At the 1997 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division, I met Darrell Petty of New Castle, Wyoming. My tape recorder missed the beginning of our conversation, but at the start we were talking about the crossing of the Moselle River in November of 1944. The river was at flood stage, and the infantry crossed before the heavy equipment, including the tanks of the 712th Tank Battalion, could cross on a bridge. The fighting was intense, and the infantry was at risk of being pushed back into the river when the tanks finally did get across and helped to turn the tide of the battle.
From there the conversation turned to the division's second crossing of the Moselle River, in March of 1945. Initially I made two separate stories in Darrell's words out of this interview, but here I'll post the interview itself, with a brief postscript. (See Darrell Petty Part 1: Machine Gun Hill)
Omaha, Neb., Sept. 1997
Darrell Petty: I was wounded twice, actually three times. Once I didn’t even, the line medic patched me up and that was it.
Aaron Elson: Where were you wounded?
Darrell Petty: Just outside of Chambois, when we closed the Falaise Gap, the first time. The second time I got it was in the Siegfried Line. And the third time that I got a minor wound was about two weeks before the end of the war.
Aaron Elson: And where was that?
Darrell Petty: Getting pretty close up to Czechoslovakia. I don’t remember just where, what town.
Aaron Elson: Before the liberation of the concentration camp?
Darrell Petty: After we went to Flossenburg.
Aaron Elson: Were you with them at Flossenburg?
Darrell Petty: Yeah. Flossenburg was the last one that we took. You won’t find it in the books or nothing, but the 4th Armored and part of our unit went to Buchenwald, too. But you won’t find it in any history book, because we were stopped at Merkers, where the gold reserves were. And Patton said it doesn't take us all to watch Merkers, and there was a little place called Ohrdruf or something like that. It was supposed to be a work camp. But we got there and there were bodies stacked up. A lot of them had come from Buchenwald. They were stacked up. First encounter. And we went to Buchenwald. The Germans were gone, the prisoners had apparently taken Buchenwald over by that time, but we saw what was there. And of course, that old camp commandant’s wife, she was called the Bitch of Buchenwald, because she liked tattoos, she made lampshades.
Aaron Elson: Ilse Koch?
Darrell Petty: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know, I don’t remember her name, I just called her what they called her. But anyway, the one unit...
Aaron Elson: Were you with that unit?
Darrell Petty: Yeah. And we went to Buchenwald, but you don’t find it.
Aaron Elson: Had Buchenwald already been liberated?
Darrell Petty: No. But the Germans knew we were going to overrun it and most of them had fled, and they took quite a lot of the prisoners from Buchenwald to Flossenburg. Then they tried to take them from Flossenburg to Dachau. So, like I said, most of the Germans were gone and the prisoners were actually about in charge of Buchenwald when we got there. But it was still in enemy territory at the time.
Aaron Elson: So you actually went to Buchenwald before it was liberated?
Darrell Petty: As it was liberated. The 4th Armored and a unit from our outfit and another outfit.
Aaron Elson: Did you go into it?
Darrell Petty: Oh yeah, we went in there.
Aaron Elson: And what did you see?
Darrell Petty: Bodies. Everything you can imagine. It horrified us, and we’d seen those bodies at that other one, I couldn’t say its name, and most of them had come from Buchenwald, so we were kind of prepared for it, but still it was...
Aaron Elson: Were any of the German guards captured at the time?
Darrell Petty: The prisoners had got some of them. The prisoners had killed some of them, they caught them, they killed quite a few, the ones that hadn’t got out of there. Once they got control, they went hunting. A revenge thing, and I couldn’t blame them. But where they were shipped to, down there at this other place, they had heavy equipment there and they were supposed to have dug trenches and got them buried before we got there, and they didn’t get it done.
Aaron Elson: And it was just the emaciated bodies?
Darrell Petty: Yeah, I’ve got a few pictures at home. So many times you’d take pictures. I got ahold of a camera, and you always got a moment to stop and snap a picture. We’d have to cross a river or something, you’d get the film wet, it was the old roll type, 120s and that. I’d have had more than I got. I’ve got some from Flossenburg, and Dachau.
Aaron Elson: Did you take any at Buchenwald?
Darrell Petty: I took some, but I lost them, before I got it. And then, after the war was over, I was still enlisted for a while. I enlisted, and instead of coming home with the division, I stayed over there in the army of occupation and they transferred me back to Munich, and I was attached to the 508th MP battalion in Munich. And when we weren’t doing the other stuff we just pulled regular MP duty. But we were at Dachau, at the war crime trials, and at Nuremberg, we were part of them.
Aaron Elson: Were you at Dachau for the war crimes trials? You never ran into a fellow named Clifford Merrill, did you? He retired as a colonel, but he had been a captain, but he was in charge of MPs at the Dachau...
Darrell Petty: I probably saw him, but you know, so many times, like I said, we didn’t know names. Didn’t bother with names. And if you didn’t know the guy, why, he was just another GI. I most likely saw him, I probably saw him there.
Aaron Elson: He was an officer of the MPs. He had contact with that Ilse Koch, and also there was one famous prisoner there, Otto Skorzeny, he was the commando who tried to capture Eisenhower, and who had freed Mussolini the first time, he was one of the prisoners there.
Darrell Petty: I don’t remember the name, but, you know, one that stands out in my mind was old Dr. Schilling.
Aaron Elson: Why does that stand out?
Darrell Petty: Because he did so much experimenting on the people and that, you know, he was the camp doctor...
Aaron Elson: At which camp?
Darrell Petty: Dachau. And he experimented on those people. Even when we took those places it was horrible to see what was there, but we still didn’t know about all the experimentation until the trials. And, uh, I come within an inch of shooting him.
Aaron Elson: Really?
Darrell Petty: That’s one of the reasons he stands out, I guess. Because we’d just been on his case, and I wasn’t at all the trials of Dachau, because they switched us back and forth. But we had some guys that had never seen an ounce of combat, who came over there later. And we had one new guy in there, and I won’t mention no names, I don’t want to implicate anybody, but anyway, he’d never seen combat. And he had a little .30 carbine, that was just semiautomatics at that time, and 15-round clips. But there would be a clip in the gun, and two clips on the butt of it. That’s 45 rounds. Okay. He’s standing there gawking around and he wouldn’t be protecting that gun. I got on him several times. I told him, "You protect that firearm." I said, "These guys don’t have anything to lose." Well, these guys that lived such a high muckety-muck life, it was kind of satisfying to see them sniping cigarettes off the floor, and they were eating some pretty thin soup that we brought for lunch, and they were in a soup line. That day it was some pretty thin soup. And this kid was standing there gawking around and he’s got the butt of the rifle grounded on the floor, and gawking around and not looking at them at all, he was looking around. And I just about went over and said something to him and I didn’t. And by golly, old Schilling was in line, and I, I just loathed him for what he’d done to people. And all at once he made a dive toward this kid, and the first thing flashed in my mind was he’s going for that carbine. I had a .45, and I always had it full loaded, the hammer on half-cock and the safety on. And he dove like he was reaching for that rifle. Well, as it turned out there was a cigarette butt about that long, boy, that was a prize, between that kid’s foot and the butt of the rifle. That’s what he was going for. But I didn’t know that. And I grabbed the old ‘45 and I dropped the safety, and cracked the hammer full, and when he came up with that cigarette, I was about from here to there ...
Aaron Elson: About six inches?
Darrell Petty: That half-hole looks awful big.
Aaron Elson: From his face?
Darrell Petty: And he just drained, his color just drained. "Oh, nein! Nein! Bitte! Bitte! Zigaretten, Rauchen! Rauchen! Bitte, nicht schiessen!" Don’t shoot, you know. Please. Rauchen is smoke. I never had a feeling like that in my life, before or since. But I wanted to pull the trigger. And I couldn’t hardly keep from pulling the trigger. And I finally just pushed my finger off of it. And I dropped the safety on, and I grabbed him and boy I throwed him back in the line and I told him to stay there, and he’d complained to me before about having to go to the bathroom a lot of the time, he’d had surgery, I suppose, prostate, I don’t know. But anyway, I thought, "Yeah, you, I sure feel sorry for you, you ..." And when I got done, I was mad. I throwed him in that line, and I done a pirouette and I kicked that kid just as hard as I could kick him right in the hind ...
Aaron Elson: The kid, the other MP?
Darrell Petty: Yes. And he lost his grip on the rifle and I grabbed that before it hit the floor, and he went down. And I stood above him, I had that butt of that rifle right in his face. And man, I told him in no uncertain terms what I’d do to him if I ever saw him, and I said, "Much as I wanted to do it, you almost made me kill a man without a reason." And I was just hyper, I was just, you know...
Aaron Elson: About how old were you at the time?
Darrell Petty: Nineteen. I went in at 17. And I was overseas at 17.
Aaron Elson: How’d that happen?
Darrell Petty: Well, my folks signed for me to go in, and when my unit shipped overseas, they didn’t say I couldn’t go, and I didn’t tell them I wasn’t supposed to go, and I went. I left New York in January of 1944 and was in England seven days later, well in Scotland seven days later. And then I went down by Cardiff, and the 90th hadn’t got there yet. I was assigned to the 90th about the middle of April. But I’ll tell you what, from that time on that kid was like this, he was looking at everything, with that carbine. I never saw him even look like he was gonna put it down after that. I could have got courtmartialed, I suppose, but at the time it did not matter. I was mad. I said, "You didn’t only pretty near make me kill him," I said. "He had nothing to lose. He could have grabbed that little carbine and started spraying us." It’s a pretty deadly little weapon at close range, I’ll tell you.
Aaron Elson: How old was this Dr. Schilling?
Darrell Petty: Probably middle age. At the time he looked quite old to me, but you know, they do when you’re young like that.
Aaron Elson: Was he executed, or what happened to him?
Darrell Petty: I don’t know whether they executed him or not...
(Coming soon: Darrell Petty, Part 3)
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Postscript: According to testimony at the Dachau War Crimes trials, Dr. Klaus Schilling conducted malaria experiments on 1,200 inmates at Dachau. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out in 1946.
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From Oral History Audiobooks:
From Chi Chi Press: