The U.S. Army had something they wanted to show him.
It was mid-April, 1945. Patton's tanks had just crossed the Rhine a few days earlier and were blazing their way through Germany, only to be stopped short of Berlin by an agreement made with the Russians. Corporal Bill Combs had followed in wake as part of the Mine Platoon of the Anti-Tank Company, 69th Infantry Division, 271st Regiment. "My training had been to learn and know about land mines, which were primarily to blow up wheeled vehicles and tanks, and anti-personnel mines, which were to kill people," says Combs, who'll turn 90 on May 4.
Before going on to take the city of Leipzig, and before capturing the monolithic Napoleon Monument—with walls 10 feet thick and filled with fanatical SS troops, intending to die at its center—the U.S. Army had brought in part of Combs' division to see what, within days, Eisenhower and Patton would see. Senators and congressmen would travel from the States to see it. And a disbelieving world would see it in photos in newspapers like The New York Times and hear about it in a radio dispatch from Edward R. Murrow: "I saw it, but will not describe it."
im电竞官网-But before any of them would get there, Corporal Bill Combs and part of his division would see Buchenwald.
"We came in in two-and-a-half ton trucks, which was, for an infantry, a usual way of moving people by wheels," Combs says. "We didn't know the day before that we were going to be going there, but they wanted us soldiers to be aware of what the German government was like." Combs looked up and saw an inscription on the gate: Jedem das Seine. To each his own. To each what he deserves.
The afternoon before, April 11, the 6th Armored Division had liberated Buchenwald, but Combs and his buddies had no idea what to make of it when they got there a few hours later. Nothing had been done. There were no guards to arrest; they'd abandoned their posts a few days before, taking thousands of prisoners—Jews, Poles, communists, homosexuals, and many others of the Master Race's "undesirables"—on evacuation marches eastward. It's estimated that one-third of those who were evacuated died.
"We got to Buchenwald and we went in the gates, there were people laying about," Combs says. "The first thing that overwhelmed me was that there was a big flat car, a railroad car standing there on the siding and it was piled, maybe four or five feet high, with dead bodies." The emaciated dead were left in the open, stacked on top of each other, nameless except for the numbers tattooed on their arms.
"All of the guards and everybody responsible had left. It was just a big camp full of dying people. There were people still alive, against the walls and around the grounds. Nobody greeted us. These people were so washed out of feeling. They were dying and they knew it. It was just devastating to see. Another fella and I were walking together, just shaking our heads."
The smell overwhelmed the soldiers. Some threw up. Combs' stomach stayed down, but the stench has never left his nostrils. "These people were living in filth, and dirt, and any injuries or anything were untreated. They were allowed and encouraged to die." A medic Combs had talked to estimated that 80 to 90 percent of those 20,000 liberated would die in the coming weeks. None could have weighed more than 80 pounds.
im电竞官网-"Two of our guys had to turn around and leave—they couldn't handle it."
The 69th's nickname at Camp Shelby in Mississippi was "Bolte's Bitchin' Bivouacking Bastards," due to the men's hatred of the bivouacs they slept in during training (and their commander named Bolte). Many were from Ohio. Kids from Akron and Cleveland. They had arrived in Le Havre, France, in January 1945, toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Combs himself had come by way of Akron. His father worked for Goodyear. His brother was killed by a drunk driver in 1937; his mother passed five years later. He remembers being in a car going north to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, for lunch with his small family, when his father pulled to the side of the road to hear the news: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. "It was kind of lonely around the house," Combs says. "Dad was always working, and I was really looking for someplace to go and something to do." He enlisted on his 18th birthday, in 1943.
im电竞官网-The 69th had crossed the Rhine on March 27, capturing several cities—Kassel, Munden, Naumberg and Weissenfels. In one instance, they came under fire on the bridge, crossing the river Witzenhausen, right outside of Kassel. Down the road, German machine guns seemed to follow them, and they had to dive toward the nearest ditch. When a fellow soldier stuck his head up, Combs—then, as now, always a bit of an irreverent pisser—cried out, "Get down, I like your mustache the way it is!"
But nothing had prepared Combs for what he would see in the heart of the Third Reich—the waste of food and supplies, and the disregard for human life at a camp like Buchenwald. Five miles northwest of Weimar, the birthplace of Goethe, the city where Germany's first democratic constitution was signed, were degradations that evade description.
"There were three or four prisoners laying against a wall," Combs says. "One fella got up and brushed himself off a little, and said, in English, "I'd like to show you something.' "
The prisoner, a Jewish teacher, led Combs and a couple of his comrades to the side of the wall. There was a square hole with a lid on it. He lifted the lid, and showed them a slide that led down into the basement of the building. The prisoner told Combs that if the guards didn't like someone, or wanted someone eliminated, that they throw them headfirst into this hole. He put the lid back down. "Now I want to show you what they really did," the prisoner said.
im电竞官网-He led them into the basement of the building. "The end of the slide came down, and there was something that looked like a toilet seat on it. He pointed to it and said, 'This is where their heads came out, and they stayed there. They took that,'—and he pointed over to a metal, huge hammer—'and this is how they killed them. They hit them in the head. They hit them in the head until they were dead.' "
im电竞官网-The prisoner explained that the SS would then bludgeon the teeth out of the dead victims for any gold to be found, and would strip the body of its clothes. "He pointed to huge, shiny eight inch hooks in the wall," Combs says, "and the SS took them out and hung them up on these hooks, and cut their feet so that they'd bleed out." From there, the bodies would be sent to the crematorium to be burned.
"It was so shocking to see," Combs says. "Kids from America trying to accept this as fact, you know?"
im电竞官网-Some prisoners that the Nazis intentionally starved, mistreated, or killed by bullet or blunt force were stacked into rail cars and shipped out of camp. "They usually waited until they had at least two flat cars filled with bodies, then they took them right through the edge of a town, which was probably 400 or 500 yards away," Combs says. "And the train, when it left, went right through the edge of town. We went down into the town and to the people living there—they were used to this. We said, 'How could you possibly stand to see this, with all these bodies coming through town? Didn't you know what was happening?' They shrugged, and said 'Das ist Krieg.'"
im电竞官网-That is war.
im电竞官网-"The colonel made every citizen there, in that little town of maybe 200, walk up to the camp. He got them all organized and standing in line, and they had to walk through Buchenwald and see what had happened there." Some vomited—that smell, that sight—but most didn't. "They were brainwashed. It was a shocking thing to all of us guys who were walking them through: The German people didn't seem to give a damn.
"It's been very difficult for me to accept when I meet people in my business life who have German names or accents," Combs admits. "It just made such a terrible impression. Thank goodness I've come to realize that it doesn't apply to every German, so I've gotten beyond the hate. That was then. This is now."
There would be many walkthroughs of the camp for citizens of the surrounding areas. Journalists like Murrow would arrive later that day and make unforgettable dispatches and take horrifying photos of what they found. An estimated 56,000 people died at Buchenwald. "By the time we left that scene, we'd turned monsters ourselves, because nobody was going to treat us or anyone like that ever again."
im电竞官网-He'd go on to Leipzig, less than a hundred miles away, and take that damned Napoleon Monument from the SS. He'd go on to win a Bronze Star in the Mine Platoon by tying a tourniquet around the arms of a fellow soldier—who he remembers as a Yankees prospect—who got his hands blown off trying to disarm a mine. The war ended in Europe on May 8. He'd go on to marry, settle down in Delaware, Ohio, become a successful salesman and gifted writer, have children. It's been 70 years since he saw Buchenwald. "I can't believe it's been that long, because hell, I'm still upright," he says.
im电竞官网-Nine years ago, Combs was having coffee in a local restaurant in his hometown and noticed a man of about his age kidding with a waitress two stools down from him. She said, "Oh, all you ex-soldiers are alike, you always give me a hard time." When she walked away, Combs introduced himself.
"Where did you serve?" he asked.
"Germany. In the '40s."
"What were you in?"
"Oh," Combs replied, "I was in the infantry, in the 69th division. Where were you, what was your outfit?""
"You wouldn't know it," said the man.
Combs kept egging the gentleman on, saying, "Yes, I knew 'em all. I knew a lot of the guys in different divisions."
"No, you wouldn't know it."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Because I was on the other side."
The man's name was Hans. He was taken when he was 13 years old and thrown into the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. He told Combs that he'd wanted to be a teacher, not a soldier. Through their discussion, Combs learned that, in all likelihood, Hans was shelling Combs and his men with 88 mm guns as they tried to take the Napoleon Monument in Leipzig. He'd been a United States citizen for over 30 years.
im电竞官网-"He had never been offered the opportunity to not serve or to change his views or anything else," Combs says. "He was taken and slammed into training, and he became a developed Nazi. He came over to this country and served a couple of years in prison, and he met and married a lady that was from here, it changed his whole life. But I looked at him and I said, 'How could you live with what you did?' "
im电竞官网-The question hung in the air.