Who entered Dachau first on April 29, 1945?
Gate into Dachau Concentration Camp
There is considerable disagreement among the US 7th Army soldiers as to who was the first soldier to enter the gate of the Dachau concentration camp on liberation day, April 29, 1945. The gate with its sign that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" is shown above. Translated into English, the words mean "work makes you free."
On March 17, 1986, Private First Class John Degro, the lead scout of I Company, 3rd BN, 157th Infantry, 45th Division, wrote a statement regarding his claim to have been the first American soldier to set foot inside the notorious Dachau camp. Col. Howard Buechner, a 45th Division Medical Corps officer, included Degro's statement in his book entitled "Dachau, the Hour of the Avenger." The following quote is Degro's words from Buechner's book:
As lead scout, I shot the lock off the gate and entered the compound. There were 32,000 inmates, screaming, between hugging and kissing us. The stench was unbearable. We backed out the gate, let a few inmates out and gave them weapons. We cleaned out the guard towers, took knapsacks off of the dead SS and threw them over the barbed wire into the compound.
Private John Degro
On the day of the liberation, 1st Lt. William J. Cowling, an aide to Brig. Gen. Henning Linden who was the deputy commander of the 42nd Division, wrote a long letter to his family in which he claimed that he was the first soldier to enter the Dachau concentration camp, along with some "newspaper people."
The next day Marguerite Higgins, a reporter with the New York Herald Tribune, filed a news report in which she claimed that she and Sgt. Peter Furst were the first two people to go inside the Dachau concentration camp. Furst was a reporter for the US Army Newspaper called the Stars and Stripes.
In his book entitled "The Day of the Americans," Nerin E. Gun, a journalist who was a prisoner at Dachau wrote:
Miss Higgins and a fellow journalist, Robert Fust (sic), on the highway leading to the camp, had picked up an SS man and ordered him to show them the quickest way to the Lager. The SS man had remained seated on the back seat of the jeep and, in the pandemonium that followed the arrival of the detachment, the prisoners, who had never seen an American uniform before and who at this point really had no reason to be choosy, thought the SS man was another one of their liberators. He too was showered with embraces, kisses, handshakes, and shouts of triumph. The SS man must have thought that either they had all lost their minds or else the hour of universal reconciliation had rung. It was only fifteen minutes later that O'Leary, head of the International Committee, ordered him arrested. That same evening, he faced a firing squad.
Higgins did not mention in her news article that 1st Lt. Cowling was there at the time, and in his letter, Cowling did not mention the names of the "newspaper people" who were with him.
Cowling wrote in the letter to his family that he was with a group of soldiers that met some journalists who were on their way to the Dachau concentration camp. The following is a quote from Cowling's letter to his family, which he had actually started writing on April 28th and finished on April 30th, the day after the liberation. The following is an excerpt from this letter:
These newspaper people were going up to see the camp and we decided to go up too. We rode in a Jeep with a guard out ahead of the boys and we were several hundred yards ahead as we approached the camp.
The newspaper people said they were going on into the camp and I got permission to go on with them with my guard leaving the others with the General. We went through one gate and spotted some Germans in a tower. I hollered in German for them to come to me and they did. I sent them back to the guards and General and got on the front of the newspaper people's Jeep and headed for the gate.
A man lay dead just in front of the gate. A bullet through his head. One of the Germans we had taken lifted him out of the way and we dismounted and went throughout the gate into a large cement square about 800 squares surrounded by the low black barracks and the whole works enclosed by barbed wire. When we entered the gate not a soul was in sight. Then suddenly people (few would call them that) came from all directions. They were dirty, starved skeletons with torn tattered clothes and they screamed and hollered and cried. Myself and the newspaper people and kissed our hands, our feet and all of them tried to touch us. They grabbed us and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs. I finally managed to pull myself free and get to the gate and shut it so they could not get out.
According to a book entitled "Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, The True Account," written by John H. Linden, there were actually two guards who accompanied Lt. Cowling when he entered the prison enclosure: T/5 Guido Oddi and Pfc. C. E. Tinkham.
In his book "Dachau, the Hour of the Avenger," Col. Buechner wrote that Staff Sgt. Robert L. White was in command of a squad of soldiers from I Company, 3rd BN, 157th Infantry, 45th Division. The following is a quote from page XXIV of Buechner's book:
This group became the first element of I Company to approach and enter the concentration camp at Dachau. When Sgt. White's two point men (John Degro and Mike McKlinsky) found the gate to the outer camp secured, he ordered the lock destroyed by rifle fire. They were then able to enter and fanned out through the compound, working their way to the gate of the inner enclosure. Other members of this squad were Bill Burns and Eston Broadwater (both deceased).
The "outer camp" mentioned in the quote above was the SS garrison and training camp that was adjacent to the concentration camp. The whole Dachau complex was about 20 acres in size; the "inner enclosure" where the prisoners were held was only about 5 acres. The only way to get to the "inner enclosure" was to go through one of the outer gates.
The aerial photo below shows the Dachau concentration camp, which is the rectangle on the right-hand side in the middle of the picture. The SS garrison is on the left side. A street that was called the Avenue of the SS runs from the lower left-hand corner to the main gate which is opposite Eicke Plaza, a landscaped rectangle on the right-hand side. The railroad tracks entered the garrison on the left-hand side of this photo, but out of camera range.
Aerial photo of Dachau SS garrison and concentration camp
It is not clear which gate Sgt. White ordered his men to open with rifle fire. At a gate on the south side, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker was waiting to surrender the concentration camp. According to Lt. Col. Felix Sparks of the 45th Division, as told to Flint Whitlock, the historian of the 45th Division, there were SS soldiers also waiting to surrender inside the main gate. The main gate was the one closest to the inner enclosure of the concentration camp.
Lt. Col. Sparks also told Flint Whitlock, author of "The Rock of Anzio, From Sicily to Dachau: A History of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division," that he ordered his men to enter the railroad gate, while he and a few soldiers climbed over the ten-foot wall around the SS garrison. Sparks said that he deliberately avoided the main gate because, if the SS was planning to defend the camp, that's where they would do it.
Railroad track and location of former railroad gate
The photo above shows a short section of the railroad spur line into the SS garrison which has been preserved. In the background is what was formerly the railroad gate. The garrison was used by the US Army for 28 years; it is now used by the Bavarian state police.
John Degro wrote the following in his statement, published in Howard Buechner's book in 1986:
I can recall the early morning of April 29, 1945. Dawn was just breaking. I happened to be the first scout, appointed by S/Sgt. R. White. I remember walking along a railroad track. The rest of the squad was about 100 feet behind me. Finally there came into view these boxcars, laden with dead bodies, piled up on top of one another, waist deep. After viewing this situation we went further on, boiling mad, half out of our heads.
We came across a German hospital. How comfy the patients were, lying between clean white sheets with no regard for what was going on a few yards away. We ordered everyone out, regardless of their condition. We pressed further on and came to the inner enclosure. As lead scout, I shot the lock off the gate and entered the compound.
The photo below shows the Dachau SS hospital building in the background on the right, marked with a cross on the roof. Wounded German soldiers were ordered out, just as Degro stated, and then lined up to be shot by American soldiers of the 45th Division. According to Degro's account, this took place before the 45th Division soldiers discovered the concentration camp that was inside the SS garrison.
Building on the right with a cross on the roof is the hospital
From Degro's statement, it is probable that his squad entered the SS garrison through the railroad gate which was open because the abandoned train was parked part of the way inside the garrison. This was the gate through which Sparks had ordered his men to enter the Dachau complex and it was the gate that was the closest to the hospital.
However, Degro's statement in Buechner's book disagrees with Buechner's story that Sgt. White ordered his men to shoot the lock off an outer gate. In a recent interview with Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Grant Segall, Degro claimed that he shot the lock off the inner gate into the concentration camp, which would be the gate with a sign that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei." In the same interview, Degro, then 86 years old, told Segall, "I sliced open a boxcar door." The photo below shows the train that was standing outside the Dachau complex when the American liberators arrived. Note that all the doors into the boxcars are open; the boxcar in the foreground contains the body of an SS solddier who was shot after he had surrendered to Lt. Walsh of the 45th Division.
The "death train" discovered by the liberators of Dachau
The following quote is from a newspaper article published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on February 6, 2005, written by Grant Segall:
Accounts differ as to which units liberated which camp when. But no one disputes that Private First Class Degro was the lead scout when GIs from the 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds, helped to liberate Dachau in southern Germany.
When the troops saw the train's cargo, says Degro, they spun and vomited. "Then we went out of our heads."
Disdaining cover, the Thunderbirds stormed the camp. They dragged German soldiers from a hospital, never mind their wounds. They shot many unresisting foes (an atrocity whose documentation was reportedly shredded and burned by Gen. George Patton).
Though historians particularly question this part of the story, Degro insists that he raised his M-1 rifle and shot a padlock off a gate. The rescuers were hugged by screaming, skeletal prisoners.
"We were gesturing them back. We didn't want to hurt their feelings after what they went through," says Degro, but "they smelled like hell."
Jimmy Gentry of Franklin, TN was a soldier with the 42nd Rainbow Division. In an interview with G. Petrone and M. Skinner on 2/25/2000, he recalled what it was like on the day that Dachau was liberated. The following quote is his words from the interview:
And this sea of faces seemed to be, every one of them seemed to be dead, but they were still alive. They looked like they were dead. So we released them and entered the camp, a separate compound where the prisoners were kept. There was not a lot of screaming and yelling and jubilation, not at all. They were blank faced, they were stunned. They did come up to ya and hug ya and someone, I don't know who said it, someone in my squad said "don't let 'em kiss you on the mouth." And that meant, thank goodness that meant that they had diseases, typhus fever for example, and they would fall down to their knees and hug ya around the legs, and kiss your legs and kiss your boots. And of course we didn't know enough German to know what they were saying and some of them were not German, foreign languages and we didn't know, we just knew that they were happy to be released, but they were a pitiful sight. We worked our way through the camp and the German guards that had stayed there, none of them left. They were all were killed while they were there in the camp, either by the soldiers, American soldiers, or by the prisoners themselves in some cases. So none of them ever left that camp once we entered.
Gentry wrote a book entitled An American Life in which he included drawings that he made of the Dachau camp, as it looked on liberation day. He claimed that he entered the Dachau complex through the railroad gate at the "northwest corner" of the camp around 11 a.m. that day, which was approximately the time that John Degro claimed that he was shooting the lock off the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate.
The railroad gate was actually at the southwest corner of the Dachau complex. Most accounts of the liberation say that it was the 45th Division which arrived at Dachau at 11 a.m. and entered through the railroad gate, and that the 42nd Division arrived around 3 p.m. at the gate near the southwest corner of the complex where SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp. After accepting the surrender of the concentration camp, the 42nd Division soldiers then entered the complex through the main gate.
The following quote is from Gentry's interview on 2/25/2000:
On that particular morning that we left for Dachau, not knowing that it was Dachau, we just, another day's work. We left about dawn, which we always did, and on foot, and went South, Southeast towards Dachau. We arrived about 11 o'clock in the morning.
Because the boxcars that entered the northwest corner of that huge camp were open and the train was partway in the camp, and partway out of the camp. Our and some others went around the end of the box car to enter on the right side, and some others entered on the left side, and we only had about 3 feet between the train and the gate to enter, and on my side when I went around there I saw for the first time literally hundreds of bodies that had been shot and they were dead, and they were spilled out of the boxcar as if you had as if you had taken it, and just turned it over and poured the people out onto the side of the tracks. Some of the bodies were still in the train, some were hanging out over the tops of the piles of people outside, and that's what I saw for the first time and they were not soldiers. We were used to seeing soldiers, both American and German soldiers who had been killed, but we'd never seen anything like this, they were striped, dressed in striped clothes, their head was the largest part of their body, their eyes all sunken back, they were ashen white, almost a blue color also, their ribs would protrude their arms the size of broomsticks, legs the same, and we didn't know; I didn't know who they were. So we climbed over the bodies, and went on into the camp, and inside when we first got inside, the buildings were quite large, they were warehouses for the German SS troops, the elite soldiers, and they had all their equipment in these buildings. Now when we went in there were small arms fire, that means rifle fire all to our right and to the front of us, and what had happened, we found out later, some other troops had entered through the main gate, we came in through the train gate, or back gate, and they came in through the front gate so that's why what we were hearing up ahead of us and to our right, and as we secured the buildings and moved, oh, towards the middle of the camp we found a second wall, and on this wall, it was not as, not as large as the outside wall, there was a moat in front of it, a watered moat, and then another barbed wire fence. So there was a barbed wire fence, a moat, and then another wall. And we realized then, after seeing the train and after seeing this that these people were not to come out of there.
Barbed wire fence and ditch on west side of camp, April 1945
The photo above shows the west side of the Dachau camp which has a ditch filled with water and a barbed fire fence, but no wall in front of the fence. The concentration camp was surrounded by a solid wall on three sides with the Würm river forming a moat on the fourth side. Today there is a wall that separates the former prison enclosure from the crematorium area, but this wall was not there in 1945.
Gentry also stated in his 2/25/2000 interview that his outfit stayed in the Dachau camp and buried the bodies. The following quote is from the interview:
We stayed there in that camp, about three days, trying to help secure the camp and to get rid of literally thousands of dead bodies. Load them onto trucks, get them out of there, this awful smell. And we were able to do that and after about three days we left the camp and went out and had all the hair on our bodies shaved off because of the typhus fever.
Numerous other sources claim that no bodies were buried until May 7th or May 13th, and that the 42nd Division left immediately, bound for Munich. This indicates that Jimmy Gentry may have been among the first soldiers brought to Dachau in trucks after the liberation, on the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and that he may have pieced together his story from other accounts told by 45th Division soldiers.
In his book "The Rock of Anzio," which is the history of the 45th Thunderbird Division, Flint Whitlock quoted extensively from what Lt. Col. Felix Sparks told him about the liberation. According to Sparks, 45th Division soldiers arrived at the concentration camp gate shortly before the three jeeps carrying officers of the 42nd Division. However, Whitlock quotes Pfc. William Donahue of the 42nd Division who said that he was already at the gate into the concentration camp when the men of the 45th Division arrived. Some of them had been drinking, according to Donahue.
Flint Whitlock does not mention John Degro at all in his book, although Degro was a member of the 45th Division. It is not clear when Degro would have shot the lock off the gate into the concentration camp, nor how the gate would have been secured again, once the lock was destroyed. Sparks told Whitlock that his orders had been to liberate the camp and then to secure it and not let anyone in or out. If Sparks passed these orders down to his men, then John Degro would have been disobeying orders when he shot the lock off the gate and then let some of the prisoners out, as he claims. In his book, John H. Linden mentioned that it took an hour to get all the prisoners safely back inside, once the gate had been opened by the men of the 42nd Division.
According to Lt. Col. Sparks, as told to Flint Whitlock, he met Brig. Gen. Henning Linden who had just arrived in a jeep at the concentration camp gate. Just prior to this, Linden had accepted the surrender of the concentration camp from SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker near the gate at the southwest corner of the camp. 1st Lt. Cowling claimed in his letter to his family that he had entered the concentration camp while the General was still talking to Lt. Wicker.
According to Flint Whitlock's account, Linden told Sparks that Marguerite Higgins wanted to enter the camp to get the story on the famous people that were prisoners at Dachau. Sparks replied that his orders prohibited anyone but his men from entering the camp. By this time, the prisoners had come out of their barracks and were rushing the gate; they were also climbing up to the windows of the gate house and trying to get out, according to Sparks.
Prisoners trying to get out after Dachau was liberated
Whitlock wrote the following in his book:
Sparks reiterated his orders, adding, "Look at all those people pressing against the gate." Undeterred, Higgins ran to the gate, removed the bar that was holding it shut, and was nearly trampled by the mass of prisoners attempting to get out. Sparks and his men were forced to fire warning shots over the heads of the prisoners to regain order and reclose the gate.
However, Higgins mentioned in her news story that all the prisoners were inside the barracks when she first entered the camp. Was she asking permission to enter the camp a second time in order to interview the VIP prisoners? If so, she was out of luck because the important prisoners had all been evacuated on April 26th for their own safety.
Whitlock also quoted John Lee of the 45th Division who was present:
While General Linden and Colonel Sparks were talking, Higgins went up to the gate and removed the restraining bar. This caused panic and the prisoners began rushing toward the gate. We were ordered to fire in the air and push the inmates back in behind the gates.
It is clear from these quotes that the lock on the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate into the concentration camp did not need to be shot off. The gate could be opened from the outside by removing a bar which locked it. The gate was wide enough for a truck to drive through it, but there was also a pedestrian door in the gate that could be opened without opening the whole gate. The pedestrian door could only be opened by remote control from inside the gatehouse. There were SS guards inside the gatehouse, waiting to surrender. Twelve of them surrendered to 1st Lt. Cowling, according to John H. Linden, the author of "Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 Apr 45, the True Account."
A closeup of the sign over the gate into the concentration camp and the restraining bar which locked the entire gate is shown below. When the bar was removed and the whole gate was opened, the pedestrian gate was part of the right-hand half of the gate.
Gate into Dachau concentration camp was locked by a sliding bar
Both Cowling and Higgins disagree with Sparks' version of the story, as they both claim that there were no prisoners in sight when they first entered the concentration camp. The similarity in their stories indicates that they entered the concentration camp at the same time, and each claimed to be the first person to set foot inside the prison enclosure. John H. Linden confirms in his book that Cowling, Higgins and Furst entered the camp together, along with T/5 Oddi and Pfc. Tinkham, who were assigned to guard them.
On the day of the liberation, the concentration camp was under the control of the International Committee of Dachau, which consisted of a group of Communist political prisoners. The last Commandant of Dachau, Wilhelm Eduard Weiter, had left the camp with a transport of prisoners on April 26th and had put Martin Gottfried Weiss in charge. As the acting Commandant, Weiss had turned the camp over to the Committee on April 28th and had then escaped with most of the regular guards that night. The Committee had ordered all the prisoners to stay inside the barracks, so as not to provoke the remaining guards into killing them all.
Amid all the chaos of the liberation of the prisoners, there was an altercation between Sparks and Brig. Gen. Linden at the gate into the prison enclosure. The following quote is from Spark's account of what happened:
It had already been a most trying day. I therefore requested the general and his party to leave and directed one of my men to escort them from the camp. The good general was a dandy who carried a riding crop as his badge of authority. As my man approached the jeep, the general laid a blow on the man's helmet with his riding crop. I then made some intemperate remarks about the general's ancestry and threatened to remove him and his party from the camp by force. He then said I was relieved of my command and that he was taking charge. I then drew my pistol and repeated my request that he leave. He left, but only after advising me that I would face a general court-martial for my actions.
Howard Cowan, an Associated Press newspaper reporter who was there on April 29, 1945, wrote a lengthy news story about the liberation which was printed in the Chicago Daily News the next day. The following quote is from his news article, as shown in the book written by John Linden, the son of Brig. Gen. Henning Linden:
The main part of the camp, where 32,000 skinny men and women were jammed into wooden barracks, is surrounded by a 15-foot wide moat through which a torrent of water circulates. Atop a 10-foot fence is charged barbed wire.
When Lt. Col. Will Cowling slipped the lock in the main gate, there still was no sign of life inside this area. He looked around for a few seconds and then a tremendous human cry roared forth. A flood of humanity poured across the flat yard - which would hold half a dozen baseball diamonds - and Cowling was all but mobbed.
He was hoisted to the shoulders of the seething, swaying crowd of Russians, Poles, French, Czechs and Austrians, cheering the Americans in their native tongues.
A few minutes later Brig. Gen. Henning Linden went inside the gates for a hasty inspection. He and four newsmen were surrounded by a cordon of armed guards, but that didn't keep us from being hugged and kissed half a dozen times by grimy, whiskered, bandaged men of various nationalities.
In his article, Cowan identified three of the newsmen as Sid Olsen of Time Magazine, Walter Riddler of the St. Paul Dispatch and himself. Note that Cowan identified Cowling's rank as Lt. Col. instead of Lt., a mistake that Flint Whitlock believes is proof that Cowan was not there at the time that the first person entered the gate.
In his article Cowan referred to the gate into the concentration camp as the "main gate." This term is usually used to describe the main gate into the whole Dachau complex, which is shown in the photo below. The expression "slipped the lock" could be a reference to opening the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate by removing the restraining bar which locked the gate.
SS soldiers surrender at the main gate into the garrison
The original gate into the concentration camp can still be seen today, although the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign was removed after the camp was liberated, and then replaced later with a reproduction. The gate does not show any damage to the lock on the pedestrian door which would indicate that it was hit by a bullet, as claimed by John Degro.
In his book "The Rock of Anzio," Whitlock quotes a statement made by Lt. William Walsh of the 45th Division in a documentary called "The Liberation of KZ Dachau." The following quote is from his statement:
We finally get up to the main gate. This is the gate that says, "Work makes you free"....And when I get to the gate, I asked if anybody spoke English, and there was an Englishman there [Albert Guérisse, also known as Patrick O'Leary]. I think he was a naval officer....and I said to him, "Are there any Americans in there?" And he says, "I don't know...I think so, but there may be only one or two." And then I said, ".... I can't open the gates, but I want you to know there's all kinds of medical supplies and doctors and food and stuff like this coming behind us, and they're going to take care of you." And he said, "I want you to come in here first....I want you to see what was going on." And then he finally prevailed on me. I said, "Okay, I'll go in." and I went in with Busheyhead and a sergant (sic). Of course, we had to squeeze through the gate because they're all inside, screaming and hollering.
The man named "Busheyhead" was 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead, a "full-blooded Cherokee Indian" who was the Executive Officer of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, the unit which allegedly murdered 346 Waffen-SS soldiers in cold blood, on Bushyhead's orders, on the day of the liberation. John Degro was a member of this unit. The massacre took place after 1st Lt. Bushyhead had seen the concentration camp and he wanted to avenge the wrongs done to the prisoners, according to Col. Buechner, who wrote a book entitled "Dachau, The Hour of the Avenger." 1st Lt. Bushyhead was the Avenger in the title. However, Col. Buechner wrote that the massacre took place before 3 p.m. and other accounts of the events that day say that the 45th Division soldiers did not arrive at the gate into the prison enclosure until after 3 p.m.
Albert Guérisse was a prominent member of the International Committee of Dachau, a Communist organization which was in charge of the camp after the Commandant and the regular guards had left. He was from Belgium and was actually a British SOE agent or a spy in laymen's terms.
The photo below shows a group of Belgian survivors of Dachau, taken on liberation day by Belgian photographer Raphael Algoet, who was one of several journalists that led the 42nd Division soldiers to the Dachau complex. Note that they are far from being skinny or skeletal, as some reporters described the inmates who greeted the liberators. One of the prominent Belgian prisoners was Arthur Haulot, who is probably somewhere in this picture.
Belgian survivors from Barrack number 27, room number 4
Two of the unsung heroes of the Dachau liberation are T/5 Guido Oddi and Pfc. C. E. Tinkham, who were guarding Brig. Gen. Henning Linden that day. In his book, John Linden quotes Oddi as follows:
I was with General Linden at Dachau as one of his guards. Outside the Camp Main Gate, a civilian said he was a Red Cross representative and that the SS Lieutenant was the camp commander and wanted to surrender to an American officer. Later the General said to me and Tinkham that we should go into the camp with Lt. Cowling.
The photo below shows a group of 42nd Division soldiers who accompanied Brig. Gen. Henning Linden to the Dachau camp on April 29, 1945, the day of the liberation. From left to right, they are T/5 G.N. Oddi, T/5 J.G. Bauerlein, Pfc. C.E. Tinkham, Pfc. Stout, and Pfc. W.P. Donahue.
Group photo of Brig. Gen. Linden's Command Group Guards
Flint Whitlock also quoted T/5 Oddi, from a telephone interview in January 1997:
Our group was the first part of people to go in there [to the prisoner enclosure]. When they saw us, they knew right away we were Americans and they started shouting and waving tiny flags. I don't know where they got the flags - I imagine the women who were there made them out of swatches of cloth.
On 28 May 1945, Brig. Gen. Charles Y. Banfill, an Air Force officer who was with the 42nd Division soldiers when Brig. Gen. Henning Linden accepted the surrender of the concentration camp from Lt. Heinrich Wicker, wrote an official report, quoted by John H. Linden in his book, in which Banfill stated the following:
1. This is to certify that I was present at Dachau on 29 April 1945 as a member of a party headed by Brigadier General Henning Linden, Assistant Division Commander, 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army.
5. With one exception, all American personnel, who came under my observation during this period, conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion. The exception noted was that of a soldier who I believe to be a member of the 45th Infantry Division. He called himself to my attention by a loud and obscene series of statements revolving around who had first reached the concentration camp. I approached him and noting that he was apparently under the influence of intoxicants, called him to attention and identified myself to him clearly and explicitly. He immediately quieted down. I noticed the neck of a bottle sticking out of his jacket. I withdrew the bottle which was nearly empty and apparently contained wine and threw it into the moat. At that point, Brig. Gen. Linden approached and directed the soldier to move over to a point some 20 feet away. I noticed that Brig. Gen. Linden spoke emphatically to him for about a minute and then apparently directed him to rejoin his unit. The soldier walked away.
7. It is my considered opinion that Brig. Gen. Linden did everything in his power to carry out his Division Commander's instructions to keep the prisoners within the prison enclosure. As determined by discussions with English speaking prisoners, the camp had been under extreme tension for many hours. The prisoners did not know (a) whether they would be massacred by the Germans, (b) whether they would be involved in a fire fight between the German and American troops, or (c) whether they would be liberated by the timely arrival of the Americans. The sight of the few American uniforms that appeared at about 1505 hours resulted in an emotional outburst of relief and enthusiasm which was indescribable.
An intoxicated soldier, who was creating a disturbance at the gate, was also mentioned by Lt. William Cowling in his official report to headquarters. A German soldier who survived the Dachau massacre mentioned that some of the prisoners were also drunk that day and were killing the guards with shovels. The drunken 45th Division soldier at the gate was never identified.
On March 30, 2007, the Winston-Salem Journal published a news story about the death of 82-year-old Harley Carter who was with the 42nd Rainbow Division at Dachau on April 29, 1945, according to his daughter Glenda Watson.
The following is a quote from the news article in the Winston-Salem Journal, written by Monte Mitchell, regarding what Glenda Watson said about her father, Harley Carter:
She hasn't been able to document the details of what he told her about his role at the camp, but she knows the story he kept inside him for so many years.
"Dad and another man were the first that opened the doors," she said. "He said, 'That old boy from Kentucky and I were the first ones through that gate.'"
Dachau was much smaller than Auschwitz, but it served as a model for concentration camps that followed. It's estimated that more than 31,000 prisoners died in Dachau or its subcamps.
The soldiers going into Dachau didn't even know anything like that existed. They wept with the victims. It was only within the past 10 years that her father was able to talk about it, Watson said, and he wept again as he told the story sitting at his kitchen table.
"It's the price he paid, but it's something we're very proud of him for doing," Watson said.
On November 24, 2007, an article in The Columbian, a newspaper in Washington state, claimed that Vancouver, WA resident Don Wagner "was one of the first two soldiers to open the front gates at Dachau when Allies liberated the German concentration camp."
Many Dachau historians, including Harold Marcuse, author of "Legacies of Dachau," accept John Degro's story that he was the first soldier to enter the Dachau concentration camp. In his book, John H. Linden maintains that it was the 42nd Division which arrived first at the Dachau camp and that 1st Lt. William Cowling III was the first man inside. But, according to Lt. Col. Hugh Foster, who lives in Carlisle, PA where military archives are stored, it may have been Lt. William Walsh of the 45th Division who reached the prison compound first.
29 April 2009 marked the 64th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. Many survivors of the camp and veterans who were there took this opportunity to tell their stories about the liberation. On a visit to the Dachau Memorial Site, an American Army veteran named Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen told another visitor that he was the first soldier to go inside the Dachau camp on the day that it was liberated. His story is told on this blog.
One might ask: What does it matter?
The reason this subject is so important is because the liberation of Dachau is symbolic of the liberation of Germany from the Nazis. It is symbolic of the Allied victory over Fascism and the preservation of the freedom of Americans, which had been threatened by the mere existence of Hitler's Third Reich. It is symbolic of the Allied liberation of the Jews from persecution by the Nazis, and the end of the Final Solution which claimed the lives of 6 million Jews. The liberation of Dachau was one of the most significant events of World War II and one of the most important events in world history. All of the soldiers in the 45th and 42nd Divisions of the US Seventh Army can rightly claim to be heroes because they participated in the liberation of Dachau, no matter who was the first man to set foot inside the camp.
This page was last updated on April 1, 2009