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DUNKIRK — Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is a day set aside to keep the memory alive of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Everett Bushong of Dunkirk can recall the sights and smells of the liberated concentration camps his Army unit visited hours after Allied forces arrived in 1945. After nearly seven decades, he can still recall the stench of burning flesh, said Bushong, and many of the things he saw that April day he has spent a lifetime trying to forget.
Bushong was drafted into the Army at the age of 20 and from the beginning, he said, went against tradition.
“I didn’t argue when I was drafted, I went because I was an American citizen,” he said. “When you are in the Army, they tell you never volunteer for anything, but I did and it helped me.”
Soon after entering the service in January, 1943, Bushong stepped forward and volunteered to work in the telephone room at his base in California. The manual switchboard he operated opened the doors for him to become a part of a unit devoted to personnel, intelligence operations and supplies. Bushong became a radio operator and as a result of volunteering for the job, never pulled kitchen patrol, latrine duty or was assigned to guard the camp.
The Dola native found himself headed across the Atlantic, which was the right direction in his mind.
“I was glad they were sending me to fight in Germany and not in Japan,” he said.
He was stationed in Northern Wales, where he helped guide the GIs to their proper location in advance of the D-Day operations. Being a radio operator, Bushong may have passed on vital information about the invasion plans, but he wouldn’t know, he said. He wrote down the Morse code message he received, but the information was coded so he couldn’t understand what it said.
He soon realized the Allies were planning a mass invasion of Europe, said Bushong.
“There were thousands of bombers going over us every night,” he said. “We were excited. We knew a big operation was going to take place. What it was, we didn’t know at that time.”
His unit followed the D-Day landings by about two weeks, he said. When they crossed the English channel in PT boats and hit the shores of France, the beachheads were secured, said Bushong.
He was part of Patton’s advance through Europe taking and accepting messages from a large communications truck.
There was no advance warning for what laid ahead of the GIs when they came across a facility on April 4 near Weimar, Germany. They had arrived at the Ohrdruf concentration camp hours after it was liberated, said Bushong.
As they entered the camp, they saw a guard lying dead at his post. The soldiers learned the newly liberated prisoners of the camp had stomped the man to death.
“He was still warm when we got there,” said Bushong.
Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp liberated by the Allied forces. Many of its 11,700 prisoners were evacuated from Ohrdruf to Buchenwald in a forced death march. With the Allied advancement, the guards had been in the process of killing the remaining prisoners when Bushong and his fellow GIs arrived.
“There were three or four box cars,” he recalled, “but they were shorter than we were used to seeing. They were full of burned bodies.
“There were stacks of brush with bodies on top which were burning or waiting to be burned,” he continued. “Have you ever smelled burning flesh? I can smell that stench even today. The people on the burn pile were nothing but skin and bones. I don’t know how they were executed, but it looked like they were starved to death.”
A battle had taken place prior to the Allies entering the camp. The victorious troops had taken care of their own fallen soldiers and had stacked the Germans in a pile.
“The pile of soldiers was about four feet high on the ground,” said Bushong. “I felt bad for the Germans, too. They were there because they had to be, just like us. They were as much human as we were and there they were all piled up. They weren’t the ones giving the orders. They were doing what they were told. That was a sight you don’t forget.”
There were many such sights, said Bushong. The living prisoners were being looked after for health concerns, he said, and most were out of sight when he arrived at the camp.
His unit didn’t stay long at Ohrdruf, he said.
“Old Blood and Guts (Patton) was the head of things and we didn’t stop long,” he said. “But while we were there, we saw things we couldn’t believe. Things you don’t forget.”
But Bushong tried to put those images out of his mind over the next 70 years, he said. The war ended soon after that April morning and Bushong returned to his home in Hardin County.
“I didn’t talk about what I saw,” he said. “It isn’t a pleasant thing to talk about. I don’t watch the pictures of the camps on TV. I’m not that kind of man. I have forgotten a lot of the things that happened. It was 70 years ago and I tried to put it behind me.”
The men who shared his experiences are mostly gone now, he said. Of the 120 men in Bushong’s unit, he knows of three who remain to tell their stories.
“There are not too many of us left,” said Bushong. “I have been blessed by the Lord for the things I have done and I give Him the praise every day.”
He said people who claim the Holocaust never happened are “horrible.”
“I was there,” said Bushong. “Something like that, you never can forget.”
By DAN ROBINSON
Times staff writer