The Liberation of Dachau

The Story of the 522

Hawaii Herald, 5/16/1986

“The camp itself was almost completely burned down and near the entrance I found more than 200 almost completely charred bodies. The few uncharred bodies were emaciated skeletons, literally consisting of only skin and bones. The opening of two large, makeshift pits, carried out by a Health officer, revealed a huge number of corpses piled on top of one another, in five layers. The arms and legs of many of the corpses had been broken, apparently to force them into the pit. All life in the camp had been extinguished. . . ” (Capt. J. Barnett. describing the conditions in Kaufering, a subsidiary camp of Dachau, upon ouering the camp on April 30, 1945-testimony at Dachau trial.)

Dachau was the first of the German concentration camps established in 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power. In the beginning, its purpose was largely political: “Not only to punish enemies of the regime, but by their very existence to terrorize the people and deter them from even contemplating any resistance to Nazi rule.” (Shirer, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”)

However under Hitler’s intense ideology of nationalism and anti-semitism, Dachau, located just 10 minutes from Munich, subsequently became one of the principal camps strung together in a network within the Third Reich for the so-called “final solution of the Jewish question.” In this mode, the camp was developed first as a training center, then as a model camp for the SS (originally an elite military formation of the Nazi Party, a unit of which was later put in charge of concentration camps). At Dachau, the SS perfected the inhuman concentration camp system, preparing for the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Majdansk, Treblinka, and so forth.

Twelve years had elapsed since the establishment of the hateful camp by the time the 522nd came upon Dachau on April 29, 1945. During that period, documents show that some 206,206 Jewish prisoners had entered through its murderous gates. One report lists the death toll at Dachau at 31,591 people.

Veteran Stanley Kaneshiro recalls the night they fired their first rounds on German soil. “The 522nd was one of many units that were brought up front to break the stalemate at Alsace-Lorraine. At about 0100 hours, the whole sky blew up with American artillery and the German defenders were literally demolished.”

In those final days of the war, the German army beat such a hasty retreat that the artillery battalion, in close pursuit, found themselves in front of the infantry instead of behind them. Hence, the artillery battalion was the first to reach the gates of Dachau. Upon their arrival the 522nd found many subsidiary camps around the main camp, and its members entered the subsidiary camps as well as the main camp at Dachau.

The experience of entering the concentration camp is permanently etched in the minds of 522nd veterans such as Toshio Nishizawa. He rode into Dachau in a jeep with Capt. Johnson, commander of B Battery, fellow 522nd member George Muramaru, and the driver. “The gate was open,” recalls Nishizawa. “It was spooky. Just the way you see it in the pictures-the prisoners in their striped clothing; deep, sunken eyes staring at you. We had some food in the jeep, regular issue rations and the like, and wanted to pass them out to the starving prisoners, but the captain said ‘no’ because it would only serve a few and that would cause a riot and then our lives would be in danger.”

Although the gates were open, the place was still full of prisoners. “Where could they go?” reasoned Nishizawa. “They were free, but they didn’t know what to do with that freedom.” Shuttled from prison to prison for years, many of the survivors were very far from their homes.

“In their weakened condition, most of the prisoners were either lying on the ground or sitting up against the fence, but their eyes were following us closely. And as we drove around the camp, we soon began to sense the stirrings of a movement toward the jeep. The captain said we’d better get out of there, and that is what we did,” Nishizawa stated.

Another 522nd veteran, Hideo Nakamine, had similar recollections of entering the subsidiary camp of Bad Tolz: It was terrible. We were under strict orders not to share or give away any of our food rations, But we disobeyed and gave them out anyway, because those people were starving to death. The suffering was just horrible.”

Nakamine’s experience has driven him to maintain a lifelong interest in the concentration camp experience. He has also worked to document the role that the 522nd played in the liberation of Dachau and to provide information as requested by such groups as the Center for Holocaust Studies in New York. In an early letter from Bonnie Gurewitsch, the librarian/ archivist of the Center, she points out: “It is ironic that members of one persecuted minority were liberating those of another minority; yet the official histories have so far ignored this. It is time to set the historical record straight. ”

Last year, Nakamine attended the 40th annual gathering of Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia. The three-day conference commemorating Holocaust Day was attended by some 15,000 survivors, their children, and liberators. Nakamine was the only AJA in attendance, and he was recognized by the assembly and made a presentation of the book, “Go For Broke,” on behalf of the nisei vets and lay tropical Island flowers at the Monument of the Six Million Martyrs.

I sat on a table with a sign saying Dacbau: I was mistakenly taken as one of the survivors until I explained to them who I was . .. They made me feel like one of them. Everyone would come and shake my hand, and thank me for what we had done.”

At the approach of the American troops, German guards had evacuated the camp, taking many of the more eminent prisoners with them so they would not fall into American hands. When the 522nd entered the town of Waakirchen, south of Munich, they were met and cheered by 5,000 Dachau prisoners who had been taken from Dachau a week before the Americans arrived. Forced to march through the Bavarian mountains, only 5,000 of the original 8,000 had survived. The prisoners suffered from malnutrition, typhus and trench foot. Although short on rations, the 522nd members shared their food with them. And so the men of the 522nd were exposed to one of the most horrifying spectres of death and torture in our history. In Dachau, Stanley Kaneshiro recalls seeing people literally hanging by their skin and bones, their thin frames topped by shaven heads and deep-socketed eyes staring out from under the depths of some unfathomable terror … “I could not tell,” he says, “whether they were men or women. They all looked alike to me.”

It is an observation that rings with the demonology that lay in Hitler’s chilling declaration for the destruction of the Jews. On the other hand, it is yet another portraiture of man’s inexhaustible will to live and endure.

August 2021 note: Mr. Tamashiro interviewed two 552nd veterans who said they had entered Dachau which consisted of the main camp and many subcamps. One mentioned a specific subcamp, Bad Tolz, but both men did not provide specific dates when they arrived. In his article he stated: “ … the artillery battalion was the first to reach the gates of Dachau.”

However, the main camp at Dachau was not liberated by the 552nd. Units of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions liberated the main camp, along with another major subcamp on April 29, 1945. There is no official documentation that members of the battalion were there on the day the main camp was liberated. However, teams of three to four 552nd soldiers serving as field artillery observers may have been present at some subcamps while assigned to other army units.

The 552nd is still recognized for coming upon and aiding about 5,000 emaciated survivors of these camps as they marched through the countryside in May 1945.

More information on the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion can be found at the Densho Encyclopedia site: