Using stationery found in the abandoned office of the camp commandant, Pfc Porter found himself at a loss to convey the horrors he encountered at the Dachau concentration camp : boxcars filled with thousands of decomposing bodies, the crematorium surrounded by stacks of nude corpses, and the stacks of carefully sorted clothing belonging to the victims. He sat down, grabbed some pieces of paper and started writing …
Dear Mother and Father,
You have, by this time, received a letter mentioning that I am quartered in the concentration camp at Dachau. It is still undecided whether we will be permitted to describe the conditions here, but I’m writing this now to tell you a little, and will mail it later when we are told we can. It is difficult to know how to begin. 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. To think that I once scoffed at Valtin’s book Out of the Night as being preposterous! I’ve seen worse.
sights than he described.
The trip south from Göttingen was pleasant enough. We passed through Donauworth and Aichach and as we entered Dachau, the country, with the cottages, rivers, country estates and Alps in the distance, was almost like a tourist resort. But as we came to the center of the city, we met a train with a wrecked engine – about fifty cars long. Every car was loaded with bodies. There must have been thousands of them – all obviously starved to death. This was a shock of the first order, and the odor can best be imagined [sic]. But neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were still to see.
Marc Coyle reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory. Dead SS troopers were scattered around the grounds, but when we reached the furnace house we came upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn’t be wasted by the burning. There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once, and on each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies – one big stinking rotten mess. Their faces
purple, their eyes popping, and with a hideous grin on each one. They were nothing but bones & skins. Coyle had assisted at ten autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random. Eight of them had advanced tuberculosis, all had typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms. There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men.
While we were inspecting the place, freed prisoners drove up with wagon loads of corpses removed from the compound proper. Watching the unloading was horrible. The bodies swooshed and gurgled as they hit the pile and the odor could almost be seen.
Behind the furnaces was the execution chamber, a windowless cell twenty feet square with gas nozzles every few feet across the ceiling. Outside, in addition to a huge mound of charred bone fragments, were the carefully sorted and stacked clothes of the victims – which obviously numbered in the thousands. Although I stood there looking at it, I couldn’t believe it. The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you.
There is a rumor circulating which says that the war is over. It probably is – as much as it will ever be. We’ve all been expecting the end for several days, but were not too excited about it because we know that it does not mean too much as far as our immediate situation is concerned. There was no celebration – it’s difficult to celebrate anything with the morbid state we’re in.
The Pacific theater will not come immediately for this unit; we have around 36.000 potential and eventual patients here. The end of the work for everyone else is going to be just the beginning for us.
Today was a scorching hot day after several raining cold ones. The result of the heat on the corpses is impossible to describe, and the situation will probably get worse because their disposal will certainly take time.
My arm is sore from a typhus shot so I’m ending here for the present. More will follow later. I have lots to write about now.
May 10 1945
Dear Mother and Father
I’ve told you before about thousands of dead bodies here. They are not nearly so more horrible as our patients, the living corpses. Gandhi, after a thirty day fast would still look like Hercules when compared with some of these men. They have no butthole at all, and on their vertebrae can be seen rubbing on their stomach. It’s unbelievable they can still be alive. And the odor of the ward is nearly as bad as the odor of the cemetery. All have raw ugly bedsores, pus dripping infections, scabies, scales, ulcers, bites plus typhus, beriberi, scurvy, Tuberculose erysipelas and 101 other symptoms.
We don’t even think of them as humans if we did we ever be able to do the work. They look like weird beings from Mars – with their shaven heads (part of the delousing technique) knobby joints, huge hands, feet, and popping eyes. Many are toothless. They like curled up in the oddest positions, and when morning comes you go around and remove the corpses – still stiff in the freakish pose they held when they died. Most have dysentery of the continuous and bloody type – and of course are unable to drag themselves to the latrine. The alternative I’ll leave you to imagine. (I certainly
am thankful I’m not a ward boy.) Those that are not gibbering idiots are dumb statues. They die off like flies while I’m giving them penicillin. To enter award at night is like hearing the Inner Sanctum radio program. There are weird wales, sobs, groans, rattles gnashing of teeth and above it all the chant of men praying. I will never forget this as long as I live. I have picked up complete bodies in a blanket with two fingers to carry them to the crematorium.
This job could go on forever; the number of patients for practical purposes is indefinite. Normally we’re a 400 bed hospital. We’re supposed to take over 1200 here.
I wear a mask, gowns, hat and rubber gloves all the time, but you can bet your life it will be just my luck to come down with something. The fellows are volunteering for infantry duty in the Pacific, but no such luck.
13 May 1945
Dear Mother and Father,
If the numbers on my letters and the date seemed confused, remember that several of these are being written several weeks before they will be mailed. It won’t be until the [the] sixteenth that we’ll be able to say we are in Dachau.
Today I talked to several Italian girls here, (through an interpreter) who were kept for the amusement of the SS troops. I gather that the life they lead is beyond description. We’ve already had other evidence of the sexual orgies of these troops. The Yugoslav who was forced to operate the crematory for the Germans is operating it voluntarily for us. He tells of having to go to the SS barracks to get the bodies of the girls after a particularly wild evening. Gals who refused to cooperate were burned alive before their companions – who decided to cooperate.
Tonight some prisoners formed an orchestra and held a dance with a lot of love girls. Things are getting less morbid lately. 400 Belgians have already left for home. Several International Red Cross trucks with loads of candy, fruit and cigarets have been here already, and the corpses are being gradually collected and burned.
The enclosed picture is of the officer whose stationary I’m using. He apparently had an excellent camera because we found a lot of
shots all equally good. The surprising thing to me was the nonchalance of his life. Then there were pictures of his wife, his little girls, his dogs, his horses, motorboats etc., yet within view of his office window was the mound of corpses behind the crematory.
Here the penicillin team has a private office, complete with a brand-new electric refrigerator. All the 12 wards have these now – since we found a warehouse full of them still in the crates.
Except for my thirty days in the hospital, I’ve worked at least twelve hours a day ever since we landed in Marseille. Now that the war is over I hope things will relax a little so that we can have one day a week off.
The new patients are recovering and we’re having regular food riots in the wards. They don’t understand why we give them so little, but if we don’t it all comes up within the minute after it went down because they haven’t eaten for so long. You can imagine the gobble and confusion when award of 110 patients has about 8 or 10 different languages being spoken at once.
May 15 1945
Dear Father and Mother,
German civilians are being used to help clean up this mess – the mountains of rotting corpses. They can hardly believe their eyes – exhibit every sign of genuine surprise, shock, and guilt – even to the extent of vomiting and fainting. I’ve talked with a French prisoner who was permitted to travel from camp to camp with an SS guard. He told of how the civilians on the trains recognized his striped uniform, exhibited genuine pity for him and even offered him cigarets. He is sure that not one in a hundred of the German civilians has the faintest idea of what actually goes on in a concentration camp. Yet I wonder.
One interesting part of this camp that haven’t mentioned is that its large female complement – the wives, mistresses, Russian showgirls. Etc. that were kept here for the SS troops. They’re all still here, plus lots of their children. The 127th Evacuation Hospital which is also here with us, actually has a maternity ward.
Today I had a chance to read an official army report to the French government on the conditions of the camp at Buchenwald. This camp, like Dachau, specialized in
leadership personnel, but was in extermination camp entirely – exterminating 6000 a month on the average. The industrial efficiency of the slaughter house and crematory was described as being typical of the grim and ruthless determination that has characterized all SS troop undertakings. One little innovation that had had that we haven’t discovered here was the special attention paid to tattooed prisoners. They were all scanned, the skin tanned, then made into lampshades, wallets, and other leather novelties.
The patient’s each had an orange for breakfast the other day. Everyone was excited. But some were to week to even peel them. More and more of them are beginning to look like people and less like animals. We have patient, or prisoner, ward boys to assist us now and things are going a little easier.
Perhaps you’ll see much of this in the newsreels. If so you’ll miss the most grisly part. An article in the Stars & Stripes says that the Hay’s office has decided you can’t couldn’t take it.
Thanks to Erik Brun 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)for the text of the missing pages and also thanks to Mary Burtzloff, Archivist, Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, who sent me the link to the complete file.