Texans in the Royal Canadian Air Force

By Richard Brook

They came from every part of the state.   From Texarkana to El Paso, from Amarillo to Beaumont, from Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and everywhere in-between.  They came for a variety of reasons.  Some simply were looking for work while some came for adventure.  Many came for the opportunity to fight the Nazis when America was still sitting on the sidelines.

They came in 1939, 1940 and 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

They came to Canada to train in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) before travelling to England to fight the Nazis.

More than 8800 Americans, including nearly 1000 from Texas joined up before America entered the war.  829 of these intrepid, courageous RCAF Americans were killed-in-action during the war.  Of these, around 50 Texans would make the ultimate sacrifice and never return to their beloved Texas.

This is a story of the men who left Texas and America to join the fight against tyranny when their own country was still uninterested in doing so.

On September 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany and Italy, more than 2 years before the United States joined the war herself.  The RCAF immediately recognized the need to train thousands upon thousands of airmen for the coming air war and Canada became the home of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.  Before the war’s end, Canada would train more than 130,000 airmen at more than 200 small airports and landing fields across the country.

Finding enough men to fill all the spots was an immediate and enormous problem.  Canada’s Air Marshall Billy Bishop, a hero from WW1, had an idea.  He contacted his old friend from WW1, Clayton Knight, an American who had flown with the British during the war.  The two of them came up with the idea of smuggling American pilots into Canada for the purpose of training them to fight in the RCAF. They knew this was illegal and a complete violation of US Law, but this “minor impediment” did not dampen their enthusiasm for the idea.

Air Marshall "Billy" Biship
Air Marshall “Billy” Biship
Clayton Knight (L) was a well known Illustrator during his life
Clayton Knight (L) was a well known Illustrator during his life.  In this photo he is seen drawing George Beurling, Canada’s greatest Air Ace of WW2.

Their first effort was aimed at recruiting pilots from American flying schools.  They soon had a list of some 300 pilots willing and eager to come to Canada and join the fight.  Not wanting to immediately incur the wrath of the US Government, they quietly sought and received permission in Washington for their plan so long as they kept it quiet.  So far, so good.  No one wanted these men to be prosecuted for fighting in a foreign army or for violating the US Neutrality Act.  Nor did they themselves wish to be arrested for recruiting Americans to fight for a foreign army while on American soil.

When Roosevelt won reelection in November of 1940, the Clayton Knight Committee kicked into high gear.  They set up recruiting offices in New York’s Waldorf Astoria and in other hotels in Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, Kansas City, Dallas, San Antonio, Spokane and Los Angeles.  Even though advertising was by “word of mouth” only, the results were impressive and recruits came pouring in.  Of course everyone knew that what they were doing was totally illegal and with hundreds of Americans heading to Canada, the Canadian government soon became more and more nervous about the entire plan.

So they all cooked up a new idea.  The Clayton Knight Committee recruits were told they were being recruited for civilian flying jobs at a company called the Dominion Aeronautical Association, something totally legal.  When they arrived in Canada and walked into the DAA offices, the person there apologized and told them that there were no longer any civilian jobs available.  But they were then told, “it just so happens that there is an RCAF recruiting office next door and they have plenty of jobs”.

By December of 1941, more than 6000 American aircrew were actively flying in the RCAF or on loan to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in England. By the time the war ended in 1945, a total of 8,864 Americans served in the RCAF with nearly 900 killed in either training accidents or in combat.  They flew mostly in Halifax, Wellington and Lancaster bombers.  But they also flew Spitfires and Hurricanes and every other type of craft available at the time.  Of those who died in the war, roughly half perished while flying in RCAF squadrons while the other half perished while flying in RAF squadrons.

Of the RCAF Americans who flew fighters, many will know the name John Gillespie Magee. Magee died in a training accident in England on December 11, 1941 while flying a Spitfire with RCAF 412 Squadron.  He is remembered for his famous poem, High Flight, which Ronald Reagan borrowed from in the speech that he gave immediately following the Challenger disaster in January, 1986.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr seated in his Spitfire
John Gillespie Magee, Jr seated in his Spitfire

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Some of the RCAF Americans who wanted to be fighter pilots ended up serving in one of three American Eagle Squadrons.  Nearly 750 Americans served in these squadrons before the squadrons were transferred to the fledgling US 8th Air Force after the US entered the war.  A majority of these pilots also passed through the Clayton Knight Committee recruiting offices, then to the Dominion Aeronautical Association and ultimately into the waiting arms of the RCAF and RAF where they were trained before deploying to England in one of the three Eagle Squadrons.

RAF Eagle Squadron Emblem with an American Eagle
RAF Eagle Squadron Emblem with an American Eagle in the center

After the US entered the war, the RCAF Americans were heavily recruited by the USAAF to return to American squadrons.  Some agreed and transferred to join US Squadrons while many chose to stay in the RCAF and continue to fight with their RCAF and RAF comrades in arms.

Many served with great distinction.

John Harvey “Crash” Curry was born in 1915 in Dallas.  By the mid-1930’s, Curry was barnstorming around Texas giving flying lessons to anyone with the money to pay for them.  He attended Air Corps Primary Flying School at Randolph Field in San Antonio before enlisting on the 27th of August 1940 in Ottawa, where he was immediately commissioned as a Flying Officer.  Curry flew Spitfires against the Luftwaffe in 1941 and 1942.  He became a squadron leader in Egypt, leading the 80th Squadron in June of 1943.  As the war progressed, the Squadron moved to Italy in early 1944.  On March 9, he was shot down while strafing a column of German tanks.  After successfully bailing out, he hid out in the Italian countryside with other downed flyers, all of whom were sheltered by friendly Italians.  Cold and hungry, he finally made his way back to Allied lines on March 18 where he soon resumed his flying career.  For his gallantry during the war, Curry received a Distinguished Flying Cross and was made an Officer in the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

"Crash" Curry
“Crash” Curry

One of the more colorful RCAF Americans was Flight Lieutenant William Ash, also from Dallas who graduated from the University of Texas in Austin.   Ash enlisted in the RCAF in Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit in 1940.  He was assigned to No. 411 Squadron RCAF where he flew many missions in a Spitfire including an attack on the German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.   He was shot down over Calais on March 24, 1942.  The French resistance found him before the Germans and smuggled him into Paris where he hoped to join a long line of allied airmen trying to make their way back to England.  He was captured in Paris at the end of May of 1942 and sent to a POW camp.  Over the next 3 years, Ash would successfully escape 4 different times from 3 different POW camps.  Each time he escaped, he was recaptured before he could make his way to safety.

Most famously, he ended up in Stalag Luft IIIB in Zagan (now in Poland) where he found himself in the middle of the planning for what became known as the “The Great Escape”

In 2014, after Ash passed away, the BBC did a story on him where they wrote that Ash was the model for Virgil Hilts, the character played by Steve McQueen in the famous 1963 movie.

As did the Hilts character, Ash endlessly persisted in trying to escape and, as a result, he spent a lot of time in the camp’s prison block or “cooler” as it was called.  Many times during his life, Ash humorously denied the claim that he was the model for the Hilts character by saying that he never made an escape where he stole a motor cycle and headed to Switzerland.  He also pointed out that he did not actually participate in the “The Great Escape” because he was already locked up in the “cooler” at the time as punishment for a previous escape attempt.

In May of 1946, Ash was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.  He stayed in England after the war and became an author.

William Ash (R) shaking the hand of Canada's wartime Prime Minister McKenzie King in 1941 when King was in England for talks with Churchill
William Ash (R) shaking the hand of Canada’s wartime Prime Minister McKenzie King in 1941 when King was in England for talks with Churchill


Lance “Wildcat” Wade was born in Broaddus, TX in 1915. He crossed the Canadian border in December of 1940 and ended up in the RAF.  He joined #33 Squadron in Egypt, where his skill and daring resulted in 2 enemy kills in a single day in November of 1941.  By September of 1942, with his first tour of duty completed, Wade returned to the United States.  He toured training facilities and participated in some war bond drives and was even photographed with President Roosevelt.  He returned to North Africa in January 1943 as a flight commander in #145 RAF Squadron.  By the time he finished his second tour of duty, Wade had shot down more enemy planes than any other allied pilot in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations with kills over Tunisia, Sicily and then Italy.  Wade received a promotion to Wing Commander and joined the staff of Air Vice Marshall Harry Broadhust of the RAF’s Mediterranean Command.  Sadly he died in a plane accident in Southern Italy on January 12, 1944.  He was the highest-scoring American pilot to serve in the RAF with 25 victories.

After Wade’s first tour of duty the USAAF offered him a higher rank and more pay if he would resign from the RAF and join the USAAF. But he turned them down, instead saying, “Thanks, that’s mighty fine, but I’d rather keep stringing along with the guys I have been with for so long now.”

Lance Wade
Lance Wade

One RCAF American who did resign from the RCAF to join the USAAF was 1Lt Floyd Magnum McRoberts of Fort Worth.  Floyd joined the RCAF in 1940 and flew as a gunner in a Wellington and then a Halifax Bomber.  After receiving his USAAF service number, he was told that the USAAF had so few planes in Europe that he should stay in his current RAF #429 Squadron.  Floyd never left the Squadron and was killed when his bomber was shot down over Osnabruck, Germany in December of 1944.  Osnabruck was a frequent bombing target in the Rhineland as there was much heavy industry in the area.  Records indicate the tail number of his Halifax Bomber was MZ463.

By war’s end, 829 RCAF Americans had been killed-in-action, some 50 of them from Texas.  As often happens during a war, the records are not complete.  Many of the families of those who died never received a full and complete explanation of what happened to their father or son or brother.

George Bentinck, of Galveston was killed-in-action while flying in a Lancaster Bomber.  His family says that he went to Canada in 1940 to join the war out of a sense of adventure.  They received news of his death late in 1944 after his plane was shot down over Germany.

For American Servicemen killed in WW2, it was common practice for the families to have the option of returning the remains of their family member to the USA or to inter the remains in one of America’s Military Cemeteries in Europe.  That was not the tradition in the RCAF and RAF where nearly all of the RCAF and RAF Americans who were killed-in-action are interred in one of the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemeteries (CWGC) scattered around Europe.  As with the American Cemeteries in Europe, the CWGC meticulously maintains these Cemeteries.  At the entrance to each, in a small brass box, there is always a book that contains whatever is known about each of men resting in the cemetery.  For some, much in known including the names of their parents or wives, their home towns and sometimes even something about when and how they were killed-in-action.  For others, the book only includes their name, rank, and service number.

George Bentinck (age 21) from Texas is buried in the Durnbach War Cemetery where he rests as Warrant Officer 2nd Class with service number R/137457 in the RCAF.   He was killed-in-action on February 25, 1944.   The Durnbach Cemetery is about 30 miles south of Munich and contains the graves of 2971 men, almost all airmen.

Durnbach Commonwealth War Cemetery
Durnbach Commonwealth War Cemetery

Two men from Austin, Flight Sergeant Seth Glasscock and Flight Officer George Woolrich were both killed-in-action during the war while flying Spitfires.  Both are memorialized at the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial, near Windsor and not far from Heathrow Airport, where the names of more than 20,000 airmen whose bodies were never recovered, are listed.

Runnymede Air Forces Memorial
Runnymede Air Forces Memorial

Clarence Wisrodt of Galveston joined the No 17 Squadron and flew in a Halifax Bomber.  In November of 1941 his Squadron was loaded onto ships and sailed for Singapore.  Before they could arrive, the Japanese entered the war and his Squadron was diverted to Burma.  Sergeant Wisrodt was killed-in-action on March 3, 1942 while fighting the Japanese in Burma.  His name is memorialized at the CWGC Memorial in Singapore.

CWGC Memorial in Singapore
CWGC Memorial in Singapore

In 2006, a retired Air Canada pilot Karl Kjarsgaard and presently a Director of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, began researching the subject of RCAF Americans in the Canadian archives.  The names of hundreds of Americans who perished while in the service of the RCAF and RAF have been identified.  Karl began publicizing this work in 2012 and it wasn’t long before he and his colleagues at the museum began hearing from American families that knew that their family member had gone to Canada before the US entered the war, to fight the Nazis.  Sadly, that is often pretty much all they knew.

In 2013, the State of Virginia built a first memorial honoring the 16 Virginians who fought and died as RCAF Americans.

In Jan. 2016 a Florida state memorial and plaque was dedicated at the Winter Haven Municipal Airport to the 6 RCAF Floridians killed-in-action in the RCAF.

In Colorado, Aviation Historical Society is planning to include the 6 RCAF Americans from Colorado who were killed-in-action with a possible ceremony in the fall of 2017.

In September of 2016, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) sponsored HR-5887, the RCAF/RAF-Americans Congressional Gold Medal Act. The Bill never reached the floor before the House adjourned at the end of December.  With the new 115th United States Congress that went into session on January 3, 2017, plans are being made to reintroduce the bipartisan bill to honor these men who deserve recognition for their valiant service in the RCAF and RAF.

Please forward this article to your Congressman and ask him or her to help push the new bill through Congress when it comes to the floor.

These men and their families deserve recognition for their actions some 75 years ago.


Information for this article was provided by Karl Kjarsgaard and the team at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada located in Nanton Alberta, Canada.

Further information about the men who perished as RCAF and RAF Americans was taken from the book “They Shall Not Grow Old” by Les Allison and Harry Hayward.

Tips for Surviving your next Boat Dive

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Everyone who scuba dives has gone diving off a dive boat. Boats come in all sizes and shapes and travel through both good and bad weather.  Planning for your trip ahead of time will make your experience much more enjoyable, and equally important, much safer.

Here are a few tips to follow:

  1. Think about what you want to wear. Take a decent hat to keep the sun off your head and provide some shade. Take some environmentally friendly sunscreen. Take a towel to dry off with and maybe a windbreaker too. A simple windbreaker will keep you pretty warm after a dive as the boat gets underway. Take sunglasses to cut down on the glare coming off the water.
  2. Think about keeping it all dry. Take a good dry back along with you that can hold all your things and make sure it closes right so that your things stay dry.
  3. Stay hydrated and fed. Don’t count on the boat to have water or snacks. Take both with you, at least on the first day until you figure out how well provisioned your dive boat will be. You’ll be sorry if you don’t have water and some snacks and it could ruin your day.
  4. Listen to the briefing about boat safety.   Every decent dive boat operator will take a few minutes to acquaint you with the safety and operating procedures on the boat. Pay attention. The Coast Guard may require these briefings and it may be a bit like listening to the briefings on an airplane but keep in mind that no two dive boats are the same. On a plane, you can be sure the oxygen mask is going to descend from the overhead compartment. But on a boat, be assured that the oxygen is definitely not going to descend from the overhead compartment.
  5. You are sharing the boat with many people. Don’t be a space pig. Keep your equipment near you and keep it organized. Watch how others set up their equipment learn their tricks to stay organized. Make sure your air tanks are properly secured to the boat so that they don’t fall over.   While you are at it, make sure the person next to you has also secured their tanks. Your neighbor’s unsecured tank is almost certain to smash into your foot and not their foot.
  6. Properly care for your camera and your mask. The crew will usually point out the tank to be used for your camera and the bucket to be used for your mask. On larger boats, there is often a dry area for photographers to handle their camera equipment.
  7. Listen to the dive briefing and pay attention to how they want you to enter and exit the water.
  8. Dive with your dive buddy and practice key hand signs ahead of time, so that you can understand each other while under the water. Have some sort of dive plan worked out between the two of you so that you each know the dive profile and direction you’ll be heading.
  9. And last but not least, consider carrying a DIVER DOWN TAG ®. Just before entering the water, hand it to the boat staff person who’s keeping track of which divers are in and out of the water. Retrieve it when you exit the water. It will act as a reminder to the boat staff to not drive off while you are still in the water. Get yours at www.scubadivertag.com

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Acts of Courage – April 20, 2016 – Ft. Hood, Tx

Acts of Courage

Good Afternoon

I’d like to thank the 1st ACB Brigade Command for inviting me here today to attend this program and to give a talk on Acts of Courage during the Holocaust.

Let me first recognize the entire Military Command that organizes programs like this at Ft. Hood and around the country.  It’s an honor to be involved.  And I want to especially thank you all for your service.

I attended University to study Mechanical Engineering. In my professional life, I earned a living by answering the question…. How does that work? Or How can I make this better?

But I’ve spent a lifetime searching for not just the answer to that question but also the more interesting question of WHY DID THAT HAPPEN?  My interest has led me pick away at the historical threads of 20th century military history, slowly revealing one interesting story behind the story behind the story.  Inevitably, this has led me to find all sorts of interesting connections and interactions between events.  And the more angles from which you view an event, the more likely you are find a hidden truth about that event.  This is what fascinates me about history.

Over the years, among my many travels all over the world, I have visited 38 concentration camps.  I’ve visited dozens of battlefields from WW1 and WW2 ranging from the UK to Stalingrad.  I have visited nearly all of the American Military Cemeteries in Europe and Asia.  And because I’m originally from Canada, I’ve visited many of the British and Canadian Cemeteries around the world as well.  I gave up counting the number of museums I’ve visited a long time ago.  And my bookshelves runneth over.

Somewhere around 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  What began with public beatings on the street and broken windows ended with piles and piles of ashes.  We should not forget that the Nazis murdered other groups as well including the Roma, gays,  Jehovah’s Witnesses, the handicapped, as well as millions of Russian POW’s and Poles too.  But they had a pathelogical desire to murder Jews.

Resistance to this Nazi effort to murder Europe’s 11 million Jews came in many different forms and by a wide assortment of heroic people.  To stand up to Hitler often meant that you were inviting your own death.  But people still did it.  Their motivations were varied and often very complicated.  But they all had one thing in common.  They actually stood up when it counted most and did what they could.

Today I’d like to share with you the stories of some of the heroes who did as much as they could and often paid with their lives to thwart Hitler’s desire to murder all 11 million Jews who lived in Europe prior to WW2.

Hitler came to power in 1933 with the promise to stop the chaos in German politics,  and to overturn the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles which was signed at the end of WW1.  Like many politicians, he promised to make Germany great again.

It wasn’t long after he took power that he soon set about trying to murder his political opponents and in June of 1934, about 80 of his rivals in the National Socialist movement were murdered in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives.

Newspaper Article about the "Night of the Long Knives"
Newspaper Article about the “Night of the Long Knives”

Thousands more were rounded up and thrown in three hastily built forced labor camps.  Dachau (outside Munich),  Sachsenhausen (north of Berlin) and Neuengamme (south of Hamburg).

This was the start of it all.  Jews weren’t the first inmates.  It began with the incarceration of Hitler’s political enemies.  Some of them were murdered in these camps but most were just forced to break big rocks into little rocks.  The Nazis wanted to humiliate them and give them a good attitude adjustment.  Most were eventually released once they saw the “error of their ways” and pledged their allegiance to Hitler.

Not long afterwards, roving bands of Nazis then began terrorizing the streets of German cities.  Jews, Gays, Bolsheviks and anyone else who pissed them off were also tossed into the growing number of camps going up all over Germany.

Soon the Nazis took over the German churches making it so that all the churches in Germany answered to the Nazi Party.

As a result of its Nazification, a number of Protestant Ministers and Roman Catholic Clergy who rose up in opposition to this plan were also tossed in the camps.

Niemoller Bonhoeffer

Martin Niemoller and Diettrich Bonhoeffer quit the Lutheran Church over its timid response to this Nazification of their Church.  Niemoller got himself immediately arrested.  He would spend every day from 1934 to 1945 in either Dachau or Sachsenhausen.

Bonhoeffer joined forces with the organized opposition to Hitler.  Not just Bonhoeffer himself but his entire family of brothers and sisters joined the opposition.  Before the war ended, Bonhoeffer and his brother as well as 2 of his brothers-in-law, and an uncle were all executed by the Nazis.  They were caught in 1944 trying to smuggle 6 Jewish families out of Germany to the safety of Switzerland.  They succeeded in getting the Jewish families out but the SS eventually caught up with them and put them to death. .

A number of top Wehrmacht officers tried to depose Hitler even before the war started.

Ludwig Beck

Ludwig Beck served as the head of the German General Staff from 1935 to 1938. (this made him the German equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs).  A man totally opposed to every aspect of Hitler’s plans from the very beginning, he first tried to thwart Hitler’s efforts to proceed with the Anschluss with Austria in early 1938.  But he failed and the Anschluss proceeded anyway.  He then tried to outmaneuver Hitler when Hitler decided to invade the Sudetenland.  But Beck failed again.  He resigned in August of 1938 and was replaced by Franz Halder. Halder also hated Hitler but not quite enough to plot and scheme against him as Beck had.

From 1938 until he took his own life on July 21, 1944, Beck plotted non-stop to try to thwart Hitler.

Beck was directly implicated in the von Stauffenberg Valkyre plan to kill Hitler and rather than give Hitler the satisfaction of shooting him, Beck took his own life the following day.

Had the German opposition, led by Beck, succeeded in killing Hitler in 1942 or 1943, the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust would have been closer to 1 million, instead of 6 million.   But it was not to be.

The fact that they survived in near open defiance to Hitler for as long as they did is a fascinating, complicated and, in many ways, a heroic story.

And speaking of defiance,

The Bielski Brothers
The Bielski Brothers


Perhaps you remember the movie titled Defiance about the Bielski brothers that came out a few years ago with Daniel Craig playing the role of Tuvia Bielski and Leev Schreiber playing his brother Zus.   When the Nazis attacked east into Russia on June 22, 1941, their parents and several siblings were murdered.  But the brothers took to the forest where over the next 4 years they would gather together some 2900 Jews.  They lived in the forest and fought as partisans against the Nazis for the duration of the war.  At wars end, some 1800 survivors emerged alive after having killed hundreds of Nazi soldiers.

After the war, the surviving brothers moved to New York where they ran a successful trucking company until they passed away peacefully in the early 1990’s.  A few years ago I attended a talk given by Tuvia’s son and he told a very funny story.  Of course you can imagine that having Tuvia Bielski as a father made it difficult for his son, Zvi, to impress his Dad.  Zvi moved to Israel after high school and joined the Israeli Army and became a paratrooper.  After he received his jump wings he went on leave and returned home to visit his family. When he proudly showed his father his jump wings his father looked up over the newspaper that he was reading and said to him, “what’s the big deal, they gave you a parachute didn’t they?”.

Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler

You may also know the story of Oscar Schindler.  Schindler was a German from the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia.  When the war began, he opened a factory to make enamel coated metal pots for the German Army with the labor supplied by hundreds of Jews that he took from the Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow.  At the end of the war, Schindler had saved about 1200 Jews from certain death.  Over the years, these 1200 people went on to have lives, marry and have children. The list of their descendants now exceeds about 15,000 individuals.

A number of foreign diplomats working in Europe also became heavily involved in saving Jews from the Nazis.  Two of the most famous ones were Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara.

Raoul Wallenberg / Chiune Sugihara
Raoul Wallenberg / Chiune Sugihara

Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews while acting as Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary.  In the months between July and December of 1944, totally on his own and against the wishes of the Swedish government, he started issuing bogus protective passports.  These passports allowed thousands to take shelter in buildings in Budapest that he unilaterally designated as part of the Swedish consular offices.  By doing so, all the occupants of official Swedish Consul  Offices were beyond the reach of the fascist Arrow Cross government that had begun deporting Jews to Auschwitz at that time.  400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and murdered during this period but as a result of Wallenberg’s efforts as many as 100,000 were saved.  Unfortunately when the Russians occupied Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the NKVD, the Russian secret police.  He disappeared and was never heard from or seen again.  Tom Lantos, a Congressman from California and one of those saved by Wallenberg saw to it that Wallenberg was made an honorary US citizen.

Sugihara was a Japanese Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania at the beginning of the war.  He began printing bogus transit visas for more than 6000 Jews so that they could leave Lithuania and make their way to Japan.  He did this at obvious great risk to himself and his career as the Japanese government was totally in the dark about Sugihara’s activities.  Each visa allowed an entire family to transit Russia and make their way to Japan.  They travelled by train to Vladivostok and then to Kobe by ferry.  When they all started showing up in Japan, the Japanese government had no idea what was going on.  Japan was not known as a welcoming place for immigrants and certainly not for European immigrants.    They decided to deport most of them to Shanghai where they lived out the war safe from the Nazis.  The descendants of Sugihara’s 6,000 families now number more than 50,000 people.

Another hero to be celebrated is Sir Nicholas Winton from London.

Sir Nicholas Winton
Sir Nicholas Winton

As a young man in 1938, Winton took a ski vacation to Switzerland. When he arrived there, he received a phone call from a friend, Martin Blake, who was in Prague at the time working on the British Committee for Refugees.  At this point in 1938, Czechoslovakia was being occupied by the Nazis and it was pretty clear that the local Jewish population was now in grave danger.  Winton agreed to travel to Prague to help.  A week later Winton had quit his job at an accounting firm in London and went to work full time trying to figure out how to rescue as many children as he could by arranging transport from Prague to England.  It was no easy task as the British government required that each child have a financial sponsor before they would issue out a visa in the child’s name.  These kindertransports, as they were called, only ended when the war started on September 1, 1939 at which rail travel between Prague and Holland was no longer possible.  By that time, Winton had rescued some 700 kids, all who survived the war.

After the war Winton just went back to work as if nothing had happened and never sought recognition for his accomplishments.  He got married after the war but somehow never managed to tell his wife Greta about his pre-war exploits.  In fact, he never told anyone.  The story only came to light in 1988 when Greta just happened to accidentally open a chest in the attic of their home.  In it, she found detailed records of all the kid’s names, and their parent’s names, and the names of the families that had taken in the kids.  When she asked Nicholas about it, he shrugged his shoulders and just said that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  Unbeknownst to Nicholas, that wasn’t good enough for Greta. She gave the records to a holocaust researcher in England who tracked down as many of the kids as she could find.  Later that year, the Winton’s received ticket’s to attend the taping of a BBC television show called “That’s Life”.  He thought he was just going to be in the audience to watch them tape an episode of one of his favorite shows.

As the show began, Winton was shocked to find out that the host of the program was talking about him. At one point, she asked whether anybody in the audience owed their life to Winton and if so, to stand up.  About 30 people seated around Winton suddenly stood up and began applauding.  It was the first time that Winton ever met any of those that he’d worked so hard to save.

In 2003, Nicholas Winton was knighted by the Queen for his heroism.  He only just died last year in July at age 106 after he’d become known as the British Schindler.

Most recently I read the story of an American soldier, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds from Knoxville whose heroism was only recently recognized.

Roddie Edmons
Roddie Edmons

The Master Sergeant was captured during the Battle of Bulge.  He found himself to be the highest ranking American among a large group of hundreds of POW’s being held by the SS.  While the group was assembled in front of an SS officer for inspection, Edmonds was told by the SS officer to order all the Jewish soldiers to step forward and identify themselves.  Rather than give such an order, Edmonds instead ordered every soldier to take a step forward.  He then told the Nazi officer that everyone was Jewish.  The Nazi became enraged as obviously this could not be true.  He pulled out his Luger and put it to Edmond’s head.  Again he demanded that Edmonds order the Jewish men stop forward.  This time Edmonds is said to have responded by telling the commandant, “If you shoot, you’ll have to shoot us all”.  Exasperated, the Nazi officer finally gave up and stormed off.


There were around 11 million Jews in Europe before the war began. The Nazis murdered some 6 million of them.

And in Jerusalem there is a museum dedicated to the holocaust.  It’s called Yad Vashem.  Since it opened in the 1960’s Yad Vashem has honored the thousands who stood up as Heroes during the Holocaust.  Today, roughly 26,000 individuals are recognized as being “Righteous Among the Nations”.  These 26,000 saved perhaps a million.

So the pre-war count was 11 million.  6 million were murdered and the 26,000 honored at Yad Vashem saved 1 million more.  That leaves 4 million who also survived.

So who do you suppose saved these people?

Had the Germans won the war, it would not have been 6 million murdered Jews. Instead it would have been all 11 million and let’s not forget that once they finished with the Jews, and the Roma and all the gays, they had every intention of also getting rid of millions of Poles and many others as well.

When the allies invaded North Africa in November of 1942, they might not have realized it at the time but there were around 500,000 Jews taking refuge there.  Some six long months later, on the 13th of May of 1943, the final Germans in Tunisia surrendered.  They didn’t surrender without a fight.  Had the allies lost that fight, the 500,000 Jews in North Africa would have certainly been murdered.

The same is true in the rest of Europe.  The slaughter in the deathcamps in Poland was only ended when Russian soldiers liberated each camp one by one.  And in the West, as US forces allied with British and Canadian forces fought their way across France and into Germany, the slaughter occurring in each German concentration camp came to an end only on the day the camp was liberated.

The main Nazi Camps

After D-Day, British and Canadian forces headed north towards Holland.  The two camps in Northern Germany, Neuengamme and Bergen-Belson were liberated by them.

In the East, the Russians fought their way to Berlin, liberating all the camps in Eastern Europe.  They made it was far west as Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen.

When the US Army fought its way out of Normandy, it headed north, south and east fighting its way across France and through Germany, into Austria and all the way to Plzen in Czechoslovakia.    All the rest of the camps that you see on this map in France, Germany and Austria were liberated by US Forces.

What this map doesn’t show you are the thousands of sub-camps that the Nazis operated.

Map showing some of the sub-camps
Map showing some of the sub-camps

The sub-camps were typically located at German companies.  And there were thousands of them.  With all the men either volunteering or conscripted into the Germany military, German industry needed slave laborers to operate.  Conditions were awful and hundreds of thousands were literally worked to death.

I thought it would be interesting to show you a list of the camps liberated by various Divisions.

US Units that Liberated Camps

The list is from the National Holocaust Museum in Washington which began recognizing these different US Commands about 10 years ago.   The list has been expanding as more information becomes known.  With thousands of sub-camps liberated by the US Army, there is a long way to go before they get a complete list.

I want to tell you about a couple of these divisions and the camps they liberated. The 90th Infantry division liberated Flossenburg in late April of 1945. 30,000 people were murdered there. Flossenburg was built at a granite quarry and the inmates were forced to mine the granite which was being used by the Nazis all over Germany to build monuments to themselves.


When the 90th Infantry arrived, they found dead and starving inmates all over the camp. The guards had all disappeared as they had left the camp the day before, forcing the remaining 6000 inmates who could still walk on a death march heading south towards Dachau.  The camp sits just above the town of Flossenburg but when the commanding officer of the 90th, Brig. Gen Jay McKelvie, sent his men back down the hill and into he town looking for those responsible for the camp, every single person in town denied any knowledge of the camp’s existance.  McKelvie who had been walking around the camp inspecting the carnage, became incensed, declared Marshall Law and forced the people from the town to gather up the hundreds of dead bodies and carry them down to the center of town where he forced them to bury them properly. The cemetery that he created that day still sits in the middle of the town.

The Cemetery in the Center of Flossenburg
The Cemetery in the Center of Flossenburg


There is a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Dallas who I met some years ago.  His name is Max Glauben.  Max speaks about his experiences all over Texas.  He was one of the group of people forced to march out of Flossenburg towards Dachau the day before the 90th arrived.  He was liberated when a column of GI’s came around the bend in the road and found themselves in the middle of this group marching south.  The German guards all ran away and Max’s nightmare was over.

To Max, everyone of those GI’s was a hero. They almost certainly saved his life.

Another camp liberated by US forces was Mittelbau Dora.

Nordhausen, also known as Mittelbau/Dora
Nordhausen, also known as Mittelbau/Dora

Werner von Braun, Arthur Rudolph and dozens of other Nazi scientists were building V1 and V2 rockets on an island off the north coast of Germany called Peenemunde.  The rockets that they built were raining down on London, killing thousands.  To try to end the carnage, in August of 1943, over the course of two nights, the allies sent two, one thousand plane bombing missions to Peenemunde in an attempt to wipe out the factory.

The only way to continue production was to move underground.  So, the factory was moved to the town of Nordhausen.  Two tunnels, more than a mile long, were dug with slave labor into the Hartz Mountains.  Thousands died digging the tunnels and thousands more died building the rockets once production resumed.

Elements of the 3rd Armored Division liberated this camp.  As with Flossenburg the prison guards all took off the day before 3rd Armored arrived marching the remaining inmates who could still walk, in this case some 2000 nearly dead souls, east from the camp heading towards Berlin.  The US Army caught up with them a few days later.  The night before the Army arrived, the Germans herded all 2000 into a barn near a town called Gardelegen and lit the barn on fire. Only a few survived.

The Barn at Gardelegen
The Barn at Gardelegen

General Frank Keating, upon seeing the mass murder at the barn entered the town of Gardelegen and in a repeat of what happened at Flossenburg, he forced the local townspeople to give the bodies a proper burial in a cemetery that to this day is still tended to by the town. .

Acts of Courage

It was Winston Churchill who said when the war started, “Herr Hitler has chosen the time and place to fire the first shot. We will choose the time and place to fire the last.”

There were a lot of heroic people who risked much during the Holocaust in an attempt to make a difference.  Some of their stories are pretty straightforward and some are pretty complicated.  But they all committed heroic acts to help save lives and they often paid with their own.

In the final analysis it was victory that finally stopped the Holocaust. A victory only made possible through the tremendous sacrifices of the men and women of the allied Armed Forces.  Your efforts today and everyday, keep us all safe.

You, and those who served before you, are all heroes.

Thank you.

Normandy Scholars Program Presentation, April 6, 2016

Good Morning.

I’d like to thank Professor Wynn for inviting me to join you today to give my perspective on the various types of Concentration Camps operated by the Nazis.  Let me first say that you are an intrepid bunch to invite me to perhaps ruin your lunch by sharing with you one of the greatest horrors in the history of the world.

I attended University to study Mechanical Engineering. In my professional life, I earned a living by answering the question…. How does that work?  Or, how can I make this better?

But I’ve spent a lifetime searching for not just the answer to that question but also the more interesting question of WHY DID THAT HAPPEN?  My interest has led me pick away at the historical threads of 20th century military history, slowly revealing one interesting story behind the story behind the story. Inevitably, this has led me to find all sorts of interesting connections and interactions between events.  And the more angles from which you view an event, the more likely you are find a hidden truth about that event.  This is what fascinates me about history.

There is a famous WW1 poem that I love written by a Canadian John McCrae. Its called In Flanders Fields. McCrae was writing about his friend who had just been killed in the war.  There is one particular stanza that I’ve always been drawn to:

To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high

I think I must have been struck in the head with at least a glancing blow from that torch.  As history students I hope you’ll do better than me and catch that torch.  Go on to write a great history book or make a great documentary movie.

If you leave here with nothing else today, I hope to be able to convey to you the enormous scale of the effort that the Nazis invested in creating and operating these camps.  Over the years, among my many travels all over the world, I have visited 38 concentration camps, forced labor camps and transit camps.  Sadly, even though this sounds like a lot, it is just a fraction of the total as there were literally thousands of forced labor camps all over Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

I know you are going to go to Warsaw and to Krakow this summer and you’re going to see some pretty awful things.  As awful as these places are, I always tell people who are about to visit a camp that they should bear in mind that this perverted sociopathic fascination with murdering Jews ultimately got the Nazis working at cross purposes to their actual goal of winning the war.  In many ways, the process of murdering 6 million Jews and countless others totally distracted large numbers of Nazis at critical times during the war and hastened their own demise.  Just the act of using such huge amounts of their rail capacity for the purpose of transporting Jews to their death rather than using it to transport wounded soldiers back from the front or for transporting war material to the front cost them dearly.

And, keep in mind, had they not surrendered when they did, Berlin or Munich or Hamburg or all 3 might well have disappeared under a nuclear mushroom cloud.  The creation of the Atomic Bomb and the huge engineering and manufacturing effort behind it would never have gotten off the ground had 4 Hungarian Jews, all working or trained at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the early 1930’s, not been forced out of their jobs and ultimately out of Germany by the Nazi’s racial purity laws.

Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann all played a major role in convincing the US to invest the Billions necessary to build the bomb.  Were it not for their efforts, it’s unlikely that Roosevelt would have ever been alerted to the potential of an Atomic Bomb nor of the potential the Germans might build one themselves.

Reichsbahn Museum at Nuremburg

At Nuremburg, not much is left of the old Nazi parade grounds except the reviewing stands that you see in old movie reels. Underneath that reviewing stand is a museum now which traces the rise of National Socialism in Germany.  One of the displays there shows the number of dead at many of the larger camps as part of a display about the role of the Reichbahn in transporting victims to their ultimate death.

Four of the Death Camps
Four of the Death Camps
A list of the Others
A list of the Others

The numbers are both depressing and staggering

The Nazis built and ran 3 basic types of camps in addition to the many Ghettos that they created.

Transit Camps where people were forced to stay for some period time, sometimes weeks and sometimes years.

Forced Labor Camps of which there were thousands and in which the inmates were often starved or beaten to death or shot for the amusement of the guards.  At least 1.5 million Russian POW’s, perhaps as many as a million Poles and millions of Jews were sent to these camps and many perished there in deplorable conditions.

And finally the Death Camps.  Nearly all who entered these camps, were murdered within hours of their arrival.  If they survived longer, it was because they were put to work helping to run the Camp as a Sonderkommando or in sorting the belongings of those being murdered. Beyond this, if you survived in a Death Camp for longer than this short time, it was because the camp was also being used as a Slave Labor Camp.

As the war went on, the lines blurred between the different types of camps and many of the larger Forced Labor Camps started installing crematorium to deal with the ever increasing numbers of dead bodies.  Several even installed gas chambers.

But before we go too far, let’s go back to gain a perspective on how it all started.

I always jokingly tell my friends that every European history book should begin with the phrase,


The history of WW2 is certainly no exception.

But as I’m sure you know, the evil that is anti-Semitism was not invented by Nazi Germany.

The fact is that anti-Semitism existed long before Nazi Germany and it has survived long after the last Nazi was killed in WW2.

European history especially is filled with episode after episode, in country after country, whenever things got bad, in times of bad crops, plagues, earthquakes, or whatever else happened that threatened a society, out came the knives and the local Jewish population was forced to flee or die trying.

So no, the Nazi’s did not invent anti-Semitism.

But it WAS the Nazi’s who figured out how to combine the worst of humanity and harness it to the industrial might of a modern nation to commit the greatest of genocides.  This is what separates the Holocaust from all other genocides.

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was an age of enlightenment. Literally.  The electric light bulb itself, cars, the telephone, and flying machines came pouring out of modern scientific creative minds.  The pace of modernization was taking off.

Jews in most of Western Europe were highly assimilated into the cultures of where ever they lived.  Anti-Semitism existed but Jews weren’t being murdered in the streets.  Some Jews felt they needed to convert to Christianity and Christianize their name to succeed in their chosen fields.  But most did not.  

Synagogues all over Europe were being built to look like the great cathedrals.

Szeged, Hungary
Szeged, Hungary

Jews wanted to be seen praying in the exact same style of buildings that their Christian neighbors attended. In Germany, every large city had a beautiful Synagogue near its center, often close to the main cathedral.  

The relative safety of Western Europe began to change as a result of WW1.  Life in the trenches was awful and deadly and anti-Semitism on both sides of the line flourished.  My mother has a letter from 2 of her older cousins who were from Montreal who wrote about terrible anti-Semitism in the British and Canadian trenches. So it wasn’t just some sort of “German thing”.

But when Germany lost WW1, the anti-Semitic temperature began to rise as the fable of the “Stab in the Back” was born.

The Stab In The Back Cartoons
The Stab In The Back Cartoons

The Kaiser and the head of the German High Command, General Ludendorf, needed a scapegoat to blame for the loss of the war.  The Jews were a natural target.

So a fable was born.  Germany lost the war because the German Army was stabbed in the back by the home front.  And on the home front as the war was winding down, the Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and the Weimar government came to power.  It was this government that signed the November 1918 armistice along with its crippling terms.  And it was this government which the Nazi’s vilified as being run by Jews, and Bolsheviks who were often, one and the same.

The 1920’s political scene in Germany was filled with endless plots and counter plots to over throw the government. Political assassinations were common place.

Into this chaos enters Adolph Hitler In 1923 Hitler would attempt a coup in Munich but it failed and Hitler was tossed in jail where he had the time to write a rather lengthy and in depth plan on how he was going to kill all the Jews and take over the world. He called it Mein Kampf or My Struggle.

After his release from jail, Hitler became even more bombastic. He spoke out against the Treaty of Versailles and equally against both capitalism and communism.  Both were Jewish conspiracies.  Jewish bankers and Jewish Bolsheviks were all screwing Germany.

But don’t get excited. He wasn’t the only one. Henry Ford, yeah, the head of Ford Motor Company, and Charles Lindbergh, the famous flyer, did the same thing.  And lots of others too.

But the violent politics of the 1920’s in Germany became a real breeding ground for anti-Semitism.  

Hitler came to power in 1933 with the promise to stop the chaos in German politics, overturn the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and make Germany great again.

In June of 1934, Hitler decided to get rid of all of his political opponents and in one night, about 80 of his rivals in the National Socialist movement were murdered in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives..

Newspaper Article about the "Night of the Long Knives"
Newspaper Article about the “Night of the Long Knives”

Thousands more were rounded up and thrown in three hastily built forced labor camps.  Dachau (outside Munich) Oranienburg (north of Berlin) which became Sachsenhausen and, Esterwegen (south of Hamburg) which became known as Neuengamme.  

This was the start of it all.  Jews weren’t the first inmates.  It began with the incarceration of Hitler’s political enemies.  Some of them were murdered in these camps but most were just forced to break big rocks into little rocks.  The Nazis wanted to humiliate them and give them a good attitude adjustment.  Most were eventually released after they saw the “error of their ways” and pledged their allegiance to Hitler.

This made room for the next wave of people sent to these forced labor camps.  Nazi thugs began roaming the streets.  Jews who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time were scooped up and sent to these camps.  They were joined by Communists and Bolsheviks and Gays and anyone who got in the way of roving groups of Nazis as they marched up and down the streets of Germany’s cities, big and small.  

At around the same time, the various German Churches were brought under the Nazi boot when Ludwig Muller was appointed as head of the Reich Church.  As a result of its Nazification, number of Protestant Ministers and Roman Catholic Clergy began to speak out.  They too were rounded up and tossed in the camps.  Among these clergy was a man who would become famous for a poem that he wrote.  Martin Niemoller protested against the Nazification of the German Lutheran church.  He quit and helped form a new church called the Confessing Church.  He was promptly arrested and thrown into Sachsenhausen and then Dauchau.  He would spend almost every day from 1934 to 1945 in either one those two camps.

You may know his famous poem:

Niemoller's "First they Came"
Niemoller’s “First they Came”

He wrote the poem after the war.  His poem and he himself might have been a lot more famous had it been for one thing.  Before Hitler threw him in jail for opposing the creation of the Reich Church, Niemoller was himself, a rabid anti-Semite.

As the 1930’s rolled onwards, the Jews in Germany saw more and more repressive laws taking away their rights as German citizens.

In November of 1938 things took a huge turn for the worse.  On November 9, Kristallnacht occurred.  More than 7500 Jewish businesses were looted and torched.  Nearly 1,000 synagogues were burned across Germany and Austria and around 30,000 Jews were tossed into the forced labor camps.  

The list now included:

Dachau (1933)


Sachenhausen (1936)


Buchenwald (1937)


Neuengamme (1938)


Flossenburg (1938)


and Mauthausen (1938)


At the first 3, inmates were forced into hard labor.  Basically, they were forced to break large rocks into small rocks solely with the purpose of humiliating them.  But Flossenburg and Mauthausen were built at granite quarries and inmates here were forced to dig out the granite which was being used to build the Nazi edifices in Berlin and Nuremburg and other places around Germany.  

And then the war started and things would only get worse.  

But not initially as you might think.  

As bad as things got for Germany’s 550,000 Jews, they were worse for the mentally and physically handicapped.  The Nazis began a Euthanasia program to murder these people.  At 6 or 7 locations around Germany around 70,000 infirm Germans were gassed using carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide generated by pumping in the exhaust from diesel engines into sealed chambers.  

One of these places is called Sonnenstein, south of Dresden.

The Museum at Sonnenstein
The Museum at Sonnenstein

Some 14,000 people were gassed here.  The very same people who ran the T4 euthanasia program would later all be involved in the gassing of millions in the death camps of the Holocaust.  Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl, and many others would eventually go on to employ Zyklon B as a more effective killing agent over carbon monoxide and diesel exhaust at the death camps to be built in Poland.  Nearly all of these mass murderers who ran the Nazi death camps of WW2 got their start working on this T4 program.  

But the murder of Jews didn’t start with gassing. There were really three phases to the Holocaust.

Death by bullets.

Death by forced labor and starvation and finally..

Death by gassing.

And it all really got started when the Germans attacked east into Russia in June of 1941.  As the German Army rolled over Poland hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of additional Jews found themselves behind German lines.  Behind the blitzkrieg of the Wehrmacht came large groups of Einsatzgruppen.  Basically they were SS death squads who forced Jews to dig big pits and then they shot them, one by one.  Tens of thousands were slaughtered like this. It was done in public.  It was done often with the local non-Jews watching.  Often the local population was happy to welcome the Germans and be rid of the Russians.  Most of the people in the Baltic countries, Poland and the Ukraine hated the Russians with a passion. Many thought the Germans would be an improvement.  And more than just a few were happy to help the Germans murder the local Jews.  The Germans wanted peace behind their front lines as they surged towards Moscow and they were not stupid.  While the Germans were going to take all the Jew’s valuables (if they had any), the Germans had no use for the property of dead Jews.  So the locals ended up living in the homes of their Jewish neighbors.  And in many cases, they still are.  This was a basis for the Faustian deal often made between the Germans and the locals to gain their cooperation.

But after awhile, even the most ardent Nazi became affected by the brutal process of murdering men, women and children one by one all day, every day by shooting them in the head.  Drinking got out of hand and discipline suffered.  Himmler and Hitler concluded that they needed a better way.  So many Jews were coming under German control that they started herding them together into confined areas in dozens of towns and cities behind the German lines.  These became Ghettos where overcrowding, non-existent sanitation and starvation became commonplace.

At the same time, German industry was suffering a critical labor shortage of immense proportions.  The Wehrmacht, the Kreigsmarine, and the Luftwaffe were short of everything and German industrial production was limited as all the men were either volunteering for the war or being conscripted.  No way could Germany win this war unless German industry could pump out armaments faster than the allies and this meant they needed laborers.  And lots of them.

A guy named Fritz Todt became the Armaments Minister and he came up with the idea of using slave laborers to supplement the German workforce.  Todt was killed in early 1942 in a plane crash and Albert Speer took over.   As a result of their efforts, more than 6.5 Million forced laborers were farmed out to thousands of companies, big and small.

Oskar Schindler is an example of one of these local businessmen who took advantage of this labor pool for his enamel pot factory in Krakow.

The laborers included Jews, Russian POW’s, Poles, and other people grabbed off the streets in cities across Europe.

Millions died.  

Oddly enough, the Nazis worked at cross purposes here.  They needed laborers to make war materials but also were fanatically focused on starving them to death or shooting them.  Imagine the stupidity of training workers to run complicated equipment and then starving them to death.  Only to start all over again with another worker and then also stave him or her to death as well.

In thousands of sub-camps across Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czechoslovakia, companies, big and small were using slave laborers.   They would work them until they starved to death or died of disease and then return the dead to the main concentration camp for replacements.  To get rid of the bodies, the Nazis had to build crematorium to keep up with the endless flow back to the main camps.  This is why most of the camps initially built crematoriums, and, by the way, the SS charged 5 RM per slave laborer per day. It was big business for the Nazi Party.

The Arbeitslager System
The Arbeitslager System

Almost every Nazi concentration camp and several of the main death camps were involved in this activity.

The sub-camp of Christianstadt
The sub-camp of Christianstadt

Some of the sub camps were huge.  This is the forced labor camp at Christianstadt which is north of Gross-Rosen.  Today it sits in the middle of a forest.  If you didn’t know it was there, you could drive along the road next to the forest 100 times and never know what lurked behind the trees.  The buildings are still there.   All the equipment was stripped after the war by the Russians and taken to Russia.  The camp measured at least 2 miles x 3 miles and there were dozens and dozens of concrete buildings, many with ceramic tile on the floor.  The presence of ceramic tiling on the floor meant acids were being used and sure enough, Christianstadt was home to a giant IG FARBEN explosives factory.  At least 20,000 died here.

Nordhausen, also known as Mittelbau/Dora
Nordhausen, also known as Mittelbau/Dora

At Nordhausen the Nazis tunneled deep into the Hartz mountains so that they could build V1 and V2 rockets underground, out of reach of the endless bombing raids of the Allied Air Forces.  Thousands died digging the tunnels and even more died in building the rockets.


In Austria inside a mountain at Ebensee they built a underground oil refinery.  Again, slave laborers were forced to dig seven tunnels that extended more than one mile into the granite rock.  The Nazis installed a complete oil refinery under the mountain including digging air vents that exited the mountain some 300 feet above the tunnels that were dug at ground level.  Rail cars of oil were brought from oil fields near Vienna.

Again, thousands died in digging the tunnels. But in this case, the allies kept bombing the trains that were bringing oil to Ebensee so the Nazis never refined even 1 gallon of gas.  After the war, the US Army ran the refinery for several years until enough above ground refinery capacity could be rebuilt in Germany.


Lets go back and take a look at a few Transit Camps.

Before being shipped off to the forced labor camps or sent to a death camp,  Jews were often thrown into what became known as a transit camp.  Its not a coincidence that the main “transit camps” were located in Holland, Vichy France and in Czechoslovakia.  Each of these places was run by a government that was collaborating with the Nazis.  Part of the deal was for the local Jews to be placed into these camps and not just immediately murdered.  That made it a little bit more palatable for the collaborating government that must have had some qualms about watching their countrymen carted off straight away to the death camps.

However, while inside these camps, the inmates were also forced to make products for the German war effort.


In Holland, the main transit camp was called Westerbork.  This is where Anne Frank and her family and their friends were all sent after they were discovered hiding in Amsterdam.  100,000 Dutch Jews and 5,000 German Jews like Anne’s family were held here.  If you were a Dutch Jew, you had the dubious distinction of having the worst chances on a per capita basis to survive the war of any country in Europe.  By wars end, everyone had been deported to a death camp in Poland.


In Czech, all the Jews of Prague and from around the country were thrown into an old walled fortress built by the Hapsburgs in the 1780’s, called Theresienstadt.  Nearly 150,000 Jews passed through there.  Some stayed for years.  Others, only for a short time.  Many ended up in Auschwitz (about 90,000) when, in 1944, the Germans began large scale deportations.  About 30,000 died at Theresienstadt and at a forced labor camp just north of Theresienstadt.  Only a few thousand survived.  Not only Czechs were sent there but also Jews from Austria, Germany, France and Holland.


In France, the Nazis and their collaborating Vichy friends ran a transit camp called Natzweiler, near Strasbourg in the Alsace part of France.  Into Natzweiler were thrown Jews rounded up by the Vichy and also members of the French resistance; and even captured SOE parachutists from England.

Some 52,000 French Jews and resistance members passed through Natzweiler.  22,000 died at the camp.  As the allies approached in 1944, the inmates were marched across Germany in a death march that led them to Dachau.

In eastern Europe, other than Theresienstadt, the Nazis didn’t bother with transit camps so much.  Instead, they just herded the Jews into Ghettos.  There was no need to hide Nazi brutality in Poland, the Baltic Republics, Ukraine and the area we now call Belarus.

The inhabitants of the Ghettos were also forced into slave labor and they were also a source for companies to grab Jews for local factories.  They became cesspools of starvation and disease. Thousands died and collapsed along the streets before most of them were deported to one of the death camps.  

But starving Jews to death was still insufficient for the Nazi sociopaths.  So in January of 1942, Reinhardt Heydrich who would later be assassinated in Prague, Adolf Eichmann who met his end at the end of an Israeli rope in 1962 and 14 other Nazi functionaries met at a fancy villa on a lake outside Berlin called Wannsee.

The Villa at Wannsee
The Villa at Wannsee

Here they hatched a plan the likes of which the world had never seen before and is unlikely to ever see again.  To rid Europe of its Jewish problem they decided to harness the full power of German industrial design and marry it to the psychopaths from the euthanasia program.  What they came up with was the construction of 5 death camps around Poland whose sole function was to take arriving Jews and murder them with poison gas.

These camps were Chelmno, north of Lodz

The Chelmno Memorial
The Chelmno Memorial

Majdanek, outside Lublin


Treblinka on the rail line from Warsaw to Bialystok

The Memorial at Treblinka
The Memorial at Treblinka

Sobibor, on the River Bug south of Brest


And Belzec, also on the River Bug but further south and closer to the Lvov area.


Chelmno, north of Lodz was built first.  Here, arriving Jews from the Lodz ghetto were off loaded from rail cars and into trucks which had been modified to send the exhaust from the engines into the back of the sealed truck.  The truck would drive a few miles up the road to the main camp where the bodies were cremated.  It didn’t work very well and lots of victims still needed to be shot after the doors of the sealed truck were opened. We can call this process murder 1.0.

Murder 2.0 was implemented at the rest of the death camps.  Zyklon B manufactured by a company called Degussa and developed from a cyanide based pesticide proved very deadly.  Jews that arrived at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec found no barracks for slave laborers. It was short walk from the train station to the showers which were really gas chambers.  Majdanek had quite a few barracks for slave laborers but it too soon became a major death camp.  

And soon Auschwitz was added to this list of death camps but it got its start as a camp for Polish political prisons.  Soon the Nazi’s added Birkenau I which was operated like Majdanek and had barracks for slave labor as well as a process that just included the murder of thousands upon thousands of arriving Jews.  Birkenau II, built a few miles from Birkenau I was going to be a huge slave labor camp for making synthetic fuel and synthetic rubber.  But IG Farben never got it working.  Auschwitz is so well known today because of its location.  Because it is in SW Poland, the Nazis were able to keep it operating the longest as the Russians overran the other death camps in their advance from east to west across Poland.  

All the death camps were put into operation after the Wannsee Conference.  Treblinka ceased operating by the end of October 1943, Sobibor about the same.  Both of these camps had uprising and prisoner escapes after which the Nazis decided to shut them down, tear it all down, and plant trees to try to cover up the evidence.  Belzec only operated for about 10 months in 1942 but still about 500,000 Jews were murdered there.  Only 1 is known to have survived.  

This left Auschwitz and Majdanek in operation for 1944 and 1945 when the murder rate was even higher.  Majdanek was liberated by the Russians in mid July of 1944, just 45 days after D-Day. Auschwitz was only liberated by the Russians on January 27, 1945.

In each case, as the Russians approached one of the camps, the inmates were forced on a death march to other camps away from the advancing Russian and towards other camps inside Germany. The Germans didn’t want to lose their labor force. They still thought they were going to win the war.

Thus in late 1944 and into 1945, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Neuengamme, and Ravensbruck all began receiving large numbers of nearly dead and dying Jews from the other camps.   Disease and starvation was rampant and people died by the thousands.  Anne Frank and her sister were part of this as they had been marched from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen where they died in Typhus epidemic just a few weeks before the camp was liberated in April of 1945 by the British Army.

After the war, an attempt was made to round up the sociopaths who ran these death camps.  Some were hanged.  Some were jailed.  But by and large, the majority of those with blood soaked hands mostly got away with it.

A few even made photo albums of their sadistic escapades.

Jürgen Stroop was responsible for burning down the Warsaw Ghetto.  After it was over in May of 1943, he wrote a report that included many of the most iconic photos of the Nazi barbarism.  You may have seen some of them.

Stroop Photos
Stroop Photos

Stroop has hung in 1952 in Warsaw.

At Nuremburg and in Dresden, after the war, the Allies put 23 doctors who were involved in the Nazi euthanasia program on trial. 16 were found guilty and executed and were hung in 1948.  The ring leader, Karl Brandt, was among them denying that he had done anything wrong right up until the moment when they put the hood over his head just before he was hanged.

Rudolf Hoss the guy, who ran Auschwitz, was tried in Poland found guilty and hung at Auschwitz.

Irmfried Eberl who was put in charge initially at Treblinka, was arrested in 1948 and hung himself just before his own trial.

Franz Stangle, his successor escaped to Argentina where he lived in the open for many years.  He was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and eventually extradited back to Germany to stand trial.  He died in prison in 1971 not that long ago and proclaiming to the end… I was just doing my duty.  Stangle also ran Sobibor for awhile and under his commands nearly a million people were murdered.

Belzec was run by Christian Wirth.  Wirth eventually ended up actually fighting in the war.  He was killed near Trieste.

But thousands got away with murder.  In this case, mass murder.


“You got another one of those damn things?”

In 2002, Paul Tibbets gave a wide ranging interview to Studs Terkel about his experiences as the pilot of the Enola Gay and Commander of the 509th Composite Bombing Group.  Tibbets, piloting the Enola Gay, would drop the first atomic bomb called Little Boy on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Three days later, on August 9,  another B-29 named  Bockscar would drop the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

What the world didn’t know and what the Japanese definitely didn’t know is that Japan’s complete silence after the Nagasaki bomb sent the US military down the path of planning for the dropping of a third bomb.

The US military really thought that the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima would bring Japan to her senses and she would immediately surrender.   To their surprise, the Japanese government  was silent after the dropping of the first bomb.  Had Japan surrendered, there would never have been the second atomic attack on Nagasaki.  But instead, three long days passed in silence after Hiroshima.   It was only after a day and half of silence following the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima that planning began for the dropping of the second bomb, the one that would obliterate Nagasaki.

So on August 9, history records that the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.   The military thought that the Japanese would surely surrender after a second atomic attack.

First one day, August 10th,  passed in silence and then a second day passed with no word from Japan.  Then on August 12th, General Curtiss  Lemay, Chief of Staff of the Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, called Tibbets and asked him point blank….

“You got another one of those damn things?”

Tibbets knew that they had the components for a third bomb, but they weren’t on Tinian.   The third bomb was still back in the United States.  LeMay immediately told Tibbets to have it flown out to Tinian where it was to be assembled and dropped on Japan for a third atomic attack.    That third attack never happened because the Japanese finally surrendered on August 15th by which time the third bomb had only been transported as far as San Francisco in its long journey from the US to Tinian.

Had that third bomb been delivered to Tinian with the first two, its more than likely that a third Japanese city would have been obliterated.   Since the US military only waited 3 days between the Hiroshima bomb and Nagasaki bomb, its not very likely that they would have waited longer than the same three day interval between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb and the third bomb.

Tibbets was asked by Terkel if he knew what target General LeMay had in mind for the third bomb.  To which Tibbets responsed that he didn’t know.

Some have speculated that it might have been dropped on Tokyo.  Some even suggest that the Royal Palace in the center of Tokyo might have been targeted with this third bomb.

But that seems unlikely.  Given that everyone from Curtiss LeMay to President Truman himself was waiting to hear from someone in Japan that they were willing to surrender, dropping an atomic bomb on the very people that would have had to issue the surrender order on behalf of Japan seems counterproductive.    If Japan’s Supreme Council that included Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, and Foreign Affairs Minister Shigenori Togo along with Emperor Hirohito had all been obliterated, the US might never have received word of the Japanese surrender.

A far more likely target was one of the potential targets considered for the earlier bombings.   This list included Kyoto, Yokohama, and the Kokura Arsenal.  As with the earlier bombings, weather often played a big role in determining the fate of one target or another.   If the primary target was covered by cloud, the B-29 pilots were under orders to fly onto a secondary target that was clear.   This had already saved Kokura from atomic obliteration as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was originally intended for Kokura.  But Kokura was socked in with heavy cloud cover so Bockscar flew on towards Nagasaki.

Kyoto was an unlikely target as various people in the US government had pressed that Kyoto held too much religious and cultural significance to the Japanese.

Langdon Warner, an archeologist and art historian who worked as a Monuments Man during the war  is credited with talking the US into removing both Kyoto and Kamakura from the target list.   Warner  specialized in Asian cultures and art and had already been instrumental in talking the military out of firebombing Kyoto and other cultural locations.   Today there are statues to Warner in both Kyoto and in Kamakura attesting to his efforts to save those cities.

More recently some historians point to then Secretary of War, Henry Stimson as being the individual who saved Kyoto.   Stimson spent his honeymoon in Kyoto before the war when he was stationed in the Philippines.   He is known to have argued to save it from destruction.

This leaves Yokohama as a likely third target.  Its location quite close to Tokyo would have made its destruction pretty hard to ignore by the Japanese Supreme Council and Emperor Hirohito.

But luckily we’ll never know for sure.

Lt. Alexander Bonnyman JR., Medal of Honor Recipient

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Just outside Knoxville, TX, in the Highland Memorial Park, stands a memorial for Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, JR.   If you look closely at the photo you’ll see that Lt. Bonnyman’s remains are not in Tennessee as the bottom line reads, “Buried At Sea”.   But Lt. Bonnyman’s remains were most definitely NOT “Buried At Sea”.

Lt. Bonnyman was killed in action during the 76 hours of hell that it took the US Navy, Marine Corps and Army to invade and overcome the entrenched 4500 strong Japanese contingent on a tiny Pacific atoll known as Tarawa in the chain of islands known as the Gilberts.

To carry the fight from Pearl Harbor to Japan, US military planners devised an island hopping campaign that took the US to many virtually unknown islands across the Pacific.  After a bloody 7 month fight on Guadalcanal which was nearly lost, the US knew that their path to Japan went through the Mariana Islands.   But to take the Mariana Islands, the Navy first had to capture the Marshall Islands.   And you couldn’t take the Marshall Islands without first knocking out a Japanese air strip on the island of Tarawa in the Gilberts.    So a successful push to Japan brought Tarawa directly into the crosshairs.

After a near disaster on Guadalcanal, much of 1943 was spent in building the strength of the US Navy and the Marine Corps.   Hundreds upon hundreds of ships were built and thousands upon thousands of troops were trained.

Tarawa would be their first big test.  So on November 20, 1943,  a force of 35,000 Americans invaded Tarawa which was garrisoned by 4,500 Japanese who had been there building fortifications for more than a year.

The Japanese had installed four 8-inch Vickers howitzers purchased from Britain during the Russo-Japanese war which ended in 1905.  500 pillboxes with machine guns were built from sand, logs and concrete along with an additional 14 artillery pieces.   All dug in and waiting for the Americans who the Japanese knew were certain to come.

The US invasion force arrived with 6 front line aircraft carriers and 11 smaller carriers.  In support were 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 66 destroyers  and 36 troop transports carrying the entire 2nd Marine Division and a significant part of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division.

As the force sailed over the horizon and into the view of the Japanese on Tarawa, the shore batteries opened fire.  Returning fire against the four 8-inch guns were two US Battleships,  the Maryland and Colorado, each blasting away with their much larger 16-inch guns.  It wasn’t long before the Japanese guns were silenced and at that point, in the pre-dawn hours of November 20, one thousand guns of all calibers arrayed offshore on nearly 100 warships, opened fire on tiny Tarawa, a land mass of just 0.59 square miles.   A person could hardly blame the Admirals in charge for thinking that no one could survive the massive barrage.   They would be proven wrong as the Japanese had prepared deep underground bunkers with thick concrete to protect them from just such a barrage.  They suffered very few casualties among the 4,500.

At 0900, the first landing craft began heading towards the beaches on the far side of a lagoon that had been cleared of mines.  Unfortunately, the lagoon was surrounded by a high coral reef and due to an unusually low, high tide condition, the wood bottomed Higgins Boats could not clear the reef.   A few tracked LVT “Alligators” were able to crawl over the coral reef and head towards the beaches.  Sadly, these pre-war designed flimsy vehicles only had wooden sides and as they slowly crossed the lagoon towards the beach, the Japanese defenders, returning to their above ground positions  opened fire on the LVT’s.  Only a few made it to shore.  Most were riddled by machine gun fire.  Seeing the chaos, officers stuck on the reef decided to try to walk across the relatively shallow lagoon towards the beach rather than wait.   Hundreds were gunned down in a withering crossfire from Japanese pillboxes on either side of the horseshoe shaped lagoon..

Eventually the Americans would land enough troops and equipment to overcome the Japanese.  Before it was over, almost 1700 US Servicemen and 4,700 Japanese would die in a fight for this tiny spit of land that is smaller than 100 football fields.

One of the men who came ashore onTarawa was Lt. Alexander Bonnyman.  He was unusual in that he was 33, rather old for a WW2 Marine.   Being too old to be drafted, he volunteered for the Marines out of a sense of adventure.   He had been on Guadalcanal and for his actions while fighting there , he received a battlefield commission 2nd Lieutenant.    On Tarawa, he lead a squad whose job was to clear obstacles, usually with explosives.

on D-Day +1, the 2nd day of fighting, Bonnyman was with a group that was attacking across the airfield when they came upon a large concrete bunker.   As they fought towards the front of the bunker, Bonnyman and his team encountered a large Japanese force.   A major firefight broke out and Bonnyman’s squad began to run low on ammunition.    They retreated to get more ammunition and  quickly returned with Bonnyman in the lead.   A massive fight ensued and eventually the Marines took the bunker with the Japanese suffering more than 150 killed.   But the Japanese wanted the bunker back and counterattacked several times trying to push the Marines back.   It was while fighting off one of these counterattacks that Lt. Bonnyman, leading from the front, was killed in action.

With Tarawa sitting near the equator, the remains of fallen soldiers needed to be buried quickly.   Most of the dead on Tarawa were buried in a series of temporary graves that were long pits dug into the sand with the names of the fallen and the location of the burial pit recorded by the graves registration people.   Lt. Bonnyman was placed with 34 others in a burial pit near the dock in the lagoon.

After the fighting was over, the Marines and everyone else quickly left Tarawa to prepare for the next battle.    It wasn’t until 1946 that graves registration crews from the US military returned to exhume the bodies of the remaining 500 US servicemen still in temporary graves around tiny Tarawa.   Try as they might, they could not find the pit that contained Lt. Bonnyman and his 34 comrades,  The men in that location and several hundred more in other lost locations around the atoll were declared “unrecoverable” by the Quartermaster General’s Office in 1949.   It was at this time that Bonnyman’s family was told that he had been “Buried at Sea”.

In 1947, Lt. Alexander Bonnyman was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.   Then Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal presented the Medal to Bonnyman’s daughter who accepted it on behalf of family.  Bonnyman was one of four who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery on Tarawa.   Only Bonnyman’s remains were never found.

According to Bonnyman’s grandson, Clay Bonnyman Evans of Niwot Colorado, the family never recovered from Alexander’s death.   Alexander’s parents died never quite accepting the fate of their son.   At the family burial plot in Tennessee, the family erected the memorial inscribed with Alexander Bonnyman’s name and the fact that he had been “Buried at Sea”.

That would have been the end of the story were it not for an organization called History Flight, an NGO that offers individuals an opportunity to fly in vintage WW2 aircraft and funds their own search efforts for American MIA servicemen around the world in coordination with the Defense POW/MIA Acccounting Agency of the US Government.  History Flight’s founder Mark Noah became interested in the missing men on Tarawa when he was searching for a downed plane in the Tarawa lagoon in 2006.   In 2008, they returned to the island with ground penetrating radar to locate as many burial sites as they could find.  Since then, teams from History Flight have recovered  the remains of nearly 120 individuals.

Earlier this year, Clay Bonneyman Evans returned to Tarawa with one of the teams that thought they had found the pit that might contain the remains of his grandfather.   Sure enough, as the forensic archeologists slowly uncovered first one set of remains and then another, the remains of Alexander Bonnyman were also revealed.   Bonnyman’s identification was easy compared to most for he had a number of gold teeth, something quite unusual amongst the much younger typical Marines who fought during WW2.   A forensic lab in Hawaii confirmed his identity with a DNA match.

Bonnyman’s daughters have decided to reinter Alexander with his parents, 2 brothers and 1 sister at the family plot in Knoxville at a ceremony to be held this September.    With this,  a 70 year mystery will also be put to rest.

Medal of Honor citation

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to


for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20–22 November 1943. Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day. Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance. Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement. Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded. By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.


Don’t Get Left Behind in the Water

We’ve all heard the stories. Divers enter the water and when they surface, the boat is gone.   It happens way more often than you’d think.

Here are just a few true stories from around the world:







Any rational person would wonder how a dive boat operator could be so irresponsible that they could actually drive off without double and triple checking that everyone was back on board.   But with tens of thousands of diver operators around the world, each running several boats and each boat going on several dives/day, we’re talking about a lot of chances for something to go wrong.   Over the course of a year, around the world, there must be millions of boat dives.   Accidents can happen.  The law of large numbers is not on our side.

But one thing is certain… It doesn’t have to happen to you. There are things you can do.

First of all, you can make sure that the boat operator is making a proper count and that the staff is actually counting as people get on and off the boat.

DAN makes Diver IDentification System (DIDS) that they offer to all boat operators.


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Unfortunately, as a diver I have logged more than 1000 dives in various locations around the world. I’ve never been on a dive boat that has one of these boards.  It’s a great idea but if the dive boat doesn’t have one of these, you won’t know it until you get there.  And by then, its too late.

Divers need to have their own system that they take with them. Luckily, a simple inexpensive TAG may be just what you need to keep from getting left behind.

Diver Downtag back crop

It’s your tag. You take it with you. It attaches to your BCD with a snap ring.  When you’re just about to begin a dive, remove it from your BCD and hand it to the crew member whose job it is to keep count of the divers.  Tell him or her that you’ll retrieve it after your dive.  It’ll make it that much harder for them to leave you behind if they are still holding onto your DIVER DOWN TAG.

Get yours at www.scubadivertag.com

10 June, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

On 10 June, 1944, men of the 2nd Waffen-SS “Das Reich” Panzer Division came to Oradour-sur-Glane.  Located some 460 km south and east of Normandy, this small community had existed for 1000 years.   The soldiers stayed for only a few hours.  When they left, the town and all its inhabitants were dead.    On that fateful day, members of the Waffen-SS Battallian “Das Reich” gathered the entire community together in the town square.  The men were taken to garages and barns while the women and children were herded into a church.    From inside the church, they could hear the sound of the machine guns and the screams as the men of the town were all shot.   Then, the SS turned their attention to the church.   They set it aflame; and the women and children inside the church were murdered as well.

A few weeks later, the SS “Das Reich” Battalion would find itself nearly cut-off and surrounded in the “Failaise Pocket”.   In a pincer movement, the British, Canadians and Poles tried to close the pocket from the north while the US Army tried to close the pocket from the south.    The heaviest fighting occurred around the town of Falaise as the Germans realized that it was the only way out.  In the Battle, the “Das Reich” Battalion took tremendous casualties.  They barely escaped from the pocket with one quarter of their men.   Many of the perpetrators of the massacre at Oradour would die in the Falaise Pocket.   But the survivors would live to fight again during the Battle of the Bulge.

But on that day in June, just four days after D-Day, the SS would murder some 642 men, women and children.   It was a war crime, like so many others during the war, that would never be fully examined or explained.   And in a final insult to the dead, most of the perpetrators who survived the war would never be properly punished.

They never rebuilt Oradour.  Its ruins stand as a memorial.   A memorial not just to those murdered there, but also a memorial to the hundreds of towns and communities that suffered a similar fate across Europe,  in Poland, in Czechoslovakia and in Russia.   A fate also shared with towns and communities on the other side of the world in China and in Burma.

Oradour was in the part of France that was occupied by the Nazis.  By June of 1944, the French resistance, often referred to as the “Maquis”,  with assistance from the British SOE and the American OSS, were doing their best to disrupt German communication and supply lines throughout France.   The German military commanders, especially those who had seen duty on the Eastern Front, had seen it all before.   In a tit for tat series of escalations, the war behind the lines became just as brutal as the war on the front lines.  Thousands of Germans soldiers, police battalions and even prison battalions were engaged in a deadly fight with thousands upon thousands of partisans.  Neither side was interested in taking prisoners.  Neither side gave any quarter.

It was this attitude that the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” brought with it to Normandy as it was redepoyed from the Eastern Front to the French town of Montauban in January of 1944.  Under the command of SS-Major General Heinz Lammerding, “Das Reich” had been involved in a number of anti-partisan raids in Eastern Europe.  Many thousands of civilians had been murdered for perceived partisan activities or even “sympathies”.  Dozens of towns had been put to the torch.   When faced with an increasing insurgency in France, Lammerding knew exactly what to do.

The with D-Day landings, the Maquis put their efforts into high gear.  The Germans brutally responded.   On 09 June, 1944, Lammerding and his men decided to show the Maquis who was in charge.  They entered the town of Tulle, near Limoges and hung 99 men.   Every man they could find, died that day.

The next day, on 10 June, 1944, members of a subordinate unit of the 2nd SS Panzer Division came to Oradour-Sur-Glane.  Under the command of SS Major Adolf Diekman, the 3rd Company of the 4th SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment, surrounded the town.   Within a few hours, 197 men were shot and/or burned alive  in garages and barns while 445 women and children were then burned in a church.

The town was then looted and burned to the ground.  By 8 pm, the Germans withdrew leaving nothing but a smoking ruin.   Only 7 villagers survived the massacre, six men and one woman.   Another 15 escaped during the process of rounding up the inhabitants.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Vichy government protested to the German Army.    The excuse they received back from German Army HQ was that the SS attacked because they themselves had come under attack from inside the town.   The Germans tried to tell the French that all the deaths in the church were due to a Maquis ammunition dump that had exploded.    But the Vichy weren’t buying the explanation.

After the war, the massacre in Oradour received much attention.  In 1946, the De Gaulle government made the town a national memorial and mandated that it should be maintained in its current condition.  It fit De Gaulle’s narrative that the town was destroyed in retaliation for partisan activities.    He promoted this idea as much as possible to deflect from the collaborating actions of the Vichy government.

The French raised Oradour at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.  Why Oradour was chosen by the officers of the “Das Reich” Division has never been resolved or explained.   Few Germans would ever be prosecuted for the murders.   Diekmann would die in the fighting at the Falaise Pocket.    The Germans refused to extradite Lammerding back to France so that he could stand trial even though he had been sentenced to death in absentia by the French court in 1953.    In 1961, the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office opened a file against Lammerding but refused to proceed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  Lammerding died in Germany in 1971.

In 1953, a French military court prosecuted 21 former members of the 2nd SS “Das Reich” Division for the crimes they committed in Oradour and Tulle.   Two were given the death sentence and 18 more received prison terms of between 5 and 20 years.  The French were able to get ahold of these men because they were ethnic Germans from the Alsace, a region that was turned over to France at the end of the war.  But within 5 years of the convictions, all were set free.

In 1981 the East Germans arrested an SS Sergeant named Heinz Barth, a platoon commander whose soldiers were among those that shot the men in Oradour.   An East German court sentenced Barth to life in prison.   He was released in 1997.  Barth would live another 10 years and only die in 2007 at the age of 86.

You can still visit Oradour-sur-Glane and walk down its deserted streets.   Like Lidice in the Czech Republic, the destroyed remnants of the town and its  642 murdered inhabitants serve as one of many reminders of German brutality.




Admiral Wilhelm Canaris… Perhaps the Greatest Enigma of WW2

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris

In Berlin, running perpendicular to the Tiergarten is Stauffenbergstasse, renamed in honor of Col Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who tried to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944.   For on that street stands the Bendlerblock, the wartime headquarters of the German Navy or Kreigsmarine.  And it was at the Bendlerbock that Stauffenberg and several of his co-conspirators were lined up and shot following their arrest on 20 July 1944 for their failed attempt to kill Hitler.

Memorial Plaque at the Bendlerblock
Memorial Plaque at the Bendlerblock
The Front Entrance of the Bendlerblock
The Front Entrance of the Bendlerblock

Today, in the Bendlerblock you can find a new fascinating museum.  The German Resistance Memorial Center opened just a few years ago and showcases the stories of the Germans who did what they could to resist the Nazis.   This museum could never have been built in the immediate years after the war.  Those that resisted Hitler were shunned by regular Germans who lived through the war.   Many thought the Resistance were traitors who helped bring untold destruction to the Fatherland.  Many more couldn’t bear the thought of celebrating them because it raised questions about why they themselves or why their parents weren’t among those who actively resisted Nazism and Hitler.

The New Museum
The New Museum

Only now has a new generation taken interest in learning about the Resistance.   It took a couple of generations to pass before Germans were ready to contemplate the idea that there actually was an organized Resistance to Hitler and the Nazis and to accept that their grandparents or great-grandparents weren’t a part of it.    Unfortunately, with the passage of so many years, information is hard to come by.   Surviving family members often changed their names and disappeared into the fog of time.  If their fellow countrymen thought they were traitors, most thought it best to just bury the past move on.    Very few of the survivors wrote books and most of the personal papers of those captured and killed were burned by the Nazis.   Hitler’s narrative was that he was universally beloved by the German people and any evidence to the contrary was to be utterly destroyed.

Indeed, none of the key members of the Resistance were given a real trial.  If they were caught, most of them were imprisoned without trial and all of them that remained alive were murdered in April of 1945, just before the war ended.   Hitler wasn’t going to allow any of them to survive if he was not going to survive.

As you enter the Bendlerblock and as you climb the staircase to the second floor museum entrance, photos with names line the walls.  In many cases, this is all that is left behind as evidence that these people ever existed; people who resisted Hitler and who mostly perished for their efforts.   Inside, their stories have been pieced together by the researchers who built the museum.    For some, the stories are quite detailed.   Many lack all but a few details.  And some are barely mentioned at all…….

Hans von Dohnanyi
Hans von Dohnanyi
Gen. Hans Oster
Gen. Hans Oster
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Its hard for anyone to fathom how the head of Germany’s Abwehr or Military Intelligence, could have played such an important role in the resistance to Hitler and Nazism.  Most Germans can hardly believe it either.  Until his arrest, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris was viewed in Germany as being perhaps the most cunning and ruthless member of Hitler’s inner circle.  Hardly a single German would ever have thought that the head of the feared Abwehr was secretly running a double game.   While helping to plan many of Hitler’s expansionist schemes, he was also plotting against him, doing whatever he could to thwart Hitler’s plans and in many cases, trying to warn the Allies of Hitler’s intentions in advance.    Its a fascinating story.  He remains perhaps the biggest mystery man of the Nazi era.  A man full of contradictions.  He never made a public speech.  He rarely spoke at all to anyone but his closest confidants.    He had absolute control of the Abwehr and used its power to shelter many members of the Resistance, giving them jobs and the authority and papers necessary to travel around the Nazi Empire.  The Abwehr became the epicenter for most of the efforts to thwart the plans of Hitler’s Nazi regime.   They schemed for ways to initially depose and arrest him before finally coming to terms with the idea that he had to be killed and they would have to be the ones to organize it.   Along the way they used the Abwehr to smuggle Jews out of Berlin to safety and tried to tip off the Allies in many instances to Hitler’s plans and intentions.

Canaris rose to fame  during WW1 while serving on the German cruiser, the SMS Dresden as its intelligence officer.   In December of 1914, during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, the Dresden managed to evade the vastly superior British Navy on numerous occasions.  He shrewdly had his contacts on the Argentine mainland sending fake messages from shore to the Dresden talking about where the Dresden should meet coal supply ships to take on fuel.   But it was always a ruse and the British fell for it several times.  Finally, after several months of cat and mouse games with the British Navy, the Dresden was cornered.  The crew scuttled the ship and he, along with the crew, were interned in Chile.   But the undaunted Canaris quickly escaped and after a 4 month chase, he managed to return to Germany as hero in October of 1915.

He spoke fluent Spanish and was sent to Spain to work as an intelligence officer.  He ended WW1 as a successful U-Boat Captain with nearly 20 credited sinkings.

During the interwar period, when most German officers were forced out of the military, Canaris managed to stay in the German Navy.  He developed a nasty reputation and was reputed to have been involved in at least one political assassination of a left wing rival.  Although he didn’t join the Nazi Party, most of his friends were members.   Perhaps his best friend was Reinhard Heydrich with whom he rode horses in Berlin’s Teirgarten.   Canaris and his family often joined Heydrich and his family at backyard dinners.

As Hitler came to power in 1933, Canaris was appointed as the head of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence agency.  A few years later, he became a Rear Admiral, a rank and position he held until the end.   He immediately set out to develop a spy network in Spain and became a close personal confidant of General Franco.

Up until 1937, it seems that Canaris actively supported Hitler’s actions.  Canaris was an avid anti-communist and much of the politics in the interwar period in Europe was dominated by the fight between communism and various forms of capitalism including national socialism.

For some reason that is lost to history, he began to become disillusioned with Hitler around 1937.  Perhaps Canaris lost faith with Hitler over the Nazi treatment of the Jews.  But its not known with any degree of certainty.   What is known is that Canaris and his family had a number of Jewish friends in Berlin where he lived and perhaps he could see what was coming.  We only know that something set him on a path to oppose Hitler and that he would become Hitler’s most dangerous enemy.   This also put him on a direct collision path with his old friend Reinhard Heydrich who had become the #2 man in the SS under Himmler.   Heydrich was a rabid Nazi who became the architect of the Final Solution to rid Europe of its Jewish population.

But by the time of the Czechoslovakia crisis in 1938, Canaris had clearly made up his mind that Germany needed to get rid of Hitler or face ruin.   History records that Canaris was warning Hitler not to invade Czechoslovakia as it was going to be “too dangerous”.     And Canaris knew exactly what was going on in Czechoslovakia  because he was running a spy ring in the Sudetenland using Sudetan Germans to spy on the Czechs.   It was here that Canaris would cross paths with the most famous of Sudetan Germans, Oskar Schindler.   Schindler became one of the Abwehr’s most important spies in Czechoslovakia until he was captured and imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Czechs.  He was only saved from the executioner by Hitler’s successful takeover of Czechoslovakia after which he was freed from prison.  There is reason to believe that Schindler’s relationship with the Abwehr continued after he was freed from prison and that it was his connections with Canaris and the Abwehr that provided Schindler with the power he needed to save his list of Jews from certain death in the concentration camps of Plaszow, Auschwitz and later from Gross-Rosen.

After Czechoslovakia, Canaris seems to have ramped up his anti-Nazi efforts.   He began hiring into the Abwehr, a large number of fellow thinking Germans who also opposed Hitler.

Chief among these was Gen. Hans Oster.  Oster was vehemently opposed to Hitler.  Long before the war began, Oster was going from one top Wehrmacht General to another trying to whip up anti-Hitler sentiment.    They eventually banned him from the General Staff Headquarters so that they wouldn’t have to listen to him anymore.  Oster  became an early advocate of killing Hitler rather than just deposing him.   And he became Canaris’ deputy at the Abwehr.

Joining them were a number of other key players in the Resistance including General Erwin Lahousen, the head of Austria’s military intelligence and a prewar friend of Canaris.   It was Lahousen who would train the agents sent by the Abwehr to the  US during the middle of the war.     Perhaps this explains why they all got rounded up within hours or days of their arrival.

Ervin von Lahousen
Ervin von Lahousen

Also joining the Abwehr was a Lutheran Minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   Bonhoeffer left the Lutheran Church in disgust over its support of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies.   In fact, the entire Bonhoeffer family became involved in the Resistance including his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, who also joined the Abwehr.   Dohnanyi was a attorney who unfortunately thought it would be a good idea to keep a giant file of all the Nazi’s transgressions.   This file would fall into the hands of Himmler’s Gestapo and would lead to the demise of them all.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Canaris made to the Allied war effort came right at the start of the war.   Canaris, who had become a close personal friend to Spain’s Gen. Franco during the Spanish Civil War, travelled there to convince Franco to resist Hitler’s demands that Spain allow German troops to transit through Spain to capture Gibraltar.  Canaris knew that if Gibraltar fell, then all the British troops that had to be supplied through the Gibraltar Straits by ship could never survive.   Hitler would have dominated the Mediterranean.  Malta would have been indefensible.  There would have been no way for the British in Egypt to resist Rommel’s Afrika Corps and nothing would have stood in Rommel’s path from Tunisia all the way to Saudi Arabia where the British derived nearly all of their oil supply.

Canaris traveled to Poland after the invasion in September of 1939 and saw first hand what Himmler and Heydrich and the SS were doing.  He was so incensed with what he saw that he went to Gen. William Keitel, the head of the General Staff and demanded that it stop.   He warned Keitel that the world would one day hold the Wehrmacht responsible for the murderous acts in Poland.  Keitel’s response was to tell Canaris to return to the Abwehr and say no more about it.

It wasn’t long before detailed information concerning Nazi atrocities began leaking out.   Canaris arranged to use one of his agents, another anti-Nazi named Dr. Josef Muller, a devout Catholic, to get the information into the hands of the Vatican in Rome.   These reports made their way to British intelligence.   Similarly, Canaris organized another path of communications through Dietrich Bonhoeffer who met secretly in Sweden with his prewar friend, George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester and the Dean of Canterbury.   Bonhoeffer also told Bell about the growing anti-Nazi efforts inside Germany and of Hitler’s intentions.  Bell became another conduit to British Intelligence.

Now entering this story is Sir Stuart Menzies, the head of MI-6.  With all these reports seemingly originating from the Abwehr, it was up to Menzies, the head of British Intelligence to decide what to do with the information.   Was it good information?  Or was it disinformation?   Could these stories of a bunch of anti-Nazi’s running the Abwehr really be true?  Or was it a ruse designed to fool the British into doing something stupid?   Menzies knew that Canaris was a cagey and clever adversary.  How could he trust Canaris when his reputation for outfoxing the British during WW1 was so well known?  As with many things that have to do with Canaris, its not clear how much Menzies trusted the information he was receiving through Mueller and Bonhoeffer.   And after the war, it would have been embarrassing to admit to the public that British Intelligence may have missed a chance to help the anti-Nazi’s either depose or kill Hitler and end the war in 1940 or 1941.  So even the Allies chose after the war to say very little about the Resistance to Hitler.   Menzies MI-6 files have yet to be opened to historical review.  It may take many more years before this side of the story is better understood.

Sir Stuart Menzies
Sir Stuart Menzies

Shortly before Heydrich was assigned to Prague in 1942, the SS and SD under Himmler began to grow suspicious of the Abwehr and Canaris.  Himmler tried to have the Abwehr placed underneath his control but Canaris managed to keep this from happening.  However, it was becoming clear to Canaris that his old friend Heydrich was now his enemy.   The story of the assassination of Heydrich by the Czech resistance does not, as of today, include any connection to Canaris.   But it is clear that with the demise of Heydrich, much of the pressure on the Abwehr from Himmler and the SS began to die away, at least for awhile.  As such, knowing that Canaris was in contact with British Intelligence, it would not be stretch to believe that he had something to do with the plan to kill Heydrich.  History records that the plot was hatched in London by the Czech government in exile and British Intelligence.   If Canaris was involved, it will take the opening of MI-6’s archives to reveal it. .

What is known is that Sir Stuart Menzies met with Canaris on several occasions in Lisbon and in Spain during the war.   What was discussed remains shrouded in secrecy.   We do know that several of the attempts on Hitler’s life during the course of war were carried out with British explosives and British detonators including the July 1944 plot.  Perhaps these attempts to kill Hitler were the subject of the meetings.   We also know that many in the Resistance thought that if they could depose or kill Hitler, the Western Allies might agree to negotiate a separate peace deal that would allow Germany to keep fighting the Russians in the east.    But this was a dream that many in the Wehrmacht secretly and sometimes openly also dreamed about.   Either of these subjects could have been the topic of discussion between Canaris and Menzies.

Canaris was also secretly trying to tip off the allies about Hitler’s intentions.  He warned the Allies that Hitler was going to invade Poland using Muller and Bonhoeffer.    Again he warmed them that Hitler was going to invade Western Europe through the low countries and into France.   But each warning was viewed as being a cunning trick and each time the warning was ignored.

In April of 1943, Canaris made contact with George Earle, the former governor of Pennsylvania who Roosevelt had sent to Istanbul to be his personal spy to gather information about the Balkans.   Canaris showed up on his doorstep to pitch the idea of a separate peace deal directly to the Americans.  But just as the contacts through Menzies failed to achieve anything, neither did an appeal directly to Roosevelt via Earle.  And of course, to the Allies, it could indeed have been nothing more than a trick.  Either way, the only answer ever given by Churchill or Roosevelt was that the Allies would only accept unconditional surrender.

George Earle
George Earle

As the war dragged on, the actions of the Resistance to Hitler grew more and more desperate.   In late 1943, during an attempt to smuggle some of their Jewish friends out of Berlin to safety in Switzerland,  Oster and the Jews were arrested by the SS trying to board a train out of Berlin.   Canaris cooked up a tall tail that the SS was interfering with an Abwehr intelligence mission as the Jews were actually trained Abwehr agents being sent to Switzerland and then to America.   But they had a little trouble explaining to the SS why it was necessary for entire family, including children and grandparents, to go along.   Himmler was getting more and more suspicious.   Eventually, after the July plot to kill Hitler,  Himmler and the SS managed to find Donyanyi’s extensive notes about  Nazi atrocities.  This brought  even more focus onto the Abwehr and Canaris as the purpose of Danyanyi’s notes were hard to explain.

They managed to all keep their jobs until the end of 1944 when Canaris, Oster, Bonhoeffer,and Donyanyi would all end up in the cells under the Gestapo building on  Prinz Albrechtstrasse.

In February of 1945 Canaris and a number of others were sent to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, near the Czech border.   Here they were tortured and starved until 9 April, 1945 when they were marched out of their cells and hung just a few weeks before the end of the war.    The camp was liberated only 2 weeks later by the US Army on 23 April 1945.


KZ Flossenburg, The Site of the Hangings
KZ Flossenburg, The Site of the Hangings
Memorial Plaque at KZ Flossenburg
Memorial Plaque at KZ Flossenburg


One of Canaris’ fellow prisoners at Flossenburg was the former Director of Danish Military Intelligence, Col. Lunding.  He occupied the cell next to Canaris.  On the morning of his murder, Canaris told him by tapping out morse code on the wall,

“This is the end.  Badly handled.  My nose broken.  I have done nothing against Germany.  If you survive, please tell my wife.”

Lunding recalled after the war watching the naked Admiral being led to his execution.

Another member of the Abwehr who managed to escape to Switzerland and survive the war, Hans Gisevius, wrote of his friend Adm. Canaris, in a book in 1947 “To The Bitter End”,

“Canaris hated not only Hitler and Himmler, but the entire Nazi system as a political phenomenon .. He was everywhere and nowhere at once.  Everywhere he traveled, at home and abroad and to the front, he always left a whirl of confusion behind him.”

And as you walk around in the Bendlerblock Museum, you may find something quite odd that that museum.   Almost completely absent from all the photographs and names and stories is none other than…  Admiral  Wilhelm Canaris.  Maybe the Admiral would smile thinking that he once again was keeping them guessing?

Iwo Jima’s Two Flags and 26,000 Casualties

23 February 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the raising of the US Flag on Mt. Suribachi on the tiny island of Iwo Jima.

Fighting our way to Iwo Jima had already taken a herculean effort.  After Pearl Harbor, the Empire of Japan seemed unstoppable and the news only came in one kind….  bad.   Wake Island fell to the Japanese on 23 December 1941.   On 9 April 1942, the American troops surrendered on Bataan.  Nearly 90,000 Phiippino and US troops surrendered in what was the largest surrender of US troops since the Civil War.  A month later, Corregidor fell to the Japanese.  On 15 May 1942, Burma fell.  The expansion continued with Hong Kong, Borneo, and Singapore.   By 31 August 1942, the Caroline Islands, the Gilberts,  the Marshalls, the Marianas, and the Solomon Islands would all be occupied and controlled by the Japanese.  The Japanese even bombed Darwin in Australia on 19 February 1942.   The Japanese had already occupied much of China.  Was Australia next?

Although the Japanese would suffer a serious set back at the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, it was only after a terrible fight on Guadalcanal that began in August of 1942 and ended in February of 1943 that the US and its allies could finally stop Japanese expansion.  The fight on Guadalcanal took a tremendous toll on the US Navy and Marines.   Two aircraft carriers were lost, the Wasp (15 September 1942) and the Hornet (27 October 1942).   This left only the USS Enterprise functioning in the entire Pacific.   And it too was damaged before the end of the year.   The situation was so bad that news of the loss of the Hornet was only made public in January of 1943 after several new aircraft carriers started to come into service.

Thus beginning in early 1943, after successfully beating the Japanese on Guadalcanal, the long island hopping campaign towards Japan could begin.   But it was a long and bloody affair.  More than 30 island invasions were undertaken with more than 70,000 killed and 300,000 wounded.   As the allies closed in on Japan, the Japanese became more and more desperate and more and more fanatical.  In many instances, rather than surrender and after they were out of ammunition, they would often charge the US lines in Banzai charges.   First at night but then also during the day, with swords drawn, they often charged into the US lines.   There was no surrender.   It was “kill or be killed”.

At Saipan, things would take an even darker turn.    Beginning on 15 June 1944 and for the next three weeks,  71,000 Marines fought it out against a force of 31,000 Japanese.   When it was over24,000 Japanese soldiers were dead and another 5,000 had committed suicide.   But 3500 Marines also lay dead with another 10,000 injured including the actor, Lee Marvin.

In one final banzai charge, some 3,000 Japanese ran towards the US lines.  Behind them came all the wounded, some only barely able to walk.  Some on crutches.  The US front line was over run and 2 army divisions were almost totally wiped out with some 650 killed and wounded.  The attack lasted more than 15 hours after which more than 4,000 Japanese lay dead.   Three men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, all posthumously.

To the Marines, Navy and Army personnel who participated in this, what must they have been thinking?   How much worse could it get?

Sadly it could get a lot worse.  Six months after Saipan, it was now time to invade Iwo Jima,    Over the course of 5 weeks beginning on 19 February 1945, 70,000 Marines took on 22,000 Japanese.   The Japanese had dug more than 11 miles of tunnels dug into the hills, the coral, and the sand of an island that only measures 8 square miles.

Map of Iwo Jima showing the invasion beaches
Map of Iwo Jima showing the invasion beaches

At the southern tip of the island stood the islands largest feature, Mt. Suribachi at 500 ft. above sea level.

Following a massive bombardment that lasted for hours from both naval artillery and bombers, the first of 30,000 Marines landed on the south east side of the island.   The landing was uneventful and the Marines thought that perhaps all the Japanese died in the bombardment.   Successive waves of Marines landed behind the first wave as the Japanese were waiting for just the right moment to open fire.   The Marines were caught in a withering cross fire of Japanese artillery, mortar and machine gun fire.   It was impossible to dig a fox hole due to the soft sand.  All they could do was move forward which took them into more direct lines of fire from the hidden Japanese.  Making things worse, US tanks also driving off the beach began to run over Marines who could not get out the way.   By the end of the first day, the US had already suffered more than 2400 casualties.  Progress was made yard by yard as the Marines moved across the island as well as south towards Mt. Suribachi.   Only the prodigious use of flame throwers could suppress the gun fire coming from the well Japanese positions.   The battlefield looked like a World War I battlefield with the massive use of artillery turning the entire area into a killing zone where bodies could only be identified by fragments of their uniforms.

One Navy Chaplain, Gage Hotaling, recalled burying “fifty at a time” in bulldozed plots where the bodies were so mangled that he had no idea if the men were Jewish or Catholic or something else.   He attended to 1800 burials himself.

John Bradley,  a Navy Medic, found himself in the middle of all of this trying to save the wounded.   On the second day of the fight Bradley ran out into the open field to save a badly wounded Marine.   He managed to apply field dressings and was able to pull him back to safety.   For his efforts, he was awarded the Navy Cross.      But the emotional scar left behind from the fight kept Bradley from ever talking about Iwo Jima with his family.

On the second day, the Navy finally landed a large number of tanks which provided the Marines with some cover from the machine guns as they began to advance towards Mt. Suribachi.

The Marines also benefited from a new technical development.  Finally, after numerous island invasions, someone had figured out that if the men on the ground were in direct radio contact with fighters circling above, then those fighters could actually be called upon directly to swoop down and attack enemy positions with immediate effect.   Readers today will shake their head and wonder how such a seemingly obvious arrangement had not previously been implemented.  But shockingly, it was totally uncommon for pilots to talk directly to ground troops or for the pilots to send a forward air observer to speak directly to them and call in targets of opportunity.  In fact, the only reason that it happened at all was because the pilots and Marines were all living together on the Navy ships.  Finally, in frustration, some pilots and Marines began to talk about improving tactics.  The end result was to give the pilots and Marines radios set to the same frequency so that they could talk to each other directly.    Prior to this. the Marines had to radio for help back to the ship.  On board the ship, the Marine radio operator had to write down the request for assistance and hand it to the Navy person who was in radio communication with the pilot.  Only then was a request sent to a pilot to fire on a certain location.   This often 10 minutes or more by which time the situation could be completely different.

On D-Day+4, 41 men were working their way towards the summit of Mt. Suribachi.   They had been given a  flag and told by their Colonel  that should they reach the summit, they should raise the flag.    Each of the 41 men thought that their next step forward was going to be their last step.  But finally they made it to the top and began looking for a way to raise the flag.   Unknown to them, every person on the island and every person onboard the several hundred ships with a view began to watch the drama unfold.  The men attached the flag to a pipe and Lt. Schrier, Sgt. Thomas, Sgt. Hansen, Cpl. Lindberg, and Pt. Charlo raised the flag.    Suddenly they could hear the cheers from the Marines below them and ships off shore began to blow their horns.    The Japanese noticed this too and immediately opened fire on the men at the summit.  As they dove for cover, the photographer, a Sgt. Lowry, broke his camera but not before he took this picture below:

The First Flag.  Photo by Marine Sgt. Louis Lowery
The First Flag. Photo by Marine Sgt. Louis Lowery

Onboard one of the ships, Navy Secretary James Forrestal was watching with Marine General Holland Smith.   Somehow Forrestal got it into his head that he wanted the flag as a souvenir.   But the Colonel who had sent the men up the hill in the first place, also wanted the flag so he ordered that another group of men should take another flag up to the top of the summit before Forrestal could lay claim to it.   And Colonel Chandler Johnson ordered his men to take “a much bigger flag” to replace the one he wanted.

They say that the 2nd flag had flown from a ship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor.   No one is really sure if that is true but it was carried to the summit by Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank and Rene Gagnon.    An AP photographer, Joe Rosenthal happened to hear that another flag was on its way up and he decided to tag along.   On the way up, the group with the 2nd flag and Rosenthal passed St. Lowry who had just taken his picture and who was heading down to replace his smashed camera.

Almost immediately upon reaching the summit, Rosenthal realized that the 2nd flag was about to raised and he quickly jumped into position.   The 2nd group of flag raisers had also attached their flag to piece of pipe but because of the size of the flag and the strong breeze, it took all of them to manhandle the pipe into the vertical position.   Just as they were pushing the pole upwards, Rosenthal snapped his iconic image.

Rosenthal's photo
Rosenthal’s photo

The photo would become the most reproduced photo of World War II.  Rosenthal would earn a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

It has been reproduced in many forms the most important of which is the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Cemetery outside Washington, DC.  The original mold is located on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas.

Sadly, within just a few days, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Michael Strank were all killed in action.   Gagnon, Hayes and Bradley became celebrities and toured the country with a model of the flag raising that was used in the largest and most successful war bond drive of the entire war, raising more than $26 Billion, twice the goal.

Ira Hayes, following the war, suffered from what we now call PTSD.  He developed a heavy drinking problem and died in 1955.  Tony Curtis played Ira in a movie called The Outsiders in 1961 and Johnny Cash recorded a song about him called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.   Rene Gagnon returned to Iwo Jima on the 20th anniversary of the battle in 1965.   He passed away in 1979.

John Bradley never talked about his war time experiences with his family.  EVER.  He only gave one interview, in 1985, about the subject.  When he passed away in 1994 his son James knew almost nothing about his fathers experiences during the war.   It was a taboo subject when he was growing up.  Eventually he found a trunk at home with some of his father’s things from the war and only then began to think about learning more about it.  He went on to publish a book “Flags of our Fathers” in 2000.   Clint Eastwood used the book to inspire a movie with the same name in 2006.

Iwo Jima was the only battle in the entire Pacific Campaign  where US casualties exceeded Japanese dead.  26,000 Americans were killed or wounded on Iwo Jima with another 10,000 Navy personnel killed or wounded in the surrounding ships from Japanese attacks from the air including Kamikaze attacks.  Of the 22,000 Japanese, only around 200 were taken prisoner, almost all of these were captured after being knocked unconscious during the fighting.

Iwo Jima was still not the end of the Japanese Empire.   Okinawa was invaded on 1 June 1945.   Over the next six weeks, more than 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded on the island and another 15,000 were killed or wounded in the waters surrounding the island on the Navy ships.   More than 110,00 Japanese soldiers were killed and another 100,000 Japanese civilians also perished, often by suicide.

Compared to Okinawa, Iwo Jima suddenly started to look like a picnic.   And every single American in the Pacific began to look at an upcoming invasion of the Japanese Home Islands thinking that none of them (neither American or Japanese)  would ever survive it.

Luckily for them all,  at a number of undisclosed locations around the US, very clever people were at work on a device which they hoped would be so horrific that it would force the end of the war.   It took using two of them, but it finally brought Japan to their senses and no invasion of Japan would occur.

Over the course of WW II, nearly 400,000 US servicemen would be killed.   This number is roughly split 50/50 between the Pacific and Europe.   Iwo Jima was the only battle where US casualties exceeded Japanese casualties and nearly 1/4 of all Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the Pacific were awarded to men on Iwo Jima.   27 awards were made, 14 of them posthumously.

John Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima on the first day.  He received both the Congressional Medal of Honor (Guadalcanal) and the Navy Cross. (Iwo Jima).   He was the only Marine enlisted man to receive both awards.