by Chuck Ferree (Holocaust Witness and Liberator)
"Why'd they shoot that guy, Major?"
I'd seen this dead man crumpled up in sort of a fetal position in a field near the road from our airstrip to the village where we were billeted in German homes. A lone young soldier with bayonet fixed to his M-1 rifle stood guard near the body. The dead man wore white clothing, like so many other recently liberated inmates from Nazi concentration camps. "I'm not sure." the major replied, "But those people in the D.P. camp have been bothering the villagers, stealing food and animals. Guess they cook them in the camp. They cleaned out the factory of all the cloth the Krauts used to make pockets for uniforms. Orders went out to stop the raiding, so I heard he was shot carrying off a lamb or something."
Germany had surrendered a month before. Our squadron had been assigned to fly as targets for an anti-aircraft outfit so they could track us with their new radar guns. It was very boring; we just flew a pattern, changing altitude to see if the new guns could stay on us. Two hours each time, then some other pilot took over, and we had the rest of the day off.
On take off, we flew over the Displaced Persons Camp at about 500 feet. We could see thousands of people milling around inside the barbed wire. Their toilet facilities were out in the open, slit trenches, with canvas providing a little privacy. But from the air, we saw everything, except what went on inside the huge fortress-like buildings and hundreds of tents and barracks. Orders were to stay away from the camp itself. It could be dangerous. The D.P.s had been collected from many Nazi camps and brought to this point for processing and sent back to their native countries. Americans working to sort the people out told us stories of how difficult their job was. Many displaced persons didn't want to return to their homes. Jews didn't want to return to Poland, Gypsies had no safe place to go, Russians were afraid to return for fear of being put to death as traitors. Most expressed a desire to go to the States or Palestine.
Some of us attended an indoctrination session where we were informed of the vast numbers of displaced persons all over Europe, an estimated thirty million in all, with eight or nine million in the Western zones of occupied Germany.
The fighting was over for me and my buddies and we would head home soon. In the meantime we saw Europe. It wasn't my job to see that these victims of Hitler made it home to their families and loved ones. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit historical European cities which only months before we had tried to destroy.
I put out of my mind the trips I had made to Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen and other sub-camps. I tried to forget the gruesome sights of thousands of dead victims, the indescribable odors of so much death and suffering. Trying to cope with so many humans totally broken in body, mind and spirit had been just too much. We just could not comprehend the enormity of it all. Some of the men who had not seen these hellish places doubted the reports anyway, so why try to convince skeptics.
I remember telling a buddy about the dead man beside the road. "Let's go take a look." He said.
"Jimmy, a dead man is just a corpse. I don't want to go back there, maybe he's gone by now anyway. They wouldn't leave him out there in the sun all day."
"Come up, I'll drive." Jimmy said.
So we hopped in a jeep and headed for the airstrip. I felt squeamish. "Let's just forget it, pal. Okay?" I hoped Jim would turn the jeep around. But he spotted the body and skidded to a halt. The guard was gone and it was late afternoon. The sun beat down on us as we walked over to the former Nazi prisoner. He had been shot in the back by a high powered American rifle. The blast had blown his belly open. It was messy. Jimmy gasped and vomited.
"Jesus! He's a D.P. why did they have to shoot him because he was hungry and stole some Kraut's sheep?"
"Yeah, that's what I asked the major this morning. The guy was running with food for the hungry bastards in the camp. It ain't right."
We drove back to the village in total silence, each deep into our own thoughts. We went to the command house and requested that the body be removed. "Why'd they shoot the poor guy, Major?"
"He and the others bothered the villagers. Bet they don't steal any more sheep."