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1945 letter: U.S. medic tells parents about Dachau

HaroldPorterLetterNationalArchivesImage courtesy of the National Archives.

“There is a rumor circulating which says that the war is over,” Pfc. Harold Porter wrote 69 years ago today. “But we’re not too excited about it because we know that it does not mean too much as far as our immediate situation is concerned.”

Porter’s “situation” is evident from the letterhead he used: Waffen-SS with a Dachau address — the camp commander’s stationary.

The Army medic sat down on May 7, 1945, to try to tell his parents in Michigan — the Rev. and Mrs. D.H. Porter —  how he was doing. 

“It is difficult to know how to begin,” Porter says. “By this time I have recovered from my first emotional shock and am able to write without seeming like a hysterical gibbering idiot. Yet, I know you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and focused I try to be. I even find myself trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes. Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life.

“We knew a day or two before we moved that we were going to operate in Dachau, and that it was the location of one of the most notorious concentration camps, but while we expected things to be grizzly [sic], I’m sure none of us knew what was coming. It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed.”

Porter wasn’t the only one in the Army coming to grips with the horrors of the Holocaust. When America’s leading generals — Dwight Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley — visited Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, on April 12, Ike said, “The things I saw beggar description.”

It was so overpowering, the Supreme Allied Commander ordered every soldier in the vicinity to see it for himself. “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,” Eisenhower said. “Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

By the way, Harold was right. The rumor was true. The war in Europe was over. The Germans had surrendered at 2:41 a.m. French time on May 7, 1945, but reporters were told the news was embargoed until the next day. V-E Day, therefore, was — and is — celebrated on May 8.

To read a transcript of Harold’s letter, go here.

To look at a Harold’s handwritten four-page letter, go here.

h/t Slate’s The Vault

Updated: Ken, that was what worried Eisenhower. Ike cabled Gen. George C. Marshall: “I made the visit [to the concentration camp] 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 (Old Blood and Guts!) would not even enter a room where humans were stacked like wood, starved to death. “He said that he would be sick if he did so,” according to Ike.

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