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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Tanks for the Memories

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They were all young kids

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A Mile in Their Shoes

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2014, Aaron Elson

   

Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 32

Flossenburg

 Jim Gifford

    When we got back to England we were in a hospital north of London. Then they gave me what they call a zone of interior, if you wanted to you could go back to the States, or you could go back to your outfit, and I said, Jesus, the war was still on, I want to go back to my outfit. So they said okay. I signed a whole bunch of papers releasing the hospital. I wanted to get the hell out of there and go, because I was feeling good enough. They gave me a patch for my eye, and told me to keep the patch on as much as possible.

    They gave me two or three days before I would go back, so I went into London. This was in February. While I was there, I was walking down this street near Piccadilly, and all of a sudden sirens went off and everybody started running. Well, I had just come off the front and bombs didn’t bother me. I just wanted to see where they’re gonna land, so I didn’t run anyplace, I just stood there in the middle of the street by myself, looking around and looking up in the sky.

    I counted 14 of those little airplanes, I forget what bomb they were called, it was either the V-1 or the V-2, one of them was up and you couldn’t see it, not that one, these were little airplanes, and they had 500-pound bombs in them, and they would fly over and the motor would shut off, then they would come down, and whatever they hit they hit.

    I would follow them with my finger in the air. Then suddenly, a little putt-putt engine would shut off, I can hear it now, and down she’d come, and you’d see these big explosions, all over the place.

    That night I stayed in a rooming house, and I was in the front bedroom, the people rented the room out for peanuts, and Jesus, during the night, suddenly the side of the building shook and all the glass in the windows broke. There was a fish market up the street, and the people were queued up there, and the goddamn bomb dropped into that intersection there, and it killed a whole bunch of people.

    Then the next day I had my orders cut to go back to the front, and they sent me down to a train station. When I went into the headquarters in the railroad yard, they had a whole bunch of American soldiers, 40 or 50 of them, lined up.

    They said to me, "Lieutenant, you’re going to be in charge of these Americans. You’re taking them back to Bonn, Germany, on your way to your outfit."

    Well, it turns out these 40 or 50 guys were all prisoners, Americans that had gone over the hill, and they had a choice, either go to jail for 10 years or go back to the front, and they decided they would go back to their outfits.

    We got to the boatyard in Southampton and they were put on a small British cruiser. They also gave me nine guys as guards. These men had been wounded like myself and were on their way back to the front. They weren’t trying to get out of anything. They were legitimate fighting soldiers, and they didn’t have much sympathy for these guys.

    It’s amazing, I forgot all about this until just now, it’s been laying in the back of my brain all these years. There was a big coal pile in the boatyard, and as we’re marching by it, all of a sudden one of them bolted, and the other prisoners were all going, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"

    Two of the guards ran after him, so he started to run up the coal pile. He got almost to the top to go over the fence when the coal gave way and he comes tumbling back down. And all the other prisoners laughed and clapped, and they booed the shit out of him when they brought him back and got him in line again.

    We landed in Le Havre, and they put us in a freight car on a train. And then we started going towards Bonn.

    I’ll never forget, we were going along and suddenly one of the guys fell off the train. He really jumped off. So one of the guards hollered, and I swung out the door of the caboose. I had my tommy gun. That old tommy gun was always with me. So I swung the tommy gun, the guy now is trotting behind the train, and the train isn’t moving too fast. So when I swung out the door I put the gun on him and I said, "Catch the train!" And he looked at me and he didn’t know whether I was going to shoot him or not, he wasn’t sure. I wouldn’t have shot him. He started running, and the train’s picking up speed, and he’s running his ass off, and he’s scared to death now. He started falling on the track. He tripped, fell a couple of times, he’d get up and run and try to catch the train. Then I reached up and I pulled the brake, and the train stopped. And the guy came up and got back on the train, and all the other prisoners are laughing and booing him.

    We stopped at a place where we were being fed, and there was a guardhouse there with a man and his wife. So we get back on the train, we’re ready to leave, and there was a soup kitchen there, and this old lady came running out, crying. She said somebody stole her wallet. I said it’s one of those bastards. So I told all the guys, "Listen." I stopped the train, and I said, "Somebody stole that old lady’s wallet and in it is the only picture she’s got of her son who was killed in 1940," this is what she told me. So I said, "I want that wallet. I’m not going to do anything. I want to see that wallet." The next thing we got the wallet. Either they threw it out or somebody said, "Here’s the wallet," and we gave it to the woman. She was crying and hugging me, she was so happy. She was an old French lady with a black outfit on. That bothered me.

    Then, as we got closer to Bonn, during the night we were all laying down in the car to sleep, and all of a sudden we hear all this machine gun fire. The train kept going, and of course, I didn’t know what was going on. When we got out, we saw that they had machine-gunned the train, and luckily they didn’t hit anybody. They were wooden cars, the bullets went right through the goddamn car but nobody was standing up.

    When we got to Bonn, I turned the prisoners over to the constabulary. I went in to meet the guy who was in charge of the military police in Bonn, because Bonn was already occupied by the Americans, and isn’t he a colonel from Texas and his name is Gifford, and I said I’ll be damned, he was probably a relative of mine, and we both had a big chuckle out of it.

    Then I said, "Listen. The reason I’m here is that if you need MPs, these nine guards are excellent, top-rated guys. If you need anybody, they did an excellent job."

    I had to wait to get a jeep to go back to my outfit, and the next day, Geez, I see an MP coming down the street. It was one of my guards. He said, "They’re going to make us MPs. They took us all."

    I said, "No kidding!"

    "Oh, thanks!" he said. "We were only going to get killed at the front. This is great. We’ll be MPs back here." I was happy about that.

    Then I got a jeep and I went back to the 712th. I met up with them in a place called Chamm. I stayed with the outfit and we continued right straight through into Czechoslovakia. I remember the German 11th Panzer Division gave up to us. The whole 11th, all their tanks and everything, came down the road and surrendered to us. This was getting towards the end of the war.

    While we were in Chamm, a German fighter plane circled and dived on us. He was coming straight down at us and we all ran and threw ourselves into a ditch. There was a little river there, and he crashed right into the river. There was a big splash, and he’s there today, I guess, there was nothing left, that water splashed back down in that river.

    Then we hit Flossenburg. That was in the woods in Bavaria.

    At that time I think I was in an armored car or a jeep. We came up to the gate, and the gates were locked, and we broke the gates open. There were some guys in there, some prisoners, with black and white stripes on them. We went in, and other personnel came in, and the next thing, they flooded the place with help, and we were told to move on to a further location.

    There were a few very skinny prisoners that were still in some of the buildings, but the majority of them were gone. I don’t know what happened to them, but I think that as we approached, the German personnel just took off and left those in there, and they just were so happy to see us. I was surprised they didn’t want to run out the door, but they didn’t. I took some pictures.

    There was a big, high fence that went around the camp, and on one side of the fence there was this long brick building. It was maybe 50 or 75 feet long and one story high. As you got into it, the whole wall is just furnaces, you open the furnace doors and there’s an iron tray in there, and that’s where the bodies were put.

    In front of the building was a little railroad track, and it went underneath the fence, and down into a location where there was a pit. The pit was at least 10 or 12 feet deep, and one end of the pit was one solid mass of human bones, and none of them were more than an inch long, so how many people were in that pit God only knows because their bodies had been reduced to these little chips of bone, and it was pretty depressing.

    Then our backup companies came in. Because we were a fighting company, we didn’t stay at that location. We continued on.

Paul Wannemacher

    Paul Wannemacher, of Johnstown, Pa., joined Headquarters Company as a replacement in Normandy.

    I remember when we went into the concentration camp. We came up to this little block building, and we stopped the jeep and walked into the building, and there was Lieutenant Gifford from C Company standing in front of an open oven door. I’ve got a picture of him standing there.

    We heard water running, and we didn’t know what it was, so we followed the sound. There was a room right next to the entrance, and there was a guy standing there with a hose. It looked like he was spraying the room, so we went over and we looked closer, and what he was spraying, there were a bunch of dead bodies in there. They were just stacked up in the room, there must have been 25 or 30 of them. I guess they were getting ready to cremate them, and they were trying to keep some semblance of sanitation at the time. They were all naked, and he was just spraying them with the hose.

    Then we got the hell out. We saw the two big buildings where they gassed them, and at the foot of one they had a huge pile of shoes, and there was a big pile of eyeglasses, just laying there, a huge pile. We got pictures of all that.

Forrest Dixon

    The furnaces were still burning when we went in, but they had evacuated most of Flossenburg three days before our arrival. Then we took out after them, and we caught up with them after dark. The fighting units took all the Germans prisoners, and then, I think there were about 1,600 inmates that went amok. We took the Germans at a poultry farm, and I’ll never forget, all night you could see these little fires, and they kept sending people around, "You’re going to kill yourself eating." We lost several that night from overeating.

    Then the next morning they found a dairy farm, and they killed all the cattle and ate them.

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