Remembering the Liberators

…we were actually hit by a stench that we immediately knew had to come from burning flesh… everybody who saw what was going on there was literally stunned into silence. The only thing that was spoken after that were when orders were given to move food and blankets into the camp… 

– Sergeant Paul Lenger – 8th Armored Division


On April 13, 1945, elements of the 8th Armored Division assisted in the liberation of the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp, a subcamp of the much larger Buchenwald camp in nearby Weimar, Germany.  More than 7000 prisoners from 23 countries were held at Langenstein-Zwieberge between April 1944 and April 1945. 

The division colors of the 8th Armored, along with the colors of 35 other US Army divisions, are displayed each April at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual Days of Remembrance ceremony held in the US Capitol, providing a stately backdrop to the day’s proceedings. These 36 divisions were acknowledged by the US Army Center for Military History has having liberated a Nazi concentration camp. 

The division colors of the 1st Infantry Division. Military units having their own flag, colors, standard or guidon is an ancient military tradition which continues today. US Army colors for infantry divisions have two wide horizontal stripes, one red and one blue with the division’s distinctive shoulder insignia in the middle. On May 8, 1945, the 1st Infantry division liberated Zwodau and Falkenau an der Eger, two subcamps of the larger Flossenbürg concentration camp. 

The first Allied liberation of a Nazi concentration camp occurred on July 24, 1944 as Red Army units advancing west came upon the Majdanek Concentration Camp, located near Lublin, Poland.  Several news outlets, including the New York Times, reported to the world some firsthand accounts of the atrocities the soldiers had found. The Times reporter, W.H. Lawrence referred to Majdanek as “the most terrible place on the face of the earth”.

Grisly discoveries would continue through the Spring of 1945 as Allied armies continued their ground campaigns across German held territory. Red Army units, moving west through German held territory in Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, and the Baltics liberated many camps, notably Treblinka, Auchwitz, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrueck. British Army units moving west through northern Germany liberated Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. Further south, the U.S. Army liberated Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbuerg, Dachau and Mauthausen. 

The division colors of the 4th Armored Division. During World War II, colors for armored divisions had horizontal stripes of red and green. On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, near the German city of Gotha. It was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the US Army. One week later, General Eisenhower would visit Ohrdruf to see first-hand the conditions there. He would write to the Chief of Staff, General of the Army George Marshall, “The things I saw beggar description”.

Forty years later, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was in the planning stages. Museum leaders approached the Secretary of the Army to ask permission to display the colors of US Army units involved in liberating the camps in the museum building, as well as at the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony. The Army agreed to the project. The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army Center for Military History quickly recognized ten divisions as camp liberators: the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 10th and 11th Armored Divisions and the 42nd, 45th, 80th, 90th and 103rd Infantry Divisions.

45th Infantry Division – The “Thunderbird” Division was first organized in 1924 consisting of National Guard units in the southwest. In 1940, the division was reactivated and in June 1943 deployed to North Africa. On April 29, 1945, the 45th, along with the 42nd and 20th Armored divisions met at the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. At that time, they discovered more than 30,000 prisoners in the overcrowded camp. 

As awareness of the project grew, more veterans’ associations sought to become involved. Ultimately, the Center for Military History established some additional parameters. Recognitions would remain at the division level, official records of the division’s involvement in liberating the camp needed to be held by the National Archives and Records Administration, and the division needed to arrive at a camp within 48 hours of the first division unit’s detection of a camp’s presence. A division’s specialized units with support missions involving medical care, mess operations, logistics, displaced persons, and public health were often brought in to provide initial support to survivors.  

80th Infantry Division – The “Blue Ridge” Division’s insignia was adopted in 1918 and represents the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The 80th Infantry Division would relieve the 6th Armored Division at Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945. It later turned south into Austria where it liberated Ebensee, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, on May 6, 1945.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, the museum is currently closed to visitors and 2020’s Days of Remembrance Ceremony is a virtual, online event. But both the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center of Military History maintain excellent websites with detailed history of the roles these divisions and subordinate units played in liberating the concentration camps. Unit profiles, riveting firsthand accounts, maps, videos and photographs are all available. Bibliographies for additional reading are also included.  

First organized in 1979, the annual Days of Remembrance as observed in the United States is an 8-day period, designated by the United States Congress. It includes various ceremonies and educational programs held nationwide to mark the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and inform current generations.   

This initiative to recognize the US Army units helps us all to remember the liberators as well as the liberated. 

104th Infantry Division – The “Timberwolf” Division was first organized within the Reserves in 1921. It arrived in France in September 1944. The 104th logged almost 200 days of fighting in northwestern Europe, fighting in France, Belgium, and western Germany. It participated in the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the encirclement in the Ruhr Pocket. On April 11, 1945, the Timberwolves liberated the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp near Nordhausen in Thuringia, Germany.

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