CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT – The COVID-19 global lockdown prevented 42nd Infantry Division veterans who liberated the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp in World War II from returning to Germany for the 75th anniversary of that event.
Instead the eight veterans, who are now in their 90s, marked the anniversary April 29 by speaking with the commander of the New York Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Steven Ferrari – 10 time zones and two continents away in Kuwait, where he commands the Army’s Task Force Spartan – about their experiences that day.
The commemorative event at Dachau, which is now a historic site, was to include veterans, survivors, families and members of the 42nd Infantry Division. The 42nd, along with the 45th Infantry and 20th Armored Divisions, are credited with liberating Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp.
Ferrari took the phone call from a small conference room with Brig. Gen. Thomas Spencer, deputy command general for sustainment, and Division Command Sgt. Maj. Corey Cush. Other members of the division staff listened in.
The veterans who joined the call were Dee Eberhart, Frank Burns, Hilbert Margol, Elbert Dobbs, Gerald Eaton, Chester Pettey, Russel Fielding and Fidel Mendoza. Their service spanned all three infantry regiments of the World War II division and the division artillery.
The event was coordinated through the efforts of the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation.
Each man recounted his memories from liberation day at Dachau, ranging from being part of the lead combat elements to the Soldiers who came afterward and saw the consequences of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution.”
“I want to thank all the veterans on the call today. Thank you for your service,” Ferrari said after hearing their accounts. “After every meeting we say, 'Rainbow, never forget!' and we will never forget the history of this division.”
The 42nd Infantry is known as the “Rainbow Division” for its service in World War I as a multistate National Guard division that was said to span the country like a rainbow.
Elbert Dobbs was a sergeant in the 222nd Infantry Regiment and was with the leading units of the division arriving at Dachau on that Sunday afternoon in 1945.
“When our convoy arrived and opened the gate, we were able to look into the camp,” Dobbs said. “We were looking at a large open area. Several prisoners walking slowly, doing what looked like policing the grounds and what looked like flat cars stacked high with bodies in front of low buildings.”
Dobbs, 99, who lives in Peachtree City, Georgia, said he’d never forget the image of those victims.
The Army’s 42nd Infantry Division deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Henning Linden, accepted the surrender of the concentration camp.
The 45th Infantry “Thunderbird” Division also had forces arrive at Dachau April 29, approaching the camp from another direction and fighting through an adjoining SS training compound.
The 20th Armored Division had its combat commands in support of both infantry divisions, with tank, armored infantry and anti-tank battalions all employed with the American forces advancing to Dachau.
The liberating Americans discovered more than 32,000 prisoners in a camp originally intended for only 5,000.
Just a day before liberation, in their haste to evacuate prisoners from other camps, a train with about 40 railway cars arrived at the camp. It had left Buchenwald concentration camp filled with 5,000 prisoners, but 2,310 of them died on the three-week journey to Dachau.
“When we arrived at Dachau, there was corpses in each car,” Fielding recalled. “It was cold, but they did not have clothes to cover them. They were not nude, but they died of cold and malnutrition.”
The lengthy rail transport to Dachau was intended to eliminate as many prisoners as possible from exposure or starvation.
“What is the complaint about man’s inhumanity to man?” said Fielding, 99, and living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Nearly every Soldier of the 42nd Division arriving at the camp passed what has become known as the “Death Train,” said Pfc. Chester Petty, a driver and radio operator for the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 232nd Infantry Regiment.
“I noticed a lot of gaunt, hollow-eyed and starving people walking around in prison garb. There was an overpowering odor in the air, and I wanted to find out where it was coming from,” Petty said.
“I followed it and came to the rail yard. I saw the boxcars with corpses piled in and hanging out of the doors. That memory has stayed with me the rest of my life,” said Petty, now 94 and living in Abita Springs, Louisiana.
Petty stayed in the Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel after 26 years, including additional combat service in Korea and Vietnam.
The 42nd Division liberation of Dachau was completed within a matter of hours, and the division continued its advance toward Munich, the birthplace of Nazism.
“The next morning, we were on our way to Munich,” Fielding said. “As we approached Munich, we found balconies and doorways covered with the white sheets of surrender. Perhaps not officially, but the war was over, and Dachau would never be forgotten,” he said.
“We thank you for all that you did,” Ferrari told the group of veterans. “We thank your families for supporting you, and again I want to say thank you for your service.”
“We take it upon ourselves to be good stewards of our Army profession and the history of this division and to make sure that we continue it and make sure the Soldiers, past and future, will know the sacrifices you made,” Ferrari said.
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 to strengthen defense relationships and build partner capacity.