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EYES WIDE OPEN: Part Two – Dachau, A Letter Home, 1945

by Lou Caverly

       It is always instructive to see what people thought as events of great historic importance were taking place.  While eyewitness accounts are not scholarly history, they grip the reader with the immediate authenticity of their reporting.  This is especially true of letters written during wartime, letters that tell what life was really like at moments of crisis, of victory or defeat.


       One such letter was penned in the spring of 1945 by Private First Class Harold Porter, a medic with the 116th Evacuation Hospital of the U.S. Army, who was suddenly an eyewitness to the liberation of a German concentration camp.  The letter was written on Waffen SS stationery and dated May 7, 1945.  Here are some excerpts from that letter:


            Dear Mother and Father,


You have, by this time, received a letter mentioning that I am quartered in the concentration camp at Dachau.  It is still undecided whether we will be permitted to describe the conditions here, but I’m writing this now to tell you a little, and I will mail it later when we are told we can.


It is difficult to know where to begin.  By this time I have recovered from my first emotional shock and am able to write without seeming like a hysterical gibbering idiot.  Yet, I know you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and factual I try to be…   Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life…


It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed.  I think that I once scoffed at Voltaire’s book “Out of the Night” as being preposterous!  I’ve seen worse sights than any he described…


As we came to the center of the city [Dachau] we met a train with a wrecked engine – about fifty cars long.  Every car was loaded with bodies.  There must have been thousands of them – all obviously starved to death.  This was a shock of the first order and the odor can best be imagined.  But neither the sight nor the odor were anything compared with what we were about to see.


     Marc Coyle reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory.  Dead SS troopers were seated around the grounds…  When we reached the furnace house we came upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn’t be wasted by the burning.  There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once, and on each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies – one big stinking rotten mess…  They were nothing but bones and skin.  Coyle had assisted at ten autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random.  Eight of them had advanced TB  All had typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms.  There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men…


Behind the furnaces was the execution chamber, a windowless cell twenty feet square with gas nozzles every few feet across the ceiling.  Outside, in addition to a huge mound of charred bone fragments, were the carefully sorted and stacked clothes of the victims – which obviously numbered in the thousands.  Although I stood there looking at it, I couldn’t believe it.  The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you…


Today was a scorching hot day after several rainy cold ones.  The result of the heat on the corpses is impossible to describe, and the situation will probably get worse because their disposal will certainly take time.


My arm is sore from a typhus shot so I’m ending here for the present.  More will follow later.  I have lots to write about now.





This was one young soldier’s reaction to the horrors of Dachau.  His experience was shared by many other American military men, of high and low rank, as the next parts in this series will demonstrate.


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