The 45th Infantry Division was formed in 1924 from National Guard units in the southwestern United States. In 1940, the "Thunderbird" division was reactivated and deployed in late June 1943 to North Africa. The following month, the division landed in Sicily, where it engaged Axis troops in combat. After advancing up the Italian peninsula, the 45th landed at Anzio in February 1944, where it withstood repeated German assaults against its positions. Cutting across the country, the unit was sent to southern France in August 1944. It quickly advanced through western France, reaching the German border by the end of the year. In March 1945, the "Thunderbird" division crossed the Rhine River and headed southward. On April 20, it captured the city of Nuremberg and on April 30, Munich.
As the 45th Infantry Division completed its drive on Munich, the unit was ordered to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. On April 29, 1945, 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 bearing 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 during 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks, who commanded the 45th Infantry Division troops, later recalled his first impressions of Dachau:
The initial shock was experienced even before entering the camp. The first evidence of the horror to come was a string of about forty railway cars on a siding near the camp entrance. Each car was loaded with emaciated human corpses . . .
The scene near the entrance to the confinement area numbed my senses. Dante's Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau. A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. As I turned to look over the prison yard with unbelieving eyes, I saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before our arrival. Since all the many bodies were in various stages of decomposition, the stench of death was overpowering.
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 local townspeople were brought in to give the dead prisoners a proper burial.
The 45th 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 45th Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 7,791
- Total deaths in battle: 1,831
The 45th Infantry Division gained its nickname, "Thunderbird" division, from the gold thunderbird. This Native American symbol became the division's insignia in 1939. It replaced another previously used Native American symbol, a swastika, that was withdrawn when it became closely associated with the Nazi Party.