Stories of Dachau Survivors

Cecil Davis - an American POW at Dachau

The following article is quoted from a newspaper story written by MARK MUCKENFUSS in The Press-Enerprise in 2009:

Cecil Davis still remembers the piled-up bodies, the stench and the charred remains he was ordered to clean out of the crematory ovens.

It was late April 1945. The German Army was in retreat and the concentration camp at Dachau was on its last legs. Davis was with a group of American prisoners of war who had gotten lost marching through the German countryside, picked up by a patrol and dropped at the death camp.

"We figured we'd gone to hell," says Davis, 85, of Hemet. "I'm looking at stacks of bodies. It was a horrible smell."

The Germans were trying to get rid of the bodies as quickly as they could. Davis recalls that frequently the gas supply would go off during the cremation. When the ovens were opened, there would be partially burned bodies to remove.

"One day, one guy started screaming, 'I can't do this! I can't do this!' " Davis says. The fellow prisoner was standing near one of the ovens. "We looked in and it was all children."

Davis spent only three or four days in Dachau, but it was the darkest period of nearly a year in captivity.

An Ace Tail Gunner

A native of Long Beach, Davis was a tail gunner on a B-17. Over the course of 24 missions out of Scotland, he'd shot down five fighter planes, distinguishing himself as an ace. In late May 1944, he was looking forward to heading home as his crew took off on its final mission to clear the beaches of Calais, France, of mines by bombing them.

"We blew the snot out of the whole beach," he says. "We made our turn into the (English) Channel and about six miles into the channel, something hit us. It blew the whole front off the plane."

The co-pilot was killed. But the pilot and the rest of the crew managed to bail out. Davis hoped he would land in the sea, but the prevailing wind carried him about 100 yards inland from the beach they had just bombed, where he landed in the only tree in an otherwise open field. He caught his foot in a crook, breaking his leg.

Trying to free himself from his harness, he heard a commotion below.

"All of a sudden there's, 'Pop! Pop!' and I could see the holes going through the chute," he says. "I got rid of that ... harness and got to my Colt .45. I took it with both hands to where I thought the fire was coming from and I emptied it and the shooting stopped."

It was quiet for a few moments.

"Then I heard this voice say, 'You all right up there?' "

Minutes later, when he had managed to work his way down from the tree, Davis says he found himself facing a German sergeant who had lived in Yonkers, N.Y., before the war.

"He said, 'You got any cigarettes?' "

Nearby lay the bodies of three young boys in ill-fitting oversize uniforms. Davis guessed they were about 14 years old. They were the ones who had been shooting at him. Davis had killed them all. The sergeant seemed unconcerned and told him they were part of the Hitler Youth.

"He said, 'They give us more trouble than they're worth,' " Davis says.

Unlikely Escape

In the nearby town of Lille, Davis was interrogated before being placed in a chicken-wire cell in the wine cellar of the town's cathedral. Over the next three days, he says, he was repeatedly raped by a German officer.

He was moved by train to Brussels, where he found himself with a B-26 crew that had been shot down. As a group of German guards was taking them through the train station, they were suddenly attacked by a screaming group of women, swinging umbrellas as if to hit the Americans. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the women slipped a note to one of the prisoners.

"It said, 'Follow the guy with the red coat,' " Davis says. The red-coated man appeared to be a custodian. "He was picking up cigar butts and he left this door open.

"It was like the guards were paid off," he adds. "We went out the door, six of us, and they closed the door behind us." A truck was waiting outside and "we were in the French Underground," he says.

For several days they were moved from one house to another, south toward France. One night they were told to wait in a house until a contact came to get them.

"Somebody came after us all right," Davis says. "Funneled us right down to the Gestapo."

Grabbed by the Germans

He was held for a few days at Wetslaw, he says, where he and his fellow prisoners learned that the Allied invasion had begun. The Germans denied the reports, he says, but the prisoners, thanks to the British soldiers, were able to pull in radio reports.

In a precursor to the kind of espionage popularized by James Bond, Davis says the buttons on British soldiers' uniforms often hid small wires and electronic parts. By combining the different elements different soldiers carried, they were able to construct a radio receiver.

Moved to Gross Tychow in East Prussia, Davis and his fellow prisoners had to survive on one piece of bread, a bowl of thin soup and two potatoes each day. They fought off the chill of Europe's coldest winter in 50 years and Davis survived a bout of diphtheria.

In March, the Germans began moving all prisoners of war to Moosberg, near Munich. After his brief detour to Dachau, Davis found himself among 118,000 prisoners. He was in Stalag Luft 7-A the morning of April 29.

"We were just stirring," he says, "and somebody started yelling and -- boom! -- a tank came right through the gate. It was driven by a tank commander, Thomas Gibbons."

Davis and Gibbons, 83, of Palm Desert, met up again several years ago and are now good friends. That day, they didn't get to speak.

"It was almost euphoria," he says of the liberation. "You felt so relieved, you were tired."

Bitter About Treatment

Once he was back in the states, Davis says, he became bitter over the way he and his fellow POWs were treated by the government.

"It was like we were still prisoners," he says. "We had to sign a paper that we wouldn't talk about anything about our experience, even to our families. We were treated like we were like the enemy."

Davis returned to his job as a mail carrier. He also worked as a state trooper before retiring in 1986.

In the 1980s, through Veterans Affairs programs, Davis, along with many of his comrades, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, something he continues to receive care for.

While anger against the government still haunts him, he also remembers the support of his family and the American public upon his return from the war.

"It was very good," he says. "It made you feel like you did something."

Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or mmuckenfuss@PE.com

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This page was created on June 27, 2009