Document Source: Letter and Report filed by 1/Lt William Cowling, US 42nd Infantry Division, on liberating Dachau; photo courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum/Eric Schwab

Shortly after Dachau’s liberation, American soldiers view the bodies inside one of the open railcars. Today, the U.S. Air Force educates all Airmen about how to intervene in small and large-scale situations to prevent the type of bystander behavior that allowed places like Dachau to exist. (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Eric Schwab

April 28, 1945
Dachau, Germany

Dear Folks,

Boy oh boy am I having a heck of a time trying to find time to write. We are really moving. My days have been consisting of getting up between 0630 and 0730 eating, throwing my stuff in a Jeep and taking off.

Went to visit the regiments and sometimes the battalions and then head for a new CP. By the time we get into the new CP and set up it 2300 at night or later and I am so tired. I just hit the sack, so I really haven’t had much time to write. I received the fruit cake the other day and boy was it good. That package contained all the right things. I have lost my chapstick and my lips were chapped so it really came in handy.

Well, I was interrupted at this point and it is now the April 30 and the very first minute I have had to write. Since I started this letter I have had the most, I suppose you would say, exciting, horrible and at the same time, wonderful experience I have had ever or probably ever will have. When I tell it to you, you probably won’t believe all the details. I knew when I heard such stories back in the States and I never believed them and now even after seeing with my own eyes, it is hard for me to believe it.

Well, to go on with the story as you know we have been moving very rapidly, and oftentimes the boss and I get into the towns just about the same time the front line troops do. Yesterday we started out to locate a company and a unit advancing down a road. En route, we learned from civilians and two newspaper people that just off the main road was a concentration camp of Dachau, the oldest largest and most notorious camp in Germany. These newspaper people were going up to see the camp so we decided to go up too.

We ride in a Jeep with a guard out ahead of the boys and we were several hundred yards ahead as we approached the Camp. The first thing we came to was a railroad track leading out of the Camp with a lot of open box cars on it. As we crossed the track and looked back into the cars the most horrible sight I have ever seen (up to that time) met my eyes. The cars were loaded with dead bodies.

Most of them were naked and all of them skin and bones. Honest their legs and arms were only a couple of inches around and they had no buttocks at all. Many of the bodies had bullet holes in the back of their heads. It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could nothing but clench our fists. I couldn’t even talk. We then moved on towards the Camp and my Jeep was still several hundred yards ahead.

As we approached the main gate a German officer and a civilian wearing an International Red Cross band and carrying a white flag came out. We immediately filed out and I was just hoping he would make a funny move so I could hit the trigger of my Tommy gun. He didn’t however, and when he arrived abreast of us he asked for an American officer. I informed him he was talking to one and he said he wished to surrender the camp to me. About that time the General arrived and got the story from the German Lieutenant (that the Camp was still manned by German Guards who were armed but had orders not to shoot at us but only to keep the prisoners in check.) Well about that time somebody started shooting from over on our left flank and ducked but made the Germans stand in front of us. Finally, the fire let up and we sent one of the guards back for a company of infantry.

The newspaper people said they were going on into Camp and I got permission to go on with them with my guard leaving the others with the General. We went through one gate and spotted some Germans in a tower. I hollered in German for them to come to me and they did. I sent them back to the guards and General and got on the front of the newspaper people’s Jeep and headed for the gate.

A man lay dead just in front of the gate. A bullet through his head. One of the Germans we had taken lifted him out of the way and we dismounted and went through the gate into a large cement square about 800 squares surrounded by low black barracks and the whole works enclosed by barbed wire. When we entered the gate, not a soul was in sight.

Then suddenly people (few could call them that) came from all directions. They were dirty, starved skeletons with torn tattered clothes and they screamed and hollered and cried. They ran up and grabbed us. I and the newspaper people and kissed our hands, our feet and all of them tried to touch us. They grabbed us and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs. I finally managed to pull myself free and get to the gate and shut it so they could not get out.

Then I felt something brush my shoulder and I turned to the left of the two block-house guarding the gate to find a white flag fluttering square in my face and on the end of it inside the house eight Germans. I looked around the house and entered. I got the same question, are you an American Officer and said Yes.

They turned over their arms, pistols, and rifles to me and I told them to sit tight. I then went back outside and sent my driver to get the Jeep. Then I went back into the Germans and took their arms and sent the pistols to my Jeep (I gave all away but two). When I cam back out the General was there and the people inside the enclosure were all in the large square shouting and crying.

Then a terrible thing happened. Some of them in their frenzy charged the barbed wire fence to get out and embrace us and touch us. Immediately they were killed by an electric charge running through the fence. I personally saw three die that way. Our troops arrived about that time and took the rest of the guards, Germans (who during all this time had remained in the towers around the prison.) A number of them and I sincerely regret that I took the eight prisoners that I did after a trip through Camp which I shall describe in a minute. Well, the General attempted to get the thing organized and an American Major who had been held in the Camp since September came out and we set him up as head of the prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisoners down and explain to them that they must stay in the Camp until we could get them deloused, and proper food and medical care. Several newspaper people arrived about that time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took them through with a guide furnished by the prisoners.

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