In 1992, Frederick B. Lea recorded his experiences of April 1945. During this month, men of the 4th Armored Division witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand when they overran two concentration camps: Ohrdruf and Buchenwald. Lea was a Captain during the War. He served as company commander of the Headquarters Company, 46th AMB; as Battalion Supply Officer (S-4), and as Division Medical Supply Officer.
In the article Recollections of a Liberator, Captain Lea described his experiences visiting these camps. The article is part of the Frederick B. Lea collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C.
This is part 2 of this series of three articles. I am taking Recollection of a Liberator as a guide in writing the stories of the liberation of Ohrduf (part 1), the liberation of Buchenwald (part 2), and the story of Buchenwald prisoner 21082, the resistance fighter from Luxembourg: Paul Sand (part 3).
I would like to offer a word of caution. The stories, photos, and films that I have included in these articles are shocking and may not be suitable for every reader.
11 April 1945
The day Buchenwald was liberated was one of much confusion for everybody involved.
For the prisoners and the SS guards of Buchenwald the anticipation of the advancing US Army units and the consequent orders on how to deal with the remaining prisoners and the coming Americans made it a day of anxiety and confusion. Would the order be given to murder the remaining prisoners? Would the SS be ordered to leave the camp to fight against the Americans? Would a last-minute evacuation be ordered?
For the American forces advancing east, the discovery of Buchenwald was completely unexpected and came in the middle of “regular” military operations. This meant that some of the first troops that reached Buchenwald immediately went past the camp to continue the offensive. Some small groups of Americans were the first troops to enter the camp. It appears that only one or two stayed there for a significant amount of time. The real American involvement with the camp started the days after 11 April 1945.
All this confusion led to much debate on what happened that April day. Did the prisoners liberate the camp themselves? This view of the events was held for decades in communist East Germany, which for propaganda use makes sense as many of the prisoners were (German) communists.
Or did the Americans liberate the camp? And if so, who was there first?
According to different accounts, there are several Americans credited with being the first. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, acknowledging divisions for liberating concentration camps, still credits the 6th Armored Division with the liberation of Buchenwald.
The Gedenkstätte Buchenwald, the museum on the site of the camp, has a different view. It credits members of the 4th Armored Division with being the first to reach the camp.
Personally, I don’t think that it matters who was there first. The best evidence shows that members of both the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions entered Buchenwald within minutes of each other.
I do think that the 4th Armored Division should be credited not only for liberating Ohrdruf, but also Buchenwald, as the evidence is clear that the division’s actions meet the criteria for this.
First let’s look at what we can find on what happened that day, 11 April 1945. Then I will look at the information found in Recollections of a Liberator.
11 April 1945
The timeline that is presented on the site of the Buchenwald Gedenkstätte shows us this:
Units of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions of the Third U.S. Army continue their advance from the area around Gotha towards the east via Erfurt.
around 10:00 a.m.
Camp senior Hans Eiden and Franz Eichhorn are ordered to report to the camp gate. Concentration camp commandant Pister announces the withdrawal of the SS to Eiden and instructs him to take control of the camp when this plan goes into effect.
The “enemy alarm” siren sounds. The order “All members of the SS out of the camp immediately!” is given over the loudspeakers.
The international camp committee mobilizes the resistance groups and distributes illegally obtained weapons.
Infantry fire of American troops northwest of the camp.
The members of the SS command staff flee. The watchtower personnel absconds.
The first two tanks of the 4th Armored Division of the Third U.S. Army approach from the direction of Hottelstedt.
Heavy machine-gun fire at the north-western edge of the camp; twelve American tanks are sighted near the service courtyard. Four American tanks circuit the camp to the north of the grounds. Heavy fighting between American troops and the SS to the west of the camp.
Tanks of the 37th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division overrun the SS and command staff area without stopping. The SS has been militarily defeated.
The armed resistance groups gather downhill from the roll-call square.
Otto Roth, the head of the military resistance groups, and two electricians enter the gate building by way of a ladder and occupy it without encountering resistance. The camp senior Hans Eiden follows them, hoists a white flag, and informs the camp of the situation in a short loudspeaker announcement.
As planned, and without a struggle, the international resistance groups have taken control of the various areas of the camp and captured 76 prisoners in the process.
Representatives of ten nations gather. They appoint a camp council and various commissions to ensure survival.
around 5:00 p.m.
Two scouts of the 4th Armored Division arrive at the camp gate in a jeep. Lieutenant Emmanuel Desard and Sergeant Paul Bodot – both Frenchman – learn of the combat operations from the liberated inmates. Lieutenant Desard appoints the camp senior head of the camp. He reports to the division staff what he has discovered: a liberated camp, armed and organized inmates.
around 5:10 p.m.
A reconnaissance troop of the 9th Infantry Batallion, part of Combat Team 9 of the 6th Armored Division, enters the camp at the northern end of the grounds. Captain Frederic Keffer, Sergeant Herbert Gottschalk, Sergeant Harry Ward and Private James Hoyt are greeted as liberators. Like Desard and Bodot, they remain for only a short time.
For more information on Buchenwald and its liberation, I highly recommend this book by the Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Also, you can read some background of the camp in the USHMM Encyclopedia: Buchenwald.
According to this timeline, the first American activity was heard around 11 a.m., coming from the northwest. The first US tanks were seen around 1 p.m. coming from the northwest, from the direction of Hottelstedt.
About an hour later there was more fighting around the SS barracks on the western side of the camp. This fighting lasted about half an hour, after which these 4thAD troops continued their advance east.
These were the first two groups of US troops to reach Buchenwald.
Around 5 p.m. two French scouts, part of CCB, 4th AD arrived at Buchenwald and entered the camp followed, probably within minutes, by the first patrol from the 6th AD.
Now, let’s see if we can identify the first two groups of 4th AD troops.
The After Action Report of the 37th TB for 11 April 1945 reads as follows:
As we can see the 37th TB and the 10th AIB, both attached to CCB this day, split into two groups at Ottstedt (am Berge). A/37 and C/10 advanced southeast towards Daasdorf. B/37 and A/10 first moved northeast and then continued east.
Later A/37 and C/10 were ordered back to Ottstedt to follow the path of B/37 and A/10.
I believe that the first group that reached Buchenwald were the men of B/37 and A/10, moving probably around the northern edge of the Camp. This is the group that reached Buchenwald between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. This group came from the direction of Hottelstedt.
It is interesting to note that they thought that they had encountered a PW camp of about 800-1000 prisoners. Moving along the northern edge of Buchenwald, they probably were only able to see a small portion of the camp.
Later A/37 and C/10 moved from Ottstedt to the east, reaching the western part of the camp (the SS barracks and offices) where they fought the remaining SS troops before continuing their advance east. This is the second group that reached Buchenwald around 2 p.m.
The first 4th AD men to enter the camp were the two French soldiers attached to CCB: Emmanuel Desard and Paul Bodot, driving their Jeep named Le Crabe.
They gave the leader of the international committee that the prisoners formed, Hans Eiden, a “safe passage”.
In this article (in French), Sgt Paul Bodot described that he was part of a “Military Intelligence Interpretation team” attached to CCB/4.
In the article, on page 19, he also wrote that Desard wrote a message describing the camp containing around 20,000 prisoners in terrible condition. He requested medical aid to be sent urgently. They took this message to CCB, by that time located at Grosskromsdorf, where it was sent up to the division HQ.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a copy of this message. We do have a copy of the 4th AD G-2 Journal. It recorded a message sent by the 56th IPW (Interrogation of Prisoners of War) team attached to the 4th AD. This message described the same information that Bodot described in the French article, so it is possible the message in the G-2 Journal is the one from Desard.
4th AD G-2 Journal 11 April 1945:
We can also read it in the full G-2 report for 11 April 1600h-12 April 1600h:
The next day, 12 April 1945, the commanding general of the 4th AD (Maj. Gen. Hoge) requested the Military Government unit attached to the 80th ID take over the care of the camp and its inhabitants so that the 4th AD could continue its advance east.
Message Maj.Gen. Hoge:
Elements of the 80th ID took control of Buchenwald the same day.
Recollections of a Liberator
Now let’s take a look at what Capt. Lea wrote about Buchenwald in his report.
Captain Lea wrote that on 11 April 1945 he was on the highway near Weimar, Germany. He drove there together with his friend: Captain Henry “Hank” Kleinman of the 126th Arm. Ord/Main Bn. They were responsible for the division’s supplies. Lea was responsible for the medical supplies, Kleinman for the rest.
In his unpublished memoirs, Capt. Lea described how he drove in his Jeep with painted Red Cross on the grill and Red Cross pennant flying on the wire cutter welded to the grill of the Jeep.
Capt. Kleinman drove in a Jeep that was armed with a machinegun. The two officers drove together to keep up with the forward elements of the combat commands, so they could direct the resupply convoys to these elements as soon as possible.
When they heard a tank commander’s report on the radio of the discovery of Buchenwald, they left the highway and drove directly to the reported coordinates. They were there in minutes.
In his unpublished memoirs, Lea described the scene as follows:
“ As it worked out, and due to our freedom of movement, we were together on the Autobahn one afternoon (April 11, 1945) near Weimar (objective of the division) when we heard a radio message from a tank commander saying he had discovered a large prisoner camp and asking for infantry to come and take over. He gave map coordinates and we were there in minutes, – the first ones.
He was standing in the turret of his tank while the other five tanks were herding the prisoners back toward the fence. They had cut wire fences and were attempting to chase the fleeing guards into the woods. We told him we might know someone in there; and he said, “I’ve got trouble of my own”. I have to wait for the “Doughs”, my objective is Weimar.” Frederick B. Lea, unpublished memoirs.
Next in Recollections of a Liberator, Lea described their arrival at the wrought iron gate with the superstructures.
At the gate, they asked a prisoner about their “special prisoner”, the resistance fighter from Luxemburg.
“At the gate, we found a prisoner in charge and gave him the number that Kleinman had those months. Soon, it was announced over the public address system, ordering the prisoner to come to the front gate. The person who appeared did not match the photo Kleinman carried but we checked the number on his arms. Not knowing what else to do, we took him, immediately to our nearest medical company clearing station at the Weimar airport (about 3 miles) and turned him over to the doctors.” Frederick B. Lea, unpublished memoirs.
The full story of this prisoner, Paul Sand, will be told in part 3 of this series.
After they brought Paul Sand to the medics of the 4th AD, Lea and Kleinman returned to Buchenwald. This time accompanied by Major Gromer, Division Dental Surgeon. The three officers and their drivers then proceeded to inspect the camp fully. Lea’s driver was Sgt. Lucien Picard.
“The Dental Surgeon Gromer accompanied us back to the camp- Buchenwald- and the six of us ( 3 officers & drivers) spent an hour touring the camp, conducted by the prison camp leader- most were communists, the largest group. We took pictures and listened to a number who were eager to share their experiences. It was a sickening sight, which we have attempted to describe elsewhere (my “Recollections of a Liberator “ booklet, you have). Frederick B. Lea, unpublished memoirs.
In Recollections of a Liberator, Lea described that when they returned at Buchenwald, the scene was still chaotic. Some prisoners were trying to leave the camp while some of the American soldiers were trying to keep them in the camp. Also, he described that the last Germans were being rounded up. This suggests that it was between 4 and 5 p.m.
The group of Americans then entered the camp and were taken on a tour of the camp. Lea’s description of the prisoners is heartbreaking. The group decided not to take pictures of the prisoners as they felt it was disrespectful. A few days later photographer Margret Bourke-White did take some photos of the prisoners for Life Magazine.
Also, some American camera teams filmed Buchenwald. I have included their films to give you an even better impression of the camp and its prisoners. As these images are not suitable for all viewers, you have to click to indicate that you do want to view them.
The group that Lea was with only took photos around the compound of the crematorium. These photos show the crematorium ovens, the cart full of corpses, and the mount of human ashes outside of the crematorium. They also show the wooden mallet and metal wire that the SS guards had used to club and hang their victims in the basement of the crematorium.
Recollections photo: Maj. Gromer, Capt. Lea, Sgt Picard in teh crematorium:
Recollections photo: Capt. Lea in the crematorium:
The same photo then and now:
Recollections photo: Capt. Lea holds the mallet and the wire used by the SS. Mount of human ashes in the background:
A few days later, this prisoner demonstrated the use of the wire and mallet ot visiting GIs in the basement of the crematorium:
Recollections photo: Cart full of corpses outside the crematorium:
The same cart a few days later. It seems that in the time betwee these photos, more corpses were collected:
What is unclear is whether the group of 4th AD soldiers only visited the so-called big camp (or main camp), or they also visited the “little camp”. This part of the camp was located on the northern edge of the main camp.
A= Little Camp; B= Main Camp; C= Appelplatz (the crematorium is just to the east of this, the main gate is to the south of this); G= SS Barracks.
The prisoners here faced the worst conditions in the camp. At first, this part of the camp was used to quarantine new prisoners for a while, before they entered the main camp. But by April 1945, the little camp was overflowing with starving and diseased prisoners, many of them Jews. There was no sanitation to speak of. There was an open sass pool where prisoners were to relieve themselves. One of the American soldiers to visit this part of the camp remembers that one of the prisoners had fallen in this sass pool and was too weak to get out. He drowned in human excrements.
American liberators described that even the prisoners of the main camp looked at the prisoners of the little camp as subhuman. Some urged the Americans not to enter there and not to help them for this reason. The SS treatment of the prisoners of Buchenwald, based on sowing division among them had left them numb to others’ suffering.
When we read Capt. Lea’s account, and his description of the prisoners’ condition, I think that the group did visit the little camp.
I have included some other recollections of Americans who visited Buchenwald in the days after the liberation. Reporter Edward Murrow’s account is possibly the most famous:
Jim Sanders drove an ambulance in the 585th Ambulance Company. He was evacuating the 4th AD clearing stations:
Capt. Lea finished his description of his visit by writing that he contacted the Division Surgeon, Lt. Col. Morris Abrams, and requested immediate medical help which resulted in the arrival of an evacuation hospital within hours. I believe that Capt. Lea is mistaken in this. The first evacuation hospital to set up in Buchenwald was the 120th Evacuation Hospital.
According to John C. McManus in his book Hell before their very eyes, on page 50, this hospital only arrived on the 15 April 1945.
For more information on the 120th Evacuation Hospitals experience at Buchenwald, you can read in Buchenwald and Beyond (page 43 -50).
From 1 May 1945, the 45th Evacuation Hospital was also sent to Buchenwald to provide medical care for the prisoners remaining there.
When Capt. Lea wrote Recollections of a Liberator in 1992, he wrote about his recollections of events 47 years ago. Inevitably, some memories much have blurred by then. When we look at the timeline established by Recollections of a Liberator some facts point towards this.
The description of his first arrival at Buchenwald, with the chaos, the tank standing there, etc. points to 11 April 1945. This description does not fit any later date.
However when he wrote that they took Paul Sand, the resistance fighter, to the nearest clearing station at Weimar’s airfield (located near Nohra at 50.967258, 11.242503) that presents us with a problem.
Company C, 46th AMB moved its clearing station there on 12 April 1945. Now, in fairness, it is possible that Company A, 46th AMB, that ended 11 April 1945 at Bucha paused and set up its clearing station temporarily at the airfield during the day. However, I have not found any document stating this. Company B, 46th AMB did pause during 11 April, but this is reported at location J375740, which is to the west near Töttleben. So possibly Paul Sand was brought there.
46th AMB S-3 Journal April 1945:
Paul Sand himself remembered being taken from Buchenwald on April 13th, 1945. He remembered it was the day the US Army mourned the death of President Roosevelt. For more on this story, you can read part 3.
My personal view is that Capt. Lea and Capt. Kleinmann were at Buchenwald on 11 April 1945 driving in the wake of the advancing 4th AD units but may have returned there for the more extensive visit on the 12th or 13th with Major Gromer. I think that maybe they took Paul Sand with them during this visit.
Now, I don’t claim to know what happened exactly on what day. I do think it is important for historical accuracy to point out these discrepancies, not to criticize a man who has become one of my heroes, but to show him the respect he deserves by studying his memories and trying to fit them into the puzzle of history to the best of my abilities.
Ultimately, I think the power of Recollections of a Liberator lies in the descriptions of the scenes and the thoughts and emotions caused by them.
“One had to smell, feel, hear, experience the unspeakable horror, the desolation, the evidence of torture, starvation, and death. No one word or sentence can describe it and a thousand would still be an understatement.” Frederick B. Lea.
That and his reflections at the end to me are the messages of his recollections.
Capt. Lea’s reflections:
Some of his reflections were again written down in an article in the Jewish Advocate, Vol. 196 No. 14, April 4-18 2005. In this article Lea was interviewed together with Elie Wiesel about their experiences of April 1945.
(I have included the article with permission granted by the Jewish Advocate. It is copyrighted and can not be copied, duplicated or distributed in any way).