For Dan Dougherty, the 73 years that have gone by since he was a 20-year-old Army staff sergeant in World War II, no doubt, have passed in a few blinks of a single eyelid, but the highly decorated Minnesota-born and current Fairfield, California, resident still can recall clearly that morning after his C Company arose after sleeping in a stand of woods outside Munich when his commanding officer, 1st Lt. Bert V. Edmunds, told his young platoon that C Company had special orders to liberate the Nazi concentration camp outside of the city of Dachau.
Recalls Dan, “My recollection is that we arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp between 3 and 4 p.m., but others remember it as earlier. We didn’t know the name of the place, and even if we’d been told, it would not have meant anything. None of us had ever heard of Dauchau.”
Now, at first glance, that might seem odd, but remember, it’s only when viewed through the prism of time that mankind’s history is recorded and events and places assume their importance.
Approaching Dachau on a road from the southwest, Dan recalls first seeing boxcars and gondola cars on the railroad track near the camp’s perimeter.
“When we reached the cars, the doors were open, and we made the horrifying discovery that they contained the most emaciated corpses imaginable,” Dan said. “The bodies were nothing but skin and bones, still mostly in the remnants of their striped uniforms. There’s no way to prepare for such an experience. We would stare and then walk to the next car and stare some more. The eyes on some of the bodies were open, and they stared right back at us. No one had anything profound to say, just an occasional ‘My God!’ Turned out there were 39 cars with 2,310 corpses, an average of almost sixty bodies per car!”
In his three-part memoir, Dan went on to explain that at the time, he and his fellow soldiers knew little about those boxcars beyond the horrors to be found inside. History would later tell him that the train originally left Buchenwald, the terrible Nazi concentration camp outside the town of Weimar, headed for the large slave camp in Flossenburg until the train was rerouted to Dachau three weeks after it left. It had just arrived the day before C Company arrived at Dauchau. History has dubbed it the Buchenwald-Dauchau Death Train, one that arrived at Dauchau with few survivors among the 2,310 corpses of those who had died as the train rumbled over rails.
Dan recalls the reactions of the prisoners who’d survived Dauchau’s horrors through the words of his platoon squad leader, Leonard Parker, who remembers the scene when they entered through the camp’s main gate, the one with the inscription, “Arbeit macht frei,” translated, “Work brings freedom.”
“There came a flood of human skeletons…” Dan recalled. “They fell on the ground at our feet and kissed our boots and grabbed our hands and kissed them.”
After the prisoners found out Parker was himself a Jew, about 50 Jewish prisoners encircled, hugging and kissing him.
In his account of the liberation, Dan includes several statistics — 31,432 initially found alive in various stages of generally poor health. Among the survivors, the largest nationality represented was the 9,082 Poles. Sadly, some, Dan recalls an estimated number of 2,500, were too far gone to survive, despite the efforts of the Army doctor in charge of post-liberation Dachau, Lt. Marcus J. Smith, and his staff.
Dan admits that in the rounding up of the SS guards who’d yet to flee, there were some breakdowns in discipline and some executions. There was an investigation, but no charges were ever filed..
Recalls Dan, “There was a strong presumption the (investigation) was quashed by Gen. George Patton when commanding the Army of Occupation of Bavaria after the war.”
Dan also recalls going into a single-family home with other C Company soldiers, a house once occupied by a senior officer and his family inside the camp’s once-electrified fences, and seeing upholstered furniture and framed pictures on the walls and, upstairs, a children’s nursery with toys on the floor and a crucifix on the wall, and all were struck by the incongruity and irony of it all.
By the time C Company reached the perimeter at the nearby satellite camp at Allach, the guards had already fled, and the celebration of the 9,000 prisoners, many of whom were conscripted laborers at a nearby BMW plant that assembled engines for the Luftwaffe, the German aerial warfare branch, was similar to that of Dauchau. One GI, recalls Dan, Leonard Zankel, was even hoisted onto the shoulders of prisoners in much the same fashion as a winning coach after a big gridiron victory.
Unlike so many of his comrades in arms who paid the ultimate price of war along the Siegfried Line or in Nuremburg or Aschaffenburg or countless other places where bullets flew and bombs detonated, Dan P. Dougherty, Army Serial Number 171440035, survived.
And, to him and so many others, we all owe such a debt of gratitude. Dan never forgot those who fought and died who were left behind or those who returned with him to the United States in September of 1945 on a ship that sailed from LeHarve, France. And, that’s evidenced by his writing, editing and publishing accounts of the experiences of C Company and tracking the whereabouts of those in the platoon who made it home. His regular newsletters were called “Second Platoon,” writings which he did from 1996 through 2003.
Dan’s entire account of the liberation of Dauchau and its satellite camp at Allach, the same writing he attached to me in an email, can be found online at http://j.mp/2KA2kJj.
On behalf of everyone reading this column, thank you, Staff Sgt. Dan P. Dougherty, for you and C Company’s incredible service.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.