Testimonies from the Midwest

 

T/4 Carroll E. Peterson, Co. H, 319 Regiment, 80th Division

 

 Military photo of Carroll E. Peterson      Division patch       Modern day photo of Carroll E. Peterson 

Carroll E. Peterson was born on January 4, 1926, at Lily, South Dakota. Raised as a Lutheran, Carroll was drafted into the service during his junior year of high school at Webster, South Dakota. Carroll entered the service on August 28, 1944. The following is his story, told in his own words.

Service Record: I entered the service in August of 1944 at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, and was sent to Camp Blanding Infantry Replacement Training Camp near Jacksonville, Florida. I spent 11 weeks training and was shipped overseas to the European Theater of Operations. I joined the 80th Division in Eastern Europe and stayed on the front lines in combat as a machine gunner until the end of the war: May 8, 1945. Then I was transferred to the 1st Infantry Division and then to the 102nd Infantry Division until my points came up for my return to the states which was in June of 1946.

Camp Encounter: As I recall we came to the city of Weimar, Germany, on the morning of April 12, 1945. We stopped short of the town along a railroad embankment and we were told to wait before attacking the city. They had sent word ahead with German burgomaster to give the Germans an ultimatum of surrender. Word was sent back that the Germans had already left the city and we moved in.

After we got in the city we saw DP's roaming around. We soon found out that a concentration camp was just outside of the city; it was named Buchenwald. So as usual a couple of us had to see what it was like. Our top brass had already sent word back to the rear to get UNRRA or something like that; its branch of the Red Cross which came up to take care of the prisoners who were dying, sick, or starved. Anyway we approached the camp which was in a barbed wire enclosed area with wooden buildings and there were hundreds of people, all in very poor health and starved conditions. Some were laying on the ground, some could only sit and look and make feeble motions that they wanted something to eat. Some could walk around but everyone was in terrible condition. Some could speak and only in their language. We did hear one or two who could speak English.

Joseph Schleifstein, a four- year-old survivor of Buchenwald, sits on the running  board of an UNRRA truck soon after the liberation of the camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

Joseph Schleifstein, a four- year-old survivor of Buchenwald, sits on the running  board of an UNRRA truck soon after the liberation of the camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

A group of American troops moving among the barracks in the Buchenwald concentration camp after liberation; photo courtesy of USHMM

A group of American troops moving among the barracks in the Buchenwald concentration camp after liberation; photo courtesy of USHMM

We inspected the wooden barracks in this camp and one had what I call a marble table the size of a pool table and it also had six pockets which drained the blood as these starved-to-death people were dissected and skinned and the remains were put on another slab which led to the cremation furnace. We later found out that all parts of their insides were inspected. The skin in some cases was used to make lamp shades. I later actually saw one. In this barracks the room next to the operating room they kept the dead corpses, piled like cordwood from the floor to the ceiling.

An exhibit of human remains and artifacts retrieved by the American Army from a pathology laboratory run by the SS in Buchenwald; photo courtesy of USHMM

An exhibit of human remains and artifacts retrieved by the American Army from a pathology laboratory run by the SS in Buchenwald; photo courtesy of USHMM

People call these concentration camp inmates the living dead. That's exactly what they looked like.

As we went through this camp, we had to sort of push these people away who could move around fairly well. We kept them away from us the best we could; as you might know they were overjoyed and hungry. They wanted to express their gratitude to us.

Our stay in the compound was not too long; we may have spent an hour or so, but one look told us most of the story. We could not imagine how much the human body can stand. After seeing a living person and be able to actually count the bones, it was like looking at a skeleton that was alive.

An American captain with survivors in the Buchenwald concentration camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

An American captain with survivors in the Buchenwald concentration camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

An emaciated survivor drinking from a metal bowl in front of a barracks in Buchenwald;  photo courtesy of USHMM

An emaciated survivor drinking from a metal bowl in front of a barracks in Buchenwald;  photo courtesy of USHMM

 We rejoined the rest of our unit and went on to Jena, Germany, the following day, Company H, 2nd Batt., 319th Inf. Regiment of the 80th Division. Later around May 4th or 5th, we were around Lamback, Bad Hall, and Steyr, Austria, when we were stopped to police in one of these towns because of concentration camp prisoners had gotten out and we had to maintain law and order until other units could be brought up to take care of these people. I called them DP camps--meaning Displaced Persons. These concentration camps were people from different countries--Polish, Hungarians, Russians, etc. I don't recall Jewish people in any of the concentration camps I saw; there could have been some.

The saying at Buchenwald was "You come in the gates and go out the chimney." Prisoners' conditions at Ebensee did not seem quite as bad. Although when we were told we had to stop here in one of these towns, they said the kitchen units would be brought up from the rear and we again got a taste of hot meals. It was then that problems started with the DP's who had gotten out of the compound. The 80th Division history book said there were about 20,000 prisoners at Buchenwald. I'm not sure about the numbers at Ebensee.

hree Ebensee survivors, too weak to eat solid food, suck on sugar cubes to give them strength

Starved survivors in Ebensee; photos courtesy of USHMM

Top: Three Ebensee survivors, too weak to eat solid food, suck on sugar cubes to give them strength. Bottom: Starved survivors in Ebensee; photos courtesy of USHMM

 Awards: I received three campaign stars -- the Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe Campaigns. I was awarded two bronze stars, the Combat Infantry Badge with wreath, Good Conduct Medal, Occupation Medal, ETO Medal, Victory Medal, and American Defense Campaign WW II Medal for the Battle of the Bulge.

 

After the War: Carroll Peterson was discharged on June 26, 1946, and had the following to say about his experiences.

I attended Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, for one year and also graduated from high school the same year. From 1947 to 1987 I was employed with the Department of Transportation at Webster and Aberdeen, South Dakota. I began as a rodman and retired as project engineer. Since 1987, the year I retired, I now play golf and keep busy with snow blowing in the winter, yard work and golf all summer.

I was married in 1947 and my wife passed away in 1980. I have four children. Michael is a special education teacher in Osceola, Iowa; Douglas is a CPA with Henry Schollten Auditing Firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Gail (Olson) is a loan officer with Home Federal Bank in Hartford, South Dakota; Jerry is an auditor with ABC Firm out of Chicago and lives in Loveland, Colorado. I have a black Lab dog named Queen. I use her for hunting. I have twelve grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. At the present I live with a very patient woman named Margaret, who keeps me on the straight and narrow road of life.

 

Advice from a WW II Veteran to Today's Youth:

I would tell students that I had all these experiences, close calls with death at a very young age of 18 at entry and out before I was 21; I never had been more than 100 miles from home before I went into the service, and many more things. I never once thought about the fact that I couldn't buy beer and I couldn't even vote yet. All we wanted was to serve our country and keep it free. If today's students can keep this in mind as they grow, then America will be the best place on earth. There's a time in your lives for everything. Don't try to grow up too fast.

In closing, I would say this to today's students: every day is a new beginning and you're never too old or young to learn. You must see how the other half lives before you can appreciate what you have and above everything else is your faith in God.

 

http://www.usarc.army.mil/80thDiv/DIVHIST.HTM