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"I saw the look in their eyes as we arrived...those who had survived every hideous torture known to man. Their tears of joy and jubilation had finally been validated." Other memories haunt Robert Mamlin still. "Crematoriums...the smell of dead bodies. Half-buried women holding babies, their pitiful rags cast aside. They thought they were going to the showers and someone would launder their clothes...but they were gassed. They were just mothers holding their children in the showers. They had no idea."
Robert and his unit came into Dachau with other American troops serving under General George Patton in April 1945. Because he could speak Yiddish and some German, he was able to communicate with the inmates. Many told of the desperate final days at Dachau when the guards panicked and lost control as they learned that the Americans were advancing.
He remembers a young boy of fourteen who had lost his entire family. "By his brains and wit, he survived. He said he couldn't visualize that a Jewish soldier could actually enter the camps to help free Jewish inmates." The concept was equally overwhelming to Robert, whose military mission was also a personal one. He felt chosen, he says. "It gave me great satisfaction to be there as Jews were liberated."
"I worked up a plan so they could attend and realize this was serious and we weren't just there for revenge or show," says Ray Sandvig, an American Army officer involved in the Nuremberg Trials. He adds that it was "very important to me to let the Germans believe in what we were doing."
The Nuremberg Trials were convened by the Allied powers to sit in judgment on those suspected of crimes against humanity during World War II. When Ray thinks back, he is overwhelmed. "I remember one day just sitting at my desk and tears came running down my cheek," he says. "It was just too much, you know, too much hitting the body all at once. It was part of history, a time for retribution. A very important time for many."
Ray was surprised to see how many German civilians supported the process. Many were quick to denounce Nazism- a protest that could have cost them their lives just months before. He recalls the "doctors' trial" for those who performed medical testing and experimentation on Jewish prisoners. He heard a witness describe how German physicians froze fully conscious live subjects in an experiment to determine the limits the human body could withstand. The victims often died or were permanently disfigured.
Twenty-two "major" German and Austrian war criminals were tried during eleven months of hearings at Nuremberg. Other tribunals throughout Europe would continue the work begun at Nuremberg, and a number of low-level officials were convicted, but many Nazis and Nazi collaborators were never brought to justice.
Robert Ray, Jr.
"I will never forget April 11,1945. I don't know that if I hadn't seen it myself, I would believe it... I honestly can't tell you that...it was just so, so horrible. But I can tell you...I may not have stayed very long in Nordhausen, but after what I saw...it was long enough."
Entering Nordhausen, American soldier Robert Ray, Jr. thought it would be just another town. The Nazi guards had fled and the Third Armored Division came upon a cold, dark compound. Electrified fencing surrounded what looked like military barracks. The soldiers used tanks to plow through the center of a wall.
Robert's first sight is one he will never forget: "Skeletons running towards us...crazed. "Not sure what to do, he and the other troops gave up their only rations...and cigarettes. The prisoners didn't smoke them; they ate them, he says. "That's what starvation did to them." Robert didn't write home about the four hours he spent at Nordhausen. In fact, he never spoke about it again, but he says that afternoon at the camp fueled his anger to win the war. Sixty years later, he can still see their faces.
Just six days after his twentieth birthday, Willie Hall shipped out with the United States Army Signal Corps, bound for Europe. “We got word that there were some awful camps at Buchenwald and Nordhausen but no one really suspected the death and torture of millions of Jews. How can anyone imagine that?"
His first memory upon arrival was seeing "sheds, several old sheds full of straw, dirt, and people... thousands of people, just skin and bones, stacked up in these old sheds.” Willie remembers the condition of the inmates: "They were abused, tortured, starved... and the suffering...so much damn suffering."
When Nazi camp guards surrendered or were captured, American troops began asking inmates what they would like to do with them. “One said they wanted to make them crawl over the dead bodies that lay everywhere,” he says, “so we did, we made every Nazi crawl on their hands and knees over the dead inmates."
Shortly afterward, Willie's unit shipped out of Nordhausen and headed for Buchenwald; "but I couldn't go. I refused to go,” he recalls.
Willie returned to the United States in 1945 but didn't talk about the war or what he saw that day for over thirty years. "I couldn't even think about it. I had horrible nightmares...nightmares for a very long time."
"Off in the distance I saw boxcars lined up with hundreds of dead bodies inside. They looked starved and tortured,” remembers Jimmy Gentry. “I asked another soldier, ‘Who are these people?’ He said, ‘They are Jews.'"
American infantryman Jimmy Gentry had seen combat at the Battle of the Bulge, but it paled in comparison to what he saw that day. “No one told us what we would find. No one explained what our mission was. We saw a wall and that was the entrance to a prison camp like I have never seen.” The camp was Dachau.
They were told, "Get the guards and get out.” Jimmy recalls his horror, "I couldn't move, and though I knew what I had to do, I was numb at the same time.” He knew that soldiers died in war, "but non-soldiers? Just people? Religious people? I can't understand it. Not then, not now."
When Jimmy returned home, he was determined never to speak about it again: "I kept thinking if I didn't talk about it, it would go away.” But it didn't, and in 1985 Jimmy met a Nashville survivor who convinced him to share his experiences with others. "Talking about it so many years later made such an impact on me,” says Jimmy, who wrote a book called An American Life in 2002. "It was all too much. I was a young boy, a simple foot soldier moving from one day to the next. I just wanted to get away from that place, away from smelling death."
James F. Dorris, Jr.
"We could see boxcars lined up with thousands of dead bodies. They just died right where they were stacked. We could smell the crematorium and knew the Germans were burning bodies. We began to realize what we were getting into. I saw inmates walking around and just staring at me. They were obviously confused and very weak. I had never seen what despair really looked like until that day."
On April 29, 1945, James Dorris and his army unit were sent to Dachau to investigate a "camp that might be there. “Upon the troops' arrival, he recalls, "insanity was everywhere. As I met their blank stares and saw their starved bodies...it was more than I could take. I said to myself that this is what hell was like."
He was ordered to guard a fence separating the inmates from a moat until medical personnel and food could arrive. A fight broke out among the prisoners. Several were beating a man over something he picked up off the ground. Within a minute the beaten inmate called him over and gave him a rusty can holding a water-stained cigarette butt. “It was all he had in the world and he gave it to me as a thank-you gesture...he had been saving it. My eyes filled up with tears."
James did not speak about his twenty-four hours in Dachau for many years. Today he is fueled by the need to educate others about injustice toward humanity for "no reason, no reason at all."
Veterans History Project
The mission of the Veterans History Project is to collect and archive the personal recollections of U.S. wartime veterans to honor their service and share their stories with current and future generations.
Tennessee State Library and Archives
This program at the Tennessee State Library and Archives focuses specifically on linking educators with primary sources for educational use in classrooms.
Veterans History Project Partners
This lists links to all the Veterans History Project Partners in the United States as well as partners across Tennessee.
Military Resources: World War II
The National Archives: Archives Library Information Center (ALIC).
Recollections of World War II Air War by the Men of Middle Tennessee WWII Fighter Pilot Published 1998 McGraw Hill Professional.
The Nashville Public Library
The Nashville Public Library collects WWII stories as a partner in the Veterans History Project.
This is a site that focuses on the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The WWII Memorial honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S., the more than 400,000 who died and all who supported the war effort from home.
East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association
To Remember, Honor, Educate, and Inspire.
The Albert A. Gore, Sr., Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University
This center has numerous individual collections that relate to broad subject areas on World War II. Links to the various connections are on this site.