By Kevin Maurer
The Fayetteville (NC) Observer Staff Writer
Nothing could have prepared the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers for what they would find near the city of Ludwigslust on May 2, 1945.
Early that afternoon, the soldiers discovered Wöbbelin concentration camp. The camp was a dumping ground for Russian prisoners of war and Jews who were forced to move to other camps because of the advance of Allied forces.
The liberation of Wöbbelin is often overlooked because of the 82nd's combat exploits, but for the paratroopers who witnessed it - 60 years ago this week - it is a memory that will never fade.
James Megellas, now 88, was among the first soldiers to enter the Wöbbelin camp. He was 28 at the time and wrote about his experiences in his book "All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe."
By May 1945, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide, and many of the largest, most infamous concentration camps had been liberated. The 82nd had already cemented its place in history.
Megellas said his soldiers had developed a hatred for the Germans after months of bloody combat. His unit alone had received enough replacements to form 10 companies.
"All of what I saw was through the sight of my gun," Megellas said in a phone interview Monday. "We saw a lot of people killed in our own company and also we'd killed a lot of Germans."
Megellas was a platoon leader in Company H, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He got a radio call from Sgt. Jimmy Shields, who reported that his squad found a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top.
"Some skinny-looking guys in bad shape are peering back at us," Shields said.
The front gate of the camp was locked, so Shields shot off the lock and the paratroopers went in. As the soldiers entered the camp, SS troopers were escaping out the back gate.
"I was not prepared mentally to deal with the horror of the camp," Megellas wrote.
Dead and living
After entering the camp, he headed for a row of buildings that looked like barracks. Inside, he said he found "two hundred twisted, nude bodies of skin and bone piled four to five feet high." In the corner of the room was a pile of clothes taken off the bodies for reuse.
"Individual forms were almost indistinguishable. There could not have been a body more than sixty pounds," Megellas wrote.
In another building, Megellas found living prisoners.
"Most were lying on the dirt floor or propped against the sides of the building too weak to get up. With sunken eyes and skin taut, they looked like skeletons," Megellas wrote.
The 82nd quickly started to help. They trucked in food, buried the dead and began to treat the sick.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces, ordered all atrocity victims to be buried in a public place with crosses placed at the graves of Christians and Stars of David on the Jewish graves, along with a stone monument to memorialize the dead.
On May 7, 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division conducted a funeral service in Ludwigslust for 200 inmates. Engineers dug the graves, and citizens of Ludwigslust buried each one in parachute silk, Megellas said.
A chaplain from the 82nd delivered the following eulogy:
"The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here there were no gas chambers, no crematoria; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes, 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs."
After a few days, the 82nd moved on. Megellas, who moved to Texas with his wife, Carole, three years ago, has never been back to the camp.
As survivors and liberators observer Holocaust Remembrance Day today, Megellas said he will never forget what he saw at Wöbbelin. The incident reinforced why he and his men fought the war.
"We stood there and we realized that it was to destroy the monstrosity that the Nazis had created."