of the Greater Quad City Area
JOHN V. PHLEGER
I was a member of the 71st Infantry Division, 66th Regiment during World War II. My Division and Regiment was in Austria during the final stages of war and was involved in the liberation of Gunskirchen Lager where a great number of Hungarian Jews were interned. We were the furthest east division in the European theatre at that time, and our division captured more German troops than any other because they were all surrendering at that time.
I was only there near the camp for about four or five days. First, I was in Lambach in Austria. Then I was at Gunskirchen Lager. One of the books I have says that it had around 134,000 Hungarian Jews in it. The Germans had left the day before we arrived. Some liberated prisoners couldn't even make it back to town, so we set up camp somewhere between the town of Lambach and the camp, and they straggled into our encampment.
I mostly remember the odor, and the fact that they were starving to death. I happened to have a jeep I was driving at that time, and it had a munitions box strapped onto it, which I filled with food. Many jeeps hauled extra rations. We gave all our food away. Cooks set up food lines, and these people went through to get something to eat. Nobody ever smiled. Out of the hundreds I saw going through the lines, nobody ever smiled. When we got down to Gunskirchen Lager people just wanted to touch us. They were very unsmiling...very hungry...and dying. They were thin and gaunt, no flesh on their bones at all. I was never in the camp itself, but I was one of the first Americans that got there. The people had no strength. There are pictures and articles in this little booklet that the 71st Division put out about Gunskirchen Lager, and they describe pretty accurately what I saw. Every time I look at the pictures I remember exactly the way people looked. We left within four or five days and went on into Austria and from there into Bavaria.
We had been trained to fight, to defeat the enemy, but suddenly we were like Red Cross workers. We had no problems, because nothing was organized at that time. We just gave the food away and they took it. I don't even know whether they had can openers to open the cans, but I'm sure they got the food out. The Americans were naturally sympathetic. We didn't care who they were. They were in need, and we did everything we could within reason to help them.
When I think of the young people born long after the end of the war, I think they need to do lots of reading about what happened. They need to find and read some good books and articles, and they need to talk to people like us.