© The Boston Globe 2001. Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II
PART V: VENGEANCE AT DACHAU
by Thomas Farragher / Globe Staff / July 2, 2001
Page 3 of 9
Continued from page 2
The road to Dachau was an unwelcome diversion for battle-hardened men of the 45th ''Thunderbird'' Division, some of the most combat-tested soldiers of World War II.
By April 1945 they had seen 500 days of combat, enduring terror, absorbing monumental casualties, and witnessing events few men ever have. Doing things few men will ever do - like helping to rescue the world from tyranny.
They had seen civilian scavengers dig up American graves in the North African desert. They had invaded Sicily and secured strategically crucial beachheads at Salerno and Anzio. They fought in icy Italian mountains and helped liberate Rome. They landed in German-occupied southern France and pushed through the ''Siegfried Line'' fortifications between France and Germany.
''You've got to understand, you almost turn inhuman as to your feelings,'' said Edwin Gorak, now 80, of Elmwood Park, Ill., who marched into Dachau after its liberation and took photographs of the horror. ''You get hardened.''
Felix L. Sparks was the 27-year-old commander of one of the liberating battalions. The lieutenant colonel, a native Texan, was pushing for Munich, a coveted military prize, when he was ordered to take Dachau instead.
Sparks and his men didn't know what Dachau was. The former munitions factory 10 miles northwest of Munich had been remade into a death camp in 1933. Elite German SS troops were trained just outside the electrified barbed wire fence. Inside, the Nazis tortured, shot, starved, or worked to death more than 30,000 prisoners.
But to the men who advanced on the camp that springtime day, like First Lieutenant William P. Walsh of Massachusetts, Dachau was just a tiny point on a wrinkled war map.
''Sparks comes up to me and says, 'Walsh, take the company, and I want you to go up these railroad tracks,''' Walsh recalled in a 1990 limited-release documentary made by James Kent Strong, a California filmmaker. ''There was a line of railroad tracks heading up in the general direction of the camp. You couldn't really see the camp from the village. ... And he said, `Don't let anybody out.'
''He said: 'It's a concentration camp.' I didn't even know what a concentration camp was. I had seen a prisoner of war camp in upstate New York ... where they had Germans in it. I had seen them in there playing soccer and all that kind of stuff. And I kind of thought it was a compound for prisoners.''
What Walsh and his men encountered stunned them: 39 boxcars stuffed with the broken bodies of hundreds upon hundreds of men, women, and children, many in striped concentration camp uniforms. Eyes open. Mouths agape. Skeletons with skin.
And, for many terrible moments, the soldiers' world seemingly spun off its axis.
''The effect of it just opened up a flood of raw emotions,'' Sparks recalled in a recent telephone interview. ''Some men were screaming. Some were cursing. Some were silent. I'm afraid Walsh set the tone for it.''
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