By Hardie Matthews
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Editors note: Hardie Matthews is a frequent contributor to The Van Horn Advocate and has a special place in his heart for our town. He is a World War II and Korean War Veteran, and sent this piece of his memories from Dachau, one of the more famous German Concentration Camps, soon after it was freed by Allied troops. His piece, although somewhat disturbing, serves a purpose. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
In Germany, March 1946, our convoy of huge, rough riding, U.S. Army trucks finally came to a stop. We 18-year-old Army soldiers had been bouncing around in the backend of those things for two days and nights. Dawn was just breaking. We jumped down onto the ground and a burly, black-haired sergeant yelled, “Assemble here. On the double!”
“Sarge. What the hell’s that god-awful smell?” a soldier asked.
“This here is Dachau,” the sergeant replied, scratching himself in the groin.
“Sooooo?” questioned another soldier.
Disgustedly that short, beady-eyed, hard-looking sergeant asked, “What’s the matter with you jerks? Don’t you know that this here is where them Krauts(Germans) burned them Jews? Right over yonder in that thar building is where them ovens is. We done went and did ever thing we can to get rid of that smell of burned flesh, but nothing don’t work.”
A chain reaction began. Everyone was throwing up. The more I smelled that putrid smell, the sicker I got. There was no getting away from that horrible smell.
As the sergeant looked on in dismay, he said, “Hell! You think that stink is bad, you should ah been here when we freed this here Camp last year, April 29, 1945. I ain’t never seen nothin’ lak it. Now that was something to get sick about. This stink ain’t nothin’.”
That disgusting sergeant with the faded green eyes continued degrading us for our sickness. “You know, we was in North Africa with General Patton. Then was shipped to Salerno, Italy; lost 7,000 of us on the beach there. Then they shipped us to England and from there to France, Omaha Beach, D-Day.”
After scratching himself more pronounced than ever, he continued his tirade, “Then we done went through Germany and wound up here at Dachau. When we freed this here place, we couldn’t believe it. After all them years of fighting in all them places, this here Dachau was the worstest of all. Y’all are something else. A little bit of this here stink, and y’all double over. Ya ain’t nothing but a bunch of wimps.”
Scratching himself again, he continued, “Now listen up. By order of Colonel Smith, you’re gonna double-time over to that place where them guards is, and you is going to go right into where all them things is. Now, DOUBLE- TIME! MARCH!”
As we ran to the building, we saw a large sign, “Exhibition Hall.” Our comments later were that the dumb sergeant couldn’t pronounce the word “exhibition,” so he sent us to “that there place,” not “building,” “where them guards is.”
The guards directed the first ten to enter. Inside we saw what “them things” were.
Oh no! God in heaven! No! No! No! Silently, I cried out. There was a man’s head perfectly preserved with an ax cut right through his skull. Written in English and German was the time that man with the ax in his skull lived. All exhibit explanations were written in the two languages, English and German.
Most of the exhibits were about human endurance. Deep concrete tanks, like swimming pools, filled a big portion of the Exhibition Hall. When the SS, or Schutzstaffel, used them, those tanks were filled with water.
According to the description given, the water’s temperature was lowered to a particular coldness to see how long the prisoners, who were thrown in, would survive. The experiments in the Exhibition Hall documented the survival time in the different temperatures of the extreme coldness.
That was supposed to be a simulation of the North Sea water temperatures, and the reason given for those experiments was to help the pilots of the German Luftwaffe. Many were shot down over the North Sea.
Other experiments had to do with disease. To help prevent typhoid fever, malaria, scarlet fever, measles and many other diseases, prisoners were injected with preventive medications. Then the prisoners were exposed to the disease. If the prisoners lived, the SS doctors knew the medications were effective. If the injected medicines did not work, the prisoners died.
All experiments were done for the sake of Medical Science. Hitler’s Third Reich, or government, was very proud of those experiments, and wanted them preserved for eternity. Many other experiments and punishments were administered by the SS troops.
After the Dachau War Crimes Trials ended, all exhibits were sent to the Holocaust Museum, Israel. On that particular day, though, we soldiers were privileged, according to “Patton’s Weird Sergeants,” to see all those inhumane exhibits. Being sick from the smell of burned flesh, we became even sicker in seeing the horrors of the Exhibition Hall.
I exited the Hall, got my duffle bag and went to my quarters in the Headquarters Building. After dragging my duffel bag up one flight of steps to my room, I was exhausted and lay down to take a nap. That didn’t last long. In just a few minutes, I was awakened by being so nauseated that I threw up, again.
What a horrible way to wake up. Can I ever get rid of that sickening smell? Or is there some way to get used to it? Will it always be here? I drearily thought.
That pattern of napping, then gagging on my own vomit and waking up, continued all afternoon. About mid-afternoon, in my haze of consciousness there appeared a man about my age with rank of Tee Five, which was my rank. The interchangeable use of phrases “T-5” and “Corporal” was commonplace.
That T-5 informed me I was not to fall out for reveille in the morning, but report to the Headquarters Office of Company “C,” 47th Infantry Division. I assured the T/5 I would be there, and then preceded to get sick, again.
“I’ll send a D.P. to clean this mess up,” he said as he left. The U.S. Army employed many D.P.’s; that is, Displaced Persons. All D.P.’s had fled the Russian Army when it invaded Eastern Europe.
That first night was a miserable one. Having dry heaves and little sleep, I got up the next morning in time to go to chow; that is, breakfast.
The last thing on this earth I want is food, but I know I needed the nourishment, I was thinking, as I got ready to go to chow.
That chow hall was different from any of the others. As I sat down, the guy next to me, Sam Jones, said, “Well now if this ain’t it. This here ain’t no chow hall, it’s a Dining Room,” and he was right.
“You know,” I told him, “I never expected to see the Army feed me in such a luxurious place. Just look at that thick carpet.”
“Yeah,” said my new friend, Sam, “and it’s jest like in them movies I seen back home of all them palaces with dining rooms with them big plush dining chairs, just like here. And them long tables. Wait ‘till I write mamma about this! We is really living high on the hog, as we’d say back on the family farm in Tennessee. Yes sir, that we is!”
Our D.P. servers bought in the food that was so well prepared, and just as I started to take my first bite of Spam came the strong smell of burned flesh. I got very sick again, as did several others, and that started a chain reaction. We all left.
As weak as I was, I went to the office. In the office, I was told to drink a lot of water. A special fifty-pound canvas bag of water had been prepared for us. It didn’t have the strong smell or taste of chlorine that the Army’s water usually did; it was easily drunk. I drank as much as I could. Of course, throughout the afternoon, all of us who were new to Dachau kept getting sick.
In spite of my discomfort, I found it helped to work on the morning report with the man I was to replace. In that manner, I wouldn’t be thinking about anything but my work. There was nothing different in preparation of that administrative paper work than in my old company before Dachau; that is, my beloved 133rd, AA, Battery “B.”
I gathered all the information I needed for doing the morning report that afternoon. The next morning, I typed it, and was told by the man I was to replace, “Well, Corporal Matthews, you really know the morning report. It’s all yours, I’m leaving.”
Within a week, all of us new soldiers had our office work down pat. I was the most experienced, and everyone turned to me when they had a problem.
After that first week, I would prepare my morning report in about thirty minutes. Captain McCormick, Commanding Officer of our company, told our Staff Sergeant to give me permission to go to the Dining Hall or my room after I had finished the morning report. I was to sign out, stating my destination in the building. If I was needed, one of the guys would come get me.
I was shocked by the “Ole Man,” the Commanding Officer, letting me get out of the office, but, to my surprise, that was true with all administrative personnel of all companies, 47th Infantry Division.
We had a good time in the Dining Hall. Sometimes there would be a lot of us, sometimes just a few. Always, though, we kept the noise level low. There was none of the typical goof-off, soldier horseplay.
Reason, I was thinking, was because I know we have a good deal, and I, as well as all others, didn’t want to do anything to cause trouble.
The problem was my buddies and I in the Dining Hall continued to get sick. Army paregoric did not work. We all had the humiliating experience of soiling our pants.
Finally, toward the end of the third week, Battalion Headquarters issued an order that all troops of Company ”C” would report to the mound west of the Administrative Building for a mandatory chapel service.
At eight on the appointed day, all men of Company ”C” were present. There were three chaplains: one Catholic, one Protestant and a Jewish Rabbi. Each had a message of comfort about this horrible place. Then came a short prayer from those good men of the cloth. Till my dying day, I will never forget the Rabbi’s prayer: “Oh God, let this not happen to our country, the United States of America. Amen.”
That simple worship service did it for most of us. There were very few who now had the intestinal illness.
Our wonderful religious service also cemented our feelings about race and religion. Prior to coming to Dachau, I heard my Army buddies make many racial slurs and use religious epithets. Not at Dachau. We never discussed why we didn’t use such language, but everyone understood, especially after that good Rabbi’s prayer.