War and Remembrance

They called him Tex, of course, the happy-go-lucky kid from Texas who drove a truck in the 120th Evac. American soldiers in World War II took their cues from Hollywood movies, and in Hollywood movies pretty much all the guys from Texas were called “Tex.”

The unit, a mobile battlefield hospital made up of medics and nurses, had traveled by train across newly liberated France, then by truck to Frankfurt to wait for a bridge across the Rhine to be repaired. It was early April 1945; the war was almost over. The Americans were thinking about going home.

Finally ordered to move east, they rumbled in their 21/2-ton trucks through the rolling forests of beech trees 120 miles southwest of Berlin. The picture-postcard countryside seemed to have been unaffected by the war. Soon night fell; only the thin beams of the headlights played along the road.

In one of the trucks, Warren Priest of Haverhill, whose education at Boston University had been interrupted by the draft, was remembering what he knew about the unit's destination: Weimar, once the home of the composers Franz Liszt and Johann Sebastian Bach, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and nationalist Friedrich von Schiller, who had encouraged the unification of Germany in 1871.

Another serviceman from Massachusetts, Milt Silva, was also in the convoy. Silva, who had been brought up in his family's funeral business in Swansea, had a sudden whiff of recognition as he jostled along in the darkness.

“Something stinks around here,” the soldier next to him said.

“Somebody's dead around here,” Silva replied.

They camped that night beside the 16th-century rococo-style summer estate of the Duke of Weimar until, at dawn, they set off again, headed toward the place where, their officers cryptically informed them, their medical assistance was required. Priest, who had studied German, knew only that the name in English meant “beech forest”: Buchenwald.

The first one through the gate was Tex. Engulfed by starving inmates, he cut open boxes of C-rations and started handing out food. “He was just a good, decent person,” Priest remembers. “He was this good-natured kid from Texas, friendly to everybody.”

The inmates used what little strength they had to rip into the packages. Then, one by one, they dropped to the ground. The food was too rich for their atrophied digestive systems. As each man fell, another grabbed his food. And died.

Tex cried at the memory almost every night. “It has haunted him all his life, the idea that they survived the horrors of the camp only to die there, at the gate, beside his truck because of what should have been an act of kindness,” his wife says. “He was in a unit that was supposed to help people [but he has] only the memory of the gate at Buchenwald and the dead men at his feet and at his hand. Perhaps you can understand why he is haunted to this day.”

And why, when men from other military units held reunions almost every year — many to coincide with Memorial Day in May — the members of the 120th Evacuation Hospital, who were responsible for the almost impossible task of saving thousands of survivors of the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the western Allies, preferred not to remember. Why, for decades, most stayed out of contact with each other. “Don't talk about it,” is how Priest describes the long-standing feeling he and his comrades shared. “Don't deal with it.”

Until now. Now, as the veterans of the 120th Evac face their own mortality, they have started meeting once a year, and last month traveled back to Buchenwald itself to dedicate a plaque in honor of their unit. They have written memoirs, taped verbal histories, and set up a Web site (www.buchenwaldandbeyond.com). They say there is no more important time to remind people of the kind of depravity institutionalized by the Nazis, “not just not to forget, but to remember that it was insensitivity, indifference, that brought about the whole system in the first place,” Priest says. “There is no greater justification for looking at the Holocaust.” They hope all these things they are doing will outlast them. “I don't know how else it's going to be done because we're going to be gone,” says Priest. “And our living testimony will be all that's left.”

Buchenwald was one of the earliest of the Nazis' concentration camps, built in 1937. It was officially a transfer center, from which inmates were shipped to death camps such as Auschwitz farther east. By the end of the war, 238,980 prisoners from 30 countries had passed through Buchenwald. Of these, 43,045 were killed or died from the brutal conditions there, including medical experiments; most of the rest were taken elsewhere to be killed.

It was a very long way from Copley Square, where BU stood in the early 1940s and where Warren Priest had rented an apartment with some friends from Haverhill. He was a typical American college kid, absorbed with fraternity life, busted one night for skinny-dipping in the Charles with some friends after a night of drinking Pickwick Ale.

The war arrived for Priest in the form of a draft notice. He soon found himself in infantry training at Camp Carson, Colorado, charging mannequins with bayonets and crawling on the ground beneath machine-gun fire. It didn't take. “I couldn't bring myself to act ferocious,” he says. So he was transferred to a medical division being assembled at Camp Shelby in Mississippi where he found himself among other college men and misfits. (“Thinkers are not usually good warriors,” Priest says.) Many were New Englanders like him.

Priest was trained to be an orthopedic surgical technician, which meant, for the most part, setting breaks and holding limbs while they were amputated. Slowly, the 120th Evacuation Hospital took shape: 207 enlisted men, 31 officers, and 40 nurses. It was a new idea in warfare, a completely self-contained 400-bed hospital that could be set up quickly right behind the frontlines by men and women who wore the red cross on their shoulders. It was also completely unequipped for what it was about to face.

When it finally arrived in Frankfurt, the unit still had not seen action. As soldiers often do, the men and women of the 120th Evac sat and waited, camped out in the infield of a racetrack. Then, one night, they were suddenly ordered to assemble. Their commanding officer, Colonel William E. Williams, told them to prepare themselves, that they were going to a camp. A chivalrous southerner, Williams sent the female nurses to another unit; he knew what was waiting, even if no one else did. “Nobody explained what a camp was,” says Priest, who had happy boyhood memories of fishing and swimming at a camp in New Hampshire. “Nobody had any idea what we were going to be confronting.”

Buchenwald had been liberated two days before by U.S. soldiers. Only about 21,000 survivors remained alive, including 904 children — still nearly three times what the camp was built to hold. Many were emaciated, barely conscious, living among piles of unburied corpses 10 feet high. The Canadian ambassador to France, who was among the first Allied officials to see the camp, called the people who created it barbarians, then thought better of it. Calling them barbarians, he said, “is unfair to the barbarian because there is a scientific refinement about these horrors which barbarians, uncouth and wild, living in a primitive state, could not invent.” Edward R. Murrow, who had so eloquently brought to life for radio listeners the Blitz and other dramas of the war, reported from Buchenwald a few days later: “I have no words.”

Neither did the men of the 120th Evac. They had too much to do.

“Everything happened so fast, you never really dwelt on it,” says Milt Silva.

“We were so caught up in the enormity of the need, of the suffering, of the sickness; we were so challenged that, as is true in battlefield conditions, you forget personal discomfort and you do what needs to be done,” says Warren Priest. “We all gave blood. I don't remember giving blood, but I think I did. I forgot so many things. I forgot what I did, I forgot whether I ate, I forgot whether I slept. But I could never forget that odor. It's a constant presence. I can't forget it.” (Nor can Silva. When he returned to his family's funeral business, he remembered Buchenwald each time he walked through a door to a morgue. “People seem to think flashbacks were part of the Vietnam era,” he says. “We had flashbacks. You never talked about it back then for fear of being sent to a mental hospital.” Silva went to law school on the GI Bill and eventually became a District Court judge in Fall River.)

The medics washed and deloused the inmates and gave them new clothes, and organized the healthy to help with the sick, who were suffering from dysentery, malnutrition, tuberculosis, typhus, pneumonia, and other problems. The wing from a wrecked bomber was cut up and converted into morgue tables. Within three days of the arrival of the unit, the death rate had dropped from more than 100 per day to fewer than 30. The piles of corpses were carefully dismantled and the bodies lined up on stretchers. One of Priest's jobs was to use a stethoscope to see if any were alive. Once, one was, but barely; the heartbeat was so slow it was nearly undetectable.

The survivors clutched at the calves of the Americans or stretched out their bony fingers like beggars on a city street, or fell to their knees and clasped their skeletal arms together as if in prayer. Local Germans, forced to see the camp, held handkerchiefs to their faces and insisted that they hadn't known. “All of us had a very quick lesson in why we were there and why we had been fighting this war,” Priest says. But he also couldn't help remembering having been refused a room he had reserved at a hotel in New Hampshire when he arrived with several companions who were Jewish.

He traded a pack of cigarettes for an Agfa camera and took pictures of the camp. He would later keep them, like his memories, sealed in the attic.

Warren Priest turned 80 last month. He's a robust man with a white mustache and white, unruly eyebrows that match the fringe of hair on his bald head; if he had a beard, he'd look a little bit like Santa Claus. Two pairs of eyeglasses hang by strings around his neck. The shelves of his study sag under the weight of military histories and memoirs and biographies of the likes of Winston Churchill and Harry Truman.

As the war sped to a close, Priest came down with typhus, which he probably picked up at Buchenwald. He was discharged from the Army, finished BU, and became a teacher, first in Haverhill and then in Newton, where he taught social studies at Meadowbrook Junior High School (now Brown Middle School) for three decades. He also opened an Outward Bound-style summer camp in New Hampshire that enrolled underprivileged inner-city kids.

Last year, Priest began to have a recurring dream. In the dream, he was running — he didn't know where or for what reason. One night, while he was having this dream, he looked down and saw that there was a little girl in his arms. It was a girl from the camp.

For the first time in half a century, Priest remembered having gone into the children's barracks at Buchenwald. He remembered he had been about to leave when he had heard a sound and saw a little girl about six years old in a fetal position. He remembered wrapping her in his jacket and running with her to the aid station.

He remembered that she had died on the way.

Priest has given this girl a name. He calls her Angela. “She has become a kind of constant presence in terms of who are the ones who need help the most,” he says.

He started to respond to the announcements of reunions of the 120th Evac, gathered reams of information for the Web site, spoke to student groups. And got the photographs he took in Buchenwald down from the attic.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and BU professor, was 17 and a prisoner at Buchenwald when the 120th Evacuation Hospital arrived. He did not forget it.

“To this day, I reserve a very special place in my heart for them. They restored our faith in humanity,” says Wiesel, who was gravely ill at the time the camp was liberated. “And now they are our witnesses. They were the first to have discovered hell. Our hell. The first free men to discover it. It's enough for all of those deniers of the Holocaust to meet these soldiers and these medics to learn that these things really happened. They are witnesses. They are our witnesses.”