CMH Remembers: May 1945
The Liberation of the Ebensee Concentration Camp
May 6, 1945
May 6, 2015
by Kathleen J. Nawyn, CMH
Seventy years ago on 6 May 1945, solders from the U.S. Army's 3d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron,
3d Cavalry Group, XX Corps, liberated a concentration camp near Ebensee, Austria.
In early May 1945, World War II was drawing to a chaotic close as Allied forces invaded Austria. In north central Austria, the Wehrmacht offered little resistance to the soldiers of GEN George S. Patton's Third U.S. Army. The primary mission of the American combat units was to extinguish the last remnants of opposition, but they were soon also pressed into duty collecting and guarding thousands of surrendered enemy troops and establishing rudimentary control over captured Austrian cities and towns.
Among Patton's forces was LTG Walton H. Walker's XX Corps, which crossed the Inn River bordering Germany, then pushed rapidly southeast on a forty-mile front towards the Enns River, where on 5 May, it halted, anticipating the arrival of Soviet forces advancing westward. That same day, the 3d Cavalry Group received orders to clear and hold territory in the vicinity of the Attersee and Traunsee, two lakes anchoring a picturesque landscape of small towns, forested hills, and snow-topped mountains east of Salzburg. The group's 3d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron moved out early the next morning, and elements eventually made their way southward along the shore of the Traunsee to a small town tucked into the mountains at its far end. At noon, CPT William O. Howk, commander of Troop A, reported that forward elements of his unit had entered the town of Ebensee. Some four hours later, the squadron sent a message to 3d Cavalry Group headquarters with a necessarily succinct but nevertheless weighty report: "There are 16000 political prisoners in Ebensee . . . badly in need of food and med care. What shall we do about them."
What the squadron's soldiers had discovered was the Ebensee concentration camp. A sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, it had been established by the Third Reich in late 1943 to supply labor for a new construction project. Most of the camp's inmates had worked long hours excavating and building a series of giant underground tunnels in a nearby rock formation to house war production facilities safe from Allied bombing. Housed in drafty, unsanitary barracks, fed little, and abused by the SS personnel who ran the camp, many men had died of starvation, disease, and mistreatment. Those who tried to escape were hanged. Starting in the summer of 1944, the bodies of prisoners who died were burned in a crematorium built at the camp. Already miserable conditions had deteriorated further as the German war effort collapsed. Thousands of additional prisoners had arrived by train or forced march from other camps when the Germans hurried them out of the path of advancing Allied troops. In just a few months, the camp's population had tripled. Overall, some twenty different nationalities were represented at Ebensee, including prisoners from the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, France, and Italy. Roughly a third were Jewish.
Participants in the liberation recalled that when the Americans reached the town of Ebensee on 6 May, they had been told there was a concentration camp nearby. Two tanks from the squadron's Company F drove the few miles from the village to the barbed-wire enclosed camp to investigate. They met no resistance. The SS personnel who ran the camp had fled the night before, leaving only members of the Volksturm—ill-trained and ill-equipped older men—to guard the site. Inside, the soldiers' senses were overwhelmed. One of the tank commanders, SSGT Robert B. Persinger, remembered years later that they had discovered thousands of "skeleton-like figures" who were "just skin and bones." The smell "was sickening and almost unbearable." At the time, the camp's double-deck single beds each held six to seven men. "The living lay side by side with the dead," a XX Corps historical officer recorded in an early report. "The shriveled limbs and shrunken features rendered them indistinguishable." The camp's crematorium, moreover, had not been able to keep up with recent deaths. CPT Timothy C. Brennan, the commander of Company F, wrote his wife and son on 15 May that "there were 400 bodies in the crematory waiting to be burned and more in the barracks that had not been collected" when he first visited the site. The camp, he told them, "was the most vile stinking place in the world."
3 Cav Gp Journal Excerpt 7 May 1945
The most urgent needs at the camp were for food and medical care. The 3d Cavalry Group contacted higher headquarters several times on 6 May asking for assistance with food, reporting late that evening that there were no medical or food supplies at the camp and the internees were "dying of starvation at a rate of 300 daily." The group subsequently received instructions to "requisition any available food supplies from [the] civilian population [in] nearby towns" until the XX Corps military government staff could send food.
COL James H. Polk
Although on 7 May the 3d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron would learn that the German High Command had surrendered, effectively ending the war in Europe, the discovery of the Ebensee camp had already substantially altered its immediate focus. That morning, LTC Marshall Wallach, the squadron's commander, and COL James H. Polk, commander of the 3d Cavalry Group, visited the camp, along with the squadron's medical officer and a medical officer from the group's 43d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. COL Polk soon instructed his headquarters to contact XX Corps and request 15 truckloads of rations. Conditions, he said, were "indescribable." There was no food in the vicinity. The Army, he added, "must take over at once." He also asked for newspaper reporters. As the day proceeded, a U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer arrived and began documenting the horror. By evening, XX Corps had also sent military government personnel to help administer the camp.
At about 10 p.m., Company F reported that all of the men at the camp had been fed, although "several riots started when food was served." In his letter home, CPT Brennan explained that to procure food for the camp his soldiers had "closed all the stores and bakeries in town to the civilians and started baking for the camp" and that all of the squadron's other troops had done the same. They also found sufficient ingredients to cook a rich soup for the prisoners—food that had overtaxed the digestive systems of some to the point where they had died. The soldiers had been forced to fire shots over the heads of the starving men to maintain order in the food lines.
The experience of spending most of the day attending to the needs of the camp deeply affected COL Polk. The prisoners' "joy and gratitude of our help makes me feel humble, yet proud that we were the means of their deliverance," he wrote to his wife that evening. "Truly, we have been fighting a holy war as our Chaplain has said. Such sights and such tragedy leave little time for rejoicing. I'm simply drained of emotion by it all. The taste of it is still in my mouth."
The camp remained largely in the care of 3d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron soldiers and medical personnel until the morning of 9 May, when a platoon and headquarters company from the 30th Field Hospital arrived and began to help. Eventually the 30th's three platoons worked together at the site. Because the field hospital had a strength of fewer than 250 officers, nurses, and enlisted men, it could only begin to tackle the challenges at the camp. But the medical personnel laid out a hospital, segregated their charges by type of disease, isolated those with contagious diseases, and provided other assistance. A Third Army Public Health Team supervised delousing operations to contain the spread of typhus, which already afflicted some of the former inmates. On 15 May, the 139th Evacuation Hospital relieved the 30th Field Hospital. Medical operations onsite ended in late June 1945 when the Army moved those patients who still remained at the camp to a nearby Austrian civilian hospital.
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