The Greatest Generation

Richard "Dick" Winters, the commander of Easy Company whose World War II exploits were portrayed in the "Band of Brothers" book and HBO series, died last month at the age of 92. Ed Mauser, until he also died last month at the age of 94, was the oldest surviving member of the group. Now, very few are still alive.
 
In Paris
When I heard about these two gentlemen passing, I started thinking again about my wife's father, also a WWII veteran. Unfortunately, he passed away before I even starting dating his daughter so I never met him. Some years later when my wife's mom passed away, while going through the household possessions, my wife and her sister showed me some of their father's Army keepsakes and things he brought back from the war against Germany. I don't think they had any idea what it really was or what their father had been a part of - uniform patches, medals, pictures, war trophy's, a pistol - all in several little boxes. The first patch I pulled from the first box was a shoulder patch, a cloth red numeral 1 - "The Big Red One"  was the First Infantry Division, also known as "The Fighting First" and was one of the most famous and decorated divisions of WWII. They fought across Africa, from Algiers into Tunisia, moved on to take Sicily and then stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually attacked and penetrated the Siegfried line and were in Germany when the war ended.

The recent dead.
When I looked at the pictures, I was shocked to find concentration camp pictures he had taken. Unfortunately, the pictures were damaged, probably from just laying in cardboard boxes in the attic or in the back of a closet for years and years, but you could still make them out. And on the back, written in pencil in my deceased father-in-law Raymond's handwritting, were stories. In just a few words, written in a matter-of-fact, almost dispassionite manner, he told of survival and death, atrocities committed and the ability of people to turn a blind eye, to deny the horror happening right under their noses. From the writing on the back of those pictures and additional research I've done, I've managed to piece together a bit of the history.

200 bodies were laid out for the 
townspeople to see.
The Wobbelin camp, near the city of Ludwigslust, was a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. The SS had established Wobbelin in early February 1945, to house concentration camp prisoners whom the SS had evacuated from other camps to prevent their liberation by the Allies. At its height, Wobbelin held some 5,000 inmates, many of whom were suffering from starvation and disease.

Bodies to be buried on the palace grounds.
There was little food or water, and some prisoners had resorted to cannibalism. When the Army units arrived there, they found about 1,000 inmates dead in the camp. Just a short distance from the camp, downwind from the stench of the dead and within hearing distance of the screams of the tortured, the inhabitants of the town of Ludwigslust claimed they did not know what was happening in the camp. Upon hearing this, the U.S. Army ordered the townspeople to visit the camp and bury the dead on the palace grounds of the Archduke of Mecklenburg.

The townspeople forced to see the bodies.
On May 7, 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division conducted funeral services for 200 inmates in the town of Ludwigslust. Attending the ceremony were citizens of Ludwigslust, captured German officers, and several hundred members of the airborne division. The U.S. Army chaplain at the service delivered a eulogy stating that:

The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here, there were no gas chambers, no crematoria; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes, 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 high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.

May 7, 1945
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. The war in Europe was over. Shortly afterwards, Raymond Hiser found himself in Berlin. And then he came home, got a job, married a woman he met in England, brought her to America and together they raised a family and led a good, but mostly anonamous middle-class life in a suburb. Like a lot of soldiers who saw things people shouldn't see and did things good people shouldn't have to do, he didn't talk about it; he never told his children about that part of his life, never "bragged" about taking part in liberating one of those German hell-holes. He was one of thousands upon thousands of "The Greatest Generation" who simply did what they had to do to defend our country and never asked for anything in return.
Wife's father 3rd from right.

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