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.e 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.
Formed in 1943, the 71st Infantry Division was deployed to the European theater of operations in February 1945. After disembarking at the French port of Le Havre, the "Red Circle" division advanced to Alsace-Lorraine. The following month, it crossed the Rhine River and drove southward, taking Coburg (April 11), Bayreuth (April 14–16), and Regensburg (April 27). By war's end, the "Red Circle" division had entered Austria, where it met up with advancing Soviet forces.
On May 4, 1945, the 71st Infantry Division liberated Gunskirchen, one of the many subcamps of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The camp was rather short-lived. In December 1944, construction for the Gunskirchen camp began. The camp was planned to house several hundred slave laborers. When the camp was opened in April 1945, however, thousands of prisoners evacuated on death marches from Mauthausen started to flood Gunskirchen. In these overcrowded conditions, diseases such as typhus and dysentery spread rapidly through the starving and weakened camp population. The prisoners were—with the exception of 400 political prisoners—Jews from Hungary whom the Germans had forced to march on foot from their homeland to Austria, where they were to be used for forced labor. Some 17,000 Hungarian Jews reportedly passed through the Gunskirchen camp.
When troops of the 71st entered the camp, they learned that the SS guards had fled the corpse-littered camp days before. Some 15,000 prisoners were still in the camp. In the months following the liberation, some 1,500 former prisoners died as a consequence of their mistreatment by the Nazis. One member of the 71st Infantry recounted his first impressions of Gunskirchen:
As we entered the camp, the living skeletons still able to walk crowded around us and, though we wanted to drive farther into the place, the milling, pressing crowd wouldn't let us. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every inmate was insane with hunger. Just the sight of an American brought cheers, groans and shrieks. People crowded around to touch an American, to touch the jeep, to kiss our arms—perhaps just to make sure that it was true. The people who couldn't walk crawled out toward our jeep. Those who couldn't even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow, and somehow, through all their pain and suffering, revealed through their eyes the gratitude, the joy they felt at the arrival of Americans.
The 71st immediately began requisitioning supplies and transportation from the local town to provide the prisoners with food and water.
The 71st 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 1988.
Casualty figures for the 71st Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
The nickname of the 71st Infantry Division, the "Red Circle" division, is based upon the divisional insignia (which includes a red circle).