As a member of the Fold3 team, I’m always looking for ways to personalize a story to show how our military records are much more than just records. They represent lives, sacrifice, and service. When I started researching this month’s blog post, I had no idea the personal angle I would find would be my own. This is the story of how I learned that my grandfather helped liberate Ohrdruf concentration camp.
On April 4, 1945, Ohrdruf concentration camp became the first camp liberated by U.S. troops during WWII. Ohrdruf was a subcamp of Buchenwald and was located near the town of Gotha, Germany. As the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry of the Third US Army approached the gates at Ohrdruf, the sights that greeted soldiers shocked them and defied description.
Don Timmer, an 18-year-old private in the 89th Infantry Division described his experience. “We drove in and between the gate and the barracks were 30 dead…the blood still wet from departing German guards.” Bodies were piled in a shed and others partially incinerated on pyres. Timmer had taken German in high school and acted as an interpreter as prisoners shared tales of unspeakable horror. General George S. Patton arrived at Ohrdruf and was so sickened by what he saw that he threw up. General Dwight D. Eisenhower flew from Belgium to witness the carnage firsthand. According to Timmer, “Even Ike looked pale, and he wasn’t a pale guy.”
The sights and smells of the camp left indelible marks on the soldiers who were there. I know, because my grandfather LaMar Norton was one of the liberators and his experiences were so difficult to share, that most of the family wasn’t aware of this remarkable fact. He was unable to talk about the war without his eyes brimming with tears. LaMar served in the Fourth Armoured Division, Third Army, Company C, during the Battle of the Bulge. He suffered from PTSD after the war and was known to duck and cover during a clap of thunder or when a balloon popped. We knew he’d seen atrocities, but he never shared the details, and everyone learned not to ask. He passed away in 1996 leaving us with unanswered questions.
To honor his service, I’ve recently been curating content to create a Memorial for him on Fold3. I reached out to extended family asking for any photographs or stories that could be included. At the same time, I was simultaneously researching the liberation of Ohrdruf. One morning I woke to a message from a second cousin. She had an old, typed history of my grandfather’s service that his brother had compiled. I anxiously read it and my heart skipped a beat when I came to the paragraph where he described helping to liberate Ohrdruf. I suddenly realized that the story I had spent hours researching, was my really my story and my history.
According to LaMar, the Americans could smell Ohrdruf before they saw it. The approaching Army had prompted the Germans to flee, but not before shooting as many prisoners as possible. When the Americans arrived, the ground was still wet with blood. LaMar said there were 27 bodies out in the yard and a few more by the gate and at least one body was that of an American. “This American pilot had been carried outside on a stretcher and shot in the head,” he said. As US Soldiers tried to process what they were seeing, military officials told them to leave everything untouched. General Patton wanted the scene documented for possible future war crimes trials.
General Patton insisted that the mayor of the town of Ohrdruf and his wife tour the camp to see for themselves the atrocities committed by their countrymen. The next morning, they were both found hanging from an apparent suicide. A note left nearby said, “We didn’t know. But we knew.”
Though Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp liberated in April 1945, it wasn’t the last. Before the month was through, at least eight other concentration camps were liberated by Allied forces including Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg, Ravensbruck, and Dachau. On May 7, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied forces clearing the way to bring an end to WWII. My grandfather was discharged in October and came home a changed man. Along with many others, he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of what he’d seen and experienced at Ohrdruf.
If you would like to learn more about the liberation of concentration camps during WWII, search Fold3 today.