The 82nd Airborne 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.
82nd Airborne Division Campaigns during World War II
The 82nd Airborne Division began its illustrious military career as an infantry division during World War I. Formed in May 1918, it saw service in France several months later.
In March 1942, the "All American" was reactivated for service and later that year was redesignated as an airborne division. In May 1943, the unit was sent to North Africa to prepare for the invasion of Italy. In July, the 82nd was dropped into Sicily and fought its way up the Italian peninsula to Naples by early October. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), the date when the Allies launched their massive invasion of western Europe, the "All American" was dropped behind enemy lines into Normandy, France. In September, the unit parachuted into the Netherlands, and, two months later, was redeployed to thwart the German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. In February 1945, the division advanced into Germany, crossing the Elbe River before the war ended.
The 82nd Airborne Division and the Liberation of Wöbbelin
On May 2, 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division overran Wöbbelin, a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. At its height, Wöbbelin held some 5,000 inmates, many of whom were suffering from starvation and disease. Living conditions in the camp when the 8th Infantry and the 82nd Airborne arrived were deplorable. When the divisions arrived there, they found about one thousand inmates dead in the camp. In the aftermath, the US Army ordered the townspeople in Ludwigslust to visit the camp and bury the dead.
In accordance with a policy mandated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the US Army in Ludwigslust ordered "all atrocity victims to be buried in a public place." Crosses were to be placed at the graves of Christians and Stars of David at the graves of Jews, along with a stone monument to memorialize the dead.
On May 7, 1945, the 82nd Airborne Division conducted funeral services for 200 inmates in the town of Ludwigslust. Attending the ceremony were citizens of Ludwigslust, captured German officers, and several hundred members of the airborne division.
Recognition as a Liberating Unit
The 82nd Airborne Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1991.
82nd Airborne Casualty Figures
Casualty figures for the 82nd Airborne Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 6,993
- Total deaths in battle: 1,509
82nd Airborne Division Nickname
The nickname for the 82nd Airborne Division originated in World War I, signifying the "All American" composition of its members. The troops who formed the division came from diverse areas of the United 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?