50 Years Later, Horror Of Dachau Lingers With One Who Saw It Bill Wallace Helped Shut Down The Nazi Death Camp. He's Carried That Day With Him Since.

Posted: April 23, 1995

WALLINGFORD — Bill Wallace saw enough battlefield carnage to last a lifetime during the four months his infantry division fought its way into Germany in late 1944 and 1945.

But no amount of combat, Wallace said, could have prepared him for the horror he would witness on the morning of April 29, 1945. That day, his company took part in the liberation of Dachau, the German concentration camp where 32,000 inmates were incarcerated and thousands more died.

"We knew where we were going that day, but we had no idea of what we were going to see," Wallace said. "It's unbelievable to think that people would ever do things like that to other people. Sometimes I say to myself, my God, was I really there or did I dream it?"

Last week, Wallace, who is now 71 and owns and operates a service station in Chester, talked about the spring day 50 years ago that came just a week before V-E Day. He knew something special was afoot when reporters were assigned to accompany his regiment.

American troops from other divisions had already entered several German concentration camps in the weeks before April 29, so Wallace's superiors must have had some idea of what they would find at Dachau, the first permanent concentration camp to operate on German soil and one of the most infamous of the Nazi slave-labor camps.

Wallace, a private in a 42d "Rainbow" Division Infantry anti-tank crew, had not been told anything except that his company's objective for the day was to fight the remnants of a Nazi SS force at the camp and to liberate its inmates.

The first hint of the horror came as the soldiers approached the camp. "We smelled something, but we didn't know what it was. We thought it was some dead horses or cattle," he said.

The camp was defended by the same guards who had tormented thousands of prisoners for 12 years, and though some turned tail, others put up a stiff resistance for several hours.

When the fight was over, the victorious Americans walked into the camp, to be confronted with sights that outstripped even the worst they could have imagined.

"We counted 50 boxcars full of dead bodies" at a rail siding in the camp, ''and there were piles of dead bodies all over the streets," said Wallace, pulling out five photographs he took at the time. Each showed dozens of bodies piled at least six feet high, twisted grotesquely.

The soldiers tried to help the thousands of prisoners who were still alive, Wallace said, giving them chocolate bars and K rations and taking off their jackets to give to the inmates.

As the impact of what they had seen sank in, Wallace said, the SS guards who had surrendered were put to death on the spot. "The word went down the line: no prisoners." Then the Americans put some of the stronger camp survivors into trucks and took them into the town of Dachau, next to the concentration camp.

"We said, do whatever you want, go into the houses, take food, take clothing. And every once in a while, we heard a big scream. We found out that some prisoners had discovered some of the guards who had escaped into town and changed into civilian clothes. They just surrounded them and beat them to death."

Wallace and the rest of the company soon moved on to Munich, which promptly surrendered, and the war ended a few days later. Dachau proved to be the last full-fledged battle of the war for them. Wallace ended up as part of a detachment that occupied Vienna, and when he was discharged, he returned home and took up his life where he had left off.

Though he has seldom joined in war commemorations and does not talk much about his experiences, Wallace said that Dachau changed his life. "I couldn't look at religion or race or color the same, ever again; it made me sit down and think a lot about why some people would kill other people for no good reason at all."

Earlier this week, sitting thousands of miles and half a century away from the camp, Wallace's normally smiling face screwed up in a grimace as he looked at the grainy black and white photos he had taken so long ago. "Sometimes even now, if I look at these pictures," he said sadly, "I still smell that odor."

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