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Harold Porter Describes Conditions in Dachau After Liberation

(May 1945)

Harold Porter, an American serving with the 116 Evacuation Hospital in Europe, was stationed at Dachau after its liberation. On May 7, 10, 13 and 15, 1945, he sent letters to his parents detailing the grim conditions found in the camp. The letters written, on Waffen SS stationery, are a bit difficult to read both in terms of legibility and content.

In the first letter on May 7, Porter admits it will be difficult to belive what he is going to tell them “no matter how factual I try to be.” He says he finds himself “trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes” and says it will affect this personality for the rest of his life.”

He recalls seeing a wrecked train on the way into the city filled with thousands of bodies of people who had starved to death, but said “neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were still to see.”

He said when he approached the crematorium, he saw corpses “piled up like kindling.” They were naked because the Germans did not want to waste their clothes by burning them. He saw more stacks of bodies in rooms next to the furnaces. He said one of his fellow soldiers had done autopsies on some of the dead and found some had tuberculosis, typhus and were malnourished.

In his letter of May 10, Porter tells his parents that the thousands of corpses are not as ghastly as his patients – the living corpses.” They were so scrawny he found it “unbelievable that they could still be alive.” He said they “looked like weird beings from Mars.”

In addition to talking about the horrible odors, he mentions the sounds – “the weird wails, sobs, groans, rattles, gnashing of teeth, and above it all the chant of men praying.” He said he would never forget them “as long as I live.”

On May 13, Porter wrote that he spoke to several Italian girls who had been sent to Dachau for the amusement of the SS guards. He said they were forced to participate in orgies and that women who refused to cooperate were burned alive in front of the other girls, who then submitted to the Germans demands.

The letter includes a photo of the SS officer whose stationery he was using. “The surprising thing to me,” he wrote, “is the normalcy of his life. There were pictures of his wife, his little girls, his wife, his horses, motor boats, etc. Yet within view of his office window was the mound of corpses beside the crematory.”

Porter describes in his May 15 letter how German civilians were forced to help with the rotting corpses. “They can hardly believe their eyes,” he wrote. They “showed every sign of genuine surprise, shock and guilt – even to the extent of vomiting and fainting.”

He said they received a report from the French about conditions in Buchenwald and the “industrial efficiency of the slaughter” there. He said prisoners with tattoos were skinned and their skin was used to make “lamp shades, wallets, and other leather novelties.”

The prisoners’ conditions were improving, Porter wrote. One morning they were excited to receive oranges for breakfast, but he said some were still too weak to peel them.

Finally, he tell them they may see newsreels about the camps, but “you’ll miss the most grisly part.”

Click here to read the letters.

(WARNING: contains graphic photographs)

Source: World War II Participants and Contemporaries Papers, Porter Harold: Memorabilia; NAID #1055429, 12009096, 12009107 and 12009108 Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library