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The 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion

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Liberation of Concentration Camp

"Why We Must Fight"

In early April the third army advanced on the German cities of Gotha and Ohrdruf searching for Nazi communications. They found a labor camp. It was small compared to other concentration and extermination camps but the remarkable thing about this camp was that it was taken so quickly and without warning to the Germans. The Germans, for the first time, were unable to hide the proof of what they were doing to the Jews and others at these camps.

The brutality, torture, bestiality of the concentration camps where Jews, the handicapped, mentally ill, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and political dissidents were used as slave labor and/or simply murdered could not be hidden anymore.

The 808th TD Bn with General Eisenhower at Concentration Camp shortly after liberation.One Polish speaking 808er helped interview a surviving prisoner. We do not know all that was said during the interview but many Generals and others have provided quotes to us about this camp, the first one where the Germans failed to hide the truth.

This same Polish prisoner told of the 4,000 inmates that had been murdered in the previous three months, and hundreds who were shot on the eve of the American arrival. Some victims were Jews, others Polish and Russian prisoners of war.

The guards and the officials of the concentration camp, desperate not to be caught, fled at our approaching attack and did not have time to kill the rest of the emancipated prisoners. These prisoners, at our approach, rushed out of the gates waving their arms ecstatically at us as our vehicles entered the open gates of the camp.

Many prisoners, laid in their bunks too weak to move, but raised their arms in thanks. Bodies were piled high on the ground, others were in pits covered with lime. There were rows of ditches filled with buried bodies with an occasional leg or arm protruding out of the ground. The stench was intolerable. It was a very gruesome sight. Many of our higher officers viewed this scene.

My dad, 808th Tank Destroyer vet, Sgt Raymond Followell had little to say about the horrendous site. He told me about a large out building where bodies lay piled up, apparently waiting for burial or "God knows what". He was unable to further discuss this place and I did not push him with more questions.
My dad's physical and verbal response to my inquiries about this concentration camp has prevented me from asking other 808th TD Bn vets about their experience here.

General Patton was so disgusted that he ordered the Burgermeister, his wife, and all the inhabitants of the town witness this atrocity. Many said they never knew, though a pungent odor drifted into town. Seeing this inhuman slaughter, the Burgermeister, his wife and many other town people took their own lives.

Eisenhower Quote

Excerpt from "Crusade in Europe"

"The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock."General Eisenhower

 
"I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.' Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton's headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt."

 

Bradley Quote

On April 4, 1945, units advanced on the German cities of Gotha and Ohrdruf. They were searching for a secret Nazi communications center. They found a concentration camp. General BradleyOhrdruf was a labor camp, small when compared to the other concentration and extermination camps. What made Ohrdruf significant, however, was the fact that it was the first camp discovered by American forces in which the Nazis had failed to eliminate the evidence of brutality, torture, and death. It was all there, left in the ashes of burned corpses, piled bodies, and the emaciated, ghost-like humans who had somehow endured what would come to be known as one of the worst instances of human savagery ever documented. On April 12th or 15th (I have documentation stating both dates), Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight D. Eisenhower toured the camp. "The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade," General Bradley recalled. "More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames." General Eisenhower later ordered every military unit nearby to tour Ohrdruf, stating: "We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against."

Quote from 808 TD Bn vet Vincent Valente

The 808 entered the Gotha Camp the second day after it was liberated.
We went through the barracks out into a courtyard. I was shocked to see seven dead  bodies lying in the courtyard, all shot in the head. A polish prisoner approached us and T/4 Chet Norwin, who is Polish, questioned him. He told us of all the atrocities the German guards did to them (whippings beatings , hangings, etc.)

While the prisoner was being questioned, two American officers were being escorted by a "guide." The Polish Prisoner and another prisoner recognized him as a German Guard. One prisoner picked up a stool and hit him on the head. the other prisoner stuck a bayonet into his throat Killing him instantly. They were two "Happy Campers." Vincent said.

After Action Report

The after action reports for March and April are unavailable from the army. Memory and willingness to share the horror is all we have to help people to remember this tragedy. If you are able to share any information on how this camp was liberated, let me know.

 

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