University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


America at Dachau

Hospitalization at Dachau

To the time of this writing the general news reports of Dachau have accurately reported history and atrocities. They have largely omitted what America did for those who were sick and suffering, except to print pictures of the victims and say they were there. This section of my article will tell in laymen's language just what was done.

It was really an herculean task which confronted the two evac hospitals as they rolled into the great courtyard the first three days following liberation, and every member of these units knew they were embarking on an adventure in the most notorious disease-ridden center in Europe. And what was it that confronted them?

First there was disease and sickness. It might be well to pause and describe several briefly.

Typhus is a louse borne disease and is usually contracted by the louse, which is generally born in filth, biting an individual and depositing his feces at the same time. A person feeling this bite as very apt to scratch it and rub the feces into the bite, and then the disease starts. The incubation period is from 12 to 18 days. Of course, more rarely, the excreta could be dried and blown into the respiratory passages or the eyes in the form of dust, and the disease contracted in that manner.

Generally one begins to feel irritable, and a fever comes on and the body wastes rapidly as its reserves are called upon. Estimates say that from 85% to 80% recover, depending on care and circumstances. They had bean given little care at Dachau, but the best available under the circumstances.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease transmitted by respiratory discharges, and is easily spread by being confined in close quarters. It is typified by loss of weight, general weakness, coughing, and spitting of blood. Five bodies had been taken at random from around the crematory, and five more from the horror train and autopsies performed. Of the ten bodies there were found eight cases of active tuberculosis, though it could not be stated that in each case, tuberculosis was the direct cause of death.

American hospital officers roughly estimated that from 15% to 20% of the compound population would eventually be found to have TB. They also had difficulty in straining ambulatory patients and apparently well prisoners in the compound from stripping off their jackets. rolling up their pants and taking excessive sun baths for fear that an overdose of the sun's rays might produce an exacerbation of tuberculosis.

A rare disease which faced the American doctors was that known as phlegmon. Its symptoms are rapid spreading inflamation of the subcutaneous tissue resulting in ulceration of the skin or abscess. Generally high fever accompanies. It is common in post-typhus patients.

Malnutrition played its part in undermining the health of the camp and made its people more easily susceptible to other diseaseĀ  and severe dysentery-like diarrhea was rampant throughout the camp. However, there was relatively few cases of bacillary or Amebic dysentery. In the main the severe diarrhea was the result of severe malnutrition precipitated by intolerance to the increased rations provided by the Americans

Oftentimes they did not know or realize how sick they actually were and it appeared to make little difference.

Those who were too sick to move often lay in their own body filth until some sympathetic internee noticed their plight and helped them. The compound hospital would be notified, but since that was already full nothing could be done till either a hospital patient died or was discharged, or the prospective patient died. And since we have come to the subject of hospitals let us see what existed in the form of hospitals for this highly populated and thickly crowded theater.

There was what was known as the compound hospital. It ultimately expanded to ten ordinary barracks connected by corridors. It had few of the advantages of what we would call a hospital. It was just a place for the worst cases of those who felt sick and could get in (or be carried there by their comrades) provided there was room.

Under the Nazis the hospital had been an experiment station where "guinea pigs" were kept until they died or got well. This experimental station was used to try out new serums and theories of doctors and would-be doctors, for example on one occasion Peter Van Gestel (a Dutch Priest) related how 178 priests and pastors were taken for malaria experiments and another occasion 40 were used for "cellulitis tests", of which number 13 died horrible deaths.

With this in mind it was not surprising for us to see, as we entered the hospital, much the same conditions that existed in the barracks, with the exception that the barracks usually contained a goodly number of those who looked fairly healthy. The first days of liberation saw two in one bunk and oftentimes (due to lack of help and materials) the person in the lower bunk suffered the results of a dysentery patient above who had not been waited on and who had not control over himself.

Sanitary conveniences were, far too few for adequate care and poor plumbing, which would freeze in winter, or clog easily in all seasons, did not add to the cleanliness.

One of the first things which an American did when the camp was liberated was to see to it that the hospital began functioning; this time with more adequate supplies. of help and materials. The credit goes to Capt. Marcus J. Smith, whose real presence of mind and determination eventually caused him to be recommended for the award of the bronze star, and he certainly earned it.

The Typhus Commission arrived on May 3rd, under the eminent specialist Lt. Col. John C. Synder, and assisted by Maj. M. Brumpt (French) the originator of the Brumpt test which was a rapid microscopic modification of the Weil-Felix test for typhus. It was he, who, with Dr. Blaha and Dr. Mees and others, gathered the other doctors in camp and enough volunteer help to save, without doubt, many lives.

There was also the SS or outer Camp hospital. It was an institution in itself, and contained many genuine and some self-inflicted wounded. When the Americans came into the camp the entire staff came out in procession with a white flag at the head. Here was really a prize, for not only was the SS hospital able to care for the German wounded and sick, but also a number of the internees as well. It was well equipped with doctors, nurses and had everything that would delight the heart of a man whose heart is in medicine. Excellent operating rooms, x-ray rooms, laboratories and dental departments, and morgue and dissecting room.

The facilities of the hospital, as well as its personnel, were Immediately put to work, and used to the uttermost constantly. Capt. Thaddeus Bugelski of the 127th Evac became its superintendent, and his knowledge of the language, as well as his excellent persuasive powers, let the Germans who worked there know in no uncertain terms just what was to be done. Originally having 450 beds it was ultimately expanded to 1500.

The evacuation units were faced with a double problem. First, that of preparing their own living quarters in buildings which had been thoroughly ransacked; paper, closets, clothing and all sorts of personal and military equipment scattered knee deep throughout the corridors, offices, and rooms. This had to be cleared out before and during the moving in process.

Secondly, the long barracks selected for the hospital wards also required a most thorough cleaning out of all sorts of trash and rubbish; washing the entire building with "creosol" and dusting with DDT powder. In many instances a large number of small partitions separating the myriad number of rooms had to be broken down to make larger rooms, which could be more adequately cared for by the relatively small number of personnel available. Then beds, some found in the barracks. others from the warehouses had to be set up. Mattresses and adequate bedding were hastily requisitioned from the warehouses, and transportation of those and other necessary supplies was at a premium. Then our regular hospital supplies were also moved in. In the preparation of these buildings for patients, enlisted men, Doctors and Nurses, pitched in with a will and aided by a number of priests and pastors (largely Polish) selected through the International Prisoners Committee, the buildings were ready for occupancy after a record of some 1200 to 1500 man hours had been expended on each building. The first patient in each case was received within 36 hours after arrival of the advance party.

In the meantime, headquarters and other essential offices were also prepared to carry out the full work of the hospitals. It must be pointed out that each of the evacuation hospitals is equipped and has personnel to minister to 400 patients. Under the stress of this emergency each hospital at its peak ministered to approximately three times that number.

It is small wonder that the services of others were required, and who, among the thousands at the camp would render better service or co-operate better than those who had dedicated their lives to the service of their Lord? So it was that the priests and pastors. internees, responded and found no task too menial or low to be done. They were most co-operative and untiring in their efforts, and most conscientious. Both hospitals used them, and were glad these willing workers were available.

It was arranged through Col. A. L. Bradford, Camp Surgeon, that the 116th Evac Hosp should minister to all male typhus patients and specialize in that field. The 127th would be the general hospital for the other illnesses as well as the women's hospital. Then the real work began in earnest; it was oftentimes a race between life and death, and the members of each unit from the lowest private to the commanding officer threw themselves into the work whole-heartedly. It meant long hours and heart breaking work which involved self-sacrifice and a deep love for one's fellow man. It Is Impossible to speak too highly of the conscientious work which everyone did. There were no complaints; there were many constructive suggestions.

The doctors applied themselves diligently to their tasks and specialized in their various fields. The nurses could not do too much for the comfort and well being of their patients. The wardmen faced with three times the number of patients did not flinch nor draw back in any degree. The other sections functioned unusually well for the task that was theirs; registrar, mess, supply, pharmacy and laboratories, x-ray, dental clinic, medical and surgical. Oftentimes faced with shortages of materials, our supply section used Yankee Ingenuity and substituted substitutes for substitutes. The mess section encountered a most peculiar problem, and did a particularly commendable piece of work. The problem was that of meeting the dietary requirements of so many, and such varied, patients. The policy of the army was to feed all displaced personnel out of stocks existing in the conquered country. There was no such thing as fruit juice, powdered milk, or white flour around Dachau, and these items could be acquired only through the army, and it was not until higher authority cut red tape that the problem was adequately met.

The patients were brought out daily from the compound hospital receiving room where they lay on the floor not having seen a doctor as yet, and only the worst cases could be accepted. Before leaving that hospital each patient was thoroughly dusted and their hair cut close. They were registered quickly, washed, dusted and x-rayed and taken to the wards to which their particular type of sickness was assigned.

It was heartrending and gratifying to see these patients who had not seen a bed with sheets for years, slide down between those sheets with that deep feeling of satisfying and thanksgiving. Sometimes quiet tears appeared in their eyes and rolled down onto the pillow. Here at last someone cared.

As the patient was received their belongings were checked. Under the circumstances almost everything had to be taken from them for fear of contamination, and that which was saved was put through the decontaminator. Almost every man had a belt, which he did not want to. let out of his possession. One man, after his belt had been thrown into the trash barrel, reached in and grabbed it. At his insistence the attendant ripped the belt open, and between the two thin layers of leather were three one hundred dollar bills in American currency neatly rolled into almost infinitesimal size. Small wonder he held onto his belt!

Records were made of each patient and progress noted. It was not long before the light began to appear in their eyes, and one day when a patient found fault with cold coffee, we felt sure they were getting well! Two of our officers, Major J. A. Killins and Capt. Joseph E. Poach, selected two hundred cases and have written up their histories. These will doubtlessly prove most interesting to those who later look into them.

Not long after the arrival of our ,hospital, and during that period of cleaning up before patients were received, there arrived a group known as the French Vatican Mission. Their primary object was to minister to such French subjects as they could. They were given permission to open and staff a one ward hospital which operated under the 127th, and took patients of all nationalities. They really did good work and are to be Commended for their efforts.

Perhaps some statistics might draw more clearly the picture of the sizable work accomplished in six weeks by the 127th. In this period there were 2,252 patients admitted, of whom 227 died; 292 were discharged; 714 transferred to other hospitals, and when the hospital ceased work on June 16th, 1,028 were given over to the U. S. Army Hospital Plant No. 1. The balance had either slipped out quietly in an effort to get home more quickly, or given over to the custody of the CIC (Counter Intelligence).