. One by one, we woke up. Now what? A gray, striped mass lying on open, rocky ground surrounded by ugly buildings and an even uglier barbed wire fence. A confused, angry, fearful and terribly hungry gray mass.
We did not have long to wait. Soon guards (or kapos?) came and ordered us to the square where all the inmates are counted. We soon learned the German word “appell” which means roll call. This was the primary method the SS guards used to make certain that the prisoners were accounted for. But this interminable time of trying to stand quietly in one place was also used to communicate important messages. Which is why the prisoners lined up for appell faced the whipping block. This was used to punish prisoners and in so doing serve an object lesson for the rest of us. While the whipping block was always there, on “special occasions” a gallows would be rolled into the square so that the inmates could learn a lesson from this method of punishing inmates. Roll call square was near the main gate of the camp at the south end of the prisoner’s camp area enclosed by barbed wire. It was a large area, almost four acres. Twice a day, morning and evening those four acres were filled with the sick, dying, diseased, starving bits of wretched humanity. We faced south and on our right, just past the machine shop, stood the crematorium with its dirty, thick, acrid smoke pouring out continuously. As bits of heavier ash floated down on us, so did our hopes for a life beyond this misery.
Appell, or roll call, could last anywhere from an hour and a half to five hours, depending if the guards had everything under control. If prisoners were missing, we would have to stand in one place literally for hours while they scoured the camp for those missing. The prisoners went in order of blocks or barracks but since we did not have a barrack, we hung together as a group.
It was some time after our first morning appell, around noon, that we found out what the “dining service” was like in Buchenwald. (Need details here). We were lined up near a barracks adjacent to our new “home,” the patch of rocky soil where we had slept the night before. A kapo, which was the name for inmates given the responsibility of guards under the SS. Many of the kapos were professional criminals and were among the cruelest, nastiest of the tormenters of Buchenwald. The prison was largely run by the kapos who for the most part worked hard to keep or elevate their positions by demonstrating to the SS officers just how rough they could be on their fellow prisoners. When we got to the kapos with the food we stuck out our tin bowls and they slopped about a cup of “soup” into it. Then we were handed one slice of black bread about one inch thick.
The soup was usually cabbage soup made from dehydrated cabbage. Once in awhile it would be made from turnips or kohlrabi, but usually cabbage. The first time I looked at it I wondered what kind of soup it was. It looked like there was meat in it, small chunks of white meat that looked a little like worms. They were moving, just like worms. Oh no, they are worms. The top of the soup was covered in worms. But I was starving. I hadn’t eaten hardly anything in almost a week. I was shaky all over from hunger and I felt I had to get anything I could find into my stomach to try and survive. So I tried to push the worms away from my finger so I could get at the thin gruel underneath. I closed my eyes and let a little of it into my mouth. It was warm but sour and tasteless—more like dishwater than anything I might describe as recognizable food. Then I felt a one of those worms squirming in my mouth and I instinctively spewed it all out. I felt a wave of nausea. But I had to eat. Somehow I had to get this down or I would get weaker and weaker and then, well, I knew what that meant. If I ever forgot, the constant stench reminded me. So I tried again and again I began to wretch as I tried to force it down. In disgust I tossed the soup onto the ground. But that was the only time I turned down the German idea of a slave worker’s meal. After that first attempt, I learned to force it down, worms and all, and strangely enough, after awhile it began to taste good.
The black bread served by the kapos was hardly bread. In fact, it was about thirty to forty percent sawdust. So it was almost more wood than bread. It was almost as inedible as the soup. But we knew that the part that wasn’t wood was badly needed to keep us alive. It was unbelievably difficult, especially at first, to choke it down, but after awhile we learned better how to deal with it. After we got into our barracks, we discovered the best way to get the nutritional value out of the bread and force it down was to slice it into very thin slices, stick it against the wood stoves used to heat the barracks until the sawdust burned off like charcoal. It was a little like eating a barbeque briquette but we knew it was giving us precious strength. We needed every calorie we could get.
After our first meal, we gathered back together in the open area where we had slept. It was about this time that Colonel Phillip Lamason stepped forward. Col. Lamason was the senior officer among the 168 of us, a tall, good looking Squadron Leader from the New Zealand Air Force. I consider it one of the greatest blessings of this challenging time to have Col. Lamason as our commander. His quiet, strong but aggressive leadership was a critical factor not only in holding us together but also in facilitating our eventual release.
“Attention!” he said unexpectedly in his clipped New Zealand accent. We instinctively quickly got up, tried to get ourselves in some semblance of order, and stood stiffly waiting.
“Gentlemen, we have ourselves in a very fine fix indeed,” he went on. “The goons have completely violated the Geneva Convention and are treating us as common thieves and criminals. However, we are soldiers! From this time on, we will also conduct ourselves as our training has taught us and as our countries would expect from us. We will march as a unit to roll call and we will follow all reasonable commands as a single unit.”
Then he proceeded to organize us first all by the country we were from. Over each group he made the senior officer our C.O. or Commanding Officer. For us Americans, that was Captain Merle Larson, and I couldn’t have been happier to be serving under this outstanding leader. From this moment on we once again became soldiers, now in a tightly knit group experiencing what very few Allied soldiers would experience. It boosted our morale and gave us hope. We might be in these awful prison uniforms and be in the dirtiest, filthiest, most degrading place on earth, but we were soldiers, American soldiers, the best, proudest fighting force on earth.
Lamason didn’t do this just to improve our morale but no doubt because he saw it also as his responsibility to carry on his war duties despite these circumstances. His mind was quickly running to ways how we could either escape or somehow overcome our captors, and if not overcome them, make things as difficult for them as possible. He also no doubt believed that if the right opportunity presented itself, we would be able to operate much more effectively if military discipline and operations were applied. I can say this with some certainty because the actions he took in the days ahead demonstrated clearly that he was not a leader to sit back and accept the fate that seemed to have been prepared for us. He would fight to the very end and he would lead us into fighting to the very end if that is the way it was to end.
There was another very important value to this imposition of military discipline. Already hotheads in our group were agitating. Of course we were all bitterly angry and frustrated. We were all but certain that no one knew our whereabouts. Since it had become clear to us that this was not a Luftwaffe prison camp, we believed correctly that we had fallen out of the system. The Red Cross had no contact with us. The US military did not even know such a place as Buchenwald existed, let alone that Allied soldiers could be sent there. That meant that our families had no idea where we were either. They would get their telegrams about their sons, brothers, fathers being missing in action and the longer the time went by until they were reported by the Red Cross in a POW camp, the more the family was forced to accept the likelihood of their death. Thinking about how my family was dealing with this circumstance was a big part of my frustration and suffering while in Buchenwald, as it was for most of us. But, acting out on these frustrations with aggressive action and angry words against the kapos who were our most immediate guards and tormentors made no sense. It would just get us all in trouble. So the military discipline that Col. Lamason and then Capt. Larson imposed was a great help to all of us.
The first big test of us a military unit under the control of our commanding officers came soon after. Within the first couple of days after arriving at Buchenwald, Col. Lamason was informed by the SS guards that we would begin working in the nearby factories. We had seen the factory buildings when we first arrived at the train station before entering the camp. There was a very large factory to our left, or south as we marched down the railroad tracks to the gauntlet of dogs and guards, and another smaller factory inside the main fence to our right. The large factory south of the main camp area was the Gustloff Works built in 1943. It was a German industrial factory built adjacent to the camp in order to take advantage of the slave labor provided by the inmates. But the industrial firm had to pay the SS for the labor of the inmates. The smaller factory inside the main camp, just east of the crematorium was the German Armament Works. It was built and owned by the SS and built not long after the camp was created to usefully employ the labor of the inmates. Where initially the machine shop in the German Armament Works was used to make a variety of items, including luxury items for the SS officers such as large chandeliers, by the time we were there in the later stages of the war, both factories were busy as work producing war materials. The German Armament Works was manufacturing cartridge cases, antitank shells and parts for Messerschmitt aircraft while the Gustloff Works was producing cannons, rifles, pistols and motor vehicles.
The factories together employed 9000 prisoners. And Col. Lamason was informed that we would be instructed to join the work crews. Obviously here was a great dilemma. While the horrors of constant torture and execution was not well known to us at this time, we knew that refusing to obey our masters would be to put our lives at risk—as if they weren’t at risk enough already. But working on the guns and equipment that would be used to kill our fellow soldiers was equally unacceptable. Col. Lamason, no doubt in consultation with Capt. Larson and the other senior officers, informed the guards that we were soldiers and could not and would not participate in war production. I do not know what reaction this caused among the officers of the camp. We were, after all, only 168 among about 80,000 prisoners at this time. While we were very afraid of what this refusal might mean, we were not aware of any reprisals or punishments because of this principled and courageous stance. What I knew and was shared by every one I knew is that I was proud to be an American soldier and Col. Lamason and Capt. Larson were two great leaders who I would have been glad to follow anywhere they asked.
Entire camp 371 acres. 99 acres with barbed wire, roll call area 3.7 acres, German armament works 11 acres, Gustloff works 3.7 acres, barbed wire fence 2.2 miles
The execution of 37 English and French officers. P 123 as told by commandant’s barber.
Making that short journey between the worlds of Buchenwald and Weimar reminds the traveler, still dazed by the horrors of the camp, of the immortal words of Goethe’s immortal Faust: “Two souls, alas, reside within my breast, and each is eager for a separation.”
J Sonshine—Jumped Into Hell, page 112. Said he became sick in Buchenwald with an abcess to his left elbow banged while bailing out. While in hospital in Buchenwald (several weeks), visited by a Luftwaffe Dr who asked why he was in a concentration camp and not a POW camp. One month later he was moved to Luft III (after others had left).
BR: p 308 9000 workers in the plants.
DAW (German Armament Works) Gustloff Works, built in 1943
Gustloff—rifles, pistols, motor vehicles, cannons (p 331)
DAW—p 313, cartridge casings, antitank shells, parts for Messeschmitt aircraft