The 84th 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 84th Infantry Division, have been recognized as liberating units.
The 84th Infantry Division was formed in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. In World War II, the "Railsplitter" division landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy in early November 1944, five months after D-Day (June 6, 1944). From France, the unit moved quickly into the Netherlands in preparation for an offensive into Nazi Germany. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 84th was diverted to Belgium to stop the German offensive. In March 1945, it moved into the Rhineland and subsequently advanced northward, capturing the city of Hannover on April 10. The 84th eventually made its way to the Elbe River and made contact with Soviet armed forces in early May 1945.
As the "Railsplitter" division advanced into the interior of Germany, its troops uncovered Hannover-Ahlem (April 10, 1945) and Salzwedel (April 14, 1945), both satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp. The SS established the Hannover-Ahlem camp on November 30, 1944, after transferring the camp and its inmates from the Continental Gummiwerke factory at Hannover-Stöcken. In Ahlem the inmates were forced to work in the nearby asphalt tunnels. These were to be cleared for the production of aircraft and Panzer parts for Continental Gummiwerke and Maschinenfabrik Hannover.
When the soldiers of the 84th entered the camp in Ahlem, they discovered an undetermined number of starving and ill Jewish prisoners. Reports range from 30 to 250 persons. The SS guards had abandoned these prisoners when they evacuated the camp, taking with them some 600 "healthy" prisoners. Of the prisoners sent on this death march, only 450 made it to the Bergen-Belsen camp. The SS guards had shot many of those who were unable to maintain the pace of the march. The US Army war crimes investigators reported that many of these survivors died soon after liberation from the accumulated abuse, mistreatment, and neglect they had suffered. They estimated that only 300 to 400 Jewish prisoners at Hannover-Ahlem survived the war.
Several days later, the 84th Infantry captured Salzwedel, a camp formed by the SS in July 1944 to supply forced labor for a German munitions factory. The unit found some 3,000 female inmates, mainly Jewish women who had been transported from the Auschwitz camp complex, and several hundred political prisoners. The US Army reported that sanitary conditions at the camp were poor because of overcrowding and a lack of water. Some 100 of these prisoners were seriously ill and 33 of them required immediate medical attention at a local hospital. The town's mayor was ordered to provide food immediately for the former inmates, who were subsequently moved into modern German barracks nearby.
The 84th 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 84th Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 7,260
- Total deaths in battle: 1,468
The 84th Infantry Division derives its nickname, "Railsplitter" division, from the divisional insignia, an ax splitting a rail. This design was created during World War I, when the division was known as the "Lincoln" division to represent the states that supplied soldiers for the division: Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. All figured prominently in the life of President Abraham Lincoln, of log-splitting legend.
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?