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This Day in History: 82nd Airborne rescues Nazi prisoners

On this day in 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division liberates a concentration camp just outside Ludwigslust, Germany. The Wöbbelin camp hadn’t been in operation for too long: It was established in February 1945 as the Nazis sought to move prisoners away from the Allied advance.


Even at this late stage of the war, the Nazis did not want those prisoners rescued.


At this point in the war, of course, the writing was on the wall. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide mere days earlier, and an Allied victory was just around the corner. Allied forces were discovering and liberating thousands upon thousands of Hitler’s prisoners.


Unfortunately, they were too late to help many of the Wöbbelin inmates.


“I was not prepared mentally to deal with the horror of the camp,” one soldier later wrote. James Megellas was a platoon leader at the time. He learned of the camp when a sergeant radioed in, reporting that his squad had just found a chain-link fence.


“Some skinny-looking guys in bad shape are peering back at us,” that sergeant reported.


Our soldiers entered the camp to find about 1,000 prisoners already dead. Those still living were skin and bones, literally starving to death.


“The first concern was for the living,” Megellas reported. “Bread and canned meat were brought from a German warehouse. The sight of food on the arriving trucks triggered a stampede of frenzied men. They climbed over one another, grabbing for food like animals in the jungle. However, after months of food deprivation, their digestive tracks were unable to process solid food.”


In the end, ambulances took the survivors to a makeshift hospital where they were IV-fed until their digestive systems were ready for solid food again.


German citizens in the nearby town of Ludwigslust claimed that they had no idea what had been happening behind closed doors, of course. (Do you believe them?) Either way, the U.S. Army showed them the camp. The Germans would be forced to witness the atrocities that they’d allowed so near their town—and they would be required to dig graves for the victims.


The graves were to be marked with crosses and Stars of David (see attached picture).


“Before the bodies were finally laid to rest,” Megellas concludes, “every inhabitant—ten thousand residents, ranging from housewives to city fathers—was required to pass through the plaza and witness the remains. . . . Some, mostly elderly women, seem mortified by the sight; most residents, with hats in hand, accepted the view stoically.”


A funeral was conducted on May 7, with all three of the 82nd Airborne’s chaplains in attendance—one was Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish. The Protestant chaplain, however, addressed the crowd, delivering a scathing eulogy and discussing the “crimes here committed in the name of the German people.”


Did I mention that the citizens of Ludwigslust had been ordered to attend the funeral, too?


“Within four miles of your comfortable homes,” chaplain George P. Wood concluded, “4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs. In three weeks, 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled four and five feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.”


A sobering story for today, but it’s an important story as well. After all, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

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