Howard Cowan's account of Dachau liberation

On April 30, 1945, the day after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by the US Seventh Army, the front page of every American newspaper screamed the news in banner headlines.

In the Chicago Daily Times, the headline read: "FREE 32,000 IN HORROR CAMP" Another smaller headline read: "Find Dachau Death Train." The next day, there would be even bigger headlines, announcing the news that Hitler had killed himself, but on April 30th, the most important news event in the entire world was the liberation of Dachau, the most notorious of the many Nazi concentration camps.

As quoted by Col. John H. Linden, the son of Brigadier General Henning Linden, in his book "Surrender of the Dachau Concentration Camp 29 April 45, the True Account," the Associated Press article written by Howard Cowan read as follows:

Mon., April 30, 1945***** Chicago Herald-American


DACHAU, Germany, April 30. --(AP)--

The U.S. 42nd and 45th divisions captured the infamous Dachau prison camp today and freed its 32,000 captives.

Two columns of infantry, riding tanks, bulldozers and Long Tom rifles - anything with wheels - rolled down from the northwest and surprised the S S (Elite Corps) guards in the extermination camp shortly after the lunch hour.

Score (sic) of S S men were taken prisoners and dozens slain.

The Americans were quickly joined by "trusties" working outside the sprawling barbed wire enclosure. Poles, Frenchmen and Russians seized S. S. weapons and turned them against their captors. Jan Yindrich, British war correspondent, and I saw things that greeted our soldiers - 39 open-type railroad cars standing on a siding which went through the walls of Dachau camp.

At first glance the cars seemed loaded with dirty clothing. Then you saw feet, heads and bony fingers. More than half the cars were full of bodies, hundreds of bodies.

Two SS guards fired into the mass (of prisoners), betraying their presence.

American infantrymen instantly riddled the Germans. Their bodies were hurled down into the moat amidst a roar unlike anything ever heard from human throats.

Almost 100 naked bodies were stacked neatly in the barren room with cement floors (the mortuary). They had come from a room on the left marked "shower bath."


It really was a gas chamber, a low-ceilinged room about 30 feet square. After 15 or 20 persons were inside the doors were firmly sealed and the faucets were turned on and poison gas issued. Then the bodies were hauled into a room separating the gas chamber from the crematorium. There were four ovens with a huge flue leading to a smoke-blackened stack.

Outside this building were tens of thousands of articles of clothing stacked in orderly piles.

Typhus cases were scattered throughout the camp. The water supply of the city was reported contaminated from 6,000 graves on high ground which drains into the Amper river.

A French general was slain last week.

The GIs stormed through the camp with tornadic fury.

A Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS officers came out of the building behind a white flag. Gen Linden said:

"The Red Cross man said the real heads of the camp had fled and placed these two fellows in charge of the camp last night.

I accepted their surrender, loaded the three of them in a jeep and drove them down to the train and made them look. One SS. fellow asked for safe custody."

It has been more than 60 years since the liberation of Dachau, and we now know that the last three sentences of this news article are the only part that war correspondent Howard Cowan got right, although the first part of the story is the version that has entered American history books and is still there, virtually intact. Cowan's story is riddled with errors, as listed below:

The 45th and 42nd Divisions of the US Seventh Army did not "capture" the Dachau concentration camp. The SS guards were not "surprised" by the Americans; on the contrary, most of the SS guards and camp administrators had left the SS garrison the night before. A unit of Waffen-SS soldiers had been recently sent directly from the battle front with orders to surrender the SS garrison, adjacent to the prison camp, to the first Americans who arrived, according to Arthur Haulot, a Communist political prisoner from Belgium.

The SS administrators of the concentration camp had been preparing for the arrival of American troops for at least three days. The Commandant of the concentration camp, Wilhelm Eduard Weiter, had left along with a transport of prisoners on April 26th, leaving former Commandant Martin Gottfried Weiss in charge. Weiss and most of the regular guards and administrators had then left on the night of April 28th. Victor Maurer, a Red Cross representative, was at the camp, ready to negotiate a surrender to the Americans.

The VIP prisoners at Dachau, who had been evacuated on April 26th for their own safety, were still on their way to the South Tyrol. The whole town of Dachau, including the watch towers in the concentration camp, was flying white flags of surrender, according to Nerin E. Gun, one of the Dachau prisoners, who wrote a book called "The Day of the Americans," published in 1966.

An SS-Totenkopf officer, 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker, surrendered the concentration camp to Brig. Gen. Henning Linden of the 42nd Division in a correct military manner, accompanied by Victor Maurer, a Red Cross representative, who was carrying a white flag of truce.

The soldiers of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Regiment, 45th Division arrived at the SS garrison, next to the concentration camp, at 11 a.m. which was before the lunch hour.

The Dachau concentration camp was not an "extermination" camp, a term used by the Allies to mean a camp where prisoners were sent to be deliberately killed. Dachau was a Class I camp for political prisoners, who were mainly Communists, and a camp for foreign forced laborers who worked in a variety of factories there. It was not a camp specifically intended for the genocide of the Jews in Europe.

The captives in the camp were not set free. There was a war going on outside the camp and an epidemic inside the camp. The prisoners had to be kept inside the camp, some for as long as two months, until the epidemic was finally brought under control and the war was over. Some of the prisoners had been allowed out of the prison compound in order to work, but not outside the walls of the whole Dachau complex.

The soldiers of the 45th Division, arriving from the northwest, had been riding in tanks and trucks on their way to capture the city of Munich, but when they entered the huge Dachau camp complex through the railroad gate on the west side of the SS garrison, they were on foot. Soldiers of the 42nd Division and a few newspaper reporters rode in jeeps to the southwest gate of the Dachau complex, where Brig. Gen. Linden accepted the formal surrender of the concentration camp from SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker.

The "dozens" that were slain included Waffen-SS soldiers, stationed at the Dachau training camp and SS army garrison, who were executed after they had surrendered, according to Col. Howard A. Buechner, a medical officer with the 45th Division. The Waffen-SS soldiers who were killed included wounded or crippled soldiers who were dragged out of an army hospital and machine-gunned to death while they had their hands in the air. The soldiers who were gunned down were not guards in the adjacent concentration camp and they had had nothing to do with the inmates in the prison compound. In addition to the Waffen-SS soldiers killed during the liberation of Dachau, there were 40 SS guards shot or beaten to death by the prisoners, according to Buechner, although other eye-witnesses reported that there were as many as 50 guards killed after they had surrendered. The regular guards had left on the night of April 28, and had been replaced with 128 SS soldiers who were released from the camp prison.

Second Lt. Heinrich Wicker was reported missing by his mother and sister who were staying at the SS garrison at Dachau on the day that the Dachau camp was liberated. He was never heard from again and is presumed to have been killed after he surrendered the concentration camp to the 42nd Division.

Some of the prisoners in the "open-type railroad cars" had been killed by bullets from American fighter planes that were strafing everything that moved on the German roads and railroads, including cattle and sheep. Other prisoners in closed boxcars on the train had died of starvation because the 220-mile trip from Buchenwald had taken almost three weeks. The railroad tracks had been blown up by American bombs and the train had been rerouted through Czechoslovakia.

The "trusties" at Dachau were outside the prison compound but not outside the walls of the huge Dachau complex, which was around 20 acres in size. The guns which the prisoners used to kill the SS Totenkopf guards were given to them by American soldiers. The prisoners were also allowed to beat the SS guards to death with shovels while American soldiers stood by and watched. The bodies of the SS soldiers were horribly mutilated; their faces were stomped and fingers were cut off so that their SS rings could be taken as souvenirs.

The SS guards in the towers did not "betray their presence" by shooting. The camp inmates knew very well that the guard towers were always manned by guards with machine guns. All of the SS guards had been planning to abandon the camp and run for their lives, but Red Cross representative Victor Maurer had arrived a day or two before and persuaded 2nd Lt. Wicker to leave a few guards in the towers so that the prisoners could be kept inside the camp until the Americans arrived to take over. After the SS guards were shot in Tower B, and some of their bodies were thrown into the Würm river canal which formed a moat on the west side of the camp, an investigation of this incident was conducted by the US Army; the "secret" report on the conclusions of the inquiry said that the SS guards did not shoot.

The poison gas used by the Nazis was Zyklon-B, which was not in liquid form and it could not have come out of the shower nozzles. According to the Dachau Museum, the homicidal gas chamber at Dachau had bins on the outside wall, through which Zyklon-B pellets, the size of peas, could be poured onto the floor of what looked like a shower room. At the time of the liberation of Dachau, these bins were hidden behind a wooden structure attached to the front of the gas chamber building and none of the liberators, nor the newsmen, saw them.

The "tens of thousands of articles of clothing" were outside the fumigation cubicles in the same building where the homicidal gas chamber was located. The clothes were piled up and waiting to be deloused with Zyklon-B pellets which were put into the cubicles through an elaborate device that automatically opened a can of Zyklon-B pellets, poured them into a wire basket and then blew hot air over the pellets so that they gave off cyanide gas to kill the lice in the clothing. Although DDT was first used in Italy in 1943 to stop a typhus epidemic, the Germans were not using DDT to kill the body lice which spreads typhus.

The French general who was shot was General Charles Delestraint, who was executed on April 19, 1945 at Dachau, according to Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, who was an inmate in the camp bunker where the high-ranking and important prisoners were held.

Typhus, the disease that was decimating the camp, is not spread by contaminated water. It is typhoid that is caused by contaminated water, not typhus. The German word for typhus is Fleckfieber, which means spotted fever, a term that is used in America to mean several different diseases. Typhus is spread by body lice.

The camp administrators had been burning the bodies of those who died in the camp in an effort to prevent epidemics, but when they ran short of coal six months before the camp was liberated, they started a new cemetery high up on a hill called Leitenberg, so as not to contaminate the ground water in the town. On the day of the liberation, there were 900 prisoners in the camp who were dying of typhus. The American army doctors who arrived a few days later had never seen a case of typhus before. America had a vaccine for typhus but the Germans did not. German doctors who had tried unsuccessfully to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals in the Nuremberg Doctors Trial.

The huge Dachau complex had its own water tower, separate from the water supply for the town. At the time of the liberation, there was no running water in the camp, according to US medical officers who arrived the next day. There was also no electricity in the kitchen, and the food was being cooked over wood-burning stoves. The Dachau camp had been bombed by American planes on April 9, 1945 because of the factories located outside the prison enclosure.

There is still considerable controversy swirling around the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Col. John H. Linden wrote a book in an effort to set the story straight, because his father, Brig. Gen. Henning Linden, the commanding officer of the 42nd Rainbow Division, was the man who accepted the surrender of the concentration camp. Each of these Seventh Army divisions is still arguing over which outfit should get the credit for the liberation of Dachau. A book by Flint Whitlock, entitled "The Rock of Anzio, From Sicily to Dachau: A History of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division," tells the other side of the story.

Today there are two plaques on the walls of the gate house that was the original entrance into the Dachau concentration camp. One plaque honors the 42nd Division which accepted the surrender of the camp from 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and the other plaque honors the 20th Armored Division which provided support for the soldiers of the US Seventh Army who were on their way to capture the city of Munich when they came across the Dachau camp.

After World War II ended with the surrender of the German army, General George S. Patton made the decision not to try American soldiers of the 45th and 42nd Divisions of the US Seventh Army as war criminals for the murder of SS soldiers who had surrendered during the liberation, nor for standing by while the liberated prisoners stomped SS guards to death after they had surrendered. This is a "page of glory" in American history that is rarely spoken of.

Marguerite Higgins' Account of the Liberation

Newsletter of the 42nd Rainbow Division

Back to Liberation of Dachau

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This page was last updated on November 9, 2008