Ike’s Big Day

In early April, 1945, things were going great for Ike and the allies. The Ruhr industrial area of Germany had been surrounded and taken, along with more than 250,000 prisoners. As Winston Churchil put it gleefully, “My dear General, the German is whipped. We’ve got him. He is all through.”

Ike issued a proclamation urging German soldiers to surrender and urging civilians to plant crops. He described the hopelessness of the situation and told them that “further resistance would only add to their future miseries.”

“My purpose was to bring the whole bloody business to an end,” he writes. “But the hold of Hitler and his associates was still so strong and was so effectively applied elsewhere, through the medium of the Gestapo and the SS, that the nation continued to fight.”

Hitler, Ike says, “was writing an ending to a drama that would far exceed in tragic climax anything that his beloved Wagner ever conceived.”

That’s when Eisenhower had a truly unforgettable day, April 12. First he viewed what may well have been the largest collection of treasure in the history of the world. Genghis Khan or the Spanish conquistadors may have topped it in value, but I rather doubt it. Then he saw the most shocking and horrible sight he had ever seen in his life — beyond even the horrors of combat. Here’s his account:

“General Patton’s army had overrun and discovered Nazi treasure hidden away in the lower levels of a deep salt mine. A group of us descended the shaft, almost a half a mile under the surface of the earth.

“At the bottom were huge piles of German currency, apparently heaped up there in a last frantic effort to evacuate some of it before the arrival of the Americans. In one of the tunnels was an enormous number of paintings and other pieces of art.

“In another tunnel we saw a hoard of gold estimated by our experts to be worth about $250,000,000 [in 1945 dollars – billions today] most of it in gold bars.

“Crammed into suitcases and trunks and other containers was a great amount of gold and silver ornaments obviously looted from private dwellings throughout Europe. All the articles had been flattened by hammer blows, to save storage space, and then merely thrown into the receptacle, apparently pending an opportunity to melt them down into gold or silver bars.

“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency.

“I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’

“Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”

Ike later brought a contingent of Hollywood filmmakers to Europe to document the Holocaust.

I found a description of that day, April 12, 1945 on the website of the University of San Diego History Department website:

“Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley,and Dwight Eisenhower arrived in Ohrdruf. They saw more than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies that had been flung into shallow graves. Eisenhower insisted on seeing the entire camp: a shed piled to the ceiling with bodies, various torture devices, and a butcher’s block used for smashing gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. Patton became physically ill behind the barracks. Eisenhower felt that it was necessary for his troops to see for themselves, and the world to know about the conditions at Ohrdruf.”

At the end of this unforgettable day, Eisenhower learned that President Franklin Roosevelt had died.