written by Todd DePastino

Sleeping quarters at Wöbbelin Concentration Camp

Sleeping quarters in Wöbbelin, a subcamp of Neuengamme concentration camp (National Archives)

On May 4, 1945—just hours from the final surrender of Germany in World War II—the men of A and B batteries of the 319th Glider Field Artillery received unusual orders from 82nd Airborne Headquarters: they were to go sightseeing.

You couldn’t have asked for a better day. Blue skies, warm sunshine, and the war was just about over. They had seen it all, and they had survived.

The soldiers clambered aboard weapons carriers and rumbled into picturesque Ludwigslust, a castle town about 75 miles east of Hamburg. Unlike its larger neighbor, Ludwigslust was left untouched by Allied bombing, preserving its spectacular Baroque palace nicknamed “little Versailles.”

The 319th convoy didn’t stop in Ludwigslust. The men never saw the palace. But in the air, they caught wind of their destination . . . literally.

You could smell it. A sickening odor from miles away.

The trucks approached a barbed-wire fence ringed by rag piles. As the men got closer, the piles took shape. There were bodies in them, collections of skin and bones, as if held together by the rags. These prisoners had died at the fence.

“They looked like frail marionettes whose strings had been cut” is how Bill Bonnamy, son of one of the soldiers and unofficial historian of the 319th puts it.

Bill’s rich story archive, 319 Gliderman, recounts the lifechanging experience his father William Bonnamy endured as one of the visitors to Wöbbelin (pronounced Vo-beh-LEEN), a lesser-known concentration camp liberated by the 82ndAirborne Division in May 1945.

There wasn’t much to the camp: a half-dozen unfinished barracks buildings, a kitchen, guard towers, treeless parade ground, and a so-called lazarette, a building to pile the dead or the nearly-so. Built for a few hundred prisoners, its contained about 4,000 by the end of the war.

Wöbbelin was part of the Neuengamme concentration camp complex in Hamburg and was hastily thrown up to accommodate prisoners evacuated from larger camps in Poland overrun by advancing Soviet forces.

On one side of railroad tracks was a female labor camp for a textile factory. On the other, male prisoners originally dedicated to brickworks.

The men of the 319th were sent simply to bear witness to the enemy’s inhumanity. The Army wanted these soldiers to remember what they saw there: the piles of corpses and the emaciated bodies of the living, many of whom were distinguishable from the dead only because their eyes moved.

The puddles of excrement, pools of blood, mounds rotting flesh, including the unburned remains in the cremation pit at the edge of the compound, overwhelmed these hardened soldiers who had survived combat and thought they had seen it all.

The tour was brief. The men returned to their trucks in silence. Even the one 319th member who always had something to say, Corporal Bob Storms, was quiet, as if he was trying to collect himself.

Later, Bob told Bill he never completed his tour of Wöbbelin: “I couldn’t go through it. I tried. I’d walk a little ways, and then I’d stop. I just couldn’t take it. . . . . I guess I’ll never get over the memory of what I saw.”

Well dressed people walking by a Wöbbelin Concentration Camp prisoner prone on the floor

Citizens of Ludwigslust inspect the concentration camp under orders of the 82nd Airborne Division (National Archives)

Afterwards, the citizens of Ludwigslust were forced by US Army officials to endure the same sightseeing tour of Wöbbelin. Soldiers corralled the route to make sure the visitors stepped over dead bodies.

Mass funeral service for the deceased prisoners from Wöbbelin Concentration Camp

Mass funeral service for the deceased prisoners in attendance included the citizens of Ludwigslust, captured German officers and five Wehrmacht Generals – May 7, 1945 (Courtesy 319gliderman)

The Army mandated a giant funeral service be held in Ludwigslust for the dead at Wöbbelin. On May 7, 1945, town citizens, captured German officers, and members of the 82nd Airborne Division gathered for a service led by division chaplains. One of them, George B. “Chappie” Wood, the only chaplain with four combat jumps in World War II, addressed his remarks to the people of Ludwigslust:

The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those found in other German concentration camps. Here there are no gas chambers, no crematoria. These men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes, 4,000 human beings were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give your dogs.

In three weeks 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled 4 & 5 feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.

The world has long been horrified at the crimes of the German nation; these crimes were never clearly brought to light until the armies of the United Nations overran Germany. This is not war as conducted by the international rules of warfare. This is murder such as is not even known among savages.

Though you claim no knowledge of these acts you are still individually and collectively responsible for these atrocities, for they were committed by a government elected to office by yourselves in 1933 and continued in office by your indifference to organized brutality. It should be the firm resolve of the German people that never again should any leader or party bring them to such moral degradation as is exhibited here.

Read the full story of Wöbbelin and its liberation at Bill’s remarkable website, https://319gliderman.com/stories/wobbelin-the-liberation. His site has collected photos and first-hand accounts of the 82nd Airborne encounter with the horrors of Nazi Germany.