(March 9 – May 11, 1945)
The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and the Dachau Subcamps
On March 9, 1945, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion left the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at the Maritime Alps. The 522nd was sent north to the Lorraine region of France to provide artillery support for the Allies’ final drive into southern Germany.
From March 12-21, 1945, the 522nd joined the 63rd Division in an assault on the Siegfried Line between central France and Germany. Once the men broke through the Siegfried Line, the front was very fluid. The US Army’s combined firepower was tremendous, but the 522nd worked so quickly that often the Nisei completed the mission before any other artillery could fire a round.
The 522nd became a roving battalion, shifting to whatever command most needed the unit. The Nisei fired in total more than 15,000 rounds. They successfully completed every one of their 52 assignments, supporting more than seven different army divisions and units.1 They traveled 1,100 miles, racing through 40 towns in 60 days and chasing the quickly retreating Germans from the Saar and Rhine Rivers in the west to the Austrian border in the east.2
The 522nd joined the 45th Division when it crossed the Rhine River. Then, it joined the 44th Division, providing supporting fire in the attack on Mannheim.3 It then returned to the 63rd for the Neckar River crossing and the fall of Heidelberg. On April 1, the 522nd traveled 90 miles east to help with the 4th Division’s drive on the German town of Aub. On April 26, the men supported the 12th Infantry on the Danube River crossing.
In the last four days of April, the battalion displaced its guns 14 times during the 4th Division’s drive south toward Munich.4 Often the 522nd’s advance scouts were racing up to 25 miles ahead of the rest of the battalion.
It was when they were attached to the 4th Division that the men witnessed a sight that they would never forget. On April 29, 1945, several scouts were east of Munich in the small Bavarian town of Lager Lechfeld. The Nisei came upon some barracks encircled by barbed wire.5 Technician Fourth Grade Ichiro Imamura described it in his diary6:
I watched as one of the scouts used his carbine to shoot off the chain that held the prison gates shut. He said he just had to open the gates when he saw a couple of the 50 or so prisoners, sprawled on the ground, moving weakly. They weren’t dead, as he had thought. When the gates swung open, we got our first good look at the prisoners. Many of them were Jews. They were wearing black and white striped prison suits and round caps. A few had blanket rags draped over their shoulders. It was cold and the snow was two feet deep in some places. There were no German guards. They had taken off before we reached the camp.
The prisoners struggled to their feet after the gates were opened. They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons–all skin and bones.
Like Imamura, many of the 522nd soldiers, shocked and traumatized by what they witnessed, did not record any specific names, dates, places or other such details, but instead referred to the “Dachau camps” in general, casting some doubt as to exactly what they had encountered and where.7 Although the 522nd was in range of at least six subcamps on April 29 and another 14 others on April 30, it has been surmised that the horror Imamura witnessed was Kaufering IV Hurlach, a satellite slave labor camp of Dachau.8
Kaufering IV was one of 30 subordinate slave labor camps of Dachau. This particular camp had once housed about 3,600 prisoners.9 Like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mathausen and Ravensbruck, Dachau was surrounded by dozens of such satellite camps. In Germany alone, there were hundreds of these subcamps.
From 1944, the Nazis established 11 satellite camps numbering Kaufering I through XI around Landsberg. The slave labor camps were set up to build subterranean facilities for the manufacturing of jet fighters for the German air force. The Kaufering camps were considered to be some of the worst in Germany in terms of their harsh conditions and their treatment of their prisoners.10 From June 1944 to April 1945, it is estimated that about 14,500 Jews died in the Kaufering complex.11 The forced laborers were Jews from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and other areas of Europe, with many unable to communicate with each other because of language differences.
The Nisei found Kaufering IV mostly deserted because the SS troops had already evacuated many of the prisoners south to the Austrian border, away from the advancing Allied armies.
In fact, the brutal death marches south had already begun on April 24. Jewish prisoners from the outer Dachau camps were marched to Dachau, and then 70 miles south.
Many of the Jewish marchers weighed less than 80 pounds. Shivering in their tattered striped uniforms, the “skeletons” marched 10 to 15 hours a day, passing more than a dozen Bavarian towns. If they stopped or fell behind, the SS guards shot them and left their corpses along the road. Thousands died from exposure, exhaustion, and starvation.12
On May 2, the death march was outside Waakirchen, Germany, near the Austrian border, when the 522nd came across the marchers.
That day, soldiers from the 522nd were patrolling near Waakirchen. The Nisei saw an open field with several hundred “lumps in the snow.” When the soldiers looked closer they realized the “lumps” were people. Some were shot. Some were dead from exposure. Hundreds were alive. But barely.
The 522nd discovered hundreds of prisoners with black and white prison garb, shaven heads, sunken eyes, and hollowed cheeks. Some roamed aimlessly around the countryside. Some were too weak to move. All were severely malnourished. One soldier gave a starving Jewish prisoner a candy bar, but his system couldn’t handle solid food.13 Then the Americans were told not to give food to the prisoners because it could do them more harm than good.14
For the next three days, the Nisei helped the prisoners to shelter and tended to their needs as best as they could. They carried the survivors into warm houses and barns. The soldiers gave them blankets, water and tiny bits of food to ease them back from starvation.
The soldiers left Waakirchen on May 4, still deeply disturbed by the harrowing scenes of the Jewish prisoners.15
A few days later, just before the war officially ended in Europe, the 522nd joined the 101st Airborne Division at the “Eagle’s Nest,” Hitler’s rest and recreation hideout at Berchtesgaden.16
Finally, in November 1945, the 522nd went home to America.
- 1Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994), p. 239.
- 2Dorothy Matsuo, Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (Honolulu, HI: Mutual Publishing, 1992), p. 131.
- 3Jimmy Sakamoto, Company History AntiTank Company 442nd Regimental Combat Team (1945), p. 8.
- 4Thelma Chang, I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th/442nd (Honolulu, HI: Sigi Productions, 1991), p. 164.
- 5Kathryn Shenkle, “Patriots Under Fire: Japanese Americans in World War II,” US Army Center of Military History, last updated November 19, 2010, accessed on December 3, 2014. Shenkle writes, “As part of the Allies’ Southern Group of Armies commanded by Jacob L. Devers, the 100/442d fought in eight campaigns and made two beachhead assaults in Italy and France, captured a submarine, and opened the gates of Dachau prison.” She further states, “It is ironic that this team liberated Dachau, because Japanese Americans from the U.S. west coast were detained in American camps before being drafted into service, and still had family in those U.S. camps.”
- 6Pierre Moulin, Dachau, Holocaust, and US Samurais: Nisei Soldiers First in Dachau? (AuthorHouse: 2007), p. 125. Although Moulin states that the 522nd likely was not the liberator of the Dachau camp, he argues that the unit was the liberator of Kaufering IV, based on Imamura’s diary entry. He writes, “We knew now that if the scouts of the unit came the first at the Dachau’s gate they never got inside the enclosure and couldn’t be considered as the first liberators of Dachau. [sic] But the day after the main unit liberated a camp which was probably the Kaufering IV subcamp of Dachau.” See also, “The 12th Armored Division”.
- 7522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Fire for Effect (Honolulu, HI: Fisher Printing Co., 1998), p. 61.
- 8The US Holocaust Memorial Museum cites the 12th Armored Division and the 101st Airborne as the first to arrive at Kaufering IV on April 27 and 28. It also credits the 101st Airborne Division and the 12th Division as the liberating units as such: “The 101st Airborne Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army’s Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1998.” The same statement is made about the 12th Armored Division. See “The 101st Airborne Division,” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved on December 3, 2014.
For a list of the subcamps that the 522nd was near on April 29-30, see the unit’s history, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Fire for Effect (Honolulu, HI: Fisher Printing Co., 1998), p. 75.
- 9“Kaufering,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed on December 3, 2014.
- 11Bürgervereinigung zur Erforschung der Landsberger Zeitgeschichte (“Citizens’ association to do research on the contemporary history of Landsberg”), “The Holocaust in the Landsberg Area,” accessed on December 2, 2014.
- 12Moulin, American Samurais – WWII Camps: From USA Concentration Camps to the Nazi Death Camps in Europe (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, September 25, 2012), p. 108.
- 13“Barton Nagata’s Touch with the Holocaust,” 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center, accessed January 8, 2015.
- 14“522nd Field Artillery Battalion,” Densho Encyclopedia, last updated August 18, 2014, accessed on January 8, 2015.
- 15Sakimoto, p. 14.
- 16Chang, 176; 442nd Veterans Club, Go for Broke, 1943-1993, (Honolulu, HI), p. 2.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
Ed Ichiyama [interview 236]
Starts on Tape Five, between 10 and 12 minute marks
Well, this is the latter part of April or early May, near the end of the war. Now we’re traipsing along the countryside of Dachau then all of the sudden we came across hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of so called prisoners in their black and white prison garb, shaven heads, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, very scared looking, roaming aimlessly around the countryside. You know a lot of guys don’t believe this but this is near the Swiss border, so there are still snow-covered grounds. These guys were aimlessly wandering in the countryside and to you, what is this? We never heard of concentration camp. Then we saw several guys shred either a dead horse or a dead cow and just eating the raw flesh and as you know if you are starving, with malnutrition, if you eat something solid you’re just going to collapse so that’s what they did. You know, they eat this and they collapsed and further more we saw a lot of other people really lying in the snow. (00:12:00) I’m not sure whether they were dead but anyway collapsed in the snow.
Starts on Tape Five, between 14 and 16 minute marks
We saw these guys aimlessly wandering the countryside. Now, I’m not sure, I don’t know whether we had a direct order or not but some of these guys are saying that that there were direct orders given us that we should not offer them any solace. No water, no food, no medicine or whatever it is but we did that anyway. You know as compassionate individuals everywhere at anywhere would have done it. When you see somebody suffering like that, what is you going to do? Just see them suffer still? Some of these guys even gave them extra blankets.
Starts on Tape Five, between 14 and 16 minute marks
So that night after we stopped, some of us entered the camps and let me tell you that the stench, the stench was so terrible after, I don’t know, 1 or 2 minutes, stench of feces, urine, the aqueous smoke of burning flesh. (00:16:00) I mean indescribable, unbelievable. I couldn’t stand it, of course I went out retching after a minute or two maybe. But the amazing thing is some of these guys with stronger constitution, leisurely roamed around the compound. And you know what they found? They found huge ovens still warm and next to the huge ovens, they saw lots of 50-gallon drums filled with ashes. Now, nobody are saying these are human ashes because we don’t know but you can only surmise and these are huge ovens and not ovens for big loaves of bread, huge, huge long ovens. Now, guys with even stronger constitutions went behind the compound and there was a railroad siding over there and because this was in late April or early May and snow is still cold, they saw what they thought were neatly stacked cord woods and the box go with the railroad cards but upon closer scrutiny, these were corpses.
Starts on Tape Five, between 20 and 22 minute marks
One of the greatest ironies of World War II happened here in Dachau, when members of the persecuted minority, the Japanese Americans, men whose families are still interned in the (00:22:00) United States, reaching out to help members of another persecuted minority, the Jewish people of Europe, and what are our crimes? One for being Jewish and one for being Japanese.