|Flags of the US Army Divisions of Liberation|
In several postings here I have mentioned my dad’s wartime service in the 26th Infantry - Yankee - Division, in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign of World War II, in 1944-1945. The division was so nicknamed as it was created during World War I from National Guard units from the six New England states and deployed as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France. It has had a long and distinguished history. My dad bragged about his wartime unit, and rightly so. As a kid he told me many stories about the war and the men he served with him in the 104th Infantry Regiment. But he did not tell me everything. I would not discover until a year after his death in 2009 that he had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat. It is not among the medals he left to me. Although I did not hear about it at the time, and Dad never said anything to me about it, the 26th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 2002.
Third Army’s XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, in Germany, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau. The division moved into Austria in early May 1945 and elements of the division took Linz on May 4. On the following day divisional units along with those of the 11th Armored Divsion liberated the Gusen concentration camp, built in 1940 and since 1944 a part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz. It was there the American liberators discovered an elaborate tunnel system constructed with forced labor and housing underground aircraft production facilities employing inmates from the camp. The SS had planned to demolish the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but thankfully the arrival of the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored divisions prevented this. On May 6 the 26th Infantry Division continued north across the Vlatava River into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.
The 26th Infantry’s divisional colors are now displayed in a place of honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC. Each time I pass them I cannot help but reflect on the countless victims of the Nazi extermination program and those lucky enough (if it is even possible to call it this) to survive until their liberators arrived. Most of these survivors were so weak and sick that they did not fully comprehend what liberation meant. I also think of the men who liberated the camps 70 years ago; not just Gusen, but all of the camps that are now etched into our conscience and history. I think about these men who had spent the previous year slugging their way across Europe, they who were lucky enough to survive protracted combat only to discover at the end the utter depravity of the regime they fought and died to destroy. They are all victims, the survivors and the liberators.
I can understand why Dad would not have told me about Gusen when I was a kid; I would have never understood what he and his brothers-in-arms saw and experienced there. Yet later in life, after I had become a German historian investigating and prosecuting individuals who assisted the Nazis in their programs of murder and persecution, Dad still withheld from me what must have been a very painful chapter of his life, taking it to his grave. I just wish I had known. If anyone would have understood, it would have been me. And I would have wanted to tell him yet again how proud I was of him and all who fought the war that was to end all wars.
Keep all of our veterans in your thoughts and prayers today. We cannot imagine the price they have paid to keep us free.
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