LATHAM, N.Y. – April 29, 1945, was a cold, sunny Sunday afternoon as Soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division came face to face with the worst of Nazi Germany at the notorious Dachau concentration camp.
In 1945 the division was made of up draftee Soldiers from across the country. Today it is part of the New York Army National Guard.
That day, the 42nd Infantry, 45th Infantry and 20th Armored Divisions were advancing southeast toward Munich. It was the birthplace of Nazism and these Soldiers, part of the U.S. 7th Army, wanted the prize.
Troops riding in trucks or armored vehicles barely noticed the town of Dachau on their maps.
But leaders of the 42nd Division, known as the Rainbow Division for its service in World War I as a multistate National Guard division, understood what Dachau had in store.
The division's front line Soldiers knew there was a Nazi prison camp at Dachau, a small town 10 miles from Munich. But most of the Soldiers knew little more than that.
"Up until April 29, 1945, the majority of us in my unit were not aware of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews – certainly not its scope, nor its effect on the world; and certainly none of us were aware of the Dachau Concentration Camp,” said Lt. Jack Westbrook, a member of the 222nd Infantry Regiment in the 2015 Sam Dann collection of memories in “Dachau 29 April 1945: The Rainbow Liberation Memoirs.”
There were actually three Dachaus ahead of the advancing Americans. There was the German village of Dachau, a Nazi SS training compound and barracks, and the concentration camp itself.
The first concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Dachau opened in March 1933 at the site of a former munitions factory. It first held 5,000 political prisoners.
German newspapers reported "the removal of the enemies of the Reich to concentration camps."
In 1946, Morris Janowitz wrote that just a few years after opening the camp, Germans feared the place.
A German jingle went: "Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm," Janowitz wrote. "Dear God, make me silent, that I may not come to Dachau."
Eventually, clergy, homosexuals, gypsies and Jews, along with French, Pole, Czech, Yugoslav and Russian nationals were housed at Dachau and its 30 major subcamps.
There were also 123 even smaller camps, holding forced laborers for work in underground munitions factories.
“We had been briefed stateside on the unjust imprisonment of large numbers of people by the Germans, and their being forced into a kind of slavery. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to unfold in that small dorf north and west of Munich in Bavarian Germany," Westbrook said.
“Somebody up at division headquarters may have known,” said Sgt. Olin Hawkins, assigned to the Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 222nd Infantry, in the Dann memoirs. “But we didn’t know anything.”
Deputy Division Commander Brig. Gen. Henning Linden was aware of the camp and the significance of its liberation.
Linden understood the capture of Dachau would be a significant news event. With a team of reporters already accompanying the division in its advance on Munich, he directed the 222nd Infantry Regiment to Dachau and set off with his command element in three jeeps.
Sgt. William “Hap” Hazard, a public affairs sergeant with the division headquarters, described how news reporters provided insight to his team before departing for Dachau.
“Usually a writer, a photographer and a G-2 (intelligence section) jeep driver would be assigned to a team to accompany a battalion on a particular mission, or occasionally, we would go out on our own without orders, if requested by a well-known correspondent,” Hazard described in the Dann memoirs.
“To the very best of my recollection, this was the case on April 29. I believe Sid Olson of Time-Life asked for an Army photographer soon after he had heard that the 222nd Regiment was to 'take' Dachau.”
The advance was surreal, Hawkins recalled. They moved toward Dachau in haste, bypassing German resistance.
“The I&R (intelligence and reconnaissance) platoon was in front,” Hawkins said in a 1994 oral history recording. “I was platoon leader, 3rd platoon, Company F, 2nd Battalion, and our battalion commander, (Lt. Col.) Downard, was leading the way. We ran into little pockets of resistance, and the I&R gave them machine-gun bursts and we drove right through them.”
“The Germans just looked at us. They couldn’t understand it,” Hawkins said. “Why didn’t we want to stop and fight?”
Pvt. Richard Marowitz, part of the I&R platoon, recalled a similar incident.
“We cut a German convoy in half that was going across a road that we were on, firing as we went through,” Marowitz said. “They didn’t know what happened because we weren’t supposed to be there and they were driving off the road.”
“We did the same thing with another convoy that was going on a road in the opposite direction and parallel to ours, and we just fired on them as we went,” Marowitz said in a 2014 interview.
As the Americans approached, a committee inside the camp sought ways to find a peaceful surrender.
As Allied forces approached concentration camps, the Germans tried to eliminate remaining prisoners. Thousands were killed with freedom a few miles away.
In mid-April, 15,000 prisoners from the subcamps were forced into Dachau. This caused the spread of typhus, resulting in more deaths.
Days before liberation, 2,000 surviving inmates from the Flossenbürg concentration camp arrived at Dachau after a forced march. At the same time, the Dachau SS guards forced 7,000 inmates to move south to a planned execution.
The closer the Rainbow Soldiers advanced toward Dachau, the more indicators they saw that something was wrong and that death surrounded this German town.
“As we approached, there was a very distinctive smell,” Marowitz recalled. “We knew it fairly well, the stench of death. But when you are in combat, you see dead animals all the time. We just told ourselves, it was dead farm animals. Animals.”
On April 28, a train with about 40 railway cars arrived at the camp. It had left Buchenwald on April 7 filled with 5,000 prisoners, but 2,310 of them had died on the train’s circuitous route through Saxony to Czechoslovakia and to Dachau.
As the 42nd Division Soldiers arrived at Dachau, infantrymen from the 45th Division arrived at Dachau at the same time, but from a different direction.
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, fought their way into the SS barracks, while the 42nd Division’s 2nd Battalion, 222nd Infantry, approached the main Dachau gate.
“As we approached the southwest corner, three people came forward with a flag of truce,” wrote Linden in his report to corps headquarters, May 2, 1945.
“They were a Swiss Red Cross representative, Victor Maurer, and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander [SS Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker] and his assistant. They had come here on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular personnel, for the purpose of surrendering the camp to the advancing Americans.”
The 42nd Infantry Division entered the Dachau Concentration Camp in the afternoon. They discovered more than just the 32,000 surviving prisoners in the overcrowded camp.
They also found the 2,310 corpses at the camp railhead.
“The first thing is the shock,” Marowitz said. “And then you cannot believe it, but you can't help yourself going and looking a little further, because it's so hard to believe. Not that you want to see – you know – that kind of stuff. You don't want to see that kind of stuff, but you can't believe it.
“It was a total mess,” he said. “And the smell was not a farm; it was Dachau that we had smelled miles before we got there.”
Finding SS Lieutenant Wicker, Linden accepted the camp surrender at the main gate.
"I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42nd Infantry Division,” Linden said, “and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the United States Army.”
What the Soldiers discovered next at Dachau left an impression of a lifetime, wrote division assistant chaplain (Maj.) Eli Bohnen.
“Nothing you can put in words would adequately describe what I saw there,” Bohnen said in a letter to home on May 1, 1945.
“The human mind refuses to believe what the eyes see. All the stories of Nazi horrors are underestimated rather than exaggerated.”
Dachau had death at every turn. Beyond the rail cars of bodies, Soldiers discovered the camp crematorium and a storage shed filled with more bodies.
“There were over 4,000 bodies, men, women and children in a warehouse in the crematorium,” Lt. Col. Walter Fellenz, commander of the 1st Battalion, 222nd Infantry, wrote in his report. “There were over 1,000 dead bodies in the barracks within the enclosure.”
“Riflemen, accustomed to witnessing death, had no stomach for rooms stacked almost ceiling high with tangled human bodies adjoining the cremation furnaces, looking like some maniac’s woodpile,” wrote Tech. Sgt. James Creasman, a division public affairs NCO in the 42nd Division World News, May 1, 1945.
For many of the survivors inside the camp, meeting their liberators was an opportunity for reaffirmation of faith.
“Everywhere we went, the poor, miserable prisoners cheered us, kissed our hands, our cheeks, clung to us, or just maybe touched us, to see if we were real,” Sgt. Scott Corbett, a division public affairs sergeant, wrote to his wife May 1, 1945.
For the surviving Jews in the concentration camp, meeting Jewish American Soldiers was an unbelievable event, Chaplain Bohnen recalled.
“We entered the camp itself and saw the living,” Bohnen said. “The Jews were the worst off. Many of them looked worse than the dead. They cried as they saw us. They were emaciated, diseased, beaten, miserable caricatures of human beings. I don't know how they didn't all go mad. Even the other prisoners who suffered miseries themselves couldn't get over the horrible treatment meted out to the Jews.”
“I shall never forget what I saw, and in my nightmares the scenes recur. No possible punishment would ever repay the ones who were responsible."
Many prisoners took revenge on prison guards.
“At least 25, and perhaps 50, were beaten to death by inmates who struck with all the fury of men who suddenly release years of pent-up hate. Now, the SS Guards were dead. But their deaths could not avenge the thousands of dead and dying in Dachau,” Hawkins said.
The Rainbow Division did not remain at Dachau long. The advance on Munich had to continue. Seventh Army supporting forces, including medical elements, arrived to help care for the concentration camp survivors.
For the final days of the war, every division Soldier now had a full grasp of what they were fighting for, said Carl Segrave, then a 19-year-old Soldier in the 222nd Infantry Regiment.
“The stench of rotting cadavers. The boxcars filled with the emaciated dead,” Segrave recalled in a news interview in 2008. “The storage rooms filled with stacks of recently gassed innocents. The ghastly crematorium. And the piles upon piles of human ashes.”
His experience at Dachau changed how he saw his enemy.
"I didn't hate them before that, not even during the fighting,” he said.
“We were invading their homeland, so you expected them to defend their country. "But this …" he said, trailing off.
“The more people who finally get it through their heads that everything terrible told about these people is true, the better,” Corbett wrote at the time.
The division captured Munich on April 30, the day Hitler took his life in his bunker in Berlin. After the end of the war on May 8, the division finished duties as an occupation force in Austria.
But the legacy of its role at Dachau would mark the division as liberators and their highest achievement in ending the Holocaust.
“Dachau is no longer a name of terror for hunted men. 32,000 of them have been freed by the 42nd Rainbow Division,” Creasman wrote for the division on May 1, 1945.
“The crimes done behind the walls of the worst of Nazi concentration camps now live to only haunt the memories of the Rainbowmen who tore open its gates and first saw its misery, and to accuse its SS keepers of one of the worst crimes in all history.”
As the 42nd Division marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 650 New York Army National Guard Soldiers of the Rainbow Division are deployed to the U.S. Central Command theater of operations as the lead element of Task Force Spartan. The division Soldiers are leading the effort to maintain a U.S. military posture in Southwest Asia sufficient to strengthen defense relationships and build partner capacity.