An American Pilot Encounters the Ghosts of Buchenwald

Soon after American soldiers liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 4, 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower inspected the camp himself. “The things I saw beggar description,” he cabled to Gen. George C. Marshall. “I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’” Ike’s troops were equally incredulous—and determined to record for history what they saw.

On April 21, 1945, 1st Lt. James Carroll Jordan, a 23-year-old pilot from St. Paul, Minnesota, with the Ninth Army’s 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, typed a three-page letter to his wife, Betty Anne, just hours after visiting Buchenwald. Troops normally refrained from describing the most horrific details of war, but Jordan—like many other soldiers who observed the concentration and extermination camps—chronicled in graphic and unflinching detail the true brutality of Hitler’s Final Solution. The letter’s original spelling has been preserved.

Dear Betty Anne,
I saw something today that makes me realize why we’re over here fighting this war.

We visited a German political internment camp. The camp had been liberated only two days and the condition of the camp has changed very little. The American Red Cross just arrived.

The inmates consisted of mostly Jews, some Russians, Poles and there were six American pilots that they shot almost immediately.

When we first walked in we saw all these creatures that were supposed to be men. They were dressed in black and white suits, heads shaved and starving to death. Malnutrition was with every one of them.

We met one of them that could speak English so he acted as a guide for us. First we saw a German monument that stated 51,600 died in this camp in three years. They were proud of it. Second we went in the living barracks. Six sq. ft. per six people. Hard wood slats six ft. high. Then we went down through rows of barbed wire to a building where they purposely infected these people with disease. Human guinea pigs for German medics.

In this medical building were exhibits of human heads in jars and tatooed human flesh or skin on the walls.

After that we went up to the torture dept. Here were beating devices that I won’t explain. The clubs, by the way, are still lying there with blood on them. In another room in this building were 8 cremator furnaces. The doors were open and in one I noticed one body 1/2 done. A horrible sight. After I snapped a few pictures I walked out side and noticed a truck with 50 naked bodys piled up six deep. Turning my head away from that I looked over against the wall and here were about 30 more. Their eyes open, their mouths open, blue, and purple, cut and some with holes in them.

The guide told us he lived with some of these men for years. He said most of them died within the past 24 hrs. In fact a medical Red Cross man told us they are dying like flys. Nothing can be done for them. It’s too late. They are much too far gone.

There is another place I never told you about. The latrine. I won’t tell you about it, because you won’t believe me. It’s unbelievable.

It was about time to leave so we started out the big gate. As we were nearly out we saw one of the men that looked like a ghost, fall over. They put him on a coat and headed for the truck.

One of our pilots is Jewish and as you know the Jewish language is somewhat similar to the German language. He stopped one of the men in the striped suits. He was a young boy. The pilot asked him several questions such as, how long has he been here. Three years he said. How old was he. 16 years old. He asked all type of questions about the camp which was exceptionally interesting and no doubt true.

We gave him some cigarettes and candy. He forgot how to smile, but you could see the happiness in his sunken eyes.

We still had about an hour before leaving so we went back in. We wandered in to a barracks. What kept us from getting sick I’ll never know. On some of these wooden slabs were half alive, half dead men, lying on some dirty rags and clothes. It was the sick barracks, you might call it. These men were cut deep in the flesh with knives, infected of course. Some of them were not off of these beds for days. They were lying in their own body waste. Yes, for days.

The Red Cross was there and were removing one of the men. They told him they were going to take him to a hospital and make him well again. He didn’t want to go. He thought they were going to take him out and kill him. I doubt if he even knew who they were.

Naturally, the Krauts had to benefit by these people for bothering with them at all; so they had a factory in which the men had to work 12 to 15 hours a day. If they refused to work or couldn’t work, Well—there was always more.

We were naturally interested in the six American pilots and crew men, so we inquired around. We couldn’t find out very much; only that these bomber crews were shot down from a bomb run over the town. The inmates said they were put in a barraks by them selves. If they were tortured or not they didn’t know, but they did know that they were dead in a few days. One man stated that their clothes were taken away from them so they couldn’t escape.

We found a Russian that could speak a little English and he told us some incidences that took place.

He said that if the guards were feeling good they would get soup, very greasy soup. He said that he survived because he would warm the soup by putting his hands in it and melt the grease. If things weren’t too good for the guards they wouldn’t eat anything for 8 days. The men naturally wouldn’t be able to walk so they put about 50 hungry dogs in the camp and let them gnaw on the dying men.

When the American tanks charged through the prison gates the guards naturally evacuated deeper into the father land, but the inmates caught one of them. I saw this SS guard among the dead bodys. When I saw him I though he was odd, because he had long blond hair. His head was all bruised, his neck was slashed with a knife. The inmate watched him kill himself just 48 hours ago. They drove him mad.

Our time was up so we boarded our truck and rode home, just thinking.

Enclosed you will find some pictures that I took while going through the camp.

All my love darling

After returning to the United States, Jordan worked for insurance companies most of his life. He passed away in March 2008 at the age of 86.

To read more War Letters, click here.

3 Responses

  1. Terry Jordan

    Thank you so much for publishing my fathers letter to my mom Betty Anne. He truly was an amazing man who proudly served his country and his family (8 children). Everytime I read this letter it reminds me of the incredible history he lived and witnessed. I am glad that this letter did not go with him and is there for all to share and learn from.

    Thanks again,


  2. David

    I took a break from work and wandered onto the site and by chance navigated my way to this letter. I’m 36 y/o and have been privately studying WWII history for 15 years but there some things that never cease to shock me. This letter is a priceless gift to history and may no person ever forget the sacrifice of the allied soldiers.

    It’s the description of the human condition that rips me apart…about a boy who lived through something so horrible that he forgot how to smile no matter what kindness was extended to him. The vision I have haunts me and brings a tear to my eye but this letter’s purpose is still alive and well and I will hold my wife a little closer tonight with the understanding of just how good I have it. Thank you to this soldier. I am glad to hear he lived a long life with a large family. I thank him and the many others who served this great country. God Bless and thank you.


  3. Susan

    I cannot imagine that those sights did not haunt this soldier for the rest of his life. He saw the work of evil first hand. This letter and description are so crucial in stating we must not forget what happened in those concentration camps. For this letter is a tour of only one camp and they were so many. A true reason for what these wonderful men were fighting for..and what they were fighting against..evil at its supreme highest. Thank you to all the soldiers who fought and died so I can live the life I do!! It is appreciated so much!


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