Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A State of the Union discrepancy

Dachau -- Getty Images

   About 25 years ago, while I was writing my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," about my father's tank battalion, the 712th, in World War II, I turned on the television and saw a news segment about a book and documentary about a tank battalion in World War II.
   "Damn," I thought, "somebody already wrote my book!"
   As it turned out, that wasn't quite the case.
   The book was called "The Liberators," and it was about the 761st Tank Battalion, the first and only all black tank battalion in World War II. It was about how the men of the 761st really were fighting a war on two fronts, against the Germans in Europe and against the racism in the Army and back home. And the latter was more despicable than the former.
   The film was a shoo-in for the Academy Award for best documentary. The producers even brought I think two of the African American veterans to Buchenwald, where they were reunited with a Buchenwald survivor. Was the scene emotional? You bet.
   Only as the Academy Awards approached, there began to be ripples of doubt about its accuracy, especially among veterans of the 6th Armored Division, which is credited with liberating Buchenwald. I remember very clearly one of the African American veterans going on record as saying the 761st didn't liberate Buchenwald (it did liberate a concentration camp called Gunskirchen, and the unit deserves every bit of credit for that). The producers countered this claim by saying the veteran who made it had a piece of shrapnel go through his helmet and maybe it scrambled his memory. The reason that argument struck me is because the first time my father was wounded, a piece of shrapnel went through his helmet and thankfully failed to penetrate his skull.
   Eventually, the producers admitted to "massaging" the facts because Dachau was a much more recognizable (read that: salable) name than Gunskirchen. The documentary was pulled from the Oscars, and a few months later I was able to buy a coffee table type book called "The Liberators" at Barnes & Noble for two or three dollars.
   A year or two later, while I was visiting my brother in Minneapolis, he mentioned that there was a 6th Armored Division reunion going on in town, so I went over to the hotel just to hang out. What I learned was that the veterans of the 6th were livid over the documentary because it implied that another unit had liberated Buchenwald.
   Which brings me to the State of the Union address this week. Trump introduced three D-Day veterans and said that one of them, Herman Zeitchik, went on the take part in the liberation of Dachau. He then introduced a Dachau survivor and said the veteran may have been his liberator, or words to that effect.
   Now, the usual fact checkers were pretty busy, so I did a little fact checking myself.
   Zeitchik was a sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division, which landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The unit credited with liberating Dachau is the 45th Infantry Division. However, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the 4th Infantry Division liberated a subcamp of Dachau called Haunstetten, which was a labor camp for an airplane factory.
   Maybe I'm picking nits. I'm not a Holocaust expert and there probably aren't many 45th Infantry Division World War II veterans left, so I don't know if they would have been offended by the speech. If I were rating the statement on one of those truth-o-meters I'd probably give it a "mostly true." But it's been my experience that the accuracy of anything to do with the liberation of the camps in particular, and military history in general, is important.