Soldier on Dachau
Before he actually went there, Pfc. Harold Porter read about Germany in the socialist Jan Valtin's "Out of the Night." The book's account of the vicious Gestapo, the Nazi's secret police, seemed to him "preposterous." Then, in May of 1945, he went to Germany as a medic with the U.S. Army and changed his mind. "I've seen worse nights than any he described," he wrote to his parents.
Days before, Porter had ended a "pleasant" trip down the German countryside in Dachau. His troop, the U.S. Army's 116th evacuation hospital, was one of the first medical units to enter the camp after its liberation. The medics had been warned that Dachau had been one of Nazi Germany's "most notorious concentration camps." Indeed, Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the SS, Hitler's most ruthless henchmen. Between 1940 and 1945, more than 28,000 people died there, and by April 1945, 32,000 sick and starving prisonersjammed into a space intended for one-third that numberwere near death.
When he first arrived at the camp, however, all Porter saw were "cottages, rivers, country estates, and Alps in the distance ... almost like a tourist resort." Then he saw many other things, and then, after the shock wore off, he sat down to write about them. The only stationary he could find was leftover from Dachau's abandoned camp commandant. Beneath that man's letterhead, he described what he had seen, struggling to wipe the emotion from his prose so that his parents might believe it. "While we expected it to be grizzly," he wrote, "I'm sure none of us knew what was coming. It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed."
The rest of the letter's beginning is below.
7 May 1945
Dear Mother and Father,
You have, by this time, received a letter mentioning that I am quartered in the concentration camp at Dachau. It is still undecided whether we will be permitted to describe the conditions here, but I'm writing this now to tell you a little, and will mail it later when we are told we can.
It is difficult to know how to begin. By this time I have recovered from my first emotional shock and am able to write without seeming like a hysterical gibbering idiot. Yet, I know how you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and factual I try to be. I can find myself trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes. Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life. We knew a day or two before we moved that we were going to operate in Dachau, and that it was the location of one of the most notorious concentration camps, but while we expected things to be grizzly, I'm sure none of us knew what was coming. It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed. To think that I once scoffed at Valtin's book "Out of the Night" as being preposterous! I've seen worse nights than any he described.
The trip south from Attugen was pleasant enough. We passed through Donsworth and Aichbach as we entered Dachau, the Bavarian Alps country, with the cottages, rivers, country estates and Alps in the distance, was almost like a tourist resort. But as we came to the center of the city, we met a train with a wrecked engine about fifty cars long. Every car was loaded with bodies. There must have been thousands of them all obviously starved to death. This was a shock of the first order, and the odor can best be imagined. But neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were about to see.
Marc Coyle reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory. Dead SS troopers were scattered around the grounds, but when we reached the furnace house we came upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn't be wasted by the burning. There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once, and in each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies one big stinking rotten mess.