The 42nd Infantry Division was created in August 1917, just months after the United States entered World War I, and was sent overseas to France in November. In 1943, the "Rainbow" division was reactivated for duty and deployed to Europe in December 1944, when it landed in the French port of Marseille. By mid-December, the "Rainbow" division had advanced into Alsace, closing in on the Strasbourg area. In March 1945, the 42nd drove into Germany and crossed the Rhine River by the end of the month. In April, the "Rainbow" division captured the cities of Würzburg, Schweinfurt, and Fürth. By war's end, it had completed its drive into Bavaria and had entered Austria.
On April 29, 1945, the 42nd Infantry Division entered the Dachau concentration camp, the earliest and longest-functioning SS-controlled camp in Nazi Germany. On that day, three US Army divisions converged on the camp: the 42nd Infantry, the 45th Infantry, and the 20th Armored. When the three units arrived at Dachau, they discovered more than 30,000 prisoners in the overcrowded camp. Just days before, about 2,000 inmates evacuated on a death march from the Flossenbürg concentration camp had arrived at Dachau and the SS guards had forced almost 7,000 Dachau inmates to move southward.
On April 28, the day before liberation, a train with about 40 or so railway cars arrived at the camp. It had left Buchenwald four weeks earlier on April 7 filled with more than 5,000 prisoners. With few provisions, almost 2,000 inmates died on the circuitous route that took them from Thuringia through Saxony to Czechoslovakia and into Bavaria. Their bodies were left behind in various locations throughout Germany. When US troops arrived in Dachau on April 29, they found 2,310 additional corpses on the train. The 816 surviving prisoners were taken to barracks within the camp.
The proximity of the US Army gave hope to the prisoners in the camp and to anti-Nazis outside it. In the town of Dachau, German opponents of the regime, including a few escaped concentration camp prisoners, took over the town hall, but the local SS put down the small rebellion and executed those among the insurgents whom they caught. In the Dachau camp itself, an international committee composed of representatives of the various nationalities imprisoned there was established to organize resistance.
News of Dachau's liberation spread swiftly. The delegations of journalists and congressmen who had been viewing the Buchenwald concentration camp were quickly diverted to Dachau to see the camp. In their report delivered to Congress on May 15, 1945, the senators and representatives stated that
As we visited Dachau we saw on a railroad sidetrack paralleling the main highway, and close to the gates of the prison camp, a train of cars which had been used to bring additional civilian prisoners to this camp. These cars were an assortment of odd boxcars, some of which were locked, and some were coal-car type. In each of them the floor of the car was covered with dead, emaciated bodies. In some of these cars there were more than enough to cover the floors. In size, these cars were of the small European type, which, when used for the movement of troops, would never accommodate more than 40 men. Nevertheless, the Army officials in charge of this camp advised us that there were 50 of these cars in this 1 train and that at least 100 of these civilians had been jammed into each car . . .
We saw many dead bodies on the ground. These prisoners had apparently crawled out of the cars and had died on the ground. Our officials advised us that many of the others who had survived the trip had died since in the camp, and many more, although still alive, were starved beyond redemption.
Immediately after Dachau's liberation, US Army authorities and other Allied representatives began treating the sick prisoners, implementing health and sanitary measures to curb the typhus epidemic, and bringing in tons of food to feed the starving prisoners.
The 42nd 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 1985.
Casualty figures for the 42nd Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 3,971
- Total deaths in battle: 655
The nickname of the 42nd Infantry Division, the "Rainbow" division, reflects the composition of the division during World War I. The division was drawn from the National Guards of 26 states and the District of Columbia. It represented a cross section of the American people, as the rainbow represents a cross section of colors.