- Historic Sites
The Wartime Journals Of Charles A. Liondbergh
A Peacetime Hero Confronts Armageddon
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
If positions were reversed and our troops held out so courageously and well, their defense would be recorded as one of the most glorious examples of tenacity, bravery, and sacrifice in the history of our nation. But, sitting in the security and relative luxury of our quarters, I listen to American Army officers refer to these Japanese soldiers as “yellow sons of bitches.” Their desire is to exterminate the Jap ruthlessly, even cruelly. I have not heard a word of respect or compassion spoken of our enemy since I came here.
It is not the willingness to kill on the part of our soldiers which most concerns me. That is an inherent part of war. It is our lack of respect for even the admirable characteristics of our enemy—for courage, for suffering, for death, for his willingness to die for his beliefs, for his companies and squadrons which go forth, one after another, to annihilation against our superior training and equipment. What is courage for us is fanaticism for him. We hold his examples of atrocity screamingly to the heavens while we cover up our own and condone them as just retribution for his acts.
A Japanese soldier who cuts off an American soldier’s head is an Oriental barbarian, “lower than a rat.” An American soldier who slits a Japanese throat “did it only because he knew the Japs had done it to his buddies.” I do not question that Oriental atrocities are often worse than ours. But, after all, we are constantly telling ourselves, and everyone else who will listen to us, that we are the upholders of all that is “good” and “right” and civilized. …
… On the mountainside above the camp we saw a low, small, factorylike building with a brick smokestack of very large diameter for its height. … At one end of the building were stacked probably two dozen stretchers, dirty and stained with blood—one of them showing the dark red outline of a human body which had lain upon it.
The doors of the building were open. We stepped in. On our left, through another open doorway, lay a black, peasant-type coffin, a white cross painted on top. Beside it on the concrete floor, covered carelessly with canvas, lay what was undoubtedly a human body; and beside that, another coffin. We moved on into the main room of the building. It contained two large cremating furnaces, side by side, the steel stretchers for holding the bodies sticking out through the open doors. The fact that two furnaces were required added to the depressing massproduction horror of the place. …
“What is barbaric on one side of the earth is still barbaric on the other.”
Here was a place where men and life and death had reached the lowest form of degradation. How could any reward in national progress even faintly justify the establishment and operation of such a place? When the value of life and the dignity of death are removed, what is left for man?
A figure steps in through the door—a man in prison costume. No, a boy; he is hardly old enough to call a man. The prison suit bags around him, oversize, pulled in at waist and hanging loosely over shoulders. He moves out of the brighter light so that I can see his face more clearly. He is like a walking skeleton; starved; hardly any flesh covering his bones; arms so thin that it seems only the skin is left to cover them.
He speaks in German to Lieutenant Uellendahl, pointing toward the furnaces. “Twenty-five thousand in a year and a half.” He is Polish, he says in answer to our questioning, seventeen years old. He motions us to follow him and walks into the room we first saw. Stooping, he lifts the canvas from the form lying beside the coffins. It covered an ex-prisoner like himself, only thinner, lying, also in prison dress, half curled up on an Army stretcher.
It is hard to realize that the one is dead, the other living, they look so much alike. A few days growth of dark hair bristling from the head, hunger-chiseled features, burning dark eyes, for the eyes of the dead man are open. The most striking contrast between them lay in the expression on the dead man’s face. Never, I think, have I seen such tranquillity; as though at last, after living through hell on earth, peace had been found. Looking at that face, I realized that in death the spirit had triumphed over the man-built inferno we were in, that even a Nazi prison camp could not remove all the dignity from life and death.
“It was terrible. Three years of it.” The face of the young Pole is screwed up in grief and anguish of his memories. He points to the body—“he was my friend and he is fat! ”—and recovers it with the canvas.
We walk outside. I do not notice where the boy is taking us. We have stopped near one corner of the building. I am staring off into the distance, my mind still dwelling on those furnaces, on that body, on the people and the system which let such things arise. Suddenly I realize that Lieutenant Uellendahl is translating. “Twenty-five thousand in a year and a half. And from each one there is only so much.” The boy has cupped his hands to demonstrate the measure. He is looking down. I follow his glance. We are standing in front of what was once a large oblong pit, probably eight feet long and six feet wide and, one might guess, six feet deep. It is filled to overflowing with ashes from the furnaces—small chips of human bones. …