The Holocaust was the most evil crime ever committed. —Stephen Ambrose
Dachau, a disturbing term, could bring shudders to any human who knows of its gruesome history. Hitler's Third Reich brought agony, torture, and death to more than nine million people—and nightmares for one local man. A prototype for the other camps, Dachau became the model work camp (Selzer 1), making ultimate torture and misery a reality for over 206,000 thousand prisoners (History 1). Father Jaroslaw Szymczak, a friend of a Dachau survivor, explained the life of camp prisoners: “In Hitler's concentration camps, the prisoners were people who lost all of their human rights. A person became only a number, forced to do arduous labor and bear torture that was supposed to bring about one's death” (Columbia 9).
What triggered the creation of such horrible camps? The Reichstag—the German Congressional building—caught fire on February 27, 1933, and this became the Nazis’ excuse. The Germans blamed the fire on the Communists, but most historians believe that the Nazis set the fire themselves. On March 22, 1933, Dachau's metal doors—carved with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free)—opened for twelve long years. Two hundred Communists became the first prisoners, housed in an old gunpowder factory left from World War I. (History 1) “After you visit, you will be horror-stricken,” today's mayor of Dachau admits to modern-day visitors (Dachau 1). Hitler's SS (Shutzstaffel, or “Protective Squadron”) inflicted a myriad of horrors upon Dachau's victims: starvation, spotted fever, typhus, horrible living conditions, strenuous labor, and more. Dachau encompassed many types of prisoners, not just Jews—for example, German social Democrats and Communists, Catholic clergy, common criminals, gypsies, Spanish Republicans, French resistance fighters, and Dutch, Russian, and Polish officers. (Selzer 1) Forced to disrespect their country, the priesthood, the cross, or the rosary, Catholic priests endured different tortures and extreme separation from other prisoners (Bearing 9-10). Ernst Kroll, the Munich swim champ, spent 12 years as a prisoner in the camp—from shortly after it opened until liberation day (Dachau 73).
In the days preceding Dachau's liberation, the burning of the camp's records and the rapid departure of SS guards (History 2) gave hope to the prisoners that they would soon experience freedom (Selzer 2). Dachau prisoners who had arrived only six months before its liberation witnessed the massacre of thousands of prisoners at their former camp, Natzweiler; the “fortunate” remaining prisoners rode in boxcars to Dachau (Selzer 89). On April 29, 1945, Dachau became the second camp liberated by American troops; the Nazis left behind mass graves because they lacked the coal to burn the bodies. (History 1-2)
Far from the horrors of Nazi Germany, 20-year-old Haubstadt, Indiana, resident Roger Emmert married his sweetheart Velcia on November 24, 1942 in the tiny chapel on the hill in Ferdinand, Indiana. All too soon—two days later—Roger was drafted, and six weeks later, he left home for an unexpected three years. Although he wrote to his wife at their new home in Haubstadt, he missed not seeing any relatives for such an extended time. Sixteen men from Indiana, four or five from Illinois, and four or five from Ohio joined Roger for different trainings across the U.S. until they merged with civilians at Port Arthur College, in Texas. (In 1999, Port Arthur College, which trained 1500 radio operators during WWII, changed its name to Lamar State College-Port Arthur.) These individuals, who gave up years of their lives for their country, are the heroes responsible for ending World War II and its indescribable suffering. Still not knowing in which branch of the armed forces he would serve, Roger and other draftees completed a series of tests to match them with the branch that could best use them. Laughing, Roger tells how he and a friend failed the Air Force test because of their hearing and eyesight. The man in charge asked Roger if he liked to sing. Having a sense of music and rhythm, the man said, would help Roger on the next test—a test over Morse Code. The shortage of radio operators in the United States was lessened when Roger passed the test with flying colors. “I can still do the Morse code, I think, even after all these years,” he explains. Today Roger is 86 years old.
Soon word came that a new engineer outfit had formed in California, and officials sent four out of 52 radio operators, including Roger. The 925th Engineer Regiment was a versatile outfit with the “best engineers in the world,” Roger recalls. They could do anything from building bridges to detecting mine fields. Roger recalls a time when he and the new radio operators first arrived. Sixteen of the outfit members had an injury in some way; Roger had hurt his knee playing “pick-up” football on the campus of Port Arthur College. “I probably could've gotten out of the service at that time,” Roger explains.
Time passed quickly, and before long, the men boarded the Queen Elizabeth, courtesy of the British Navy, in June, 1943. The four-day voyage was smooth, although they zigzagged through the water because of the danger of Nazi submarine attack. Arriving in England, the men stayed with private families and went to mass almost every day. All four radio operators in the engineer outfit were Catholics, with “Catholic gals” back home. Roger remembers converting fellow soldiers, and he enjoyed keeping his religious routines. “I was always a pretty religious guy,” Roger says. While in England, Roger acquired a new job with the other radio operators: they trained new radio operators in England.
The fear of crossing the English Channel remained constantly present in the minds of the men. They all knew that eventually they would leave the safety of England and cross to the danger of Germany—where the chance of survival would prove slimmer. “We knew we probably wouldn’t come back,” Roger remembers. Seven men committed suicide in the nine days the men prepared to cross. Roger was sent with the first group of men with one other radio operator. The lieutenants in charge required that the radios run 24/7, which meant Roger and the other operator took turns translating the Morse Code. Roger hated wearing the headphones and hearing the beep beep of the code run constantly through his head. “Decoding radio—boy, that's a hard job with all the equations running through your head all the time. The guy with me started going crazy, and after awhile, I started going crazy, too. There were times that I would just throw down my headphones. Of course, we didn't have near enough sleep” (Mitchell 1).
Roger compared fighting the Germans to the United State's Civil War. The brother verses brother idea came to his mind, because all of his relatives had emigrated from Germany. Cemeteries in Germany—he visited some in Munich and Allach—held the Haubstadt names Adlers, Stecklers, and Emmerts.
The famous General Patton led forces at the Battle of the Bulge, and Roger saw him for the first time there (Mitchell 2). According to Roger, Patton strongly disliked the English people because “they weren't holding up their end of the bargain.” Patton also had a strict demeanor and wanted to end the war. For these reasons, Roger remembers that some men disliked the general. He required the wearing of neckties; Roger explained that Patton did not want the men to get sick, and the ties covered their necks and throats. Roger and his regiment fought bravely in the Battle of the Bulge—which led to 90,000 American casualties. Roger operated the radio in a half track, a vehicle with regular front tires and steel tracks for back tires. Half tracks were equipped with 250 caliber guns. (Emmert) “The Battle of the Bulge was like walking through dragon’s teeth. I don’t see how we made it,” says Roger (Mitchell 2). Roger received the Good Conduct Medal (awarded to those serving faithfully for three consecutive years) after that historic event.
Roger helped the engineers' mission by checking bridges and air fields and radioing back to the other engineers, allowing them to send the right man for the job to fix the infrastructure. Roger laughingly remembers a time when the 925th Engineers had built a bridge, and the next day, the Germans had already destroyed it. Then the U.S. engineers had to rebuild it.
Shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, Roger heard about Dachau. Allied officials sent battalions with bulldozer operators to Dachau with Roger's 925th Engineers commanding them all. (Emmert) The soldiers didn't know that the Germans planned to exterminate the remaining prisoners on April 30, 1945; thankfully, the Americans arrived on April 29 (Bearing 11). What they witnessed upon their arrival at the camp shocked the Allied soldiers: “Up to that point, we didn't believe that it [the Holocaust] was true, but it was. Even some of the German people didn't believe it either. When we walked in, there were trenches full of bodies. The smell was terrible,” Roger remembered. (Mitchell 2)
The American's mission involved getting the German records. Unfortunately, they found no records—no paper, no names, nothing. What they did find shocked them: dying men in boxcars, crumbling buildings, and other scenes too difficult for Roger to express in words. (Emmert) Mainly complaining about lack of food, the emaciated prisoners received medical attention first (Mitchell 2) in a makeshift field camp the U.S. soldiers had set up. The SS soldiers didn’t treat sores and sickness. The lack of food along with strenuous work caused many deaths at Dachau. The SS simply worked to death older Polish men in their sixties and seventies; only younger men survived to witness liberation day. Roger learned from the survivors that the SS threw the dead men into trenches, and they burned those almost dead alive in the ovens. Standing by the ovens, Roger and his fellow soldiers could not stay long. The ovens and three furnaces were a mess: bones were scattered around, producing a putrid smell. (Emmert) Eyewitness survivors also made true the rumor of disguised shower rooms—gas chambers used to eliminate human lives (History 3).
In three to four days, the soldiers went through the camp, cleaned up the mess, and burned the buildings; Roger described the camp as hardly recognizable. Professional photographers hired to take pictures exposed the truth, and Roger had some pictures of trenches filled with bodies. Much later, back in Haubstadt, Roger burned them because of the memories they held. “Every time I ran across one, I wanted to throw up,” he admits.
The memories at Dachau became imprinted on Roger during his time there, but the war continued. In a short time, the U.S. swept from St. Lo to Paris and liberated the capital of France. On August 25, Roger celebrated a victory mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Germans started surrendering by the thousands, and the older men (50 to 75 years old) in the German army admitted their joy that the war was over. The younger men, however, did not cooperate so easily. The Americans tried to get these younger Germans interested in sports and hired German women to cook. Finally, after two and a half years in Europe, Roger and the engineers came home. Although the 925th Engineers Regiment had earned excessive points (based on a formula the military used to determine soldiers' discharge dates), Roger's regiment left Europe after almost all the others. The soldiers sent exclusively to help with the Battle of the Bulge—if they survived—stayed in Europe for a comparatively short amount of time. Extending their concern for victims, Roger's engineers helped Johnny Hoffman, a 17-year-old, 75-pound prisoner from Dachau, move to Chicago where he had two uncles. Hoffman at the time praised the Knights of Columbus because of their generosity. The Knights had also come to the prisoners' aid by giving food.
Roger never made it back to Europe to see the plaque at Versailles that reads, “Liberated by the 925th Engineers,” or the beautiful park Dachau has now become, but his memories stay with him. Roger's legacy in Europe contributed to his becoming a leader back home: for 24 years, citizens elected Roger Emmert the sheriff of Gibson County, and he still enjoys his marriage to his wife of 66 years. Roger has refereed two high school state championship basketball games in 1965 and 1966, and a colonel also wrote a book and mentioned Roger as one of the “7 Saints” who helped convert him to Catholicism.
His nightmares have ended, but Roger can still vividly remember his time in World War II. (Emmert)
How great it is to think that men from small Indiana towns helped end the infamous World War II. They witnessed the horror of the concentration camps in Europe and fought to the death to preserve the freedom of the United States and other countries. Roger Emmert, a Haubstadt, Indiana, native, has made his mark on this Earth, and his contribution will never be forgotten.