MARYSVILLE, Wash. - Leo Hymas, former World War II soldier and liberator of Buchenwald concentration camp, was the keynote speaker at the Marysville, Wash., Armed Forces Reserve Center April 8, 2013 as the Army's 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command observed the Holocaust Days of Remembrance.
Keynote speaker Leo Hymas, the former World War II Soldier and liberator of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, outside the town of Weimar, Germany, shares his story with the audience during the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command observance of the Holocaust Days of Remembrance at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Marysville, Wash., April 8, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Mark A. Cloutier)
Hymas was born Feb. 2, 1926, in Sharon, Idaho. At 12, his parents moved the family to a dairy farm in Cache Valley, Utah. Just seven years later he would liberate the Nazi death camp known as Buchenwald.
Having never ventured any farther than Salt Lake City, the young Mormon farm boy said he hadn't paid much attention to the distant war in Europe until, in June 1944 he was drafted into the United States Army, trained as a heavy machine-gun operator and delivered to the 97th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. Leo was just 18.
Buchenwald concentration camp was built in 1937, on a mountain slope five miles outside the town of Weimar, Germany.
Built to hold 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners, it had 30 wooden barrack buildings and 15 two-story brick buildings.
According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, during the eight years of the camp's existence prior to Hymas' arrival, around 240,000 inmates from 30 nationalities had passed through.
An estimated 54,000 of them had either been killed or else had died from harsh conditions.
In March of 1945, Hymas and the 97th ID sailed for eight days across the Atlantic Ocean, to Le Havre, France. They had voyaged aboard the USS Brazil - an Italian cruise ship that the U.S. Navy had confiscated and turned into a troop-carrier.
Upon arrival, the unit was assigned to Gen. Patton's Third Army in support of the 6th Armored Division. Before long, Hymas' unit found itself advancing on the small town of Weimar, Germany.
It was April 9, 1945 - Leo was 19-years-old and had yet to be in combat for a whole month.
As the 97th ID was only minutes away from assaulting the town of Weimar, one of the soldiers had observed a large fence, a short distance off through the tree line.
“My commander instructed me and three other heavy machine-gun operators to go see what was behind that fence,” Leo said. “He said that if they heard any shooting they'd be right behind us. When we got to the fence, I simply could not believe my eyes. On the other side of the fence, was some sort of POW (Prisoner of War)-looking camp, and there were piles and piles of dead, rotting and stinking corpses. They were stacked one on top of the other – so high - like cordwood. I got so mad!
“We used Bangalore torpedoes to blast through the barbed-wire. By then the Nazis had spotted us and were pouring out from a brick building just in front of us on the north side of the camp. They were blasting at us with their rifles. We killed all 14 of them.”
As the rest of the unit began to arrive, Leo and his three comrades entered the brick building.
What they found was much more than they could have ever imagined, and according to Hymas, way more than they could stand, “There were six ovens in that building. It was a crematorium, and they had been using all six ovens to cook the dead bodies. Up until that time, I had never even heard of such a thing as a concentration camp. I just could not believe the horror of what I was seeing and smelling. It was such a terrible smell, one that we had noticed when we arrived at Weimer, but since I hadn't ever smelled burning, rotting, human flesh, it wasn't until we got inside Buchenwald that we finally realized where it was coming from.”
The silence in the auditorium was almost palpable, as Leo began to close out his story.
Once inside Buchenwald, Hymas said he and his fellow soldiers found around 18,000 prisoners – alive, but all emaciated from starvation. In just a few days following their liberation, many would die because their systems could not handle solid food.
In addition, there were hundreds and hundreds that were already dead. Hymas said the bodies were stacked like cordwood, waiting to be burned or cremated. Most had been tattooed with numbers on their wrists.
Hymas told the audience that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, had showed up almost immediately following the liberation, along with generals Patton and Bradley. He described the scene for the next two days, as the mission became one of saving who they could, and burying the dead.
On Eisenhower's command, Hymas' unit rounded up all of the German civilians that could be found in Weimar, around 300, and marched them the five miles to Buchenwald – hands in the air the whole time. Hymas said that some of the women were wearing high-heeled shoes, but not for long.
Once inside of Buchenwald, the civilians were forced to carry all of the dead and rotting bodies to the mass grave that the engineers had dug on site.
“I must continue to share my story with others,” Hymas said. “Because there are so many who will never be able to share theirs. People need to know what happened over there – so we can make sure nothing like it ever happens again.”
By U.S. Army Sgt. Mark A. Cloutier
Provided through DVIDS
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