Perhaps May 5th, 1945, was just another day to you. We thought it would
be for us too, but before the sun set that day we had participated in
experiences that really taxed our imagination. We were awakened early
that morning and the Commanding Officer (CO) gave all the platoon leaders
their missions for the day and this is where my story begins.
I was platoon leader of the First Platoon of Troop D, 41st Cavalry
Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized (of 11th Ard Div, 3rd US Army).
We were attached to (Combat Command B) CCB. It was my platoon´s
mission to check the bridges at St. Georgen (the US Forces came
in via the mountainous Muehlviertel region to avoid heavy fighting with
German troops at Linz and the major roads in the Danube valley) for
intactness since they were on the route to be used by the combat command.
Routes on maps were plotted, ammunition checked and everything else
we could think of that goes along with being prepared. The sun was just
becoming bright when we started out from the town of Katsdorf (some 3 km. north of in the foothills of the Austrian Alps (the Muehlviertel
area north of the Danube), the potential redoubt area of the diehard
Nazis. We proceeded slowly and cautiously and everything seemed to be
rather peaceful. We passed through the town of Lungitz but as
we approached a bend in the road, Corporal Pickett, my acting
scout section sergeant, spotted some Germans on the high ground above
us (most of the area was full with road barriers to defend the camps
of "Gusen"). I immediately gave orders to pull back to the
town of Lungitz to spread out and set up a defense. We took cover
and reported the situation to the CO, who suggested some persuasive
artillery. Suddenly one of our men stumbled onto some people who
seemed to be in some large cages (the KZ Gusen III camp with
some 300 inmates). He immediately informed me and while doing so a German
soldier appeared and started coming toward me. That German soldier was
in the sights of more assorted weapons than he had hairs on his head.
In English he explained to us that up ahead was an annex of a concentration
camp and that the refugee prisoners were Polish and Russian (also Italians).
We radioed the CO and told him that we would not need the artillery
fire and then we rounded up the forty Germans that consisted of the
Guard Personnel and sent them back to Troop Headquarters with two peeps
to keep an eye on them.
Our next obstacle was a road block different from any other that we had seen in the past in that the logs were set about eight feet
higher instead of along the roads as they usually were. We investigated
for trip wires and booby traps and also for means of clearing the block.
From the distance suddenly there was a muffled sound of a motor (Louis
Haefliger with SS Reimer). The men in our vehicles immediately alerted
themselves. Through our field glasses we were able to pick up a motorcycle
and a white touring car with a red cross on the hood. As they approached
we laid all our guns on them because no matter how innocent looking
the Germans might appear you could not trust them. Out of the car stepped
two SS captains, the driver and a man dressed in civilian clothes. The
civilian was an International Red Cross affiliate, and the spokesman
for this unholy mob. Fortunately one of my gunners, Rosenthal from Chicago,
spoke and understood German. From what we could determine from these
people there was a large concentration camp (KZ Gusen I, KZ Gusen
II and KZ Mauthausen camps) beyond the bridge that we were supposed
to check. The Red Cross man was trying to contact an American
general to surrender this camp and 400 SS guards whom he pledged would
give up. I made him believe that I was the direct representative of
the commanding general of the 11th Armored Division. I then requested
permission from my CO by radio to go to the camp and I stressed the
fact that 1600 prisoners were depending upon us for fast liberation (in fact, he liberated some 25,000 prisoners at Gusen and some 12,000
prisoners at Mauthausen). It was difficult for me to obtain his approval
because this would bring us beyond our assigned mission, causing an
unnecessary risk, as far as we were concerned. He finally consented
but stressed that we remain in constant communication with him by radio.
The situation was ticklish, for there was no guarantee that the roads
to Mauthausen (via St. Georgen and Gusen!!!) were undefended, in spite
of the fact that we were assured we would not run into trouble at the
camp. As a persuader we told the occupants of the white car heading
the column that even so much as the breaking of a twig would
spell their doom. With this understanding we finally reached the
town of St. Georgen and continued to the outskirts finding the
bridge (over Gusen river) intact. We also found, much to our surprise,
German soldiers all over the place (maybe former guards of the Luftwaffe
that were glad to become American Prisoners of War; the leading SS-men
left Mauthausen and Gusen around April 28, 1945) . Fortunately they
were the peace loving kind and didn't bother us too much. In the distance
(some 2 km. east of St. Georgen) we thought we saw our objective, namely Mauthausen (Gusen!) Camp. Surprises seemed to be the order of
the day, because we were in for another. This was a concentration camp
alright, but not the one we were looking for. As we approached the camp
an SS captain came toward us and gave me an American salute, which I
returned. After Rosenthal assured him I was an officer he explained
to me that he was the commander of Gusen Camp. With the captain
was an old buzzard in a Volkssturm uniform who spoke English
perfectly (when SS left at the end of April, Viennese Fire-Brigades
and "the Volks-Sturm" [men of the area that were too old to
serve in the German Army] were sent to Mauthausen-Gusen to guard the
prisoners there; just some SS-key personnel and some low-ranking SS-guards
were left at his time). With the old man as my interpreter I explained
to the SS captain that we were taking over his camp and expected him
and all Germans to surrender. He evidently had the same idea in mind
and he was very cooperative. He had quite a number of guards and I explained
that I would have to pick them up on our way back from Mauthausen.
He agreed to this but insisted that they would have to keep their weapons
because he feared that they would not be able to keep order in the camp
if they gave up their weapons. Frankly I had no choice but to agree
but I warned him that not a shot was to be fired for if it was I would
order the tank force forward which was not too far behind. Through ignorance
of what was going on I received orders by radio to give up the quest
and return to the troop (in fact, it was not a target of the leading
commanders to liberate these camps; Kosiek [and Haefliger!] did it at
their own risk!!!). Fat chance: From beginning to end I had to explain
the situation impressing my superiors that to return now would possibly
be more dangerous than to continue. They realized it was no longer a
matter of choice and that the inevitable would have to be. Once again
the goose chase was on!
As we left Gusen the German guards lived up to their end of
the bargain and in fact turned their gun barrels to the ground and gave
me an American salute. Imagine going through an enemy line and being
rendered an American salute! Needless to say we were a bit uneasy (in
fact, when the Volkssturm-Guards laid down their weapons when the platoon
left for Mauthausen, order was no longer maintained in the KZ Gusen
camps and some 500 inmates killed themselves by lynching!). As we continued
we soon came upon Mauthausen. It was located on the highest ground in
the area we were in and it was flanked on one side by the Danube. It
looked like a series of factories from the distance (the barracks).
Tremendous cement walls surrounded it (granite walls) with large field
cannons poking their ugly noses at us from everywhere (the SS originally
planned to defend the camps, but most of them left some days before).
On the other side of a patch of woods was the first entrance to the
camp. The white car stopped and the occupants got out. At this section
of the camp it was surrounded by a wire fence that was charged with
2,000 volts of electricity (the "Sanitaetslager" where thousands
of exhausted KZ Gusen II inmates like Marcel Callo were brought to die).
Behind that fence were hundreds of people who went wild with joy when
they first sighted us. It's a sight I'll never forget. Some had just
blankets covering them and others were completely nude, men and women
combined, making the most emaciated looking mob I have ever had the
displeasure to look upon. I still shake my head in disbelief when that
picture comes before me, for they hardly resembled human beings. Some
couldn't have weighed over forty pounds. The place turned into an uproar
and it was evident that if these people weren't stopped shortly bloodshed
would be impossible to avoid. With the safety of my men in the back
of my mind at all times I knew that the job of restoring order was mine.
The platoon was tense, each man looking grimly down the sights of his
gun ready for anything. It was too late in the game to be caught off
guard, I heard the people yelling in Polish and I raised my hands for
them to keep silent. I then told them in the tongue that they understood
to go back to their quarters and to cooperate with me so that I could
set them free as soon as possible by removing the German guards. They
understood and thank God they did cooperate.
After quelling the fracas a young tall English speaking German came
to me with the commander of the camp and through his interpreter the
commander commended me on my quieting the mob. With the commander by
my side we walked to the main part of the camp (the courtyard
with the SS garages), a peep and armored car following us. The vehicles
were not for protection because if the 1,000 German guards decided not
to give up the camp they could have closed the gates and held us there
and we couldn't have done much about it. We came to a large gate in
the cement wall (the Main Entrance to the Schutzhaftlager) and a German
opened it. Walking in first I was greeted with the most spectacular
ovation ever paid me. Behind that gate hundreds of prisoners were in
formation and when I walked in they were so happy to see an American
soldier that they all started yelling, screaming, and crying. To these
people my appearance meant freedom from all torture and horror surrounding
them. Never before have I felt such a sensation running through me as
I did at that moment. I felt like some celebrity being cheered at Soldiers
Field in Chicago. That was the first time I have had people so overjoyed
at seeing me. As I stood there looking out at the mob I realized what
this meant to them and I was glad we had made the effort to free the
camp. We then walked on through the yard and through another gate and
up a small stairway to where the inmates were quartered (the "Schutzhaftlager").
By this time the prisoners were gathered all around me. At this point
one of the prisoners stepped forward and introduced himself as Captain
Jack Taylor of the United States Navy showing me his dog tags to
prove it. Upon inquiring he told me that two other Americans were in
the camp and one English flier in the hospital. He talked with me for
a few minutes and then he said he would go to get his personal belongings
and he said he would see me later.
We then looked for the English speaking German interpreter and upon
reaching him he told me that the commander did not want to give up the
camp until he was certain that we could keep the prisoners under
control (at Gusen they did not!). At the time a riot was going on
in the kitchen and he wanted me to clear up the situation. When I got
to the kitchen the door was blocked and I had to jump in through a window.
The refugees were dipping soup out of large pots with their hands and
drinking it. Others were stealing chickens and fighting over them among
themselves. I yelled at them in Polish but it didn't do any good. Finally
I fired a few rounds from my pistol into the ceiling and then they started
to move out of the kitchen. Talking to them in Polish I told them that
they were only making things more difficult for me and the German guards
started pushing and hitting some of them. I felt like socking one of
the guards but I couldn't do it at the time and end the riot. When I
got outside again the refugees were all over the place and I started
to plead with them to please get back to their quarters which was behind
Above the gate was a platform which overlooked a large courtyard (the
Main Entrance to the "Schutzhaftlager" as it appears today).
On the side of the platform flags of the 31 nations represented in the
camp were painted. We managed to get all the people in the courtyard
and with an English speaking representative from each nation we got on the platform (there was established an International Prisoners
Commitee at the Mauthausen camp a few days prior to the liberation).
I gathered the representatives together and asked them to explain to
their people that they should stay in their quarters because by doing
so it would facilitate my clearing the camp of the German guards and
then the camp would be in command of the United States Army. While talking
to the representatives some of the refugees were setting up a band down
in the courtyard. The first representative to speak was Polish. When
he finished he asked for three cheers for the Americans and the response
was thunderous. Each representative went through this procedure and
after 45 minutes all the speakers were finished. The band then played
"The Star Spangled Banner" and my emotions were so great that
the song suddenly meant more to me than it ever did before. Many of
the refugees were crying as they watched our platoon standing at attention
presenting arms. When we dropped our salute we found out that the Navy
captain had taught the band our national anthem just the night before.
The people cooperated and stayed in the courtyard or returned to their
In back of the courtyard were bodies piled up in one mass (they
were piled in that way at the crematorium-site at Gusen too). You wouldn´t
think they were human beings if you did not recognize certain features.
They were being chewed up by rats and no one seemed to care.
Then we were shown where they gassed the people, and then cremated
them in big ovens (also at Crematorium KZ Gusen). We were told they
shot Americans because they wanted them to be honored by
shooting instead of gassing or other means of death. When they gassed
women and children they made them believe they were going for a
shower. The Germans would give them a bar of soap and a towel. Once
in the shower room they would turn on the water for one minute and then
let the gas in through the pipes that were near the base of the wall.
I never saw so many dead people lying around in all my life.
I saw things that I would never have believed if I hadn't seen them
with my own eyes. I never thought that human beings could treat other
human beings in this manner. The people that were alive made me wonder
what kept them alive. They were only skin and bones.
The food rations for the prisoners was a loaf of bread a week for
seven people. They slept on a cot the size of our Army cots. The difference
was that we slept alone in one, and they had one for five people. I
was talking to an eight year old Polish boy who told me that
if he did not take his hat off and stand at attention when a guard passed
by he would be shot. An older person verified the story and said there
were many people shot because they refused to honor the Germans in this
The English speaking German then asked me what I wanted the German
guards to do. I told him to gather all the guards at the main gate and
have them put their weapons in wagons that I would have there.
Finding the Navy captain we went back to the main gate. We also had
the other Americans with us, one a sergeant from the Air Corps, and
the other a colored fellow. I told them to wait for me in a jeep until
we had all the Germans rounded up. I hated to have them wait because
it was raining and they were sickly. All of my platoon was busy keeping
the Germans on the road and taking their weapons from them.
At this point I found out that Lt. Larkins was trying to get
in touch with me all the time. The fellows could not tell him what was
going on because they themselves did not know except for the few fellows
that were with me. I called him and informed him of what went on and
what I still had to do. He then told me the troop and squadron were
leaving Katsdorf. He also told me that I would have to take the
Germans to Gallneukirchen where CCB was set up in position. I
told him that I did not think we would get the Germans back before dark
since that meant a 15 mile walk for the Germans. After about an hour
or so we had all the German guards out of the camp and their weapons
in three wagons which we got three refugees to drive. We then
started marching the Germans and once again the people in the camp cheered.
I then went ahead with an armored car and a jeep and we proceeded
to Gusen Camp where we went through similar experiences as we encountered
at Mauthausen. We got the guards out of this camp and restored
order among the prisoners (but this lasted no long, because of the lynchings
that afternoon) and when the column of German guards under our Platoon
arrived at Gusen the guards from this second camp joined the
column. The trip to Gallneukirchen was very slow because so many
German prisoners were in the line of march. When we got to that road
block we were surprised to find fifty German soldiers standing their
holding a white flag. We told them to join the line of march.
I then told the platoon I would go ahead to Gallneukirchen to let them know about the Germans and find out what to do with them.
I went to CCB Headquarters and told them I was bringing in 1,800
Germans and wanted to know what to do with them. They would not
believe my story but told me where to go with them. I found a billet
for my men to stay for the night and then I went back and joined my
men on the march.
It was very dark at this time and we had to march with the prisoners
instead of riding to keep them on the move. It was one-thirty in the
morning (May 6, 1945) before we got the Germans into their new home,
a large open field. The Major in charge of the PW cage said he
would not believe the fact that we had brought in so many prisoners
if he had not seen it with his own eyes.
My platoon then went to the house I had selected and we brought the
Navy captain with us. The other two Americans went to an Infantry CP
in town. The boys rustled up some food and the Captain enjoyed his meal.
He told us he would never forget our platoon of 23 men as long
as he lives. He told us he never expected to see Americans again. He
was sentenced to death four times while at the camp but was
spared by the refugees. He was to go to the gas chamber on May 6th
which was the next day. He told us that 1,100 people a day were
killed in Mauthausen (maybe in the final days?). We sat and talked with
him until three o'clock in the morning. On May 5th we accomplished
our mission and then some!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Albert J. Kosiek served with the 11th Armored Division from November, 1942 until the division was deactivated. He first served
in Rcn. Co., 41st Armored Regiment and then in Troop D, 41st Cavalry after the reorganization. He was platoon sergeant of the first platoon.
During combat he was recommended for a field commission but turned it
down. When Mr. Kosiek left the 11th he was assigned to the 90th Infantry
Division and was acting First Sergeant of a service company stationed
at Weiden, Germany. He was discharged from the service at Camp Grant
in Rockford, Ill. on December 6, 1945. In civilian life he has been
an inspector for Western Electric and chief inspector and then supervisor
at Hoof Products, both companies being in Chicago. He has been a barber
for some time and now has a shop of his own at 4811 N. Rockwell Street