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(From the Mount Ayr Record News, Thursday, June 14, 1945.)
Since the following letter from a service man to his mother is so long, it will be the only entry for this looking back, but I felt it deserved to be printed in its entirety.
Service Selections: A letter, under date of May 16, 1945, which will be of interest to all its readers, was received recently by Mrs. Mildred B. McNerney of Diagonal, from her son, Pvt. Howard McNerney, who is in Austria. The letter reads: “Tonight I should like to write you the story I felt like writing when the war was over-but the occasion was far too happy for all of us then. It is a story which I hope you have been reading about and which I hope you will take time to see in the news-reels. I read that its unpleasantness has already caused some members of theater audiences to walk out, as if one could walk out on such a thing. That’s why I’m writing this and why thousands of other American soldiers, I’m sure are writing home, telling of the unbelievable atrocities that they have saw, for the first time, with their own eyes.
During the fighting on the fringes of Germany and during the rapid drive across the Rhine, combat elements had the pleasure of seeing released Allied Prisoners of War, elated over their freedom and cheering the drive onward. At one place we saw a few hundred, mostly British, who had been imprisoned for many years, but who had been given good medical care and as good food as the hard-pressed Germans could afford.
It was not until we hit a town deep in Germany-Cham on the river Regen-that we first saw the degradation of the German heart. For, the first problem of the medical unit I was traveling with at that time was to treat nearly 200 American POWs badly starved, lice infested, racked with dysentery. Many of these men had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge, had worked in slate mines until early March when the pressure of armies from the east and west forced the desperate Nazis to march their charges constantly, with no destination in mind-only the overall policy of mass degradation to guide them.
These men existed on a diet of bread and gruel (Gruel is a food consisting of some type of cereal—oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice—boiled in water or milk), slept mainly in barns with no covering, and endured the ever-present SS guards. They told us that their death rate averaged six a day. But these were POWs and entitled to such fine treatment under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Fortunately, their stamina was good. “Fine treatment?” Yes. Because that very same day we had our introduction to political prisoners of concentration camps. I can never forget the costume of these miserable people. They wore white and blue or white and black striped trousers of the cheapest material. Their (suit) coats, if they had them, were nondescript, probably the same ones they wore when they entered the camps, ages ago. And each had a white painted “KL” on the back of his coat.
What was this? We had seen the identifying “P” for Polish laborers, “OST” for the Russians, but what was the big “KL?” It told the German prisoners and the men themselves that they were the lost souls of Konzentrationslager-Concentration Camp. At last we had seen it. The stories of bestialities were not propaganda lies. They were true! Outside the town lay the clubbed, bullet-ridden bodies of their fellow sufferers who could not escape the final ferocity of their guards, who had marched men 100 kilometers (62 miles) from their former camp in a vain effort to evade the conquerors.
But how can one describe his feelings when he first sees these people. There certainly no cheering for them, since they hadn’t the strength to cheer. It was like releasing animals that had been thoroughly beaten. One of the few displays of happiness I witnessed was when a filthy, yellowed, starved creature tried to throw his bony arms around me. His speech was like an insane man blubbering. (I use “filthy” and “insane” here only because they actually describe his condition. Disease infests such a great majority of the prisoners and starvation is so rampart that the death rate has not fallen greatly over the figures when they were in German hands.)
Although I wanted pictures badly, I felt that they would think it poking fun of their condition. Finally, I approached groups on the streets, giving them cigarettes and asking them to pose. Each wanted to tell his story-how long he had been a prisoner, what punishment he had endured. And, if the fact had not been evident before, it was now: That, for all those who had opposed the Nazis from the start, liberation had come to late.
Of course, that’s not the whole story of Cham-there was the dying man who was determined to make his last pilgrimage to the church to thank God for release from bondage, there were many who reeled drunkenly down the street until they were forced painfully to sit on bones that had no meat on them-but the whole story can NEVER be told. Not even for this one town, not even for one of the persons who was reduced to animalism by the Germans.
Today as I was at a nearby concentration camp for only a few minutes time. I have not been inside it, nor did I see it at its worst-immediately after it fell into our hands. But I have seen the negatives of pictures my friends have taken-the piled up bodies, the various torture devices-and I have heard their stories. One of the inmates told my friend that the camp was worse than either Buchnwald (Boo’Ken Vahlt) or Dachau (Dah’Kow). What a fearful ominous sound that last name has when you hear it pronounced by a German. The “K” is rasped at the back of the throat; the word is spoken in a whisper.)
Maybe you think I’m getting overly-dramatic about the whole thing, and I suppose I do blow my top a bit. But when you realize that one to two million soldiers will be coming home who have personally seen these things, and when you realize the staggering enormity of this planned extermination that has involved millions of Europeans, then you will understand the Russians in wanting a hard peace. You will understand their fears that these crimes will not be paid for. I believe that we will be capable of punishing the Germans as they deserve this time.
I remember that in Cham, GI’s were so mad that they hustled German civilians off the streets to sweep, mop, etc., and serving their former prisoners. I will remember civilians I saw this morning digging graves for the dead and dying at the camp. The other night I heard a story of the soldier guide at his camp who punctuated his lectures with socks on jaws of the former SS guards-each time he conducted a tour. And about the five SS men who hung themselves after a fierce beating by their former slaves.
Retribution has come to the Germans at last, and it must be complete. 17th of May. P.S. Censorship regulations have been relaxed now. We are on a hill overlooking in the distance, not only the Danube but also the city of Linz, Love Howard.