Irving Ross saw the “Gates of Hell.” He was among the first American soldiers to help liberate Dachau concentration camp in Germany at the end of World War II.
His front-line odyssey began with the U.S. Army’s 109th Anti-aircraft Battalion in the North African Invasion in ’42. From there, the Punta Gorda, Fla. resident fought on through Italy, France and Germany.
After North Africa, Ross and his gun battalion moved on and took part in the action at Monte Cassino.
“We were there for a long time. I saw the bombing of the monastery at Cassino.
“It was at Cassino that the Americans made a deal with the Germans to give each side six hours to retrieve the bodies of their dead soldiers. It was the U.S. 36th Infantry Division that got slaughtered while trying to cross the river there,” Ross said.
“The invasion at Anzio wasn’t so terrible,” he added. “But then the Germans brought in their 88s (cannons) and they were shelling us day and night.
“They were up in the hills with their cannons and we were down on the beach getting the hell blasted out of us. We lived under a protective smoke screen on the beach for months until we could break out at Anzio,” Ross explained.
He was one of the first Americans into Rome along with Col. Alfred Doud of Rochester, N.Y. the hard-fighting commanding officer of the 72nd Gun Battalion.
“Rome was beautiful. It was an open city and we got a warm reception with flowers, wine and women. Nice Italian girls were kissing me,” Ross remembered with a smile almost 60 years later.
The laughter and romance didn’t last long. He and his unit were sent back to Naples. They were on the verge of talking a cruise, but they didn’t know where.
“On Aug. 15, 1944, we were leaving the bay in Naples in troop ships when Winston Churchill came by in a little speed boat,” Ross said. “The prime minister was chomping on a cigar as he gave us his ‘V’ for victory sign.”
The 72nd landed in the south of France. The first large city they took was Lyon.
“We got a hero’s welcome and all the nice girls again,” he said. “It was great.”
By mid-December, the weather had turned awful along with the fighting.
We were in the Severene Gap advancing and retreating as the Germans were throwing everything at us,” Ross said. “They had a 240 millimeter cannon mounted on a railroad car they were shooting. It took them 12 minutes to fire one shell. It fired a shell they had to pick up with a crane.
“We knew we were safe for 12 minutes when one of the shells exploded near us. We could hear it coming as it whizzed along. It really devastated us,” he said.
Eventually, the Americans fought their way out of the gap and into Germany.
“We went into Germany at Kaiserstuhl in the southwestern part of the country. Everything was dead. The horses on the street were dead and there were lots of dead bodies scattered around. The place was pretty well destroyed,” Ross said.
“The German army was in full retreat. From Kaiserstuhl we advanced to Frankfort and then to Munich near the end of the war.
What came next would stay with Ross, a Jewish sergeant from Rockaway Beach, Long Island, for the rest of his life.
“We knew nothing about German concentration camps. It was April 29, 1945, a Sunday, when the 72nd Battalion, along with the 45th Infantry Division, went through the city of Dachau and found the camp on the outskirts of the city,” he said.
Nazis sent not only those of the Jewish faith to concentration camps, but gypsies, intellectuals and others opposed to their regime. They were sent to the camps to be killed.
“The first thing we found was a train sitting on a railroad siding in front of the camp. Fifteen boxcars were sitting at the camp’s front gates,” he said.
“When we opened the doors of the boxcars dead bodies fell out on the ground. On the bottom of the pile a few people were still breathing, but they were too far gone to help,” Ross said. “It was unbelievable.
“There was a big sign over the main gate at Dachau that read: ‘Work makes you free.’
The prisoners were yelling, “Americans, Americans, Americans” as they walked into the camp.
“The first thing we did was turn off the power in the camp. Then we killed every one of the guards in the guard towers with our rifle butts. They were mostly Russian prisoners in those towers who worked for the Germans.”
They rounded up what was left of the German soldiers who were running Dachau. Three days later they were all dead—without the benefit of a war crimes tribunal.
“There were thousands and thousands of dead bodies all stacked up waiting for the furnace,” he said. “It was beyond imagination, the enormity of it all.
The living were sitting around on the ground eating raw potato peels between dead bodies. It was awful.”
Ross had liberated a camera before entering Dachau. He shot dozens of pictures of the gruesome scenes at the prison camp.
As one of Colonel Doud’s primary functionaries by this time, he helped take over the administration of the facility. When he wasn’t burning or burying bodies he was shuffling papers trying to get things sorted out at Dachau.
“Immediately, the U.S. Army sent in three field hospitals to try and take care of the living. The disheartening thing was that shortly after we took control, the former prisoners broke into a food storage area and gorged themselves. Hundreds of them died the following day because their stomachs couldn’t handle all the food. Then I had the problem of taking them to the crematorium and putting them in the ovens, too.”
Toward the end of his tenure at Dachau, Ross spent much of his time escorting dignitaries and reporters from the world press through the camp.
“I took Dorothy Parker, a well-know American reporter, on a tour of the camp. I also took a number of English reporters through.
“I showed them the ovens where they burned the bodies. There were three or four ovens, and the ashes from the cremations sifted down into a basement underneath,” he explained.
“Then I’d take them and show them the shower heads in a room where thousands of people were gassed. Most people think the poison gas came out of the fake shower heads, but it didn’t. It came out of jets in the side of the walls. And there were little windows where the Germans could watch people dying.”
After seeing Dachau, Ross said, “Even Chester Charbeneau, my buddy who was a good Catholic, said, “There is no God if anything like this can happen.”
“It puts a lot of thoughts into your head. I came back from the war an agnostic. Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t a God. That’s still my feeling today,” Ross said.
Name: Irving Ross
Hometown: Rockaway Beach, Long Island, N.Y.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Discharged: November 1945
Unit: 109th Anti-aircraft Battalion, North Africa; 72nd Gun Battalion, France and Germany
Commendations: Five battle stars for five major engagements, two bronze arrowheads for two landings, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Married: Edith Weingarten (deceased)
Children: Richard and Barry
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on April 2000 and is republished with permission.
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IRVING ROSS’S PHOTOS OF DACHAU WITH THE STORY BELOW ARE GRAPHIC AND MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME READERS.
Editor’s note : When I wrote Ross’ initial story seven years ago, he showed me a number of gruesome concentration camp pictures taken at Dachau. They were too ghastly for general newspaper readership. However, I believe it’s important for the public to see and remember what the Nazis did to people they didn’t like 65 years ago. Consequently, I spoke with Ross recently and wrote a second story to go with his terrifying concentration camp pictures.
Irving Ross hates Germans after seeing Dachau up close
Former Sgt. Irving Ross is still haunted by what he saw at Dachau concentration camp 65 years ago. His unit, the 72nd Gun Battalion attached to the 45th Infantry Division, liberated the camp at the end of World War II.
Located outside Munich, Germany about 10 miles, at least 200,000 people were sent to Dachau by the Nazis. An estimated 25,000 prisoners died there and maybe more from gassing, disease and starvation.
“I hate Germans to this day because of what I saw at Dachau,” the 91-year-old Jewish resident of Punta Gorda, Fla. said. “What I saw at Dachau people can’t believe.”
His division arrived at the concentration camp on April. 29, 1945. The prisoners saw them coming and yelled, “Americans, Americans!” as they stood behind the electrified barbed wire enclosure.
“Before we reached the main gates we walked beside a line of wooden boxcars parked on a railroad siding next to the camp,” Ross recalled. “We opened the door to one of the rail cars and a bunch of bodies fell out on the ground next to the tracks. Some of them were still alive.”
He took a picture of the bodies that had tumbled onto the ground beside the tracks. The face of a pretty, young girl stands out in the tangled mass of emaciated corpses that had been starved to death by their captors.
“What I saw – the dead and the dying—still haunts me today,” the old soldier said.
When his outfit forced open the gate at Dachau and walked into the concentration camp, there were dead bodies as far as they could see on the main street in front of them.
“There must have been a couple of thousand dead prisoners lying there. The Germans couldn’t burn them fast enough. They had lined them up neatly ready to go in the ovens, but we arrived too quickly,” Ross said.
They hadn’t been at the camp long when his battalion was given MP armbands and their battalion assumed control of the camp. It became his job to escort Allied newspaper correspondents on tours of the camp.
“I started outside the main gate where the railroad cars were still standing and told them about these cars that had been packed with bodies we found
on the first day of liberation. Then I took them to the main gate where printed in large letters a sign read: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ –Work Shall Make You Free. From there we went to the barracks where the prisoners slept in wooden bunks that hardly gave them enough room to lie down. They saw the hospital (the Americans established) where nurses tried desperately to keep hundreds of poor souls alive. It was on to the crematory where six or seven ovens were kept busy incinerating dead prisoners. Behind the gas chamber that I showed them was a room filled with the unfortunates’ shoes and clothes they took off before being gassed,” Ross said.
He gave upwards of 75 of these concentration camp tours during the four or five months the 72nd Gun Battalion oversaw the operation of Dachau.
“Did I tell you the story about what the Germans did with the ashes from burning the bodies?” Ross asked.
“They used the ashes for fertilizer. Everything growing in the adjacent fields around the camp was beautiful and green. They forced inmates to fertilize the fields with human ashes,” he said softly as he shook his head.
The Americans caught six camp guards still at Dachau when they liberated the place.
“Our troops had stripped these six guards to their waist in the administration building of the camp. With their hands raised above their heads they had to stare at spots on the wall,” Ross said. “When I walked in two former prisoners were whipping them because they moved. Eventually they fell to the floor. We stood them up, gave them some water and the ex-prisoners whipped them some more.
“Even Col. Doud, our commanding officer, took a turn at whipping the German guards. When it came to me, as tough as I was, I said I didn’t want to whip them,” he said.
“’Did you kill the guards?'” Ross was asked.
“We beat the hell out of them, and then we took them to a prisoner of war camp. All of us knew we were violating the Geneva Convention, but we didn’t give a damn,” he added.
Ross ended up with one of the toughest duties in the camp.
“I had the job of meeting with the victims from other concentration camps who came to Dachau looking for their relatives. The Germans had destroyed all the papers on everyone they were holding or killed in the camp, so there was no way to trace the whereabouts of anybody,” he explained.
“I had no answers for them. I’d take their names and tell them ‘I’ll do my best. Get back to me later,’” Ross said. “It was all bullshit because I couldn’t do a goddamn thing for them. There was no way to find their lost relatives.
“It was the most heart-rending job of my life. To see these poor people looking for their mothers, their fathers and their children. And to know they were all killed by the f—ing Germans was too terrible for words.”
He had empathy for these people searching for their relatives six decades ago because, “My wife lost her mother, her sister and her nephew at Auschwitz, another German concentration camp.
“I have a heavy heart talking to you about Dachau today. I have a bad feeling in me that bugs the hell out of me because of what the Germans did to those people in that concentration camp. That clown (Hitler) with the mustache should have died in his mother’s womb,” Ross observed.