The 2nd Infantry Division during World War II
As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they found tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners in deplorable conditions. Malnutrition and disease were rampant, and corpses lay unburied. The soldiers reacted in shock and disbelief to the evidence of Nazi atrocities. In addition to burying the dead, the Allied forces attempted to help and comfort the survivors with food, clothing and medical assistance.
2nd Infantry Division Campaigns during World War II
Created in 1917, the 2nd Infantry Division first saw service in World War I. During World War II, the "Indianhead" division landed on Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, and broke out of Normandy before moving into Belgium. The 2nd tenaciously held its position during the Battle of the Bulge, preventing further German attempts to reconquer Belgium. In March 1945, the unit moved into the interior of Germany and captured the city of Leipzig on April 19. When the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the 2nd had advanced to Plzen (Pilsen) in the present-day Czech Republic.
As the 2nd Infantry Division marched across Germany, it uncovered several sites of Nazi crimes. In early April 1945, the unit captured the German town of Hadamar, which housed a psychiatric clinic where almost 15,000 men, women, and children were killed between 1941 and March 1945 in the Nazi Euthanasia Program.
The 2nd Infantry Division and the Liberation of Leipzig-Schönefeld and Spergau/Zöschen
In April 1945, the 2nd Infantry Division overran Leipzig-Schönefeld, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the camp staff forced the prisoners to work for the Hugo Schneider AG (Hasag) firm. The SS had permitted the Hasag's Leipzig field office to establish an ammunition factory for the German military in 1944. On March 28, 1945, Schönefeld housed some 4,765 female prisoners; however, at the beginning of April, the SS evacuated many of the inmates to prevent them from falling into Allied hands. When the 2nd Infantry Division arrived on April 14, 1945, only some 250 prisoners remained in the camp. According to the 2nd's report, the SS killed between 400 and 600 prisoners from December 1944 to April 1945. After occupying the camp, the members of the 2nd Infantry Division arranged for proper burial of the dead and collected evidence to be used in the prosecution of the SS personnel.
Around April 15, 1945, the 2nd Infantry Division liberated some one thousand prisoners incarcerated in the “labor education” camp at Spergau/Zöschen. The US soldiers interviewed prisoners and interrogated captured SS guards to ascertain conditions in the camp, identify and locate perpetrators, and gather evidence for war crimes prosecution.
Recognition as a Liberating Unit
The 2nd Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993.
2nd Infantry Casualty Figures
Casualty figures for the 2nd Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 16,795
- Total deaths in battle: 3,512
2nd Infantry Division Nickname
The nickname of the 2nd Infantry Division, "Indianhead," was derived from its World War I insignia. This insignia was developed from an emblem a truck driver in the division had painted on his truck.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What challenges did Allied forces face when they encountered the camps and sites of other atrocities?
- What challenges faced survivors of the Holocaust upon liberation?