THE 522nd FIELD ARTILLERY LIBERATES THE LANDSBERG-KAUFERING DACHAU DEATH MARCH,
MAY 2, 1945
Sub-camps of Dachau were located around the German cities of Landsberg and Kaufering, near Munich, in the German state of Bavaria. These camps were only for Jewish slave laborers. These eleven camps of Landsberg-Kaufering were built and opened in the spring of 1944. The purpose of these concentration camps was to build giant underground airplane assembly factories for the newly developed ME 262, the first jet fighter aircraft in the world, for the German air force.
The slave labor camps of Landsberg and Kaufering were extremely deadly. In the one year that these camps were open, tens of thousands of Jews were worked to death. In fact, most prisoners lasted less than four months. More people were killed in these eleven camps in less than a year than were murdered in the main Dachau camp in more than 13 years of its operation.
The Jewish slave laborers of Landsberg-Kaufering, which included the concentration camps at Utting and Muhldorf, were from Hungary, Poland and Lithuania. More than 30,000 Jewish laborers were exploited in the 11 camps of Landsberg-Kaufering. By the end of one year, fewer than 15,000 of these Jewish men and women had survived.
In the last week of April 1944, Hitler and Himmler had issued an order to concentration camp commanders to march the pitifully few survivors of these camps to the southern Bavarian-Austrian border. This order was for the purpose of evacuating Jewish prisoners from the advancing Allied armies. In addition, they were to be used to build fortifications against the advancing Russian armies. It was the ultimate intention of Hitler and Himmler to murder the last remaining Jews of these camps. After they had finished their final task, they were to be taken to remote areas and murdered, and their bodies burned and hidden.
On April 24, this infamous death march started out with over 10,000 Jews. Those who could not march were immediately shot.
On April 26, the prisoners from the outer camps of Dachau were marched to the main concentration camp in Dachau. From Dachau, the prisoners continued on a brutal death march, where thousands of Jews perished from starvation, thirst, exhaustion, and the brutality of the SS guards.
These Jews were marched through many of the towns of Bavaria in Southern Germany. Germans who claimed they knew nothing of the Holocaust were now confronted with the irrefutable evidence of Nazi brutality and murder.
If a Jewish prisoner fell on this death march, they would be immediately shot by the German, Ukrainian or Hungarian guards or torn to pieces by the fierce guard dogs. In five days, over half the Jews who started off on the death march were murdered.
The death march was unimaginably brutal. The prisoners were not fed for days and were near exhaustion and death. They were forced to march 10-15 hours per day, wearing just tattered striped uniforms and worn out wooden clog shoes. Jewish survivors, who had suffered under the Nazi yoke for five years, were barely alive.
Zwi Katz, a young Jew from Lithuania, remembered, “Our German and Ukrainian guards were unbelievably cruel and brutal. If you couldn't walk, they would simply shoot you in the head and leave your body lying in the road.”
Many of the Jewish marchers weighed less than 80 pounds. Some were just teenagers, like Solly Ganor, who was barely twelve years old in 1941 when the Holocaust began in Lithuania.
Ganor recounted his experiences on the death march. “We had heard the Allied planes bombing Munich for weeks, and we suspected that something would happen soon. In the last week of April, the Nazis began to evacuate our concentration camp located in the small German town of Utting. We didn't know why. We guessed the war would be over soon, or we might be dead soon. We marched for more than five days. It was cold and it rained heavily. We were starved and tired and afraid. I witnessed many people murdered along the way. I don’t know how I was able to survive. We hadn’t eaten for days. I remember just putting one foot in front of the other and somehow finding the strength to live for another minute, an hour, a day.”
By May 1, the death marchers had reached the area around the German town of Bad Toltz. After nearly a week of marching, there were fewer than 6,000 Jews alive, and they were just barely hanging on to life. On May 1, the death march had passed through the small towns of Wolfratshausen and Reichesburren. On May 1, there was an unusually heavy snowfall, which covered the Bavarian countryside in a thick blanket of snow.
On May 2, the death march was just outside the town of Waakirchen, Germany, near the Austrian border. The SS Guards had camped the few thousand souls hanging onto life in a small wooded area. That evening, the German guards began murdering the last of their terrified captives. They indiscriminately fired at the surviving Jews. Some died where they stood, and a few were able to hide in the snow. Many were able to avoid the murderous machine gun fire. After a short while, the firing mysteriously stopped, and it remained quiet.
Ganor recalled, “We eventually wound up in an open field, where our worst fears were confirmed. The SS guards began shooting us down... Luckily, I wasn't hit. Soon the shooting stopped, and we had no idea why.”
“As frightened and hungry as I was, I managed to fall asleep, totally exhausted. I woke up the next morning covered with a blanket of snow. When I looked up, all I saw was white, and I assumed I was dead. Actually, in my weakened condition, the snow served as a sort of an insulation and may have saved me. I awoke to the sound of a truck in the distance. I strained my eyes in fear, wondering who it was. I made out that they were American uniforms and I felt unbelievable relief. As these American soldiers walked towards us, I noticed that they were not Caucasian soldiers; they were Oriental. I immediately began to fear that they might be, in fact, the Japanese Army here to finish us off. I was too tired, and I couldn't run.”
“One of them came up to me and, with a sadness and compassion in his eyes, tried to comfort me. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a candy bar that said ‘Hershey’ on it. At that moment, I realized it was the American army and these were our liberators. I had somehow managed to survive the war. It was the first time in over three years in a ghetto and one year in a concentration camp that a person in uniform showed kindness to me. These men with their strange faces were like angels of mercy, who descended from Heaven to lift me out of my Hell. I can never thank them enough.”
The German SS and Ukrainian guards had heard the approach of the Allied army and abandoned their deadly mission of murdering the Jewish death marchers. Exhausted, the marchers lay in the forest clearing and open fields surrounding the town of Waakirchen.
On the morning of May 2, 1945, advanced patrols of the 522nd Field Artillery found hundreds of survivors of the Holocaust, that they first saw as “lumps in the snow” just off the main road. After a closer investigation, the young Japanese American soldiers determined that these lumps were people, and many were alive.
George Goto remembered seeing the Jewish survivors. “You can't imagine how really pathetic it was to see these people walking with shallow faces, their eyes sunk in. They were just beaten human beings. Actually, everything was gone out of these human beings--they were destroyed and no amount of food or anything like that was going to bring them out of it...But they looked so gruesome. People can't imagine what it was like to see people who were actually nothing but skin and bones. You can't imagine a human being starving other human beings so badly they would get in that condition.”
The Jewish survivors were astonished to discover that their liberators were American soldiers of Japanese descent. The survivors remember the kindness of their faces. The Japanese American soldiers offered them small amounts of food. This was the first act of compassion the survivors had seen in over four years.
Clarence Matsumura was in Headquarters communications, and was responsible for radio repair and maintenance. He remembered, “We were patrolling around May 1 or 2. I remember those dates, because it was near my birthday. We were about forty or fifty miles south of Dachau, in a little town that I remember being called Waakirchen. In an open field, we found several hundred prisoners lying, in many cases unable to move. Some were shot, and some were dead from exposure. Several men from my radio section, including David Sugimoto, saw that these people were starving, and we tried to feed them. I didn’t know that they were Jews, or anything about them. Some were able to speak broken English. They asked who we were, and I told them we were Americans. I told them, ‘You’re free, you’re liberated. The war is over.’ Even though they didn’t speak English, they seemed to understand what we were saying.
“They were obviously starving to death. We tried to feed them, and they couldn’t take the food. Some of them died in my arms, unable to swallow the food that we had given them. I cried. I still feel guilty to this day.”
Matsumura hardly took time out to feed himself during those days. After a while, he had fainted from exhaustion, and remembers being awakened by the survivors, now feeding him.
“For the next three days, we camped in the small town of Waakirchen. We worked day and night to carry these ex-prisoners into barns and into buildings. We even kicked out German families from their homes in order to house the prisoners.”
PFC Minabe Hirasaki of Charlie Battery remembered, “We took over a German chicken ranch in that town and killed all the chickens. We fed the Jewish prisoners with these chickens for days. These people were in terrible condition, so skinny. I can never forget what I saw.”
Katsugo Miho of B Battery remembered, “…seeing Jewish families in Italy and feeling sorry for them. I had no idea this was going on, and that people were being killed. I was told not to feed them, but I fed them anyway.”
The Jewish survivors of the Dachau death march credit the Japanese Americans not only with their liberation, but also with saving their lives from the German guards.
For the next three days, Japanese American soldiers continued to carry the survivors to the nearby town of Waakirchen. There, they put them in warm houses and barns. They provided them with blankets, gloves, hats and socks. Some survivors were given army rations and perished from the effect of eating too much too fast. Some of these survivors were not even able to swallow whole food, and had to be given soup or soft food, such as powdered eggs, milk and soft pancakes.
The 522nd Field Artillery left the area around Waakirchen, Germany, on May 4, 1945. Along with the 101st Airborne Division, they participated in the capture of Hitler's headquarters at Berchtesgaden in Obersalzberg, Austria.
The 522nd was given one last assignment as part of the occupation of Germany at the end of the war. Before being deactivated and sent home, they spent several months in the German town of Donauworth. There, they got to know first-hand some of the townspeople, who befriended the Nisei soldiers.