The 80th 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.
80th Infantry Division Campaigns during World War II
The 80th Infantry Division was formed in September 1917, several months after the United States entered World War I, and served in military campaigns in France the following year. In 1942, the "Blue Ridge" division was reactivated for military service and deployed to Europe, where it landed on Utah Beach on August 3, 1944, less than two months after the Allied invasion of western Europe on D-Day (June 6).
Soon after arriving in France, the unit engaged German forces in combat in Argentan and other locales in Normandy. It subsequently drove eastward and reached the Saar region of Germany by early December. Later that month, the 80th was diverted to Luxembourg to blunt the German offensive into the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. In January 1945, the 80th returned to the offensive and in the following months drove deep into Germany. After crossing the Rhine in late March, the division advanced through Thuringia, reaching Erfurt, Weimar, and Jena by mid-April. By war's end, the "Blue Ridge" division had advanced south through Bavaria and into Austria.
The 80th Infantry Division and the Liberation of Buchenwald and Ebensee
During its advance into central Germany, the 80th Infantry Division entered the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945, to provide relief to the 6th Armored Division, which had arrived the day before. Several weeks later, as the "Blue Ridge" division pushed into Austria, it liberated Ebensee, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Construction of the Ebensee camp had begun in November 1943, and Ebensee started functioning as a subcamp in March 1944. Its purpose was to supply prisoner labor for the construction of elaborate tunnels in the nearby mountains to house underground factories for the production of rockets. Code-named Zement (Cement), the project required backbreaking labor done at a brutal pace. The camp population swelled to more than 18,000 in April 1945.
When troops of the 80th Infantry arrived at Ebensee on May 4–5, 1945, they found some 16,000 prisoners there. A US Army report stated that conditions in the camp were "deplorable" and that several hundred prisoners had died from disease and malnutrition on the day the camp was discovered. The report further stated that
All of the inmates of the camp were badly undernourished and many were suffering from various diseases and ailments. No meals had been served at the camp for three days prior to the arrival of the American Forces in the area.
Shortly after liberation, units assigned to maintaining public health and caring for displaced persons were dispatched to Ebensee to provide food and clothing to the prisoners and to combat the typhus epidemic there.
Recognition as a Liberating Unit
The 80th 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.
80th Infantry Casualty Figures
Casualty figures for the 80th Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 17,087
- Total deaths in battle: 3,500
80th Infantry Division Nickname
The nickname of the 80th Infantry Division, the "Blue Ridge" division, reflects the home states of the majority of soldiers who formed the division during World War I: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains run through these three states.
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?