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World War II soldiers liberated concentration camp

by on November 07, 2019 11:02 AM

Corporal Harold A. Stitzer was a young man from Pleasant Gap. He was a soldier and a hero, earning a Bronze Star medal in World War II, and … he was my father.

Stitzer was a member of the 387th Field artillery Battalion, U.S. Army. The 387th was part of the 104th Infantry Division, led by the outspoken and sometimes controversial General Terry Allen. The 104th was known as the “Timberwolf Division,” whose insignia featured the head of a howling wolf.

But sometimes in that war, the soldiers’ most horrific encounters did not involve bullets and bombs, but rather a confrontation with absolute evil. Stitzer’s unit came face to face with that evil in April of 1945 when they liberated a Nazi concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany.

From all accounts I’ve read, the Nordhausen camp was an absolute hell on earth. It was a satellite camp of the Mittelbau-Dora camp where prisoners were forced to work manufacturing the German V1 and V2 rocket-powered “Buzz Bombs.” When prisoners became too old, weak or ill to work, they were shipped to Nordhausen, where they were locked in concrete hangar buildings with no sanitary facilities and no food whatsoever until they died of starvation or disease. Their bodies were incinerated at the rate of about 100 per day.

When the 104th Division arrived, they were greeted by the sight of nearly 4,000 corpses in various states of decomposition scattered about the camp compound. The sight was overwhelming and the stench was unimaginable. The soldiers conscripted men from nearby Nordhausen to help bury the starved bodies in mass graves. A few prisoners were found (barely) alive, and the Army medics managed to save only a handful of them. For the thousands of others, it was too late.

In my childhood, I don’t remember dad ever speaking of this encounter. He died when I was just 14 years old, so he probably thought I was too young to handle such a gruesome story, but my mother mentioned it a few years later, and showed me the photographs taken there.

In 1988, mom received a letter from Dick Williams, one of dad’s army buddies, describing the Nordhausen encounter in some detail. Here is an excerpt from that letter in Williams’ words:

“We came upon this concentration camp at Nordhausen on April 14. Our battery was set up not too far away. Our supply sergeant took pictures. He gave prints to anyone who wanted them. He did his own developing and printing. It was estimated that there were over 4,000 dead there. Those that were alive were just barely alive; nothing but skin and bones. Those poor souls were laid to rest in long trenches, side by side, on a nearby hillside. No identification, no grave markers, just a mass grave; several trenches, yards and yards long, with bodies side by side, with no coffins, or even a wrapping to cover their bodies.

“Every male from the town of Nordhausen was conscripted to bury these dead. Some dug the trenches and the rest carried the remains across the road and up the hill where they were placed in the graves. They carried them on old doors, makeshift litters of two poles with some sort of fabric forming the litter. If one of the German men tried to beg off due to illness, the remaining carriers were told that if he left, the remaining ones would have to carry on alone. Usually, the sick one stayed. Remember, the only males left were old men who were too old to fight in the war, for the most part. So many of them would have had bad hearts, and so forth. But it was bad, even for the healthy ones, for the bodies were in various stages of decomposition, and the smell was terrible. And all the while, the few ex-prisoners who were able to be up and about were harassing the German carriers, while our GI’s pretended not to see them unless they got too rough. So suddenly, the ‘Juden’ and other prisoners were the bosses.”

Williams closed his letter to my mother noting there are people who deny that the holocaust ever happened. “Just tell them ‘baloney;’ your husband saw it, smelled it and helped liberate one such camp,” he said. “Just pray that nothing like that ever happens again … but it probably will.”

It’s hard for subsequent generations of Americans to imagine what those soldiers went through in World War II. We owe them an incalculable debt, so this Veterans Day, take time to thank a veteran for his or her service. We must never forget their sacrifices for our freedom.

 

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