Written & Submitted by Heather Smith
December 1, 2009
TThe unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor is what prompted most young American men to enlist. These men were willing to risk their lives in order to protect the world from tyranny. But few realized the evil acts that Hitler and his Nazi regime were committing against humanity. By the end of World War II, many soldiers had witnessed the horrors of war, but nothing could prepare them for what they would encounter upon liberating the concentration camps Hitler had created with the goal of exterminating those "unworthy of life". This is the story of the 104th Infantry and their discovery of the Mittelbau Dora labor camp; the camp in which prisoners were forced to work on a top secret weapon: the world's first ballistic missile.
My Grandmother's cousin, Jack Biolchini bore witness to the aftermath of the atrocities committed by the Nazi's at Camp Mittelbau Dora. A member of the 104th Infantry Division - known as the Timberwolves - Jack and his fellow infantrymen teamed up with the 3rd Armored Division beating back the Nazis and gaining a 375 mile penetration deep into the heart of Germany. Hitler's once mighty war machine was beginning to fail, but the 104th continued to contend with sporadic counter-attacks from the resisting German army. The 193 mile segment from the Rhine to the Paderborn had taken only nine days with captured Wehrmacht vehicles and even barnyard carts supplementing more conventional means of transport for the relentless push East.(1) By April of 1945 the Timberwolves were nearing the town of Nordhausen. Russian soldiers had told of a possible Nazi labor camp nearby, but many regarded this information as rumor. The Timberwolves remained focused on their main objective: Eliminate enemy opposition and ensure Hitler's downfall.
Private John Galione, a member of the Timberwolves, is credited with finding the labor camp known as Mittelbau Dora, and the secret tunnels which led to the factory used to build the world's first ballistic missiles. Private Galione described the night he ventured off alone, walking for miles on a hunch, to his daughter and the following is an excerpt from her book, "The Journey of Private Galione: How America Became a Superpower":
I walked and walked all night. The hours were passing. I was exhausted because we had just gotten in from all those miles. My legs were tired, weak, and the wound in my leg was raw. The boot kept digging in... when I saw that there had been no activity by the trains all night, I was beginning to think that my gut feeling was wrong. But when I started to turn around, something empowering came over me. I don't know what it was. My legs just kept walking. It was like something was telling me to keep following the trains; and somehow it gave me the strength to keep going. I followed the trains all the way down, for miles, and found a train car filled with dead bodies. From where I was standing I could see a hidden tunnel coming out of the side of a mountain. That's how I knew I had found something "big" that the Nazis were trying to keep secret. I knew there was a reason the Germans would go through the trouble of building an entrance hidden inside a mountain.(2)
Private Galione had indeed found something "big". The Germans had been using the underground factory to build V2 rockets. Hitler had hoped that the V2s - the "V" standing for "Vergeltung", meaning "Retaliation" in German - would be the weapon that would gain him the upper hand in the war. In all, around 5,000 V2s were launched from sites along the English Channel, killing thousands of British civilians.(3) Camp Mittelbau Dora was established as a top secret satellite camp of Buchenwald in 1943 after British bombers destroyed the main missile research base at Peenemuende on the Baltic Coast.(4) The V2 was developed by Wernher von Braun, who after World War II went on to direct the U.S. Space Program.(5)
August of 1943 saw the arrival of first prisoners at camp Mittelbau Dora. 107 prisoners from Buchenwald began work on the tunnels with the intent of expanding the existing storage depot into a secret underground missile factory. Within a six month period, the labor camp had grown to contain 12,000 prisoners, and by the spring of 1945, the number of prisoners neared 40,000.(6)
Working and living conditions at the camp were deplorable. Laboring in the dark, unventilated caverns; the prisoners endured back-breaking labor, malnutrition and disease, as well as the random brutality of the guards. The prisoners were exposed to gas, noise, and the dust of explosions. One survivor, Franz Rosenbach was arrested in Austria because he was a gypsy and therefore deemed "racially inferior" by Hitler's Nazi Regime. Initially Rosenbach was sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and at age fifteen he found himself toiling at Mittelbau Dora. He recounted his experience in a 1995 article by Richard Murphy marking the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp:
I am still amazed today that anyone survived. We got almost nothing to eat, a piece of bread, perhaps two or three potatoes. But you know, when you are young, you can take an awful lot. And if you are careful not to attract attention... I always thought this was not the end for me.(7)
Rosenbach was one of the fortunate few to survive Camp Mittelbau Dora. Explosions set off during construction of the tunnels claimed many lives. According to Rosenbach, who worked drilling holes in the walls in which the explosives were placed: "When the explosives were set off, prisoners had to start clearing up immediately. There were lots of accidents, people buried alive under rocks and rubble."(8) Many prisoners perished due to the detestable living conditions. Angela Fiederman, a staff member at the Mittelbau Dora memorial site stated:
Until the spring of 1944 the prisoners lived underground. The sanitation was totally inhumane. There were no toilets and there was no water. The temperature was eight or nine degrees Celsius (46 - 48 degrees Fahrenheit) and the humidity was ninety percent. They died like flies.(9)
Certainly, the Nazi's saw the labor camp as an opportunity to "kill two birds with one stone". They were determined that the Jews who had escaped death in the extermination camps would experience the most physically punishing work possible at the labor camps; and "die of natural causes" while producing the V2 missiles which would win the war for Germany. It must be noted that although Mittelbau Dora has been listed as a non-Jewish camp; the majority of prisoners were French (mainly members of the French Resistance). A large number of Jews were to come later as the camps in the East were being emptied and slave labor was needed in manufacturing camps such as Dora. Approximately 60,000 prisoners from 21 nations (mostly Russians, Poles, and French) passed through Mittelbau Dora. An estimated 20,000 inmates died; 9,000 died from exhaustion and collapse, 350 hanged, and the remainder died mainly from disease and starvation.(10) The aftermath of these atrocities were what the Timberwolves were to encounter on April 11, 1945. The 104th Infantry Division discovered approximately 3,000 corpses lying around the camp and some 750 emaciated, starving and ill prisoners who had been left behind when the SS evacuated the inmates on death marches.(11) The U.S. Army rushed medical personnel, food, and equipment to the camp. Despite their efforts, many survivors died shortly after liberation. American personnel forced hundreds of German citizens from the nearby town of Nordhausen to bear witness to the atrocities, help evacuate the survivors, and bury the dead. The liberation of the camp had a profound effect on the men of the 104th and the following story is that of veteran Stanley Dunn, as told to Robert Caggiano on April 26, 2001:
After the 104th both discovered and liberated the Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp in Nordhausen Germany, the horror of what these combat veterans witnessed affected each man differently. Up until the camp liberation, generally speaking, there was no special hatred of the enemy. The Timberwolves knew they were there to help liberate the world from tyranny, of course, but personal hatred usually was not present. This changed after the camp liberation, and seeing the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis. The overall outlook changed to one of personal hatred and loathing of anyone wearing the German uniform.(12)
This comes as no surprise. The war-hardened soldiers of the 104th had seen the worst in humanity. Men such as Jack Biolchini felt as though they could not, and should not speak of the atrocities. But, the photos that follow serve as a silent witness to the evil committed at Camp Mittelbau Dora.
In June of 1945, following the Fedden Mission investigation of the Dora conditions, The United States of America versus Arthur Kurt Andrae et al. trial commenced on August 7, 1947 at the Dachau internment camp against those responsible for the operation of Mittelbau Dora Camp. The trial convicted fifteen Dora SS guards and Kapos (one was executed). The trial also addressed the question of liability of Nordhausen scientists, who were then acquitted.(13)
Although there are modern accounts from the men of the 104th regarding the horrific experience at Camp Mittelbau Dora, there was very little information published about the 104th Division's role in liberating the Camp immediately following the war. The media of the time described combat in far less gruesome detail. An article written by Kenneth T. Downs entitled "Nothing Stopped the Timberwolves" was featured in The Saturday Evening Post on August 17, 1946. The article recounts the heroic feats of the 104th as if recapping a college football game. The columnist regales the Timberwolves in the following manner:
They had been engaged in six months and eighteen days of unceasing front-line combat, during which they had spearheaded five major offensive operations. They never failed to attain an objective on schedule. Their rapidity of maneuver and bold night attacks and teamwork were outstanding and held casualties down to 1445 killed, 4801 wounded, 111 missing in action, for a total of 6357.(14)
Mr. Downs certainly gives us a glowing account of the Timberwolves' bravery and military prowess, but nowhere in the article does he describe the 104th Division's role in liberating camp Mittelbau Dora, or the horrific experience of the dead and dying prisoners they encountered at the Camp, an experience which was one of the most profound of their entire military careers during World War II.
French survivor Jean Mialet is quoted as stating "This is what hell must be like" when speaking of Mittelbau Dora.(15) The men of the 104th certainly must have agreed. The liberation of Camp Mittelbau Dora provided the Timberwolves with a glimpse into a manmade hell the likes of which few could have dreamed of. It also served as a reminder of what they were truly fighting for. In closing, a quote from Leon Karalokian of the 104th Signal Company is most fitting:
The emotional impact was heavy on all who were witness to these incidents but considerably more so on this writer. As an American of Armenian ancestry I had been brought up, as have virtually all first and second generation Americans of similar background, on the eye witnessed horror stories of an even more sanguine genocide in Turkey three decades earlier. Massacre was the word here, knives and bullets for the males, desert death marches, hunger and rape for the women and children. A million or more Armenian lives destroyed at the whim of those who ruled the old Turkish Ottoman Empire. Staring at the human debris on the ground awaiting burial (at Mittelbau) I asked myself, 'Is this what is meant by genocide? Was this also the fate of the grandparents, uncles, and aunts I had never known?' Time dulls the impact of events. There are those who now maintain that Hitler's holocaust never occurred. Would that it was possible to take the doubters by the hand, back through the years, and point out the tragedy of this minor concentration camp! Sobered and drained each of us eventually left the area, in the words of a poet a sadder but wiser man.(16)
(1) National Timberwolf Association, "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp," 104th Infantry Division, http://www.104infdiv.org/concamp.htm (accessed Oct. 10, 2009).
(2) Mary Galione-Nahas, The Journey of Private Galione: How America Became a Super Power, (Washington: Pleasant Word Press 2004).
(3) Richard Murphy, "Survivors of V2 Nazi Slave Camp Mark Liberation," Reuters, April 10, 1995, under "The Nizkor Project," http://nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/camps/buchenwald/press/reuters.040395 (Oct. 24, 2009).
(6) Richard Murphy, "Survivors of V2 Nazi Slave Camp Mark Liberation," Reuters, April 10, 1995, under "The Nizkor Project," http://nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/camps/buchenwald/press/reuters.040395 (Oct. 24, 2009).
(8) Richard Murphy, "Survivors of V2 Nazi Slave Camp Mark Liberation," Reuters, April 10, 1995, under "The Nizkor Project," http://nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/camps/buchenwald/press/reuters.040395 (Oct. 24, 2009)
(10) Mary Galione-Nahas, The Journey of Private Galione: How America Became a Super Power, (Washington: Pleasant Word Press 2004).
(11) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "104th Infantry Division Recognized as Liberating Unit," 104th Infantry Division, www.104infdiv.org (accessed Oct. 11, 2009).
(12) Robert Caggiano, "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp ? Stanley Dunn," National Timberwolf Association, www.104infdiv.org (accessed Oct. 22, 2009).
(13) "United States of America v. Kurt Andrae et al. (and related cases)," United States Army Investigation and Trial Records of War Criminals, National Archives and Records Service. Aprril 27, 1945 - June 11, 1958, http://www.archives.gov/research/captured-german-records/microfilm/m1079.pdf. (Accessed Oct. 22, 2009).
(14) Kenneth T. Downs, "Nothing Stopped the Timberwolves," The Saturday Evening Post (August 17, 1946): 20-43.
(15) National Timberwolf Association, "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp," 104th Infantry Division, http://www.104infdiv.org/concamp.htm (accessed Oct. 10, 2009).
(16) National Timberwolf Association, "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp," 104th Infantry Division, http://www.104infdiv.org/concamp.htm (accessed Oct. 10, 2009).
Caggiano, Robert . "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp - Stanley Dunn."
National Timberwolf Association, www.104infdiv.org (accessed Oct. 22, 2009).
Downs, Kenneth T. "Nothing Stopped the Timberwolves."
The Saturday Evening Post (August 17, 1946): 20-43.
Galione-Nahas, Mary. The Journey of Private Galione: How America Became a Super Power.
Washington: Pleasant Word Press 2004.
Murphy, Richard. "Survivors of V2 Nazi Slave Camp Mark Liberation." Reuters, April 10, 1995.
The Nizkor Project, http://nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/camps/buchenwald/press/reuters.040395 (Oct. 24, 2009).
National Timberwolf Association. "Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp." 104thInfantry Division.
http://www.104infdiv.org/concamp.htm (accessed Oct. 10, 2009).
"United States of America v. Kurt Andrae et al. (and related cases)."
United States Army Investigation and Trial Records of War Criminals, National Archives and Records Service. April 27, 1945-June 11, 1958.
http://www.archives.gov/research/captured-german-records/microfilm/m1079.pdf. (Accessed Oct. 22, 2009).