Medford man's book documents the massacre of Germans at Dachau
In the waning weeks of World War II, U.S. soldiers liberating Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, Germany, came upon thousands of emaciated corpses. They became sickened and enraged and ' in violation of the Geneva Convention on rules of combat ' summarily executed many German guards and SS officers.
The little-known massacre of unarmed noncombatants on April 29, 1945, is the subject of a book by former World War II Army intelligence officer David Israel, 76, of Medford. His book is titled, The Day the Thunderbird Cried.
The thunderbird, a Native American totem of happiness, was the insignia of the 45th Infantry Division, whose I Company (of the 157th Infantry) members committed the act.
Israel's book is based on interviews with 10 soldiers who witnessed or carried out the executions; a Stars and Stripes military correspondent who was present; and an inspector general's report, called Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau, which was kept secret until declassified in 1992.
It's a very touchy subject, said Israel. These guys had been through over 500 days of heavy combat with a 75 percent casualty rate. They'd seen a lot of death and killing. But when they went in and saw these corpses, just skin and bones, not even resembling human beings, many of them cracked. They went berserk.
— The killings began when I Company soldiers came upon 30 railway cars containing 2,400 corpses a half mile from the camp, said Israel, who arrived at Dachau with an intelligence team four months after liberation.
They weren't prepared to see that and it drove some of them past the ability to reason, said retired Army Lt. Col. Hugh Foster, 56, of Carlisle, Pa., a researcher on the incident and a source in Israel's book.
Four Germans wearing medical armbands approached the GIs to surrender, Foster said in a phone interview. But the company commander, Lt. William Walsh, yelled at them, You call yourselves medical officers? He then pushed them in a boxcar with the corpses and killed them with his .45 pistol, Foster said.
Walsh, a source in Israel's book, has since died.
The company segregated several hundred SS officers from other camp personnel, lined them up against a wall in the coal yard outside the camp, placed machine guns in front of them, said Israel, and blew them away.
The firing was quickly halted, he added, by Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, commander of the 3rd Battalion, who recognized a war crime was being committed.
It was a spontaneous thing. There was no order to do it, said Foster. There's a lot of conjecture about whether the guns were set up to control them or to execute them. The most charitable explanation is that the Germans saw the machine guns being set up and some of them ran, then the machine gunners opened fire and everyone joined in with rifles and small arms.
Because many of the Germans dropped and played dead, only 17 were killed, Israel said. Forty others were later tried at Dachau on war crimes charges but few ended up being executed.
Still photos and movies were taken of the killings by soldiers of the Army Signal Corps, and when higher-ups in England viewed them, an inspector general was ordered into Dachau to interview participants and witnesses in the days following the incident.
The film disappeared into government archives, said Israel, and the report was sent to 3rd Army commander Gen. George S. Patton, who called it a bunch of junk, burned all the papers on his desk and said get back to work.
At first unable to find photos to back up his book, Israel finally located a Signal Corps soldier in New York who told Israel he possessed, in his garage, undeveloped photos of the killings.
He processed them and gave Israel prints showing a prone machine-gunner, dozens of Germans crumpled against a wall and Sparks making a clear halt gesture with his left hand while pointing a .45 pistol in the air, barrel slide locked back (meaning the magazine was expended).
The Pentagon never quite believed Sparks' story that he stopped the killings, so he was never able to remove the cloud of doubt that he may have participated, said Israel.
Sparks left the Army after the war, entering law and eventually becoming a Colorado Supreme Court justice.
When I gave the photos to Sparks, he said, 'Yes that's me, there's the map in my pocket.' He just broke down because he was finally proven innocent.
Israel began hearing about the killings at Army reunions in the late 1980s. In the early years of his research, he was sometimes suspected by participants of being a spy for the Army, which — for all the veterans knew — might still prosecute them, he said.
Israel made it clear to participants in the killings that his book and talks intend no judgment of the American soldiers as war criminals.
All war is a crime and they became part of the insanity, Israel said. I've never talked to a GI who didn't totally understand what they did (at Dachau).
Foster said he believes the killings were a war crime and should have been delved into deeper.
Armed soldiers aren't supposed to do that ' but soldiers had not heard about the Holocaust yet, and many were literally driven insane by it. It was all set aside because we were just finishing fighting a war to stop people from killing and no one wanted to look at us doing the same thing.
The machine-gunner at the Dachau killings, John Lee, then 19, now dead, described the mental state of the soldiers (but not the massacre) in a newspaper story years ago.
It was just stunning, believe me, he was quoted as saying. Nobody spoke a word. Guys were just looking at each other and were sick to their stomachs and all of a sudden there was anger, fierce anger. Every guy was literally crying and bawling. Everybody was sick to their stomachs and couldn't eat, couldn't sleep.
Israel interviewed Lee for his book.
Officers at the liberation were unable to prevent further killings of unarmed noncombatants, said Foster, and soldiers of both the 42nd and 45th divisions summarily executed somewhere between 15 and 60 more unarmed Germans in small groups.
One inspector general interview had an American soldier saying an execution of eight Germans was triggered by a German reaching for a concealed gun.
The inspector general's report was sent back by the 7th Army for clarification on the effects of extended combat on the soldiers, said Foster, with finalization delayed till well after war's end.
It was mis-filed and lost accidentally or maybe on purpose for 47 years, until dug out by Foster in military archives in Carlisle, Israel said. It was squelched by the Army because the war was over and people only wanted to get back to their homes, families, jobs and lives.Excerpt from the unpublished The Day the Thunderbird Cried, by David Israel of Medford:
Suddenly, a huge shout arose from among the railway cars. The 18-year-old walked over to see what the commotion was about. As he neared the cars, he involuntarily dropped his rifle, which for the past nine months had become an extension of his body. Even when he slept, his hands never left his rifle. He didn't stop to pick the piece up — his eyes were glued to the railway car. His mouth was open, but he couldn't breathe. An overwhelming stench covered the whole area. He found himself moving forward as if in a dream. He heard himself saying, 'No, it can't be — it can't be. Please, God, make it be just a dream. Dear God, make it just a dream. Please, don't let it be for real.'
Up ahead, the shouting grew louder and louder. GIs were climbing into one of the railway cars. 'Maybe it's just these few cars that are like this — maybe the others are different. Jesus, I hope they're different. Maybe that's why they're shouting so much.' He was breathing with great difficulty and his eyes automatically peered into each car as he passed — silently praying that the horror would stop. But, they were all the same. Packed as solid as could be with human bodies — arms, legs, pointed in all directions. Some were naked, some in torn, striped remnants of cloth. All looking like skeletons with bones sticking out from every part of the body. Some cars had only women, some children. But most were crammed full of bodies that had once been men.
As he neared the car where the GIs were, he passed a car with all young girls. One kid had her head thrown back; she had dark hair and her mouth was open. She was on top of the pile, like she had been gasping for a last breath of air. Even in this grotesque scene of death, she looked beautiful. The 18-year-old didn't know it at the time, but he would see that face before him for the rest of his life. Every night as he lay in bed before sleep mercifully came to his aid.When author talks to high school students, they 'get it' that war is sheer hell
In talks at Ashland Middle School, Crater High School in Central Point and a high school in Dachau itself, David Israel said it's not hard to get across the message that war, far from being Rambo glory, is sheer hell.
The impact is pretty phenomenal, said Crater social studies teacher Bud LeFever. The kids are in tears. They want to get his autograph and take pictures with him. It's one of those moments in education when you see them really 'get it' and come alive.
Students have heard about the Holocaust, he added, but it wasn't until they saw a film of the death camps and bodies, then heard firsthand from David Israel and Isabella Lider (survivor of Auschwitz, living in Medford) that they could understand what war really is.
David doesn't have to present an anti-war message, LeFever said. All you have to do is present the images and facts and it says ' this is how horrible war is and you don't want to do this. Then you've got not just the facts, but the feelings. The fact that battle-hardened soldiers fought their way across Europe and then lost it at Dachau, that tells the story about war.
The class capped the unit on the Holocaust with a visit to the veterans domiciliary (the old Camp White training camp of World War II) in White City and the Eagle Point National Cemetery.
War's insanity afflicted soldiers
Medford man's book documents the massacre of Germans at Dachau