Liberating Hitler's Camps: How One Man Saw Firsthand the Living Skeletons at Ebensee

October 15, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Concentration CampsNaziWorld War IIJewsGermany

Liberating Hitler's Camps: How One Man Saw Firsthand the Living Skeletons at Ebensee

Leon Tulper, a Jewish American soldier in the 65th Infantry, recalls combat during the final days of the war in Europe and the liberation of concentration camps.

BACKSTORY: The final months of World War II in the European Theater were a harrowing and desperate time for the soldiers who fought there. No one wanted to die when the war was so close to its  end. This called for caution in the minds of many, yet the fighting was not over. The forces of Hitler’s Third Reich––still actively resisting the advancing Allies–– simply had to be beaten. Further, they had to be made to understand they were beaten, lest there be another war for the next generation to fight. In the event, the Nazi leadership gave the Allies no choice but to prove that point.

At the same time, American troops were learning why they had to fight this war firsthand. With only weeks left before the surrender, GIs were unexpectedly coming across the concentration camps. These centers of evil and depravity, scattered across Nazi-held territory for all the Allies to discover, explained the need for the war far better than mere words ever could. It gave American soldiers clear reason as to why this war had to be taken to its full and dreadful conclusion.

Leon Tulper of Denver, Colorado, lived through these desperate days. As a young radioman in the 65th Infantry Division, he was at the forefront of the division’s 55 days in combat, from early March 1945 until the war ended. He served as the radioman for the battalion’s executive officer in Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 260th Infantry Regiment.

From this position he witnessed not only combat operations but was also present at the liberation of two separate concentration camps. The first was Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, some 100 miles southwest of Berlin. Later he would be present at Mauthausen in northern Austria. This gave Leon an exceptional perspective on the war. In July 2015, at the age of 90 yet still spry and sharp (he had only retired from work the year before!), Mr. Tulper sat down to tell of his own experiences.

CM: Tell me about your early life, where you’re from, how you grew up.

LT: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1925. My family lived there until 1939. My mother was tubercular and was at the National Jewish Hospital [in Denver]. When the hospital said she was able to leave, she couldn’t go back to the climate in Missouri. So my dad packed up the whole family and we moved; I was in Denver in 1939. I went to North High School, graduated, and started attending Denver University. I had about three-quarters of a year before I got drafted in April 1943. It was a surprise but they let me finish the year. I only had about eight weeks left to go.

How did you wind up in the Army?

I was drafted and I go to Fort Logan in Denver. After a couple of weeks there we get dressed in nice winter uniforms and all the guys think we’re going to Alaska. We get on a train, and they bolt the doors. Nobody knew why. We’re on the train for four days and when they unlock the doors and say, “Come on out now,” it’s 104 degrees in Tyler, Texas! We were marching toward the camp, and one of the guys says, “Take a look up there, it’s raining.” We look up and see the rain coming down but it stopped above our heads––it never got to the ground! Never saw anything like that before.

What was your training like?

We get into Camp Fannin [near Tyler, Texas], took 13 weeks of basic there, and then took three weeks of jungle training. We all thought we were going to the South Pacific. We lived there for three weeks in conditions that were not for a nice Jewish kid from the West Side––not for anybody, really! One day I went into Tyler, and there was a big sign there that said, “Join the Air Force.” So I think, “Okay, I’ll go in there.”

I asked the guy in there, “How do you get into the air force?” He told me I had to take a test. “If you have over 200, you’re in,” he said. I asked him when I could take it, and he told me to sit down. So I sit down, do the whole thing, turn it in, and they told me, “Sit still, we’ll tell you where you’re at.” Ten, 15 minutes later he comes out and says, “How’s it feel to be in the air force? You had 249 on your test. You’re way over the top.” He told me I was going to preflight school, where I would learn to be a pilot, bombardier, or navigator.

So now you think you’re going to be an aviator. How did that go?

He asked where I would like to go to school. They gave us our choice. Since I was from Kansas City, I told them I’d like to go to Rockhurst College there; they have a good reputation. Or, if I get to Denver, I’d like to go to the University of Denver. They said I had a pretty good chance.

We waited a couple of weeks down at Keesler Army Air Field in Mississippi, which was pretty nice. Then one day I got my orders, Mississippi State! So there I went; we did about five months there, but got credit for two years’ worth of college. We went to classes all day long. When it was over I got orders to go to some other airfield in Texas. By then I already had six or eight hours of solo flying.

But then suddenly the orders are changed: “Sit where you are.” Roosevelt says we got too many pilots, navigators, and bombardiers so you’re going back to the infantry. So here comes the 65th Division; they were just putting it together with a cadre from Guadalcanal and places like that.

We started training with other units like the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team made up of Japanese American soldiers], which meant fights every weekend. You had guys from Guadalcanal and Japanese American guys with something to prove; they were Americans, after all. That was very interesting!

During the war, a large number of young Americans were enrolled in various technical courses at colleges and universities around the country in the expectation the war would last long enough for these men to become future ground forces officers and aviators. As the war progressed, the government began to revise its estimates of how long the war would last and also realized the Army was short of infantrymen. This was due to both an initial underestimation of how many infantry troops the Army would need and the high casualties in that branch.

To fill the depleted ranks of the infantry, many of these prospective future officers and pilots were withdrawn from their educational assignments and used to flesh out infantry divisions still forming in the United States. Leon was caught up in this movement and was soon in the 65th Infantry Division. This unit was formed in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in July 1943, and spent the next year and a half in training. On January 10, 1945, the division embarked for Europe, arriving at Le Havre, France, on January 21.

How was the journey to Europe?

We got our orders to go overseas. They put us in a converted Swedish luxury liner. We were all down in the hold, bunks five deep, and we got across in five days. The ship was always listing because guys were hanging out over the sides [seasick]. We landed at Le Havre and went to a depot called Camp Lucky Strike. I gained some bad feelings toward the French when we drove over to the French town of Rouen and we heard pinging on our steel helmets. People were throwing rocks at us! I said, “What the hell are we doing over here?” [See WWII Quarterly, “Bombing Our Friends,” Summer 2015.]

Now in France, the division spent a month preparing itself to enter combat. On March 4, 1945, the bulk of the division arrived in Borsch, Germany. On March 9, they relieved the 26th Infantry Division in its bridgehead over the Saar River. During this time, Leon’s 260th Regiment was sent to capture Saarlauten.

Can you tell us about your experiences once your unit entered combat?

We got orders to go into the Siegfried Line. It was a tough kind of deal, but in certain areas it wasn’t so bad. We crossed the Saar River; we had an outpost on the far side. I was a radio operator, and we had a radio net in a little enclave right across the bridge there. But in order to get to it, you had to start about two or three blocks back and put the pedal to the floor as fast as it would go because the Germans had it zeroed in. We used to go there once a day to change operators. Never had a loss there; we were lucky.