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Liberators found camps by smell

November 4, 2020

By Gerald Hay

World War II veterans John Roberts and William “Bill” Casassa remember the concentration camps being liberated in Germany 75 years ago.

Roberts recalls emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire fences at the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich.

Casassa recollects finding an unusually high fence which he later found out was enclosing the Ahlem Concentration Camp near Hannover. At the time, he had no idea what was behind the fence.

What G.I.s like Casassa and Roberts saw in April 1945 of the concentration camps was preempted by another sense: a strong smell of abundant death.

“The stench was overpowering,” said Roberts, a 95-year-old Army veteran living at Brookdale Overland Park. “The odor was worse than any (meat) packing house I had ever smelled.”

Also, a 95-year-old Army veteran, Casassa agreed. He and Maggie, his wife of 65 years, reside at the Village Cooperative of Shawnee.

“Í will never forget that smell,” he said, “I did not notice it at first until the wind shifted. I did not see the inside of what was behind the fence. I smelled it.”

Both veterans began their military service during WWII in mid-1943.

Roberts was drafted. After arriving in England in mid1944, he volunteered to serve in the 101st Airborne Division. The Screaming Eagles unit needed lots of replacements due to heavy losses in the D-Day landings on June 6 at Normandy.

At first, he wasn’t accepted because of his height at 5-foot-5½, but he challenged to fight an Army sergeant to prove his grit.

‘Short, but tough’

“I told them I was short, but I was tough,” he said with a smile. The Army agreed without a fight. An Army officer laughed, telling him: “Shorty, if you want it that bad, you’re in.”

His parachute training involved three practice jumps on one day and instructions on how to pack his own parachute. His first real jump was when the 101st Airborne participated in Operation Market Garden in September 1944 in Holland.

Casassa, who enlisted in the Army, was trained as an anti-tank gunner with the 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion.

“The battalion landed in France in September 1944 and entered combat in November in support of several units, including the 84th Infantry Division. We were then formally attached to the division on Dec. 1, serving 171 consecutive days of full engagement with the enemy,” Casassa said.

“I was scared all the time, day and night,” he admitted. “I was scared in my sleep.”

Both veterans fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It was the last major German offensive of the war. The fighting that followed put Germany in a position to have to defend its homeland against the rapid advancement of American and Allied forces.

“A lot of time, we didn’t know where we were going,” Casassa said. “We didn’t know about the concentration camps. They were all over the darn place.”

From 1933 to 1945, before and during WWII, Nazi Germany established more than 44,000 concentration camps or ghettos in German-occupied Europe. They included forced-labor, transit, detention and prisoner of war facilities. Concentration camps were liberated by American, British, Canadian and Soviet troops in 1944 and 1945.

In occupied Poland, Nazi Germany used six extermination camps, also called death camps, with gas chambers. The most infamous was the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex liberated on Jan. 27, 1945. An estimated 1.1 million victims, mostly Jews, perished at the Auschwitz network of more than 40 concentration and extermination camps. Soviet troops liberated all six death camps.

Americans liberate camps

Concentration camp liberations by American units began April 3 and ended May 7, 1945. For camp prisoners, mostly Jewish, it was finally a dream come true. For American liberators, it was a nightmare come to life in discovering camps filled with the dead, the dying and the very sick left behind by a Nazi army in full retreat.

“They were neighborhood slaughterhouses,” Casassa said. “It was incredulous to me.”

The 84th Infantry Division was officially recognized as a “Liberating Unit” of Hannover-Ahlem on April 10, 1945, and Salzwedel four days later. Both were satellite camps of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp established in 1938 in northern Germany with more than 85 satellite camps.

Another member of the 84th Division was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who also participated in the liberation of the Ahlem camp.

Two weeks later, Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in March 1933 shortly after Adolf Hitler rose to power, became one of the last camps to be liberated. The Dachau network had nearly 100 satellites facilities, which were mostly work camps. The main camp was liberated by the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division on April 29, 1945, the day before Hitler killed himself in Berlin.

Though not a death camp, Dachau and scores of other concentration camps had crematoriums to dispose of bodies because so many prisoners died from grueling hard labor and deplorable living conditions, according to military history websites.

Guarding ovens at Dachau

Roberts was briefly assigned to guard duty at Dachau on his way to rejoin his unit in Salzburg, Austria, after being hospitalized for treatment of trench foot (frozen feet) in Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. He arrived at the camp shortly after its liberation.

“I didn’t guard prisoners but was ordered to prevent Germans from destroying the ovens or hiding evidence of war crimes,” he said.

He saw piles of bodies and rows of liberated prisoners behind fences or lying in huts. Many survived and lived; some died.

Roberts recalls an emaciated Jewish survivor, wearing tatters, and offering him food.

“He hid it right away under his hat. He didn’t seem to know that he was free. That it was OK and safe for him to eat,” he said.

By early May, the 101st Airborne was in the Bavarian Alps and Austria with Roberts rejoining his unit at Salzburg. Casassa and the 84th Infantry Division had halted at the Elbe River about 70 miles from Berlin and met Soviet troops.

“They wanted to give Berlin to the Soviets. That suited me just fine,” he said with a smile.

Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) ended the fighting on May 8, 1945. The troops of the 84th Division toasted the announcement by drinking German beer and enjoying the first hot meals they had in months.

“We drank all the Schnapps we could get ahold of,” Roberts said, smiling as he recalled how he and other Screaming Eagles celebrated.

Since V-E Day did not the end the war, Roberts was ordered to travel with his unit to England and then stateside for amphibious training in anticipation of an invasion of Japan. Casassa, too, was expecting to receive orders to join the ongoing war in the Pacific Theater.

That changed Aug.6, 1945, with the dropping of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima followed by the second “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later. Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) was announced on Aug. 15, marking the end of all fighting in WWII.

Japan formally surrendered on Sept. 2 aboard the USS Missouri battleship in Tokyo Bay.

“We were more than happy President Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs. That saved many lives – both American and Japanese. It ended the bloody war,” Roberts said.

“We were going home.”