Heroes: the Army
"...I remember seeing human hands, legs and feet sticking out of a shallow mass grave. The SS troops had hastily dug it and buried their victims there. A great number of them had been machine-gunned and dumped in the grave, some of them probably buried alive..."
Robert M. Lira
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. F., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942-1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: 1st Sgt., Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: San Antonio, TX
Awesome and Horrible
Robert M. Lira, 405-F
There was one other awesome and harrowing event I saw with my own eyes. It happened on or about April 13,1945 as we advanced toward the Elbe River.
The 2nd Platoon of Company F, 405, was almost in its final wiping-up stages. I had my scouts out and we were heading in the direction of Gardelegen, a small village about thirty miles from the Elbe River. Our tanks had been giving us fire support from behind by blasting tall steeples and buildings in front of us -- just to make sure to knock out as much resistance as possible, especially from snipers.
There was a sort of grayish, white and gloomy looking mixture of smoke coming out of one side of a big reinforced brick and concrete structure near the edge of a wooded area. It looked like a factory or warehouse. Our zone of advance was right smack in line with the burning building, so I instructed my scouts to guide on the smoke that was coming from the building as a reference point.
I kept observing the woods and the structure through my binoculars, since it was quite a distance away. I wanted to make sure there weren't any enemy troops anywhere near the area.
As we approached the big structure we could see smoke coming out through one of the side exits next to a sliding door. We all figured that our artillery was what had set the building on fire.
When we finally got there we noticed that the brick building wasn't on fire at all. What we actually saw burning was a big pile of human beings who had been reduced to a smoldering fire. They were crammed against a partially open space next to the exit door as if they had tried to force it open from the inside. We couldn't believe what we were seeing.
I peered through an opening on one side of the building and to my astonishment I saw more human bodies stacked up to seven or eight feet high at each of the main exits. They, too, were burning. I got a whiff of human flesh burning for the first time in my life. It was one awful, nauseating and sickening smell I shall never forget. I honestly thought I was having a nightmare.
I immediately called for my Company Commander, Capt. Evenson, to come look at what we had run into. Capt. Evanson and his Executive Officer, 1st Lieut. Jack Weigand, and other officers came in jeeps right away. Without waiting a second they began to notify everybody all the way up to Division Headquarters.
I remember seeing human hands, legs and feet sticking out of a shallow mass grave. The SS troops had hastily dug it and buried their victims there. A great number of them had been machine-gunned and dumped in the grave, some of them probably buried alive. We learned later on from the few who survived or escaped that two days before our arrival the SS had scattered lots of hay inside the building, poured gasoline over it, and forced those prisoners into the building, setting it on fire. Loud and tortured screams could be heard all the way to the village four miles away. This came from the villagers themselves.
The total in the building came to 1,016. In an aftermath of all this, two German Red Cross representatives were summoned, a man and a woman. Our intelligence officer wanted to make certain that they obtained the truth about such atrocities so the news could be revealed to the German people -- and the rest of the world.
While some of the surviving prisoners were being interrogated by the German Red Cross team and our own S-2 officers, I saw a survivor suddenly pull out a .45 caliber pistol from the holster of one of our American officers standing nearby.
The prisoner was crying and seemed enraged with anger because of what the SS had done to his loved ones and friends.
Right there in front of everybody who had gathered to hear the interrogations, the prisoner shot and killed the German Red Cross man, before my eyes. The prisoner acted so swiftly that no one had a chance of stopping him. Everyone around was so stunned that we just froze. Then the prisoner and another of his friends dragged the body of the Red Cross man to one corner of the building, poured gasoline over his body, and set him afire.
I still have awful nightmares about the whole hellish and inhuman event every time I dream of the dead victims who were burned and possibly buried alive. Now and again I also dream of the poor creatures who escaped from the SS. We ran into them in the woods begging for something to eat, or eating raw potatoes and even dirt. Some tried desperately to survive with anything they found or stole from nearby gardens or farms. A lot of them didn't make it because we found them, in the woods, dead from starvation.
Robert Lira retired as a Master Sergeant after more than 26 years of active duty, including two tours in Germany, two in Korea (one during the war) and one in Japan. He originally submitted his story to the WWII magazine. I don't know if they overprinted it here From the Canton, OH paper.
----- Robert M. Lira
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
United States Army, 102nd Infantry Division
102 Infantry Division
History of the 102nd Infantry Division
Attack on Linnich, Flossdorf, Rurdorf - 29 Nov -- 4 Dec 1944
Gardelegen War Crime
Gardelegen: April 13, 1945:
Massacre at the Isenschnibbe Barn
American Battle Monuments Commission: WWII Honor Roll
National World War II Memorial
The above story, "Awesome and Horrible", by Robert M. Lira, Co.F, 405th Regiment, was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 57, No. 3, April/June 2005, pp. 12-13.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 27 June 2005.
Story added to website on 27 June 2005.
September 5, 2002.
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