A liberator and witness of Mauthausen
A story of my grandfather’s service in WWII
Hugo (Ugo) Cicchitelli served in the US Army in European Theatre of WWII. He served as a sergeant, a mechanic and translator, of the 575th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, which was tasked with the 11th Armored Division, 3rd Army, following the Battle of the Bulge.
There are books written about the 3rd Army, led by the infamous General George Patton, and about Allied action in the Battle of the Bulge and beyond more generally. There is searchable history of the 11th Armored Division more particularly, but the record of constituent units gets increasingly tenuous on the lower tiers of the organizational chart. First person testament from individual unit members emerges as the best record available, and operational detail, at least in a publicly searchable way, can only be assembled from pieces. I’ve joined the available resources with the memories of my extended family members recalling the rare occasions where my grandfather shared details, as well as pictures my grandfather personally took during the war. The story goes something like this.
In the spring of 1945, after the Bulge, the 11th Armored Division was tasked with heading east to meet the Red Army on the eastern front. They were behind enemy lines, at that time the easternmost unit of the Allies, and they were encountering and clearing resistance as they advanced. The way that worked in practice included dispatching patrols of scouts, Special Forces of the day, leading on ahead of the rest of the division. As they approached towns, villages, and hamlets, they scouted resistance, and if they encountered any they would signal and wait for heavy elements of the division, roughly an hour behind them. With a general forewarning of the presence a concentration camp from British intelligence, such a patrol found Gusen, and Mauthausen shortly thereafter.
The SS guards at Gusen had already been overrun by Gusen inmates, although the main camp at Mauthausen was still under the control of some 1,000 SS men. The Division’s mission was not to liberate, but to quickly advance to the eastern front. So, as a result the main elements of the division did not stopover at Mauthausen. Rather, one unit, the 41st Cavalry, was dispatched to capture and disarm the guards. Although initially defending the camp with mortars, the guards soon surrendered. The 41st Cavalry then continued on with the main mission. That was May 5th 1945.
By late spring 1945 there was no longer much, or any, Luftwaffe action. So an AAA Battalion like my grandfather’s was utilized for any support role needed. It is for this reason that they were dispatched to occupy Mauthausen while the remainder of the division advanced on. I’ve often heard growing up that my grandfather was “one of the first soldiers to liberate the concentration camps,” but it took piecing this story together to figure out what that meant.
Of the 75 or so concentration camps in Nazi Germany, among so many more POW camps, traditional prisons, institutions, etc., it was a great coincidence that a visit to Mauthausen was both part of the program I was attending with the Salzburg Academy and the particular concentration camp that my grandfather visited 71 years prior, and at roughly the same age. A fun anecdote, my grandfather is known to have once said about meeting the Russians, “They were tall and angry.” Understandably so.
In reflection it occurs to me that soldiers like my grandfather were uprooted from their lives to fight in a foreign conflict, in a foreign land, against a foreign foe. To many I bet it was hard to rationalize the necessity, sacrifice, and the discomfort and hardship. And surely to a great many it was the rawest of deals. But I can only imagine what bearing witness firsthand to the atrocity, and taking part in its end, must have felt like. Perhaps at that moment it was a realization that it was not a foreign conflict after all; but one of humanity, good, and evil.
Below are the personal photos Hugo Cicchitelli took during his service.
Warning: Gruesome adult content
A related selection:
A camp is liberated:Shocked GIs found piles of the dead
MAY 7, 2005 The New York Times
Sam Goldenberg was working at a surgical supply company in New York City when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. Sent to Texas for training, he joined the 575th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, and was made crew chief of an M-15 half-track, an armored vehicle with wheels in front and treads in back. His unit reached Cherbourg, on the French coast, in December 1944. The 575th, attached to the 11th Armored Division, saw its first major combat in Belgium, in the Battle of the Bulge, before moving into Luxembourg, Germany and Austria, where it arrived at the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen in early May 1945. Now 83, Goldenberg, a retired postal worker, lives in Southbury, Connecticut, with his wife, Fran. He told his story to Brian Knowlton.
I was a crew chief on one of the half-tracks, with a crew of six. We had a 37-millimeter armor-piercing gun and two .50-caliber machine guns, for anti-aircraft purposes. We had trained in Texas for desert warfare; I was made a corporal. I was sure we were going to North Africa. But the Bulge broke out, so they sent us to Europe.
Our first combat casualty was in Luxembourg. We had to be very careful because we did a lot of driving at night. The roads were bad. This was a very, very cold part of the war. We saw fires ahead of us, and we started going slowly, and as we drove along we could see dead horses and equipment on the side, and fires — the only light we had was the light of fires — and the noise. There was shelling, and machine-gun fire, and I found out later that the gunner in my sergeant’s truck was shot, and that he was killed. We kept going.
In Germany, the first camp we came to was Dachau. You go in and you see dead bodies laying all over the place — propped up against the barracks. It was just a terrible thing, terrible thing, and it was so surprising — very surprising — because we had no knowledge of these camps. They gave me a five-ton truck with three helpers, and we carried some food around, and those who were still living we tried to give them a little — not too much, because they couldn’t handle it. They were so thin, they could barely walk.
Most of us were only 19, 20 years old; I didn’t have any idea we’d be coming on something like this. We talked it over. Everyone was very disgusted with what they had seen. Before, I never had any special thoughts about the Germans; I didn’t hate them, they were just my enemy. But after we visited two or three camps, and saw what was happening, our feelings changed. We told each other the Germans ought to have their heads cut off.
Later we stopped at Linz, and Mauthausen.
Linz was a very bad camp. But Mauthausen was the one that had the most open ditches. The first thing I saw there was a big ditch they had dug up to throw bodies in. The bodies were just one on top of the other. You didn’t know if anybody was still alive or not. This was not the only site that I saw that bodies were thrown into; I think there were three or four of them. Bodies were just flung in there, and they would throw some white lime or something on top.
When we got there, there were no guards. There was no Red Cross. I think we were one of the first units there because there were still bodies on the floor. On the road, we had seen columns of prisoners walking, unguarded, wearing their striped uniforms and chewing burnt wood — charcoal. There was supposed to be some kind of nutrient in there; they had nothing else to eat. Their lips were all black. We had to round them up and bring them back; they were not doing themselves any good.
There was nothing in the barracks but bunks. Planks were missing; where there should be pillows and blankets you didn’t see anything. From what I heard, they used to fight over these things. If somebody died, they’d run to grab his shoes or what he was wearing. They were badly crowded. One thing I never saw: I never saw a latrine. The smell was terrible, terrible. Some prisoners had shoes, and some did not. I didn’t see any sign of food.
I heard that some guards had taken the uniforms off some of the inmates — they tried to get away with impersonating a prisoner. That didn’t work because they were so well-fed, you could tell the difference right away. I had no way of knowing how many of the prisoners were Jewish, and how many were political prisoners. I couldn’t communicate with them. They were so emaciated that they couldn’t give you any signals. Hundreds died after we got there.
I don’t think I knew then that the war was almost over, or that Hitler was dead. Looking back, I’m mainly glad I got out of there alive. From the first thing we went into combat, about half the people got frozen feet, it was that cold. I appreciate that I survived the whole thing.
Although I’m Jewish I’m not that religious. But the experience did make me a little bit more religious. It took a long time to sink in. Mostly, I pushed it out of my mind. I mentioned it to my wife when we got married, but mostly, for all these years, I tried to keep it from her.
Then a few years ago, my granddaughter asked me if I would speak about it to her class. I’m not a speaker, and I thought maybe making a tape and letting her show the tape might be a better idea. Everybody was really grateful for having seen it. Otherwise, I hadn’t talked about this since I was discharged.
You know, men can do anything they set their minds to. It’s a wonder that they can do so much evil — and then so much good.
What do I think about war? I think it’s useless, it’s a waste of time. There has to be a better way — but nobody looks for it.
(2005, May 5). A camp is liberated: shocked GIs found piles of the dead. The New York Times. Available http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/07/world/europe/a-camp-is-liberatedshocked-gis-found-piles-of-the-dead.html