Remembrances: Bob Cleary: Fateful Steps Into History

Fateful steps into history

Rancho Santa Fe man led one of first U.S. platoons to set foot in German death camp

By Michael Burge
May 27, 2002

(Used By Permission)


Directing a platoon down a road outside the village of Ohrdruf, Germany, near the end of World War II, Lt. Bob Cleary had no idea he was leading his men down the road to hell.

His army platoon stopped before a gate guarded by two German soldiers. A machine gunner killed one guard and the other fled.

Then the troops walked through the gate, becoming one of the first U.S. Army platoons to set foot in a death camp in Germany, and Cleary among the first U.S. Army officers to liberate a Nazi camp. Inside, they found a huge ditch, maybe 40 feet long and 10 feet deep, filled with corpses that had been covered with lime to hasten decomposition. An earth mover was parked nearby.

Not far away, more bodies were stacked like cordwood, eight or 10 feet high, abandoned before they could be buried.

"There's nothing else that I can remember in my lifetime that remains as vivid and as horrible as that," Cleary, 81, recalled from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, where he has lived since 1971.

The Soviet Army had liberated other concentration camps before that, including Lublin in July 1944 and Auschwitz in January 1945. But the discovery at Ohrdruf on April 4, 1945, and a visit eight days later by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower focused the world's eyes on Nazi atrocities as never before.

Ohrdruf was a subcamp of nearby Buchenwald and part of the Nazis' elaborate apparatus of work and extermination camps. In March 1945, it held 10,000 inmates - most of them Jews - whose chief task was to dig underground tunnels and caverns for a proposed headquarters for Adolf Hitler, should the Nazi leader decide to evacuate Berlin.

"You just can't believe how bad this place was," said Cleary.

"We went inside one of the barracks and they had four tiers up and down of bunks and these guys were most of them lying in the bunks. Nobody hardly came out to see because they were too weak to move.

"One of my guys gave (an inmate) a candy bar and it wasn't two minutes later that he threw up; there was no way he could handle food."

Cleary said that until that day he and most of the world knew "literally nothing" about the death camps, despite the Soviet Army's earlier discoveries. "There were just a few rumors."

Cleary, whose brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, said Ohrdruf was his worst experience of the war - even worse than fighting the youngsters Hitler drafted to fill out his army in the twilight of the Third Reich.

In particular, he recalled occasions his troops encountered German boys who couldn't have been older than 12 on the edge of a woods, aiming anti-tank weapons at them.
"You don't have any choice," he said. "It's either you or them."


Cleary's platoon worked in advance of his division, the 89th Infantry Division, which was part of Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army as it stormed through Germany in the war's final days. Germany surrendered May 8, 1945.

He said the Nazis were killing and starving Ohrdruf's inmates in an attempt to conceal evidence of their atrocities, but the Allies were moving too fast for the Nazis to complete the task. Cleary radioed his headquarters about his discovery, and soon other soldiers arrived to take care of the inmates, allowing Cleary and his platoon of 30 soldiers to resume its mission. He said he was in the camp less than three hours.

Ohrdruf, which was famous as the town where Johann Sebastian Bach attended school and wrote music, became a symbol of infamy on April 12, 1945, when Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, visited the camp with Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. Patton reportedly vomited.

Eisenhower ordered every German civilian and every GI in the vicinity who was not at the front to visit the camp, saying, "We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against."

On April 15, Eisenhower wrote to Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, about his visit.

"The things I saw beggar description," he wrote. "The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were . . . overpowering."

Anticipating denials that were to come, Eisenhower added: "I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.' "

Cleary and his men didn't know that by opening the gates at Ohrdruf, they also were opening a new chapter in history.

There were thousands of camps and subcamps in Germany, said Peter Black, a senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

But Ohrdruf, he said, "gained a certain notoriety that some of the subcamps liberated earlier . . . didn't appear to have . . . because of the bodies and the condition of the prisoners, and Eisenhower's visit."

Black noted, for example, that the first large image that greets visitors to the Holocaust Museum today is a photo of bodies stacked at Ohrdruf.

Black said that of Ohrdruf's 10,000 inmates in March 1945, 6,000 were Jews. The Nazis forced the inmates to walk to Buchenwald as the Americans advanced, and 10 percent of them died during the trek.

He said those inmates the Americans found were left behind because they were "dead, dying or no longer strong enough to walk."

Mary Haynes, a historian and archivist with the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C., said the army cannot identify the first officer to enter a death camp.

But Haynes said Ohrdruf appears to be the first camp the U.S. Army came upon. And, she said, "We credit the 89th Infantry Division" - Cleary's division - "for liberating Ohrdruf April 4, 1945."

So Cleary may have been the first U.S. officer to enter a German death camp.

Like most GIs who served in World War II, Cleary came home to lead a normal, productive life. He ran a retail clothing business in Cleveland, then moved to San Diego County and became general merchandise manager for La Costa Resort and Spa in 1970, retiring 18 years later. He and his wife raised six children.

Cleary, who will turn 82 this week, said he will celebrate Memorial Day in a traditional fashion: He'll go to a picnic.

But the memory of the war is always nearby. He has framed his Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre and hung them on a wall in his home, above a glass case filled with war memorabilia.

He said that the hell he and his platoon stepped into at Ohrdruf will never leave him, but he had to turn the page.

"Sure it was horrible and sure it was unbelievable and you realize how cruel they were toward other humans. But you get over it," Cleary said. "It's an experience that you go through and you live through and go on."

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.