R. Wayne Detwiler
“In My Own Words”
25 June 1919 – 09 May 2007
Army Air Corps – 8th Air Force, Staff Sergeant
For many years, I said little about the war. Scenes I witnessed were horrific and almost beyond belief. I have never forgotten them. Memories were kept to myself or shared with my buddies who were there. One day I began to write about those memories.
I enrolled in Penn State University after graduating from high school in 1940. I enlisted in the army air corps in November of 1942, and by June of 1943 I was in Cambridge, England. The Battle of the Bulge occurred in December 1944, and I remember visiting our wounded GIs in the local hospital who had returned from the battle. Many were severely injured, but they often asked when they could return to their company.
My first training camp was at Tidworth, England. Some Italian POWs were kept there and were allowed to taunt us as we returned at the end of a day’s training. POWs loafed all day enjoying sports, movies, and good food while we were being trained for frontline duty. Ogborne-St. George, England, was our second and final training camp. We became known as reinforcement troops rather than replacements. Congress thought replacement a harsher term and less politically correct.
In December 1944 there was a call for replacement troops due to excessive losses of men. A special program was created to prepare men for the infantry. At the time I was working in squadron headquarters, and I told the adjutant I wanted to volunteer. I was told they would not take me because my sergeant rank was too high.
This new unit was designed for some of the recruits who were men released from disciplinary centers located in Ireland. The DTC’s prisoners had committed serious crimes, and authorities commuted terms for the men if they volunteered for the infantry. It resulted in some men using the release as a way to avoid punishment and ultimately go AWOL to escape infantry duty in Germany.
Five of us volunteered for the infantry reinforcement program. I was surprised at the hurried training and the poor attitudes of many of the men. After the training was completed, we received a three day pass, and many of the men went AWOL. Later, several were caught and sent to infantry divisions in Germany. Our division was based at Camp Lucky Strike in France, and we helped to process other units as they were leaving Europe.
Since I had rifle training in my ROTC training at Penn State, I had an advantage going into the infantry. Our reinforcement group was assigned to the 89th Infantry Division joining the unit at the Rhine River. I became a member of an antitank squad and met some really great men. We crossed over the Rhine River on pontoon bridges without incident.
We were attached to Patton’s 11th Armored Division, moving rapidly through Germany headed to Berlin. The Germans were retreating to Berlin. Along the way, we were exposed to German sniper fire. On April 4, 1945, moving through Germany, we came upon a German POW camp. German camps fulfilled two roles: violence and extermination, and slave labor and economic production. Eventually, all camps became death camps.
Spring had arrived and leaves and flowers were beginning to emerge. Our morale was high and we thought the worst was behind us. As combat soldiers we had witnessed death and destruction. Little did we know that we were soon to witness unimaginable sights and horror.
As we approached Ohrdruf, we experienced some machine-gun and rifle fire but soon eliminated the German resistance. Our units crashed through the gates of the prison camp. We had come upon the first labor camp that was encountered by western Allies. Russia had captured Auschwitz in January 1945, but not much information was available to the Americans. Auschwitz was a death camp and Ohrdruf was a slave labor camp. Upon entering the camp, the scenes were witnessed were indescribable scenes of death and horror. There was a sickening stench of dead and burning flesh everywhere. Dead bodies, many recently shot, were scattered around the camp. To avoid stepping on the bodies was nearly impossible. Lice and fleas covered the bodies. A few survivors were staggering around or were lying on the ground in their final moments of life. They were walking skeletons. I wondered how they had even survived.
There was a fog of death everywhere. As I walked through the camp, I came upon a shed containing upward of one hundred naked, dead bodies. They had been stacked on top of each other and lime had been sprinkled on them. Further on, I saw a grill-like structure with a pit below. Bodies had been placed on this grill and burned like a piece of meat. The burning flesh was sickening. Nearby barracks were filled with the smell of urine and feces.
We left the camp and returned to the nearby village of Ohrdruf. Searching for guards, we entered the mayor’s house, and he became very angry. I pointed my tommy-gun at his stomach, and he left the house. We rounded up the villagers and the mayor and ordered them to go with us to the campsite. Many of the men, women, and children, covered their eyes and noses at the sights they saw. Many became ill. Later that night the mayor and his wife went home and committed suicide. How the villagers were in denial for all of this time was beyond me. They were such a short distance away they had to smell the stench of burning flesh. They told us they didn’t know the camp existed even though they had seen the prisoners marched through their village.
General Eisenhower ordered all troops in the area, not actively engaged in combat, to tour the camp. He wanted them to witness the other side of the brutality of war. Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton also toured the camps and were horrified at what they saw.
After the liberation of Ohrdruf, our medical teams tried to save as many of the survivors as possible but many died as they were too near to starvation. We continued to pursue the German army. I remember in one German village, a villager told us, “You know how to win wars, but you cannot win the peace. Russia will become your enemy.” How true these words became.
In May 1945, after VE Day in Europe, our unit moved back to Stadtilm, a town soon to be turned over to the Russians. All evidence of the camp was destroyed. Our mission was to keep order. Released slave laborers, known as Displaced Persons (DPs), roamed throughout Germany, and our task was to protect the German civilians.
One evening, late May 1945, our squad talked with a Czechoslovakian doctor who had survived several of the death camps. He had survived only because his skills as a doctor were needed; however, he saw his wife and son taken to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. He told us about the common practice of sadism and brutality practiced by the guards.
Part of his time was spent at Ohrdruf, and he talked about the beatings, sickness, and deaths by sickness and execution. He also witnessed the various medical experiments conducted at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He saw the twin experiments conducted by the notorious Dr. Mengele. After the war, Mengele avoided capture by the Allies, and authorities believe he fled to South America and was never captured.
In June of 1945 I was sent back to Camp Lucky Strike located in La Havre, France. I was assigned to battalion headquarters and helped with the deployment of men returning to the States. I had earned more than enough points for discharge but some of our AWOL GIs were sent home first. I met with an inspector general and explained the situation. I was finally sent home in November of 1945, returning to the States on the EB Alexander troopship.
After arriving home I finished my degree at Penn State, using the GI Bill. My wife and I moved to Indiana in February of 1948, and I completed my masters at Purdue University. I returned to Pennsylvania and worked for the Department of Agriculture.
In 1950 we returned to Indiana, and I became a Purdue Agricultural Extension Agent. Eventually, I resigned from my position with Purdue. After living in Kendallville, Indiana, for a few years, we moved to Richmond, Centerville, and finally to Greens fork, where I worked as a poultry specialist and ran a large chicken farm.
WWII was called the “good war,” perhaps a “necessary war” to rid the world of some evil tyrants and their regimes. To achieve this objective, victory resulted after millions had been killed, starved, and displaced. I will never forget the masses of homeless and displaced persons walking on the Autobahn east through Germany and west to former homes in France and the Low Countries.