In 1945, as Allied troops penetrated Nazi Germany, the SS began evacuating prisoners from concentration camps in outlying areas on death marches to the interior of the Reich. It was part of a desperate and hopeless effort to keep the war effort going and to prevent the inmates from falling into enemy hands, where they could testify against their persecutors.
As the heat and flames expanded within the building, prisoners sought to escape the conflagration by digging under the barn's walls. They were killed by the guards. The next day, the SS and local auxiliaries returned to dispose of the evidence of their crime. They planned to incinerate what remained of the bodies and the barn, and kill any survivors of the blaze. The swift advance of the 102nd Infantry Division, however, prevented the SS and its accomplices from completely carrying out this plan.
On April 14, the 102nd (405th Regiment, 2d Battalion, F Company) entered Gardelegen and, the following day, discovered the atrocity. They found the corpses of 1,016 prisoners in the still-smoldering barn and nearby trenches, where the SS had the charred remains dumped. The also interviewed several of the prisoners who had managed to escape the fire and the shootings. Within days, U.S. Army Signal Corps photographers arrived to document the Nazi crime and by April 19, 1945, the story of the Gardelegen massacre began appearing in the western press. On that day, both the New York Times and The Washington Post ran stories on the massacre, quoting one American soldier who stated:
On April 21, 1945 , the local commander of the 102nd ordered between 200 and 300 men from the town of Gardelegen to give the murdered prisoners a proper burial. Over the next few days, the German civilians exhumed 586 bodies from the trenches and recovered 430 bodies from the barn, placing each in an individual grave. On April 25, the 102nd carried out a ceremony to honor the dead and erected a memorial tablet to the victims, which stated that the townspeople of Gardelegen are charged with the responsibility that the “graves are forever kept as green as the memory of these unfortunates will be kept in the hearts of freedom-loving men everywhere.” Also on April 25, Colonel George Lynch addressed German civilians at Gardelegen with the following statement:
Discovery of the massacre seems to have been by chance. Consensus is that American Lieutenant Emerson Hunt, a liaison officer between Ozark HQ and the 701st Tank Battalion was captured by German forces on April 14, 1945. Lt. Hunt bluffed the German forces defending the town of Gardelegen into believing that American tanks were approaching the city, leading the German commander to surrender to American forces. The Americans arrived at the site before the Germans had time to bury all of the bodies. An investigation was undertaken by Lt. Col. Edward E. Cruise, Investigating Officer, Ninth Army War Crimes Branch.
Gardelegen is now a national memorial.
The sign at the cemetery reads: