Liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp

Published 7:01 am Wednesday, April 29, 2020

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By Dan P. Dougherty

For the Austin Daily Herald

Dan Dougherty was raised in Austin, the son of Park and Marian Dougherty. His father was an officer of Hormel Foods and the Hormel Foundation. Dougherty graduated from Central High School in 1943 and joined the U.S. Army during World War II. He served with C Company of the 157th Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, which was attached to the U.S. Seventh Army. Serving in the same regiment was Austin native Don Bulger. Dougherty fought in three campaigns in France and Germany and attained the rank of staff sergeant. He now resides in Fairfield, California, with his wife, Norma. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

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On April 29, 1945, U.S. infantrymen in Southern Bavaria made a gruesome discovery – the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp.

Opened in 1933, the camp at Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by Nazi Germany. Originally intended to house political prisoners, the camp soon held Jews, Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, homosexuals, and Romani. It was also the site where SS Dr. Sigmund Rascher conducted high altitude and freezing experiments on inmates for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). These experiments involved depriving inmates of oxygen and immersing them in freezing cold water. He also performed blood coagulation experiments that involved the shooting or amputation of limbs without anesthesia of inmates who were given chemicals meant to reduce bleeding.

As Allied forces pushed into Germany in Spring 1945, the Schutzstaffel (SS) tried to destroy the evidence of the concentration camps. Their efforts were unsuccessful and the Allies uncovered countless concentration camps in the closing days of World War II in Europe. Long thought to be rumors, these camps showed the reality of the Holocaust and the extent of Adolf Hitler’s fanatical desire to carry out his “final solution.”

It is estimated that over 41,000 prisoners died at Dachau.

This is Dougherty’s account.

Ask any veteran of the 42nd or 45th Infantry Divisions who was at the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp on April 29, 1945, to summarize his experience in one word and without needing time to think, he would reply, “Corpses!” The common experience as we approached the camp that day was coming upon a long train of boxcars and making the horrifying discovery the cars contained emaciated human corpses. We were infantry troops used to death and destruction, but we were unprepared to confront car after car of bodies that were nothing but skin and bone, still in remnants of their striped uniforms.

We now know that train had left the Buchenwald Concentration Camp on April 7, 1945, with 4,500 prisoners jammed into the 59 boxcars. Three weeks later, it arrived at Dachau with 39 cars, 2,310 corpses and 816 survivors! It is now known as the Buchenwald-Dachau Death Train.

Inside Dachau, there were piles of naked corpses around the crematorium. It seems the SS guards ran out of fuel in the final days at Dachau and had to shut down the furnaces, so there was no way to dispose of the bodies.

The experience with the corpses pretty much set the tone for the day. Some of the soldiers had a difficult time handling thief emotions, and in the course of rounding up several hundred guards, there were breakdowns in discipline in different unrelated incidents in which a few dozen guards were killed without benefit of a trial. You are not supposed to shoot unarmed prisoners of war who represent no threat to you. There was an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Seventh Army – no charges were filed and there is strong supposition the report was quashed by Gen George Patton when he was commanding the Army of Occupation of Bavaria. In the 90s – almost 50 years after the war – the only known surviving copy of the report was found in the National Archives and is now in the public domain. Four soldiers – three officers and one GI – were said to have shot guards and a battalion surgeon was cited for failing to dress the wounds of the guards.

My rifle company didn’t arrive at Dachau until most of the guards had been rounded up and I saw our men take only two prisoners. I spent my time during the daylight hours maintaining a security post on the west side of the huge camp and never saw the confinement area where over 31,000 prisoners were housed.

My platoon slept that night in a single-family home that housed the family of a senior SS officer. Most of us were about 19 years old and we knew we’d had a mind-boggling experience. We couldn’t get over the contrast between our quarters and the total depravity outside and we talked until midnight. Our platoon sergeant remembered going upstairs and finding a children’s nursery with toys on the floor and a crucifix on the wall. It had been a tough day; before entering Dachau, we’d only been cautioned about lice.

We left Dachau before dawn on April 30, 1945, to resume the attack on Munich. That morning, we came to a tall picket fence that turned out to be the perimeter of the Dachau satellite camp at Allach. There were 94 of these Dachau sub camps located throughout Bavaria  and down into Austria. Allach was the largest with several thousand prisoners, many of whom worked in the nearby BMW factory that assembled Stuka engines for the Luftwaffe.

This was a totally different experience from the ugly Dachau scene the day before. The guards had fled and there were no corpses. When the prisoners realized we were the U.S. Army, the celebration began. It was a truly joyous occasion – we promptly gave them all of our K-rations, cigarettes and candy, which in retrospect probably didn’t help their digestion any. We found potatoes in a nearby cellar and threw them over  the fence to the prisoners.

I spoke with an older prisoner from Warsaw who was a doctor. He said the guards treated him deferentially and he wasn’t worked as hard.

In the 90s, I developed a warm friendship with Professor John M. Steiner, who taught for many years at Sonoma State University, where he founded the Holocaust Lecture Series. A teenage prisoner from Prague, John had survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz (where he lost his mother), Blachhammer and Dachau. His Auschwitz number was tattooed on his left arm and he had lost most of his toes in Nazi camps. After World War II, he became a renowned scholar of the social psychology of the Holocaust. In 2002, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded John the Order of Merit.

He died in 2014.

In 1995, I met an Allach survivor when the Jewish community in the Bay Area honored veterans who had liberated Nazi concentration camps. William P. Lowenberg, a prominent San Francisco industrialist, presided at this Holocaust Remembrance Day service. During the prior lunch, he came to our table and asked, “Which one of you is Dougherty?” I stood up and he said, “Fifty years ago today, you liberated me at Allach!” I still have the citation he signed and the medallion he placed around my neck during the service.

Bill died in 2011.

I met a second Allach survivor this past year when I saw on the Internet that a Dachau prisoner had had a recent reunion with a 42nd Infantry Division veteran in Petaluma, California. I tracked Nick Hope down and found him living only an hour away in Calistoga. Nick was a teenager in the Ukraine when the German Army came through in 1941. He ended up spending three years at Dachau, the last two at Allach. He still had his metal ID as a worker in the BMW plant. The Nazis practiced “extermination through work” and Nick weighed only 80 pounds when liberated. He said he never lost hope during the war and chose “Hope” to replace his unpronounceable Ukrainian name.

The Germans invited me to the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau with the main observance to be on Sunday, May 3, 2020, on the grounds of the Dachau Memorial Site. Twenty-five members of our family planned to accompany me and my wife, Norma; we were very disappointed when the observances were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Germans had planned an exhibit of the Allach sub camp for April 27 and guess who they’d asked to speak. Nick Hope and me!

Mike Stoll contributed to this article.