Over 50 years ago, a tattered 71st infantry division arrived in Northern Austria at Gunskirchen.…
BY CPL. JERRY TAX
We pulled into Wels, Austria, that morning in two jeeps and a three quarter ton radio truck. In the lead jeep were Colonel Augustus Regnier, C. O., 66th Infantry Regiment, his driver and his machine-gunner, in the next were four MPs, and then came four of us in our 571st Signal Company truck with a battered but serviceable Signal Corps radio.
The day was bright, sunny and warm, and full of rumors that the war was over. As it turned out, it took three more days before the rumors became official news.
Our little convoy drove along hushed streets for a while here and there a shell-burst or a bomb-crater seemed the only familiar, almost friendly, sight in the city. A few buildings, pock-marked by machine-gun and rifle fire, attested to what must have been an extremely feeble attempt to defend the city.
German prisoners were put to work.
We followed Colonel Regnier around as he took the surrender of two German garrisons, one at the airport and one in the large compound in the heart of town. He also secured all bridges and posted guards at their approaches. At the airport, we were about to drive out on the runways to inspect the few German fighter planes left there intact when we discovered that the area around each one was carefully mined.
Some more victims of Gunskirchen Lager.
It was just about then that the inhabitants of Wels began to realize that the event they had been anticipating, some eagerly to be sure, was taking place before their shuttered windows and sealed-up entrances to air-raid shelters. The Americans were here.
Colonel Regnier selected as the site of his temporary CP an office building on the largest open square in town. We parked there and continued sending out routine messages concerning the bridges we’d secured, the number of prisoners taken, and other administrative matters. Then came the deluge.
By the thousands, civilians crowded into the huge square, examining our vehicles and our clothing, marvelling at what little equipment we carried, and assuring us that there were no Nazis among them, only good Austrians who loved Americans and hated Hitler and Company. It’s happened to all of you, in every town Americans took from Normandy to wherever we finally stopped.
About two o’ clock in the afternoon, for some reason not apparent to us at the time, the crowd began to melt away… back into shuttered hones, down twisting alleyways to storm shelters … by twos and groups they left us, in quiet contrast to their noisy, enthusiastic approach. It wasn’t long before we discovered why.
A scene in one of the hutments.
Drifting down into the great square, in every conceivable conveyance, on foot, on hands and knees – utilizing every inch of the wide streets – came the former inmates of Gunskirchen Lager near Lambach. With hardly a sound, they slowly engulfed the cobble-stoned avenues that led inwards, like an irresistible but languid flood, driving the civilians back to their homes before them. The news of our coming had reached the camp that morning, and practically all of the estimated 18,000 in the camp who were able to move or be moved were en route the eleven miles into town to look upon their liberators.
Neither words nor pictures — and thousands of both have been printed – have ever told the full story of these wretched people, or the incredible misery of existence at Lambach. That story, however, could be read in the faces and what passed for the bodies of the swarm of pitiful humanity that flowed into the square and: surrounded our vehicles.
No more than one in a hundred walked upright, dozens were dragged into town full-length on rude carts; with their last ounce of strength, still others shuffled along leaning on sticks, crude crutches and each other. Their garments came out of a wild costumer’s hallucination. They ran the gamut from tattered uniforms that had been worn twenty-four hours a day for three or four years to wrappings of rags. None, obviously, had been washed in that time. Lice and vermin of every sort crawled among the folds of these filthy rag-bag costumes and on the misshapen, emaciated bodies of the men.
The deads and dyings lay on the floors together.
The hands that clutched at what scraps of food and candy we distributed until we had no more were skin and bone and blue-black nail… like the claw of some predatory owl who had enjoyed a profitable night among the field-mice. Skin and bone .. skin and bone and filthy rags and bodies crawling with vermin… row on row, endless.. filling the square. And not a sound. Not one human sound came from those thousands of throats. Perhaps they hadn’t the strength to speak, even in gratitude. Perhaps words of thanks were long forgotten … forgotten under the lash and the pistol-butt, the abyssmal degradation.
It would be fine and thrilling to say that despite their pitiful condition, despite their rags, the years of torture and abject slavery and starvation, hope and joy shone from the eyes of these men. But it wasn’t so. To be sure, the eyes were far from blank, but there was no joy, no hope in them. These were not the eyes of men set free. Perhaps the gigantic, impossible fact of liberation was just too big, too miraculous to grasp. Perhaps, in their incredible weakened physical condition, liberation was too great a shock to be assimilated. Whatever the reason, these were simply broken, beaten men we looked out on, row on row.
Prisoners dug mass graves fore the dead.
And in their eyes, you read the story of the past four or five years. You didn’t have to look at that one’s back to see the scars where the whip had dug deep; the scars were in his eyes. Would they ever leave them?
You didn’t have to stare in helpless fascination at that walking skeleton to learn what systematic starvation can do to a man’s body; from the depth of his soul that hunger came to you from his eyes, blinding insatiable hunger. Would it ever again leave them?
And that one lying there on the cobblestones, a heap of filth and rags. Neither water nor food nor miracle drug could heal him. Perhaps he knew it. Perhaps he only asked to be carried here to look upon the miracle before he died. What of his eyes? You looked deep and all you saw were impotence and hopelessness. And his hours were too few for a madman to entertain the dream that they would ever again leave them in this world.
There were many bodies lying in thick woods.
For hours it seemed we stared out on this sea of human misery. There was little we could say, and less we could do after all our food, candy and cigarettes were gone. Intermittently, as the work of setting up his Command Post got underway, Colonel Regnier had messages for us to send out. One I’ll never forget. I sent it myself. You’ll never see any like it in training manuals or practice code books. It was marked “urgent” and read something like this: “Send medical supplies and food immediately 15,000 people in urgent need of delousing …”
About four o’clock, we could feel that something was going on out of our sight. The crowd before us had started to move towards one side of the square… more accurately, it was compressing itself slowly away from the other side. Faintly we heard the rhythmic step of marching men on cobblestones suddenly a column of German soldiers came down one of the streets leading towards the center of the square and began filing into it. They were we supposed, the garrisons who had surrendered earlier in the day. As they came in, they lined up, in regular ranks, in the space just recently left vacant. And now they were all in ..perhaps two or three hundred of them.
Here was a sight, here was a scene a master of stagecraft would have called an achievement. Maybe some Master of human props and sets had staged it. On one side of the square, in neat ranks, stood the would-be Herrenvolk. Their smart grey uniforms were pressed; chubby pink cheeks and an occasional paunch left no doubt they had fed well on their loot and what they could extract from slave labor on their farms. In their eyes was still the arrogance of the conqueror. (Would it ever leave them?)
Facing them, in disorder, in indescribable disarray, standing up in oxcarts, lying on their bellies, leaning on each other … were the free men of Russia, France, Poland, Yugoslavia, the Balkans… a heterogeneous collection of skin, bone and filth. About twenty yards separated the two groups .. twenty yards and the whole world. And the square was as still as a tomb.
For a half hour that dragged interminably the two groups stood there, immobile. Not a voice was raised, not a fist shaken …not a stir. MPs were busy about the task of arranging for transportation for the Germans. That was all.
And yet I could have sworn something was taking place out there. I climbed out of the truck and walked slowly through the crowd. Was it my imagination? Was it wishful thinking? To this day, I can’t answer those questions, and I wish I could. But I saw, or thought I saw, in those eyes, the faintest glimmer of what I had looked for vainly but a half hour before. Perhaps the shock was wearing off. As they looked upon their well-fed erstwhile jailers standing in neat ranks, waiting to be led away, the huge, impossible truth began to dawn in their consciousness and in their eyes. The long years were over. The Germans were captives. They were free men at last.
Within another hour, the square was empty. Germans were on their way to internment. Every wheeled vehicle within miles was commandeered to take the sick and starving ex-prisoners to places already being set up to feed and care for them. Our CP was established and functioning smoothly.
That night, as the free men of France, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and the Balkans prepared for their first untroubled sleep since a madman with a comic mustache took control of an ambitious Germany, the spirit of a new Europe was being born in their hearts.
Who knows what the Germans were thinking?
End of the pamphlet
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“The States Heard”