History

  

The following testimonies of three of the liberators have copyright and require permission to use from their appropriate families.

1. Sergeant George Gross
2. Sergeant Carrol S. Walsh
3. Lieutenant Frank W. Towers

 

1. Sergeant George Gross

On Friday, April 13, 1945, I was commanding a light tank in a column of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division, moving south near the Elbe River toward Magdeburg, Germany. After three weeks of non-stop advancing with the 30th from the Rhine to the Elbe as we alternated spearhead and mop-up duties with the 2nd Armored Division, we were worn out and in a somber mood because, although we knew the fighting was at last almost over, a pall had been cast upon our victories by the news of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  I had no inkling of the further grim news that morning would bring. Suddenly, I was pulled out of the column, along with my buddy Sergeant Carrol Walsh in his light tank, to accompany Major Clarence L. Benjamin of the 743rd in a scouting foray to the east of our route.  Major Benjamin had come upon some emaciated Finnish soldiers who had escaped from a train full of starving prisoners a short distance away. The major led our two tanks, each carrying several infantrymen from the 30th Infantry Division on its deck, down a narrow road until we came to a valley with a small train station at its head and a motley assemblage of passenger compartment cars and boxcars pulled onto a siding.  There was a mass of people sitting or lying listlessly about, unaware as yet of our presence. There must have been guards, but they evidently ran away before or as we arrived, for I remember no firefight.  Our taking of the train, therefore, was no great heroic action but a small police operation.  The heroism that day was all with the prisoners on the train.

Major Benjamin took a powerful picture just as a few of the people became aware that they had been rescued.  It shows people in the background still lying about, trying to soak up a bit of energy from the sun, while in the foreground a woman has her arms flung wide and a great look of surprise and joy on her face as she rushes toward us.  In a moment, that woman found a pack left by a fleeing German soldier, rummaged through it, and held up triumphantly a tin of rations.  She was immediately attacked by a swarm of skeletal figures, each intent upon capturing that prize. My yelling did no good, so that I finally had to leap from my tank and wade through weak and emaciated bodies to pull the attackers off the woman, who ran quickly away with her prize.  I felt like a bully, pushing around such weak and starving fellow humans, but it was necessary to save the woman from great harm.  The incident drove home to me the terrible plight of the newly freed inhabitants of the train.

I pulled my tank up beside the small station house at the head of the train and kept it there as a sign that the train was under American protection now.  Carroll Walsh’s tank was soon sent back to the battalion, and I do not remember how long the infantrymen stayed with us, though it was a comfort to have them for a while. My recollection is that my tank was alone for the afternoon and night of the 13th.  A number of things happened fairly quickly.  We were told that the commander of the 823rd Tank Destroyer battalion had ordered all the burgermeisters of nearby towns to prepare food and get it to the train promptly, and were assured that Military Government would take care of the refugees the following day. So we were left to hunker down and protect the starving people, commiserating with if not relieving their dire condition.

I believe that the ranking officer of the Finnish prisoners introduced himself to me and offered to set up a perimeter guard. I think I approved and asked him to organize a guard, set out pickets, and handle the maintenance and relief of the outposts. However it happened, the guard was set up swiftly and efficiently. It was moving and inspiring to see how smartly those emaciated soldiers returned to their military duties, almost joyful at the thought of taking orders and protecting others again.  They were armed only with sticks and a few weapons discarded by the fleeing German guards, but they made a formidable force, and they obviously knew their duties, so that I could relax and talk to the people. A young woman named Gina Rappaport came up and offered to be my interpreter. She spoke English very well and was evidently conversant with several other languages besides her native Polish.  We stood in front of the tank as along line of men, women, and little children formed itself spontaneously, with great dignity and no confusion, to greet us.  It is a time I cannot forget, for it was terribly moving to see the courtesy with which they treated each other, and the importance they seemed to place on reasserting their individuality in some seemingly official way.  Each would stand at a position of rigid attention, held with some difficulty, and introduce himself or herself by what grew to be a sort of formula:  the full name, followed by “a Polish Jew from Hungary”-or a similar phrase which gave both the origin and the home from which the person had been seized.  Then each would shake hands in a solemn and dignified assertion of individual worth. Battle-hardened veterans learn to contain their emotions, but it was difficult then, and I cry now to think about it. What stamina and regenerative spirit those brave people showed!

Also tremendously moving were their smiles.  I have one picture of several girls, specter-thin, hollow-cheeked, with enormous eyes that had seen much evil and terror, and yet with smiles to break one’s heart.  Little children came around with shy smiles, and mothers with proud smiles happily pushed them forward to get their pictures taken.  I walked up and down the train seeing some lying in pain or lack of energy, and some sitting and making hopeful plans for a future that suddenly seemed possible again. Others followed everywhere I went, not intruding but just wanting to be close to a representative of the forces that had freed them.  How sad it was that we had no food to give immediately, and no medical help, for during my short stay with the train sixteen or more bodies were carried up the hillside to await burial, brave hearts having lost the fight against starvation before we could help them.

The boxcars were generally in very bad condition from having been the living quarters of far too many people, and the passenger compartments showed the same signs of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  But the people were not dirty.  Their clothes were old and often ragged, but they were generally clean, and the people themselves had obviously taken great pains to look their best as they presented themselves to us.  I was told that many had taken advantage of the cold stream that flowed through the lower part of the valley to wash themselves and their clothing.  Once again I was impressed by the indomitable spirits of these courageous people.

I spent part of the afternoon listening to the story of Gina Rappaport, who had served so well as interpreter.  She was in the Warsaw ghetto for several years as the Nazis gradually emptied the ghetto to fill the death camps, until her turn finally came.  She was taken to Bergen-Belsen, where the horrible conditions she described matched those official accounts I later heard.  She and some 2500 others, Jews from all over Europe, Finnish prisoners of war, and others who had earned the enmity of Nazidom, were forced onto the train and taken on a back-and-forth journey across Germany, as their torturers tried to get them to a camp where they could be eliminated before Russians on one side or Americans on the other caught up with them. Since the prisoners had little food, many died on the purposeless journey, and they had felt no cause for hope when they were shunted into this little unimportant valley siding.  Gina told her story well, but I have never been able to write it.  I received a letter from her months later, when I was home in San Diego.   I answered it but did not hear from her again.  Her brief letter came from Paris, and she had great hopes for the future.  I trust her dreams were realized.

We were relieved the next morning, started up the tank, waved good-bye to our new friends, and followed a guiding jeep down the road to rejoin our battalion.  I looked back and saw a lonely Gina Rappaport standing in front of a line of people waving us good fortune.  On an impulse I cannot explain, I stopped the tank, ran back, hugged Gina, and kissed her on the forehead in a gesture I intended as one asking forgiveness for man’s terrible cruelty and wishing her and all the people a healthy and happy future. I pray they have had it.

George C. Gross

Spring Valley, California
June 3, 2001

 

2. Sergeant Carrol S. Walsh

Carrol ‘Red’ Walsh [2009]

We were coming down this dirt roadway, as I remember. I had no idea what we were approaching or where we were going or what was going on. I can remember just approaching this area, and all of a sudden, ahead of me I saw this train. It was stopped. In my mind I can still see it, and I could see how long that train was, that long, long string of boxcars and the engine in the front. There were no SS guards around it at the time that we came upon it. I can remember swinging my tank to the right and proceeding alongside of the train. I didn’t know what was really on that train until that tank stopped. Then I saw what the train held... I still remember peering into those boxcars and seeing those people just huddled and mashed together inside those boxcars.

 I had no idea who they were, where they had come from, where they were going. No idea. All I knew was, here’s a train with these boxcars, and people jammed in those boxcars. And as I look back, I suppose we were too busy in combat to think of anything except what we were doing at the time. And of course, you know, we were not privileged to hear any news. We did not know really what was going on. We did not know whether we were successful in our own endeavors or not! I was not aware of the extent of the horror that was perpetrated on the Jewish people. No, I had no idea at the time of the extent of the concentration camps.

What are we going to do with these people? How can we handle this situation? Fortunately, there was another attached unit with the 30th Division. They were in the area. The 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion immediately went around the neighborhood there, getting food from the local farmers and bringing it to the people. And then overnight or the next day, there were other units that arrived to assist these people and find shelter for them. That first night they stayed around the train.

{We were] not heroes. It  just so happened that George Gross and I were the ones whose tanks were assigned to this particular scouting trip. Yes, the survivors look upon us as saviors. I do not feel like a ‘hero’; I don’t know if you can understand my feeling. Yes, the liberation came about, because we got there. Yes, at that particular time those SS guards took off, and it was the end of their ordeal; there is no question about that. [But we were perhaps the] symbols of their liberation, yes, indeed.

 It’s emotional for me now when I think of where they were headed. They were headed for another concentration camp and extermination. And I get emotional now because I know what they went through, and what it meant to them, that we happened to intercept that train at that time. They are real people. When I look back, they were almost not like ‘real people’ when I first encountered them on the train on the cars! They were just a large group; 2,500 figures…now, all of a sudden, they have names. They had lives. They had families. They had stories. I guess that is why I find it emotional. I never in my wildest imagination thought I would ever meet anyone from that train again!

 

3. Lieutenant Frank W. Towers

On Saturday, April 14, the sun rose as the newly liberated tended small fires to warm themselves and whatever food they had managed to scavenge from the countryside or the nearby town of Farsleben. Back at the train that Saturday morning, the 30th Division's liaison officer, Lt. Frank W. Towers, was charged with evacuating the refugees to a more appropriate and secure location, out of harm’s way. Accordingly, the twenty-seven-year-old Towers organized a convoy to travel the ten kilometers to the just captured town of Hillersleben, where a former German Luftwaffe base and proving ground was located, complete with barracks and a small hospital.

Frank W. Towers

As we were proceeding eastward from Brunswick, for days preceding [the liberation of the train], the roads were clogged with refugees fleeing from the east, to get out of the reach of the Russians. They were a tragic looking bunch of people, but happy to be escaping the clutches of the Russians, and to be greeting the Americans. They were carrying all of their worldly possessions in back packs, dragging carts of every variety. Through them, we gained a lot of intelligence on the disposition of German emplacements; they let us know where we might encounter enemy action, where artillery guns were located. [From them we learned of the existence of this train] and that [the Germans] were setting up an ambush for us when we approached the area. Thus, we sent the tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion to reconnoiter the area prior to our foot troops. Upon their arrival at Farsleben, they did not encounter any enemy ambush, but were confronted with the train in the ravine.

As the 30th Division’s liaison officer, I was told about the train initially by my counterpart, Lt. Floyd Mitchell, who was the liaison officer from the 743rd Tank Battalion, and as he was going back to his headquarters, he asked me if I would like to go with him to see [it]. I agreed to accompany him, and this was my first encounter with ‘The Holocaust,’ to witness all that we had heard about through the ‘propaganda’ [we had been told] in previous months—to see it with my own eyes, that our own Allied ‘propaganda’ was in fact true.

[The main roads in some places were impassable, so] the trip from Farsleben to Hillersleben was mostly over narrow back roads and dirt farm roads, in order to get to the destination in the shortest time. Due to artillery shelling and too much recent rain they were full of muddy potholes, and the vehicles had to travel very slowly, or cause breakdowns of the vehicles. The drivers were very well aware of the hazards of driving over this type of road, as they had done so many times before. Fortunately, during these days it did not rain any more. As I acquired the vehicles for the convoy, some were covered, and some were not, but to these people, it did not matter. Rain or shine, they were on the way to freedom, and although hungry, dehydrated, and in frail health, they felt that they were going to a better place than they had seen in many months. They were happy in knowing that they were going to a place where they could get food, sleeping space, and health assistance.

As best I recall, we started moving these people in the afternoon, and we continued until dark, which at that time was not until after 10:00 p.m., so we halted operations until daylight the next morning, and continued on into the day until all were removed from Farsleben. I am not sure just who was involved in assisting the loading of the people at Farsleben, perhaps by some of the troops from our Engineer Battalion and some of the men of the American Military Government and Red Cross personnel, who also helped in unloading the people, orienting them as to where they were to go to get showers and new clothing, then feeding them and assigning them to appropriate quarters. Then their processing began as to who they were, where they had come from, their birthplace, and their hoped-for destination. All of this of course took several weeks before they were all processed and shipped to their destinations.