The 8th 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.
8th Infantry Division Campaigns during World War II
The 8th Infantry Division was formed in 1918 during World War I and was sent to France that same year. During World War II, in early July 1944, the "Golden Arrow" division landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, just weeks after the Allies invaded France on D-Day (June 6, 1944). Shortly after its arrival, the division captured the French cities of Rennes and Brest.
Following these actions, the 8th turned eastward toward the German border, taking part in the heavy fighting in the Hürtgen Forest in November 1944. In early March 1945, the 8th had advanced into the Rhineland. It fought its way into the Ruhr region the following month. By war's end, the "Arrow" division had advanced to the Elbe River in central Germany.
The 8th Infantry Division and the Liberation of Wöbbelin
On May 2, 1945, as it advanced into northern Germany, the 8th Infantry Division encountered the Neuengamme concentration camp Wöbbelin subcamp, near the city of Ludwigslust. The SS had established Wöbbelin in early February 1945 to house concentration camp prisoners who had been evacuated from other Nazi camps to prevent their liberation by the Allies. Wöbbelin held some 5,000 inmates, many of whom suffered from starvation and disease. The sanitary conditions at the camp when the 8th Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division arrived were deplorable. There was little food or water, and some prisoners had resorted to cannibalism. In the first week after liberation, more than 200 inmates died. In the aftermath, the US Army ordered the townspeople in Ludwigslust to visit the camp and bury the dead.
Recognition as a Liberating Unit
The 8th 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.
8th Infantry Casualty Figures
Casualty figures for the 8th Infantry Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 13,986
- Total deaths in battle: 2,852
8th Infantry Division Nickname
The 8th Infantry Division was known as both the "Golden Arrow" and "Pathfinder" division during World War II. Both nicknames originated from the division's insignia, which includes a gold arrow to represent the nineteenth-century explorer of California, John Fremont. The division was formed in California in 1918.
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?