The 69th Infantry Division
In 1985, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army's Center of Military History began a program to honor US Army divisions that took part in the liberation of Nazi camps. To date, 36 divisions, including the 69th Infantry Division, have been recognized as liberating units.
The 69th Infantry Division was formed in 1943 and deployed to England in December 1944. In late January 1945, the "Fighting 69th" landed at the French port of Le Havre and quickly advanced into Belgium. In February, it pushed into Germany, and by late March had crossed the Rhine River and begun its drive eastward to Saxony, where it captured the city of Leipzig on April 19. Less than a week later, the division made contact with Soviet armed forces at Torgau.
During the fierce battle for Leipzig, the 69th Infantry Division uncovered Leipzig-Thekla, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, on April 19, 1945. The camp had been established in September 1943 to supply labor for the German war effort. At its height, Leipzig-Thekla held approximately 1,400 prisoners.
On April 18, 1945, the SS guards had set fire to the barracks housing some 300 inmates and shot those who attempted to escape the flames. Upon arriving at the camp, the 69th immediately began providing for the 90 to 100 survivors. Days later, US Army Signal Corps photographers arrived at the site to document this atrocity. On April 28, 1945, a US Army Protestant chaplain reported that 325 male prisoners, who were too ill or weak to continue working for the German war effort, had been forced into oil-soaked barracks, which were then set aflame. Prisoners who attempted to escape the conflagration were shot by the guards or electrocuted on the electrified fences. According to the report, the swift advance of the 69th prevented the SS guards from committing a similar atrocity at a nearby camp housing some 250 women.
On April 24, the newly installed Allied military government in Leipzig ordered the local German mayor to provide 75 caskets for the dead prisoners, floral wreaths for each coffin, crews of workers to bury the inmates at the entrance of the town cemetery, and 100 prominent citizens from Leipzig, representing the “City Government, Clergy, Civic organizations, Chamber of Commerce, and Educational Institutions including the University of Leipzig to attend the funeral services” on April 27, 1945. That day, the US Army supervised the funeral, supplying Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant chaplains to perform the service. In attendance were:
- a guard of honor composed of survivors of the camp
- 100 displaced persons bearing flags of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia
- Allied officers
- 1,000 German civilians
The 69th 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.
Casualty figures for the 69th Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 1,506
- Total deaths in battle: 384
The 69th Infantry Division gained the nickname the "Fighting 69th" during World War II. The name has no heraldic significance, but simply conveys the esprit de corps of the division.
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?