© Constance J. Moore
Colonel, ANC (Retired), ANCA Historian
In early May 1945, eighty nurses attached to the 116th and 127th evacuation hospitals came into the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp to care for the disease-ravaged, starved victims of the Nazi regime. The “long lines of trucks and ambulances filled with weary nurses … reached the camp gate, where they [were required] to show proof of previous typhus fever immunizations.”1 This order was unusual, yet understandable when Army nurses discovered that a typhus epidemic which raged behind the gates killed nearly 400 prisoners each day.2
Lt. Charlotte Johnson (Treadwell) felt disjointed and unprepared for what she saw. “’Bodies were piled everywhere … [There was a] the blood[y] ditch where prisoners would bleed to death after having their throats slit.’3 Captain Franklin was equally appalled, ‘It didn’t make you sick. It [was] too stupendous for that. Your mind [could not] assimilate it that rapidly … You [couldn’t] understand how it can be or why it could be done.’”4
Everyone immediately got to work cleaning the barracks to be used for the hospitals and the billets they selected for their living quarters. All buildings were ready for occupancy when the first patients were admitted 36 hours after the arrival of the advance party. Although both hospitals were staffed and supplied for 450 beds, both were expanded to three times their size in an attempt to meet the healthcare needs of the inmates.5 The nursing staff was augmented by clergy, former inmates, German nursing personnel, and nurses reassigned from other units.
“Corpsmen ‘brought them in one after another after another,’ Lt. Treadwell said. ‘We did anything we could to help them. We tried to give them vitamin shots, but they were still so scared, after all the Germans had done to them, that they fought us. They were terrified.’”6 Yet, many clung to nurses as their saviors and would not let them out of their sight.
The starving survivors were too weak and listless to feed themselves. Nurses noted their patients’ lowered physical and mental processes, grossly impaired digestive functions, edematous feet, gangrenous toes, and depressed peripheral circulation. Severe diarrhea, the result of tuberculosis infection of the gastrointestinal tract, was very common; it caused anemia, and often led to an aggravated dehydrated state.7 Eight out of ten inmates had tuberculosis.8
Nurses offered patients bland soup, thin gruel, or broth. Blood transfusions, glucose injections, and intravenous drips were used for inmates whose systems could not tolerate soup or broth. As the patients slowly gained strength they were put on a diet of dilute cereal and milk.9 Despite intensive care, many died from weakness, malnutrition, and disease. “We felt we were dancing with death. We couldn’t get away from it and wondered if it would ever stop,” said Captain Wahlstrom.10
Army nurses had extensive and prolonged personal contact with the internees, and were thus witnesses to the consequences of the barbarity of the Nazis. Many nurses struggled to find meaning in what they observed and what they experienced. Many turned to their religious faiths for comfort and answers. Others tried to forget about the experiences until later in life when they took stock of their lives. Some decided to share their experiences so later generations would never doubt that it occurred.
1 Smith, M. (1995). Dachau: the Harrowing of Hell. State University of New York Press. p. 110.
2 29 April 1945 –Liberation Day of Dachua. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/
4 Franklin, A. (1945). An Army Nurse in Dachau. American Journal of Nursing. 45 (11), p. 902.
6 29 April 1945 –Liberation Day of Dachua. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/
8 Hospitalization at Dachua. Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Retrieved from http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/
9 Retrieved from http://www.timesunion.com/local/article
10 Fernlund, K. (2011). Documents from American History Since 1865. Vol. 7. Bedford/St. Martin's. Retrieved from http://www.