Allied Liberators: Liberation of Mauthausen (and KZ Gussen I, II, & III)
Former Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek
Published in: THUNDERBOLT - The 11th Ard Div Association, Vol. 8, No. 7, May-June 1955, 700 Hill Bldg., Washington 6, D.C. Comments in paranthesis were made by Arbeitskreis for more easy understanding.
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 the gate.
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 quarters.
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 manner.
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 in Chicago.
Source: Gusen Memorial Committee