Over 50 years ago, a tattered 71st infantry division arrived in Northern Austria at Gunskirchen.…
To: Austrian Embassy 3524 international Court, N.W.
Washington, D. C. 20008
Att: Honorable Helmut Tuerk, Ambassador
Dear Mr. Tuerk,
My name is Mason Dorsey. I am a veteran of the 71st Division of General George Pattons’ 3rd Army. Recently, I learned that a monument is to be erected on the site of a former concentration camp known as ” Gunskirchen Lager ” located between Lambach and Wels, Austria. As a member of the 71st Cavalry Reconaissance Troop, known as the eyes and ears of the Armyn, we were usually in front of our combat troops and behind “enemy lines”
I was a Tech 4 Sgt. in command of an M-8 Armored Car “THE FOUR REBELS”. Other members were : Jim Mathis, Tenn.; Marvin Eiland, Fla. Sgt. Williams, the fourth member, was in the hospital.
On the morning of May 4, 1945, we had “shot up” a convoy of several vehicles along the road between Wels and Lambach. Shortly thereafter (Approx. ll:00AM) we advanced into a wooded area and saw an enclosure. This enclosure consisted of a sturdily made fence approximately 8 feet in height. The fence wire was of a heavy gauge and the openings were about 2 by 4 inches. A wide gate consisted of two parts, each about five feet wide met in the center. The gate halves were formed with wide planks as frames and covered with the fencing material. Hundreds of people looked at us through the gate and fence.
Since we had just previously had quite a firefight, we were “at the ready should any more German soldiers be encountered. Later, it was learned German soldiers were guarding this camp until the sounds of the convoy shootup, at which time all fled. As we stopped, several of the guys in the Jeeps accompaning us jumped out and they, with help from those inside, threw open the gates. Manin Eiland and I dismounted. Jim Mathis remaind in the drivers seat of the M-8.
Immediately, we were surrounded by these people. We didn’t know what was happening or what was going on. Some were crying, speaking in languages we didn’t understand. They touched us, hugged us, kissed us and some knelt down and held our legs. I did understand some saying “Ich habe hunger”. I then went back inside the M-8 and got all the K rations we had. An army K ration is somewhat larger than a Crackerjack box. Cigarettes, candy, crackers, nescafe, tang, and a tuna size can of cheese, and two kinds of meat, The jeep guys also began passing out their supplies of K’s. A few days before, we had the rare treat of enjoying some “10 in 1 rations”. Compared to K’s, these are “caviar”. Unfortunately, we had none of those to give to these people. By this time, other units of our troop had arrived, also passing out their supply of K’s.
Lt. Burns, Platoon Commander of 3rd platoon had gone inside the fenced area came back and told me to radio to Division Headquarters of the discovery and liberation of a Concentration Camp and to rush food and medical staff. I sent the message by CW, uncoded and received a QST (transmission received). Marvin had been opening the K’s and passing out the contents. When he gave the cigarettes, we were astounded to see them eaten and not smoked. About that time we noticed several crossing the road and kneeling near a small bank. On top of the bank were trees but below the trees an area of earth was visible and it appeared to have a “clayey texture. The people were actually eating some of this earth while others dug roots and began chewing them, The trees both outside and inside the compound reminded me of our pines back home but had more the appearance of cedars. It was then I noticed some removing the bark and eating it.
Marvin and I then entered the fenced area and began seeing bodies interspersed throughout the trees. Some were clothed whereas some had portions of the clothing removed. Noticing several “huts” we approached to see what was inside. These Huts or shacks, or cabins, were constructed of what we had always called “Slats “-Made from the leftovers of sawing timbers — the type where the tree curvature and bark remained. As we approached I said “my God Marvin ,what’s that awful stench I smell?” He didn’t answer, and as we stepped to the threshold, the stench was overpowering. Inside the hut there appeared right before our eyes, a scene which I could never have imagined. Bodies, so close together some seemed to be lying on top of the others. The clothing appeared to be nothing more than rags. Some were clad while others were partially clothed. Some dead and decomposing, some alive with only enough strength to raise a hand or arm. Some unable to do that and we were shocked when they opened their eyes. They were nothing but skin and bones. In retrospect everyone I saw was thin– even those who met us at the gate and could move around. No one was fat.
The stench— horrible. It assailed our nostrils. The putrefactive combination of decomposing flesh and feces was the worst smell I had ever experienced. Seems as if I could actally feel the offensive fumes penetrating our clothing.
Truthfully, a week later, after our travels to Wels, Steyr, and Waidhoffen, (we didn’t bathe) I could still smell it when I placed my nose near my clothing. A couple of weeks before,we had liberated a prisioner of war hospital and camp in Meiniegan, Germany. There we were able to bathe for the first time in weeks. New GI OD shirts were furnished us but the only pants I could get were British. These are the pants I was wearing at Gunskirchen, and I have photos three weeks later— wearing the same pants -the ones reeking of Gunskirchen odor.
Lt. Burns and Lt. Samuell didn’t know what to do with these people, No orders had b received from Headquarters to keep them there. Consequently, many of the more able bodied began walking toward Wels to obtain food. Along the way, many fell and died along the roadside. A couple of hours later, our orders directed us to Wels and we saw many bodies lying alongside the road. Now, after we had been to Wels, Steyr, And Seirning (about two weeks later) we came back over this road. There were many newly made graves. Evidently each had been buried where they had fallen. I especially noted each mound of dirt having a cross made of tree branches and/or wooden staves. This has had me pondering this for many years. “Why would a Jewish Grave have a Christian Cross?”
Three possibilities. 1 : Local civilians from Wels were compelled to bury them. Being Catholic, and unaware the bodies were Jewish, the Catholic Doctrine prevailed and a cross was placed thereon. 2 : German soldiers were forced to bury them. Knowing they were Jews, a cross was placed as a final act of defiance toward both the American soldiers and the Jewish inmates. 3: The American soldiers, overseeing the burials and knowing they were Jewish,forced the Germans to erect crosses. I myself, a naive 19 year old didn’t realize they were Jewish.
Since the war, I had lost contact with Marvin Eiland until four years ago when I learned he was a retired Baptist Minister. Upon renewing our friendship, one of the first things he said was, ” Do you remember the day we liberated that Concentration Camp and the people going across the road and eating the dirt or clay and digging and eating the roots? I believe some ate the bark of the trees”.
Our 71st Recon Platoon spent the night of May 4 in Wels (Where some of my pals took photos of many other corpses). We then proceeded to Steyr, thence onward to Waidhoffen, the headquarters of General Lothar Von Rendulics’ German Army Group “South” comprising some 800,000 troops. “Consider yourselves Prisoners ” we were told by SS troopers in their Black tankers uniform. ( Historical Note: This advance into Waidhoffen was the Easternmost Penetration of all Allied forces during hostilities).
May 4, 1945 ; We were at the liberation of Gunskirchen Lager Concentration Camp. May 4, 1945 ; Spent the night in Wels, Austria May 5, 1945 ; Steyr ,Austria
May 6, 1945 : Waidhoffen,Austria
May 7, 1945 ; Returned General Lother Von Rendulic To Steyr.
May 8, 1945 ; Third Platoon on a mountaintop near, or past Waidhoffen. I was on radio watch listening to BBC. The announcer ,with great exuberance, exclaiming “Today is V-E day in Europe. The war is over.”