Dachau liberator preserving GIs memories, emotions

Dan Dougherty had two cameras with him when he helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau. But the most vivid images of the former GI are indelibly etched in his head.

"We approach the camp and see boxcars — 39 boxcars, 2,300 corpses," Dougherty recounted late last month during Sonoma State University's Holocaust lecture series.

"Most were in striped uniforms. Some were naked. Nothing but skin and bones, many with eyes wide open. We would walk up to the boxcar and just stand there. And nobody had anything profound to say. Just an occasional, 'My God!'

"We leave the train. But I can't emphasize the impact on the GIs. They were crying, vomiting."

A retired Novato insurance salesman, Dougherty has spent much of the past 10 years reconstructing his time as a squad leader with the second platoon of C Rifle Company, part of the 45th Infantry Division in the 7th Army. He particularly remembers his time at Dachau, an abandoned German power factory that housed 31,500 prisoners, 2,500 of them Jews.

Working from his photographs, he has tracked down many of the men who served with him during World War II, and puts together his stories and theirs in Second Platoon, a newsletter he publishes from his Roseville home.

After he began publishing the newsletter, Dougherty learned why the boxcars were filled with corpses. The SS ran out of fuel and could not run the crematorium several days before the April 29, 1945 liberation.

One soldier in Dougherty's company, walking past a boxcar, saw a hand move.

Of the thousands dead, Dougherty's comrade pulled one out alive. Later Dougherty learned that not only starvation but also infectious typhus claimed prisoners. Dougherty and his company found dead bodies lying on the ground. More than 8,000 corpses. Some of the corpses were prison guards.

Dougherty's was the second group of American soldiers to enter Dachau. I Company had arrived first. Dougherty recalled his orders: "C Company is going into a concentration camp to relieve I Company because I Company has gone berserk."

So sickened by what they saw, the American soldiers who first entered Dachau shot up the guards. With machine guns. Soon after he arrived at Dachau, Dougherty noticed about 10 reporters, men from the United States and other Allied countries, staring at a pile of corpses.

"This mound of corpses was about 2 or 3 feet high and 15 feet across. And they were SS," Dougherty said. "One of the corporals in my company whips out a hunting knife and cuts a finger off one of the bodies.

"He wanted an SS ring for a souvenir."

For Dougherty, an impossible-to-reconcile image is the contrast between the depravity of the concentration camp and the comfortable living quarters of the Nazi officers who ran it.

Pictures from the nursery in a German officer's home at Dachau continue to haunt a friend of Dougherty's. The American soldier found toys on the nursery floor and a crucifix on the wall — ordinary sights irreconcilable with what he had seen earlier that day at the camp.

The night they arrived at Dachau, the American soldiers had their first chance to contemplate what they saw.

"That night we slept in homes for senior SS officers," Dougherty said.

"There were beautiful green lawns, flower beds, upholstered furniture.

"We were about 19 years old. We talked till about midnight. We could not comprehend that we were sleeping here in luxury, and John Steiner and another 30,000 were there."

In April 1945, Steiner saw himself as a man destined to die at the hands of the Nazis at Dachau. Starved for so long, he weighed at most 60 pounds, so emaciated that he looked, in his words, like a skeleton or a walking X-ray. His vision was failing. He was semiconscious. He had given himself only 10 days to live.

A profoundly grateful Steiner introduced Dougherty at the Holocaust lecture series last week. A sociology professor emeritus at Sonoma State, where he started the Holocaust studies program, Steiner founded the series. He conveyed the portrait of himself at Dachau to illustrate his gratitude toward his liberators: American soldiers like Dougherty.

Steiner, now 75, remembered American soldiers walking through his barrack, a barrack for the sick and dying. "Very few people stopped because of the horror of what they saw," he said. "They just rushed through at great speed.

"I wish we could get together with all these people who liberated Dachau. How many lives they saved. Those of us who are still alive, our days may be counted. We are fading away. Our voices are fading. Fading voices."