John Lee’s comrades, the men of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry (45th Div.), had seen hard combat. They had fought from North Africa through Italy, France and on into Germany, in 511 days of continuous and exhausting combat.
Ordered on April 29, 1945, to secure a local prison camp, they scaled a masonry wall to find 36 railroad boxcars of rotting corpses, inmates who had been sent to Dachau from other death camps and allowed to starve.
It was overcast and chilly as Lee, 19, and the others cautiously advanced beneath tall pines, finding more stacks of bodies and atrocities of which some still cannot speak.
By the time they began rounding up the prison guards, amid the roaring of 32,000 gaunt and sickly inmates still living, the men of I Company were “boiling mad, half out of our minds,” one soldier said later.
"I looked at the bodies as we went past - their open eyes seemed to say, ‘What took you so long?’" said Lee, now a frail 75 year old and living in West Lake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.
"There was a deathly silence. Somebody blurted out, ‘No prisoners’ We lined up the SS guards. One of the guys cocked the machine gun. The Germans started moving and somebody shouted ‘Fire!’
"To this day I do not know who that was," Lee said.
Army investigators later summoned Lee and others to gather statements and other evidence of that day, including photographs taken by an Army photographer showing the bodies of the SS guards piled up against the wall.
Their secret report, quietly declassified in 1991, details several similar incidents at Dachau. A lieutenant ordered four German soldiers into an empty boxcar and personally shot them. Another American soldier clubbed and shot those still moaning. Several GIs turned their backs on two inmates beating a German guard to death with a shovel. One of the inmates had been castrated by the German they were murdering.
Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, said, “It was one of those situations I was unable to control for a short time.”
The report was sent to Gen. George Patton, commanding the 3rd Army. No action was taken. Among veterans of the 157th regiment, legend has it that Patton threw the report in his wastebasket, tossed in a match and barked at the investigators: “Get the hell out of here!” But a copy made its way to the National Archives.
"Nobody’s really proud of doing something like that," Lee says today. "The Army trained you to fight. It did not train you for the psychological shock."
- David Wood
photographs show the first American soldiers entering the camp and soldiers viewing the bodies of inmates in a boxcar
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