World War II Soldier reflects on liberating concentration camp during holocaust remembrance ceremony
April 12, 2010
- Soldier who liberates Buchenwald concentration camp speaks at Madigan Army Medical Center
- Holocaust Days of Remembrance is from April 11-18
MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Wash. -- For 65 years, Leo Hymas has been haunted by what he witnessed just outside of the German town of Weimar during World War II.
In his short military career of 11 months, Hymas had already lost his best friend in combat and disobeyed orders to kill two German prisoners of war, but discovering the Buchenwald concentration camp was something Hymas wasn't prepared to find.
Engaging in a firefight with German soldiers guarding the camp, Hymas and three other machine-gunners blew through the razor-wire fence with explosives, and captured or killed all of the guards.
Buchenwald became the first concentration camp discovered by American Soldiers, and Hymas, then 19 years old, was dubbed "Leo the Liberator."
But there are images and memories from that day which will never fade from his mind. "Buchenwald concentration camp was a place where people were literally worked to death," Hymas said.
"I've seen the ovens where the bodies were burned and I've seen the thousands of people who were treated so inhumanely." Hymas, now 84, shared his story as part of Madigan Army Medical Center's observance of the Holocaust Days of Remembrance, which takes place from April 11 to 18.
The program also included a traditional folktale by Dr. Julie Kinn, a research psychologist with the National Center for Telehealth and Technology located on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and a Prayer for Peace by Dr. Karen Fitzgerald, chief of Madigan's Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics department.
Hymas spoke at Madigan on the 65th anniversary of finding Buchenwald, and brought along mementos of his experience fighting in the European Theater, including an original Nazi party flag, which he seized from Gestapo Headquarters in Dusseldorf, Germany.
During the observance's opening remarks, Madigan Commander Col. Jerry Penner III shared his thoughts about the liberation of the concentration camps.
"During World War II, the United States put 10 million men under arms," Penner said. "I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be one of those very select few Soldiers walking into one of these camps in Buchenwald, Dachau and others. It boggles the mind."
The day after Buchenwald was liberated, the war ended.
In the following days, the camp was visited by Gen. Omar Bradley, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. George S. Patton, who, according to Hymas, became physically ill at the sight of the emaciated prisoners and hundreds of dead bodies.
"General Eisenhower issued a statement to the world about what we had found there," Hymas said. "And I got to go home, where there was no one shooting at me."
Hymas, a resident of Whidbey Island, Wash., and a member of the speaker's bureau for the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, shares his wartime experience as a way to come to peace with his memories.
"I was blessed to help free many oppressed people," Hymas said. "What tiny little bit I did to help overcome that terrible, awful wickedness, as difficult as it was, was the best thing I have ever done in my life."