Remembrances: Harold Mathews--Kahla Revisited, The Liberation of a Displaced Persons Camp

Anja Hellemans' request for information about the liberation of the labor camp in Kahla in your new feature, "Searching" really hit home for me. Referring to our Company History written by our company Commander Captain Hughes and our Communications Sergeant, Ralph Brach, and a map of Germany, I find that the camp Anja asked about is the camp where two members of my squad and I were the first American visitors. I shall send a copy my story with a letter to Anja but I thought some of my 89er buddies might find it interesting also.

In the early evening on April 15, 1945, our company arrived in Hummelshain, near the village of Kahla. We were advised that there was a riot or disturbance going on in an adjacent town and that we should go over there and see what was happening. Our platoon was dispatched, against our wishes, to go there and restore order. It was only a couple of miles or so to our objective. When we arrived we found a scene of bedlam. Chicken feathers and debris was scattered all over the very small town, some of the men had been beaten and the only bathtub in the town was a bloody mess, a pig had been butchered in it. The local citizens were extremely upset and fearful that the gang that had attacked them would be back. We tried to reassure them and told them we would stay there for the night to keep the peace. We put out roadblocks at each end of the town and the night passed without incident and the next morning things were still quiet.

Talking with the townspeople, we learned that the marauders had come from a camp "over the hill" and my platoon sergeant, Cliff Schultz, asked me to take a couple of men from my squad and see if I could find the camp and see what the story was with it. I can't remember for sure whom I took with me but I think one of them was my BAR man, Randy Flippo.

After a couple of miles through a forest, we came to a clearing and were awe-struck to find ourselves at the gate of a huge slave labor camp. The gate was open and just inside, milling around were about a hundred or so men, Displaced Persons as we called them then. They shared our apprehension upon seeing us come out of the trees but when I yelled that we were Americans, we were mobbed with embraces and hand shakes. I finally got them quieted down and asked if anyone spoke English. At that point a little Frenchman stepped forward and replied, in very good English that he could, in fact he was fluent in several languages.

An older gentleman appeared to be the leader of the DP's and he and I communicated through the translations of the Frenchman. They told us that they had been brought there by the Germans from all over Europe. Anja refers to 1,500 Belgians, they told us there were 10,000 people in the camp and they were forced laborers in an aircraft factory that was built under a hill. Because of its location, it had been undetected by the Allies and was never bombed and they had still been working there just a couple of days before. They said the German guards had taken off the day before as the American forces swept through the adjacent area and left them on their own. They expected that the Americans would be coming through at any time and that was why they had all stayed there in the camp. When I asked them about the raid on the neighboring town, they were a little embarrassed but said some of their younger members wanted to get back at the Germans and took advantage of the guards' departure.

The men we saw all appeared to be in pretty good shape and were well clothed, not anything like the living corpses we had seen earlier at Ohrdruf. They said that they hadn't been abused or treated too badly, other than being confined and forced to work long, hard hours as long as they were physically able to work, because the Germans needed their labor, some of it skilled, in the aircraft plant. There were also women in the camp but they stayed in their barracks and looked out the windows at us.

The one disturbing thing they told us came as a warning, they pointed to the far end of the camp, perhaps a mile away, where there were large two story buildings. As they directed our attention to them, they told us not to go there and listed malaria and typhoid and several other terrible diseases. We caught on to the fact that it was a hospital and that medical experimentation was being conducted there. On later visits to that area I realized that it was not too far from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. I read there had been a great deal of medical experimentation conducted there and I wondered if the facility we saw in the distance was an annex of the Buchenwald medical operations.

After a long, warm and extremely interesting conversation with the men, I told them we had to return to our company but would advise our Military Government people of their plight and that they would come and take care of their needs but since the war was still going on, it was very important that they stay there and wait for them rather than trying to strike out on their own.

The older gentleman who appeared to be the leader was well aware that they should wait there and assured me that they would. With another round of hugs and handshakes, we said our good-byes and went back to rejoin our platoon.

When we got back with the company, 1 told Captain Hughes of my visit and what I had told the men and he said he would pass the word on about them. I never heard anything more of the camp but I did find it interesting to see the picture on page 126 in the Division History of the underground plant where jet planes were built and I assumed it was the plant where the men we visited had worked.

As my mind wandered back through my memories of my experiences in Germany, I have often thought of the men I talked to in that camp and wondered if they ever made it home and were able to rejoin their families. Now with contact with Anja, perhaps I can learn what happened to her grandfather and his brother and how they were able to rejoin their families and restart their lives again. And, perhaps there are other 89ers who were also involved with the camp that can add more to the story.

I only regret that I don't have a better "liberation" story to pass on to Anja but I can tell her that I hugged and shook hands with a lot of those men there that day and chances are pretty good that her grandfather was one of them.

Somewhere I have read that only those who stood in death's shadow could have shared in understanding the emotional consequences. I am one of those. I shall be their messenger.