MUNICH, Germany -- Over the course of the past week, senior leaders from the Colorado and Oklahoma National Guard travelled to Munich, Germany, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp at the end of World War II.
Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by the National Socialists, more commonly known as the Nazis, prior to World War II, and served as a model for all later concentration camps. In its 12 years of existence, more than 200,000 people from throughout Europe were imprisoned there and over 41,500 were murdered prior to its liberation on April 29, 1945.
As this year marks the 70th anniversary since the camp's liberation, from April 29 through May 3, the Comité International de Dachau and the Stiftung Bayerische Gedenkstätten Bavarian memorial foundation sponsored several events to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation and welcomed approximately 130 survivors and their relatives from over 20 countries, U.S. military and veterans, and thousands of others to the memorial site.
While this was a significant event worthy of any American to attend, the Colorado and Oklahoma National Guardsmen came as representatives of a special group.
In 1942, the Colorado National Guard's 157th Infantry Regiment was mobilized in response to increasing German and Japanese aggression and was attached to Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Division, the "Thunderbirds." Together, these units fought their way through Sicily, Italy, France and into Germany, where they finally reached Dachau Concentration Camp after over 500 days of battle.
The 157th Infantry Regiment endured a daunting campaign, executing four amphibious assaults, and ultimately having to reconstitute their ranks with more soldiers than the unit was initially mobilized with. This was all before even reaching Dachau.
When reflecting on this history, Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Perreault, operations sergeant major of the current 157th Infantry said, "It's humbling. ... Every time we have to do something hard, it will never be 511 straight days of combat."
After finally reaching Dachau, it was a gruesome scene when the soldiers secured the camp and took over. Before entering the camp, lead elements of the 3rd Battalion, 157 Infantry Regiment, discovered a 39-car train full of corpses in various stages of decomposition. When the soldiers finally entered the camp, many were already in a state of shock from the scene of gross inhumanity.
Once inside, one liberator described observing hundreds of corpses piled up, in addition to thousands of prisoners in various stages of malnutrition and injury, headed for the same fate as the corpses, essentially presenting a timeline for the systematic extermination of Nazi Germany's enemies. But despite the shock and terror, the 157th, along with several other Army units, kept order and took care of the surviving prisoners, in addition to assuring the deceased were properly buried.
Since returning to Colorado after the war, the 157th Infantry Regiment has undergone several reorganizations, however to this day, the Colorado Army National Guard still carries the official lineage and honors of the 157th Infantry Regiment from World War II.
"Our historical legacy allowed us to be here this week," said Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, the adjutant general of Colorado, "but bottom line is this is something every American should see because it reminds us of who we are as a country."
According to Edwards, the most important reason for attending was certainly not to claim any sort of credit for the liberation efforts, but "to make sure we never forget, to honor those who served, and to show that we truly care."
In an effort to do exactly those things, the Colorado and Oklahoma National Guard members not only attended all of the events in uniform and visited with liberators, survivors and their families, but also purchased wreaths to lay at the Leitenberg Cemetery during a small ceremony on May 1, and at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site on May 3.
Maj. Gen. Robbie Asher, the adjutant general of Oklahoma, accompanied Edwards in placing the wreaths and commented, "Of my 40 years in the Army, this is one of the most important things I've ever done."
The main commemoration event occurred on May 3 at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site and was attended by hundreds of guests, including survivors, liberators, military members, and even the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, who is the first German chancellor to ever visit the camp.
Merkel was deeply moved to see everyone in attendance at the ceremony, and grateful that the memorial site is so well-preserved in order to help make history come alive and allow visitors to really feel the suffering of the prisoners.
"We must continue to keep the memory alive today and everyday against all adversity" she said, "so as not to end up again in a sea of anti-Semitism or discrimination of any kind."
Perreault agreed with Merkel's sentiments. "This whole experience was a poignant, 'in your face' reminder, and hopefully it never stops being that," he said. "We are responsible to carry the torch. We are responsible for letting our Soldiers know that what we do in the military is valuable and necessary. We have to be gatekeepers of the truth, and not fall prey to what may sound like a good answer, if it's at someone else's expense."
It is easy to feel the horrors of Dachau when you speak with any of the survivors. Jack Adler, a survivor who attended the ceremony from Denver, Colorado, told of his family being taken from their home in Poland when he was 10, losing his family members one by one along the way, and ending up in Dachau, barely hanging on to life when the U.S. Army liberated the camp. Over the course of six years, he had been beaten, starved, tortured, and worked nearly to death before he was liberated, weighing only 65 pounds and struggling to survive.
"They came at the perfect time. ... I would not have made it one more day," Adler said. "Some people call it a miracle; I call it an accident."
He noted that Adler, like all of the survivors, faced extreme obstacles, yet his resiliency has built a new generation, which includes four grandchildren so far.
"It's amazing to see the resiliency that comes out of a tragedy," Edwards remarked.
Adler has maintained a keen sense of humor despite all he has been through, and while he says he "cannot feel closure from anything so horrific," he has managed to lead a full life after the war. He even joined the U.S. Army and fought in the Korean conflict.
"The only way I could say 'thank you' was by serving in the country that gave me my freedom," Adler said. "It means a lot to me to have a military presence here today."
Many of the guests expressed heartfelt gratitude to the American military both past and present, but the members of the National Guard felt truly fortunate to be there.
"It was a tough day, but a good day," Edwards said after the ceremony concluded. "We can never forget our past no matter what ... no matter how good, no matter how bad, otherwise we will never forge a better future."