George Patton had mixed feelings as the war wound to an end. He sensed that his glory hours were behind him. He admitted on 12 April 1945 in a letter to his wife: “I love war and responsibility and excitement. Peace is going to be Hell on me.”
A true Hell awaited him that very same day. Amid the ruins of the Third Reich, he was about to discover the full evil of Hitler’s gangster regime.
That afternoon of the twelfth, he joined generals Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower to visit the concentration camp, Ohrdruf. It was the first in the Nazis’ vast archipelago of suffering to be liberated by the US Army, on 4 April, by the 89th Infantry Division and the 4th Armored Division. Most of the camp’s inmates, numbering over ten thousand in late March, had been murdered in the camp or had died of exhaustion and disease, or been shot to death on forced marches to other camps.
The Americans had arrived before the SS could destroy all the evidence of their atrocities, and so, when the American high command entered the camp, there were still piles of corpses.
An officer approached Patton and his fellow generals. “They tried to eliminate the evidence before we arrived,” said the officer, “but as you can see, they were not very successful.”
The generals were given a tour of the camp. An Austrian-Jewish survivor showed the visitors the camp’s gallows.
Photographers snapped away as Eisenhower and Bradley and others stared at a pyre strewn with burnt remains.
Patton looked down at singed bones and ashes, hands behind his back, pistol at his hip. Eisenhower stood, one hand partially in his trousers’ pocket, beside Bradley as a Stars and Stripes reporter, took notes.
At another stop, Eisenhower stood with hands on hips as he watched a survivor demonstrate torture methods used by the SS. Patton and Bradley were again close by, grim-faced as an interpreter pointed and spoke.
Eisenhower would soon cable his boss, George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff:
The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”
Patton was indeed so disgusted by the inhumanity that he went behind a building and then vomited. He described the scenes in a vivid account in his diary:
In a shed… was a pile of about 40 completely naked human bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime, not for the purposes of destroying them, but for the purpose of removing the stench. When the shed was full—I presume its capacity to be about 200, the bodies were taken to a pit a mile from the camp where they were buried. The inmates claimed that 3,000 men, who had been either shot in the head or who had died of starvation, had been so buried since the 1st of January.
The generals left, shaken, and waited for cars to arrive to take them back to the town of Gotha.
A GI was nearby.
He “accidentally bumped into [a] Nazi ex-guard,” recalled one of Patton’s aides, “and from sheer nerves began to giggle.”
Eisenhower was not amused and stared at the GI icily.
“Still having trouble hating them?” said Eisenhower.
Eisenhower turned to his fellow generals.
“I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place,” he said. “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”
Eisenhower was deeply disturbed by what he had seen. It was “beyond the human mind to comprehend.” That evening, he still looked “sick” and “very angry” according to one of his staff.
Patton poured Eisenhower a drink, noting his distress.
Eisenhower said he couldn’t “understand the mentality that would compel these German people to do a thing like that.”
On April 19, Eisenhower cabled Marshall again:
If you could see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54's, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps.
Marshall moved fast. The Secretary of War, Henry Lewis Stimson, and President Harry S. Truman himself, also supported Eisenhower’s proposed visit.
Eisenhower’s request was arguably one of his most important acts of WWII. As a result, the horrors of Nazism would never be forgotten by tens of thousands of GIs, nor by the politicians and journalists whose accounts would forever record the answer to why so many Americans had made the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Europe.