While GIs were not nearly as brutal as the Soviets were in their advance across Poland and eastern Germany, the first discoveries of the concentration camps and the increasing number of Allied troops murdered by Germans hardened the Americans even more.
Andrew Adkins, a lieutenant in the 80th Division’s 317th Infantry Regiment, recalled, “Part of a squad from Company E, 317th Infantry, had been caught in a house sitting out in the open. The circumstance was a bad one, and they had a choice of surrendering or being killed. They chose to surrender and came out with their hands up. Three of them had Lugers strapped to their belts; they had taken them from Kraut prisoners captured a few days earlier. Their SS captors didn’t even question them. Instead, they put a bullet through each of their heads…two of their buddies who managed to get away told us what happened…we hadn’t taken many SS prisoners, but we decided that from now on no SS troops would be taken alive.”
When Adkins’s platoon arrived at the concentration camp at Buchenwald, their hardness intensified. There, they “adopted” two Soviet lieutenants who had been captured at Stalingrad two years before. The Soviets had a burning hatred for the SS, and the Americans put them to work. Adkins recalled, “They wanted to stay with us until we met up with the Russians. When we got to Weimar, the major put them in GI uniforms. They were happy to take care of any SS troops for us.”
The liberation of the concentration camps in the last weeks of the war shaped the individual American soldier as much as the race for the Elbe River. On April 29, 1945, at the Dachau extermination camp, one group of American soldiers that had seen too much snapped.
GIs from the 45th “Thunderbird” Division entered Dachau on April 28–29, 1945, and one of their first discoveries was a train filled with decaying bodies. The SS had attempted to evacuate inmates from Buchenwald to Dachau to escape the Americans, but the Allied air forces had destroyed the rail network. The SS had left the prisoners to die—and the bodies were discovered by the infantrymen of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry. The GIs were sickened and furious. When they reached Dachau, they found that much of the SS garrison was still there. Dachau was an SS training facility as well as a death camp, so a fair number of SS men, in various stages of training and at various levels of complicity, were in or around the area. For the men of I Company, the scenes of mindless, institutionalized death—bodies piled 15 feet high, the stench of death, the skeletal survivors—and the presence of the SS guards still at the camp became too much.
Lt. William P. Walsh, commander of I Company, was later quoted as saying that the first person he saw at Dachau, besides dying survivors of the camp, was “this German guy…he must have been about six-four or six-five, and he’s got beautiful blond hair. He’s a handsome-looking bastard and he’s got more Goddam Red Cross shields on and white flags…. My first reaction is, ‘You son of a bitch, where in the hell were you five minutes ago before we got here, taking care of all these people?’…. Well, everybody was very upset. Every guy in that company, including myself, was very upset over this thing, and then seeing this big, handsome son of a bitch coming out with all this Red Cross shit on him.” Walsh could take it no more. The handsome German was shot by one of Walsh’s men while “trying to escape.” The SS men were separated from the Wehrmacht prisoners and herded away by the Americans. Walsh took four into a boxcar and unloaded his .45-caliber pistol into them. He ordered that a .30-caliber Browning machine gun be set up to guard a large group of prisoners. The SS men, having already heard the shots of the Americans throughout the camp, panicked and tried to run.
Then the killing began. Only when the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, arrived at the camp late that afternoon did the killing end, and then only by Sparks’s personal intervention. He wrote decades after the incident that “as I watched, about fifty German troops were brought in from various directions. A machine gun squad from Company I was guarding the prisoners. After watching for a few minutes, I started for the confinement area (the concentration camp), after taking directions from one of my soldiers. After I had walked away for a short distance, I heard the machine gun guarding the prisoners open fire. I immediately ran back to the gun and kicked the gunner off the gun with my boot. I then grabbed him by the collar and said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He was a young private about nineteen years old and was crying hysterically. His reply to me was: ‘Colonel, they were trying to get away.’ I doubt that they were, but in any event he killed about twelve of the prisoners and wounded several more.” Despite Sparks’s best efforts to stop the killing, an estimated 50 SS guards were killed execution-style by the men of I Company.
Soon, rumors and incriminating photographs appeared. Lieutenant Colonel Sparks, Lieutenant Walsh, and several others were charged with violating the Geneva Convention. According to some, in a viewpoint reflected in the 2006 documentary Massacre at Dachau, General Patton ordered that a report on the incident by the Seventh Army’s assistant inspector general be sealed and classified. Whatever the truth of the matter, no American soldier was ever found guilty of killing the SS guards.
The men of I Company were not the only ones to be affected by the camps or to take their anger out on the Germans. Hartman, the tanker from the 11th Armored Division, recalled that his unit was ordered to escort some 18,000 German prisoners with only 36 tanks, and turn the prisoners over to the Soviets. Hartman noted, “Machine guns went off at least five times during the thirty minutes we were there. We had a good idea that they weren’t firing aimlessly just to frighten the Krauts. After this short meeting [with the Soviets], we started back. On our return, I saw at least ten dead Germans lying beside the road…we were too fresh from concentration camp scenes to think much about it at the time.”
The final weeks of the war in Europe, on the western as well as the eastern fronts, were far from a casual occupation. For the individual GI, the sleepless, rapid advance through bombed-out cities, the occasional brutal fighting for small villages whose names the rifleman never knew, and the discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust defined the end of World War II. The final offensive to break Nazi Germany justified their presence there, and revealed war at its most elemental and violent level.