Which Division really liberated Dachau?


Soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division were the first to arrive at Dachau

Two Divisions of the US Seventh Army were involved in the liberation of the Dachau main camp on April 29, 1945, and with each passing year, the argument grows more heated over which division really liberated the camp, the 42nd Infantry Division or the 45th Infantry Division. The 20th Armored Division was providing support and they are included as liberators of Dachau by the US Army. However, Japanese and African-American veterans have also made claims that their divisions or battalions liberated Dachau.

SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrenders camp to Brig. Gen. Henning Linden

The 45th Division had been ordered to liberate the Dachau concentration camp, according to Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks, the commanding officer, but Brig. Gen. Henning Linden of the 42nd Division, was the one who accepted the surrender of the concentration camp from Lt. Heinrich Wicker on April 29, 1945.

The photograph below shows Brig. Gen. Henning Linden standing on top of one of the barriers of the stone bridge over the Würm river canal, while the liberated prisoners are looking out of the windows of the concentration camp gate house. 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker is the tall German soldier shown on the far left in the photo below. The man with a white arm band is Red Cross representative Victor Maurer.

Prisoners inside the gatehouse at Dachau on liberation day

Arbeit Macht Frei gate on April 29, 1945

The photograph above was taken by Lt. William J. Cowling III on the day that Dachau was liberated, April 29, 1945. This view is looking east towards the inside of the concentration camp where the prisoners are attempting to get out while American soldiers are standing outside the gatehouse trying to keep them inside.

On the day of the Dachau liberation, April 29, 1945, the 45th and 42nd Infantry Divisions were both rapidly advancing southwest toward Munich with most of the troops riding in trucks or armored vehicles; between the two divisions lay the town of Dachau. Both divisions had been told that there was a prison camp at Dachau.

As Company I, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Division approached the town, they saw that the only bridge across the Amper river had been blown up by the Germans in an effort to stop the advance of the Americans toward Munich. Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Felix L.Sparks ordered Company I to go into the town of Dachau to look for another bridge. The Company I soldiers finally found a railroad bridge that had been only partially destroyed. The bridge could be used for soldiers on foot and for light vehicles, but not for tanks. The tanks of the 20th Armored Division, which accompanied the 45th and 42nd Divisions to Dachau, could not get to the camp because of the destroyed bridge over the Amper river.

Company I crossed the railroad bridge and then headed northeast to return to the point where the destroyed bridge had halted the advance. Lt. Col. Sparks and a couple of his radio operators accompanied Company I, as they followed the tracks of a railroad spur line that led to the Dachau camp complex. The first thing they saw was the infamous "Death Train," filled with dead bodies. The railroad gate was open because the train was part way inside the camp. After entering the railroad gate on the southwest side of the Dachau complex, the Company I soldiers realized that they were inside an SS garrison.

Meanwhile, between three and seven US Army jeeps, carrying soldiers of the 42nd Division, drove toward the Dachau complex and stopped briefly to look at the bodies on the Death Train before driving down the road known as the Avenue of the SS. In one of the jeeps was Sgt. Peter Furst, a reporter for the Stars & Stripes, and Maggie Higgins, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Two Belgian correspondents were in another jeep. About half a mile down this road, Brig. Gen. Henning Linden and others in the group came upon the main gate into the Dachau complex. A short distance from the gate, 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker and a Red Cross representative were waiting to surrender the camp under a white flag of truce.

While the surrender was taking place, the soldiers of Company I were moving through the SS camp, headed toward the prison camp. The group of 42nd soldiers at the gate could hear gun fire and they took cover until it stopped. Then Brig. Gen Linden ordered Lt. William J. Cowling to enter the prison compound.

Some confusion about the liberation of Dachau comes from the fact that there were actually four separate entities that could properly be called Dachau. First of all, there was the town of Dachau, with a population of 13,000 people, which was well known to Europeans as a 19th century artists' colony and the former home of one of Germany's famous writers, Ludwig Thoma. Then there was a huge camp called the SS-Übungslager, which was a training center for concentration camp administrators, and a garrison for Waffen-SS soldiers. Adjacent to the SS camp, and accessible only by going through one of the gates into the SS section, was the infamous Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp.

Today when Americans speak of Dachau, they invariably mean the main concentration camp. But there was also a fourth Dachau, consisting of 123 sub-camps and Kommandos which were factories where the slave laborers worked in the manufacture of German munitions. These sub-camps were in the surrounding area and were liberated by various divisions of the American Seventh army.

In 2000, the U.S. Army and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum credited the 63rd Infantry Division with the liberation of seven of the Kaufering sub-camps near Landsberg am Lech. These sub-camps had already been evacuated and the prisoners had been marched to the main Dachau camp, except for those who were too sick to walk. The 63rd Infantry Division is not officially credited with being liberators of Dachau.

Many years have gone by since that cold day in April 1945 when the Dachau prisoners were liberated, but the event has grown more important over time. Dachau has now become a symbol of man's inhumanity to man. Around one million students and tourists come to visit the Memorial Site each year to pay homage to the political prisoners who resisted Fascism and the Nazi regime, the ultimate evil.

The descendants of the soldiers in the 45th Thunderbird Division are very proud of their fathers and grandfathers who took part in liberating Dachau. Ray Stuchell wrote the following in an e-mail to us on the anniversary of the liberation: "My father, Vaughn C. Stuchell, a Sergeant in the 45th Infantry Division, entered Dachau with his unit 60 years ago today. His experience affected him until his own death on February 23, 2004."

Jim Young, one of the Dachau liberators in the 42nd Rainbow Division told reporter Steven Mihailovitch of the San Marcos, CA Today's Local News web site on November 10, 2008 that "There was a brigadier general and a full colonel arguing, ready to shoot each other about who liberated Dachau first."

The 45th Division was on its way to capture Munich when Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks received orders to liberate Dachau. The following is a quote from Lt. Col. Sparks about the men of the 45th division who were involved in the liberation:

In the original order which I received to secure the camp, I was informed that our first battalion would relieve me at the camp in order that my task force could continue the attack into Munich. Late that afternoon, Company C arrived by truck and established various security posts. I then started moving Company I out of the camp in order to resume the attack into Munich with a full task force. Before I could again assemble the task force, I received an order that the tank battalion, less one company, was to be relieved of attachment to my task force. The 180th Infantry was encountering strong resistance in its sector, and the tanks were needed there. Sometime later, I received another order informing me that our first battalion would lead the attack into Munich the next day and that I was to relieve Company C at the concentration camp. I then dispatched Company L to relieve Company C. This relief was completed by about 10:00 p.m. that night.

The foregoing narrative includes all of the rifle companies which were in the Dachau concentration camp on the day of liberation, those being companies C, I and L. With these rifle companies were attachments from companies D and M, along with forward observer parties from the 158th Field Artillery. Small elements of other units were also there, namely a small patrol from the regimental I&R Platoon which was with Company I, and some personnel from the first and third battalion headquarters. There were some troops from the 42nd Infantry Division somewhere in the vicinity. Earlier that morning, Company I had reported that they were being fired upon by troops of the 42nd Division. This information was relayed to regimental headquarters with a request that the 42nd Division be informed that we were both on the same side.

On the morning of April 30, our first battalion resumed the attack towards Munich. The second battalion was also launched in that direction. Shortly after the attack began, the first battalion came upon and occupied another concentration camp. It was a slave labor camp and contained about eight thousand prisoners. In order that the first battalion could continue its attack with a complete battalion, I was then ordered to relieve the first battalion company at this second camp. I assigned this mission to Company K, where they were to remain for the next several days.

During the morning of that day, I assembled Company I in the city of Dachau, leaving Company L at the Dachau concentration camp. At about 6:00 p.m. that evening, Company L was relieved at the camp by the 601st Artillery Battalion from the 15th Corps. My battalion then moved into Munich, minus Company K.

On May 1, the following morning, I received an order to relieve the 15th Corps troops at the Dachau concentration camp. I thereupon sent Company L back to the camp. During the afternoon of May 3, both companies L and K were relieved of their concentration camp duties by the 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, never to return.

At this point, I should point out that Seventh Army Headquarters took over the actual camp administration on the day following the liberation. The camp occupation by combat troops after that time was solely for security purposes. On the morning of April 30, several trucks arrived from Seventh Army carrying food and medical supplies. The following day, the 116th and 127th Evacuation Hospitals arrived and took over the care and feeding of the prisoners.

Dale E. Cutter was a Pfc. in the 601st Field Artillery Battalion, which relieved Company L, as stated by Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks in the quote above. Dale E. Cutter was at Dachau on May 1, 1945, according to his son Dennis Cutter who says that the 601st was put in charge of German POW's, security in captured German towns and later the transportation of Displaced Persons from various locations. In an e-mail to me, Dennis recalled that his father told him about lamp shades made from tattooed skin that he saw in the officers quarters at Dachau.

In a newspaper article in the Shreveport Times, printed on April 24, 2008, Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen was quoted as saying that, during World War II, he was an American soldier with a "field artillery unit" and that "he and another soldier were the first Americans to enter Dachau, finding bodies stacked everywhere, a crematorium that, though not hot, was still warm, and showers where victims were gassed."

The 66th Field Hospital, attached to the 42nd Rainbow Division, was sent to one of the sub-camps near the main camp on April 30, 1945. It was not until May 10th, that the soldiers in this unit saw the main Dachau camp. On that day, George Tievsky, a Jewish doctor with the 66th, wrote a letter to his finance.

The first sentences of Tievsky's letter are quoted below:

"Today I visited Dachau. It is without a doubt the most loathsome place I have ever seen. One can feel death there in its most repulsive form."

In recent years, surviving veterans of World War II have been asked to participate in the very important and necessary task of educating the present generation of Americans about the atrocities in the concentration camps. It is a great honor for an American veteran to be able to say that he was one of the liberators of Dachau, and many have come forward to be recognized as liberators.

In April 1945, Carl Segrave from Broken Arrow, OK was a 19-year-old soldier in the 222nd Infantry Regiment of the 42nd Rainbow Division of the U.S. Seventh Army. In an article published in the Tulsa World on November 11, 2008, Segrave told Manny Gamallo about what he witnessed on April 29, 1945 when he took part in the liberation of Dachau.

The following quote is from the article by Manny Gamallo in the Tulsa World on November 11, 2008:

The stench of rotting cadavers. The boxcars filled with the emaciated dead. The storage rooms filled with stacks of recently gassed innocents. The ghastly crematoriums. And the piles upon piles of human ashes.

When he saw that, Segrave remembered, he developed a sincere hatred for the Germans.

"I didn't hate them before that, not even during the fighting. We were invading their homeland, so you expected them to defend their country.

"But this. ," he said, shaking his head in disgust as he sat in his easy chair at his Broken Arrow home.

William Kenny, a soldier in the 42nd Rainbow Division who was there, spoke in a documentary about the liberation of Dachau that was shown on the History Channel on 29 April 2005. He told about seeing the death train and how the liberators then searched for those who were responsible. The SS guards in the camp were killed by the American liberators and some of the survivors; their bodies were then added to the pile at the crematorium.

Another 42nd Division soldier who was among the liberators of Dachau is Teddy Dixon (Edward Copeland Dixon) who was born in New York City in 1920. Five years later, the Dixon family moved back to their home town of Belfast in Northern Ireland. As an American citizen, Teddy was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944.

Some of the World War II veterans who claim to have liberated Dachau were actually at a different camp. For example, the 82nd Airborne Division discovered a sub-camp of Neuengamme called Wöbbelin on May 2, 1945. In 1991, the U.S. Army's Center of Military History recognized the 82nd Airborne as the liberators of Wöbbelin. However, Philip Foss, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne, told Randal Yakey, a reporter for the Oakland Press newspaper in Rochester Hills, MI, that he was a liberator of Dachau.

The following quote is from the Oakland Press on September 23, 2007:

Foss wiped his brow as he talked of the day he helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

"I was one of the first ones into the Dachau camp," he said. "Just before we got there, people were taken out, lined up and shot. Those who couldn't walk were dragged outside and machine gunned down. Those who wouldn't die were smashed in the head with a club until they were dead."

On November 26, 2007 an article by Hilary Smith in the Daily News Tribune of Waltham, MA told about another veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, 2nd Lt. Jack Turner, who liberated the Dachau camp on April 24, 1945, which was five days before the 45th and 42nd Divisions arrived. According to Smith's article:

While he was in France, Turner made the decision to join a special unit that would liberate Dachau, a Nazi death camp located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, Germany. The mission was so dangerous that only volunteers were accepted - and each volunteer had to sign a statement saying he knew he might be killed. The volunteers were told to expect a barbaric scene, with barracks, ovens and gas chambers.

The 82nd Airborne Division was in Patton's Third Army, so 2nd Lt. Turner was not even in the Seventh Army that liberated Dachau, much less in any of the liberating Divisions. There was no special unit of volunteers that was given a mission, even before the Allies entered Germany, to liberate Dachau.

Regarding Jack Smith's story of the liberation of Dachau, which actually took place on April 29, 1945, Hilary Smith wrote the following:

On April 24, 1945, the liberating forces reached Dachau. And it wasn't a pretty sight. "There were armed guards and Rottweilers - the craziest dogs you ever saw," said Turner. "Those camps were terrible."

About 32,000 prisoners were still alive when the liberators arrived - some of them, just barely.

Most of the adult prisoners weighed less than 80 pounds, Turner said. He didn't know how some of them were still alive. The images were haunting.

"I cried, and I hadn't cried in years. We all cried like babies," he recalls.

Above all else, Turner remembers the children.

"They were the most beautiful kids, but they were emaciated. Everybody was a skeleton. To think that (the Nazis) would do that to children!

"I think I hugged 1,000 kids that day," he said. "They were calling me 'Papa' and 'Daddy.' They probably hadn't had a daddy for years."

Unfortunately, there are no photographs of the 1,000 emaciated children that Turner claims were liberated from Dachau, although there is a photo of the babies at Dachau, which is shown below. There are also photographs of the 904 healthy children at Buchenwald, most of whom were orphans.

Mothers with their babies at Dachau, May 1945

Jack Turner claimed to have been a personal friend of General George Patton, and a friend of Steven Spielberg. In her November 26, 2007 article, Hilary Smith wrote the following:

For years, acclaimed film director Steven Spielberg has been recording survivors' and liberators' accounts of the Holocaust, and in 2004 he asked Turner if he would agree to an interview.

"You've got to be kidding," said Turner, incredulous, when Spielberg first phoned. But Turner agreed, and sure enough, Spielberg showed up with a film crew and a trailer.

The interview, nearly two hours long, was archived with tens of thousands of other volumes, as part of a collection managed by Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

Turner said that he and Spielberg have become "great friends," and he has visited the director numerous times at his vacation home on Long Island.

On June 7, 2007, an article by Shirley Welch was published in the Vail Daily News in Vail, CO, which told the story of Frank Doll, who claimed to have participated in the liberation of Dachau.

On April 29, 1945, Frank Doll was a 1st Lt. with the 989th Field Artillery Battalion. In an interview, Doll told Ms. Welch that his "Colonel" said to him that "The 42nd is going to take the camp, but they need artillery for support."

This is contrary to the claims of Lt. Col. Felix Sparks who maintains that it was the 45th Division that was ordered to take the camp.

The following is quoted from the article by Shirley Welch:

Camp is liberated
When the 42nd Division arrived with Frank's artillery, the camp was ablaze from giant floodlights, and all around was barren ground. It (sic) air smelled foul, of death and misery.

Huge wooden doors stood as sentry to the outside world. Tanks moved into position and blew the doors to smithereens. Chaos erupted. Skeletal looking prisoners, men and women with only a hint of flesh on their bones, their eyes hallow and deep set, poured out of the doors of Dachau. Those trustees who had been left in charge took flight and those prisoners capable of chase did so until they caught and killed the men who had tormented them, starved them, and committed unhuman (sic) acts. When order was finally restored, an inspection of the train cars on the tracks showed thousands of dead bodies, those poor souls who did not make the trip alive from other concentration camps and who were simply left to rot.

According to numerous soldiers who were there, it was in the afternoon that the Dachau main camp was liberated, so it is strange that there were floodlights blazing. The area adjacent to the Dachau concentration camp was an SS Army garrison and an SS Training Camp, and it was far from being "barren ground."

German soldiers surrender at the main gate into the Dachau complex

The main gate faced a formal garden, called Eicke Plaza, on the street called the Avenue of the SS. 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker and a Red Cross representative, carrying a white flag, were standing a few yards west of the main gate, ready to surrender the camp to the first American soldiers to arrive. Yet, according to Frank Doll, tanks moved into position (Did they plow through the formal garden?) and blew the wooden doors to smithereens. None of the men of the 42nd Division, who were there when the camp was surrendered, mentioned anything about tanks moving into position and then smashing the wooden doors of the main gate.

The doors were probably open because SS soldiers were standing there ready to surrender, as shown in the photo above. The prisoners did not "pour out of the doors of Dachau." They were in a separate compound, surrounded by walls and barbed wire, which could only be reached by going through the SS garrison.

In a book entitled "Where the Birds Never Sing," Jack Sacco gives a first-hand account of the liberation of Dachau, as experienced by his father, Joe Sacco, who was a 20-year-old soldier from Alabama with the 92nd Signal Battalion of General George Patton's Third Army. Joe Sacco and several other men in the 92nd Signal Battalion were among the first 250 soldiers on the scene at the liberation of Dachau on April 29, 1945, according to his son's book.

Claims made by Japanese soldiers

Claims made by African American soldiers

Who entered Dachau first?

The account of Frank Burns of the 42nd Division

Back to Dachau Liberation

Back to Table of Contents


This page was last updated on November 23, 2009