A tale of Buchenwald - the stench still lingers
The first thing I noticed was the odor. It reminded me of the Kuhner Packing Co.’s waste being burned in my hometown of Muncie, Ind. It was a warm morning in April, 1945 - calm and peaceful - unlike the grueling conditions we had recently left behind in Belgium and Luxembourg.
After those blood-splattered days, our 735th Tank Battalion tanks began moving rapidly across the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge behind 87th Division infantrymen who earlier charged across in powerboats. As we ground our way across to the eastern side of the Rhine, the number of enemy soldiers and enemy counterfire began visibly dropping off, and we spotted more and more white sheets hung out of windows in the villages.
After consulting our maps, the three Co. C tanks with about four infantrymen aboard each, started aiming toward one of the villages for the night. At this point, my tank, numbered C-18, was in the lead, and as it grew dark we consulted our map before deciding to stop in the village of Weimar, a pretty place set in a valley.
About 9 the next morning I was standing in the ammunition loader’s turret when, along with two other tanks carrying infantrymen, we approached two tall, chain-locked iron gates with a few of our American infantrymen standing nearby.
Our Sherman tank could easily have barged through the iron gates, but we decided instead to shout for someone to remove the chains. A German guard quickly ran out, looked over the three American tanks and infantrymen, and, without comment opened the gates with his key.
Inside the gates, we traveled another short distance, maybe 300 feet, when a shout went up. One of the infantrymen had noticed German paper money scattered on the ground, so he jumped down and started picking it up. Other infantrymen who were walking also spotted the money. I shouted to an infantryman who had ridden my tank to pick up some of the bills for me.
The money, it turned out, was over-printed with the now-infamous "Buchenwald" on its face, and included the SS insignia. But since the name was unfamiliar to any of us, at the time it meant nothing either to those driving the tanks or the infantrymen.
It happened all of a sudden - we struck something that felt as palpable and real as a wall. It was a huge, overpowering odor - the kind of odor I remembered from the days the Kushner Packing Co. burned its waste in my hometown of Muncie, Ind.
Only as our tank wound its way down the cinder road did we discover the source of the odor - a type of baggage cart stacked with two dozen or so naked, emaciated bodies. On the other side of the cinder road we could also see a pit, approximately 30 by 40 feet, flooded with a foul, sickening-looking green solution. It was fortunate that more than one American with me could manage elementary German.
This, we discovered by questioning, was acid being used to dissolve flesh and bones. Now we had some evidence that something really foul was going on, but at that point we were unaware of its scale.
With the infantrymen taking the lead, the three tanks started up again, soon coming upon a large mound of white ashes not far from a row of ovens. I now estimate that this mound stood at least 10 feet high, and we began suspecting it too contained human flesh and bones.
One of our infantrymen, who had penetrated deeper into the camp, returned with a German guard who disclosed to our German speakers that his SS commanders had learned of the American troop’s advance and fled.
But we still had a war to fight, and definite orders to attack and enter other nearby villages. Unfortunately those two hours was not enough time to penetrate deeply into other areas of the camp, and, we concluded that the inmates had been ordered to stay out of sight.
Our radioed orders were to keep pushing the German Army back toward the Czechoslovakian border, so the infantrymen clambered back on the tanks and we moved out.
Others on my tank or others who later confirmed that this happened and who retained some of the German money with the overprint "Buchenwald" were Lt. T.J. Blount, the tank commander; Roger Othout, Charles Barker, Jack Linzer, all of Co. C, 735th Tank Bn.
A few weeks after this episode, the Germans surrendered to the Americans on the Western Front, and to the Russians on the Eastern Front. The saga of the German concentration camps became a piece of history which is still being documented today. Our experiences and our over-printed money prove that we were there - probably first.
But more than a few times I’ve asked myself if we did the right thing by leaving the death camp that day. But even if we had been able to stay and investigate further, who would we have told? Certainly not our chain of command. They, and we, had to concentrate on the enemy that still believed it could win a war and was still out there firing at us until about a month later.
(Transcribed in 1993 from an oral and written account by Mitchell Kaidy.)
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| Mr. Max Whitaker (C Company, 735th Tank Battalion,
87th Infantry Division)
Mr. Mitchell Kaidy (D Company, 345th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division)
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