Friday, November 11, 2011

Dandridge recounts horrors of Buchenwald—a Veteran's Day tribute

A year ago today I was sitting in my home office, and thought I’d put up this photo on Facebook of my Daddy and just say thank you to all the men and women who have served our country. I got out his World War II scrapbook, which was falling apart. I’d never looked at it really good because the pages were so fragile. I turned pages carefully and came across a packet of photos turned face down with a piece of paper taped over them. 

“I opened them. They were photos taken in the furnaces of Buchenwald prison. While I was looking at them, I got an E-mail from my daughter Olivia. She had done a google search on Daddy, must have been thinking along the same lines, and found a letter he had written in 1945 to his friend Alan Burkett in Dora, NM. It had been republished in the spring of 2010 on the anniversary of D-Day. Apparently it had been picked up by several publications including some military journals.”

My dad was not a war hero. He was an Army medic. He was inducted into the Army on May 8, 1943.  He was assigned to the 512th Military Police Battalion and was stationed in Camp Shelby, Miss. until Sept. 1943. He served as an Amy medic and was stationed in the campaigns of Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland and the Battle of Central Europe.

I never heard Daddy talk much about his war experiences, except to tell me the stories of the German and English children he befriended or to describe the beautiful countryside.  That’s why I was so shocked to see this letter. I knew he was a medic, but had no idea of the situation described in the letter.

Here is the letter in which he describes the horrors of Buchenwald Prison camp, only two weeks after it was liberated. Published by permission from the Portales News Tribune in Portales, N.M.

Editor’s note: Sixty-five years ago, the German-held concentration camp at Buchenwald, was liberated by United States forces. Cpl. Hayley C. Dandridge, a Dora High School graduate, toured the facility less than two weeks after an estimated 21,000 prisoners were freed. Dandridge wrote about the horrors he saw in a letter to friends, Alan and Freeda Burkett of Dora, dated April 22, 1945. The letter was printed in the May 9, 1945, issue of The Portales Daily News. The 65th anniversary of the end of World War II seems a good time to publish it again, so that, as Dandridge wrote, we might all, “readily grasp the meaning of total war.”
Dear Alan and Freeda:
A few days ago I visited Camp Buchenwald near Wemar, Germany. It is one of the largest if not the largest camp in Germany or the world. This will, no doubt, be old news by the time you receive this, for the camp has been publicized to a great extent since its liberation.

I visited this camp not to view it as one would a circus or to see its starved victims, but to see what the Nazis, whom we fight, have done to their conquered people. Since I have seen the camp I more readily understand why this war had to be fought and why there must be only “unconditional surrender.”

Daddy and friend in Hitler's map room
 When the news reels of the scenes reach the States, I believe that you there can more readily grasp the meaning of total war.A group of us from our battalion went down together to see this camp. We entered the gates which had once been guarded by SS men. All about the entrance there were the remains of what had been a huge factory used for the production of war materials.

Our air force had flattened the factory section of the camp and all that we could see was the twisted girders and the piles of rubble. Less than 200 yards from the factories the concentration camp stood, its heavy iron gates now swung open and its victims walking in and out as if to prove themselves that they were free.

One of the former inmates still dressed in prison stripe trousers but with a dress coat offered to be our guide. He was from Belgium and spoke fair English. Since he had been there about three years he knew his way around the camp and knew the horrible things that had happened within its rusty barbed wire fences.

Our guide took us first to the prison of the camp where the most dangerous and most important prisoners of the Third Reich were kept. Its cells were empty except for a few SS guards who had been put there for safe keeping. These men whose souls had become hardened to crime and punishment now showed the fear that was within their hearts. Their arrogance and egotism was gone and was replaced by humbleness and quick submission to the officers and men who had conquered them.

Hitler's Eagles Nest
 Our guide then took us through the main court ward past the whipping blocks to the death house where some 56,000 men and boys have been put to death. The place was crude when we went down and there were women coming out with tears in their eyes after looking at the place.

We did not find out whether these women were Germans or relatives of some of the poor people who had been killed there. As we went down into the cellar the first thing we saw was a huge wooden mallet and big hooks on the walls where the people were hung and tortured.

The procedure used in killing was to let the victim fall through a trap door into the cellar where a big SS man finished killing him with the mallet just as the butcher kills cattle in a slaughter house.

The bodies were stacked on an elevator and carried up to the crematorium. We were told that about 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed there each month.In the crematorium above there were six furnaces and in them were still charred bones and skulls of its victims. We were told that the bodies were often thrown in the furnace half alive.

In a walled yard just outside of the crematorium there were stacks of bodies of the half-starved people who had died during the night. The bodies were awaiting burial. It was a hideous sight to me, and one that I will always remember.The next building to which we were taken was the pathological center where almost every part of the human body was preserved and on display.

There was a shrunken skull that we asked about. We were told that a Polish fellow had tried to escape and he had been publicly hanged. The skull had been removed and the flesh shrunken and dried and set up as a table ornament on the desk of one of the officials.

We were told that a former commandant’s wife had a hobby of collecting tattoos and when she saw one she liked she had the tattoo removed from the live person and from these pieces she had a lamp shade made. There were two such specimens on display in the laboratory.

Entrance to Buchenwald
 We then went into the barracks where the prisoners had lived. It was as unbelievable as the rest of the camp, for in a building about large enough for 100 people had been housed there about 1,700. The beds were simple shelves built into the walls, no mattresses, no blankets or anything; the people had to depend upon the body to keep themselves from freezing.

The barracks had no toilet facilities whatsoever, and they were in terrible shape. Some of the former prisoners were still in the barracks. Many of them were dying.

The people imprisoned in this camp were chiefly Jews, Poles, Belgium, Yugoslavs and Russians. It is hard to try to describe to a person who has never seen such people just what they look like. I thought of “The walking dead” when I saw them and they are almost that.

There is almost every disease known to man in that camp. Allied medical authorities are doing their best to clean the place up and giving aid to the starved people who are too weak to eat. An average of 30 to 40 persons are dying there each day.

I made the mistake of offering a cigarette to one of them and before I could get the package in my pocket I was almost mobbed. The diet for the camp was a cup of ersatz coffee and a piece of dry black bread for breakfast and some broth for supper. One of the prisoners told us that he worked an extra three hours overtime for just one piece of bread and by doing that he had managed to keep fairly healthy. These people are broken in body and mind and I doubt that many of them will ever be able to regain their place in society.

I received your letter some few days ago but have been pretty well on the move and just haven’t taken time to write. If you will accept this as a substitute for a letter I will try to write a more personal one the next time.

Sincerely, a friend

After the war he and my mother left Eupora and moved to Senatobia. He farmed with his Daddy, Cathey Dandridge, and his brothers Jim and Ed. I knew him as a farmer, a horseman, a cattleman. I never knew he could write so eloquently.  Maybe I got my journalism gene from him. Daddy and his brother Ed raised Charolais cattle and later Salers cattle. He was one of the first breeders of Appoloosa horses in this area and later Quarter Horses. He served on the agricultural advisory board for the ag department at Northwest, was a judging team coach for the Tate County 4-H horse program. 

Still in the saddle in his seventies

Daddy was never a successful businessman. He never flew on a plane after the war except to visit and later go to his friend Alan Burkett’s funeral. He brought many of his cowboy ways to Mississippi from New Mexico and taught dozens of young people about cows, horses, and life.  I miss him dearly. (Hayley Dandridge June 4, 1913-June 2, 1998) (excerpts from article printed in The Democrat January 2011)

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