Thirteen/WNET, WGBH, and the American Experience have absolute confidence in the veracity this outstanding film. Scrupulously researched and based on unimpeachable eyewitness testimony, it vividly recounts an unjustly ignored part of our country's history. It is because historical accuracy is so essential, that we believe films like Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts In World War II must be made and broadcast.
Some questions concerning the content of the documentary Liberators.' Fighting on Two Fronts In World War II have been raised. Thirteen has undertaken a thorough review of these issues with filmmakers Bill Miles and Nina Rosenblum. Our response to these questions follow:
1) Why doesn't existing military documentation clearly place the 761st Tank Battalion at Dachau or Buchenwald?
During 183 days of consecutive combat through six European countries, members of the 761st were attached to the 26th, 71st, 79th, 87th, 95th and 103rd Infantry Divisions, as well as the 17th Airborne.
Official maps indicating the main routes of the 761st do not document these splintered units, which were detached and re-attached to different units throughout the fighting.
Gaps in the documentation of this unit not only pose problems for historians, it created problems during the war itself. Thirteen recently received a letter from Harold Gardner, Jr., formerly a major in the U.S. Army Finance Regiment, recalling that no provision had been made even to pay 761st tankers attached to the 87th Infantry Division in November of 1944.
According to Robert H. Abzug, professor of American history at the University of Texas and an expert on the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, "The combat situation was by nature characterized by a certain anarchy, one only compounded by the fact that this unit, as a number of others, often found itself split apart and attached to other units whose identities were used in official reports."
2) Wouldn't the commanding officer of the battalion know where all his troops were at the front?
Lt. Colonel Paul Bates, commander of the 761st, is quoted in an article in The New Republic making two statements: 1) that after-action reports do not place the 761st near either Dachau or Buchenwald 2) tanks of the 761st were assigned to the 71st Infantry engaged 60- 100 miles away. This implies that he knows with certainty that his men could not have been at Dachau or Buchenwald on their day of liberation.
In a conversation with Thirteen in November, 1992, the colonel stated that he had only administrative responsibility at this point in the war and that he "cannot confirm or deny" whether some members of the 761st may, in fact, have become detached from the main force of the 761st as documented in after-action reports. He said he had "no personal knowledge."
Reading his statements in The New Republic in light of this information, it becomes clear that he is quoted simply stating his knowledge as documented in official records available to him or anyone else. The author of the article, by the context in which he places Bates' quotes, tries to suggest that Bates was making an outright denial of the statements by 761st tankers who assert they were at Dachau or Buchenwald. In fact, by his own admission, Bates has no personal basis of knowledge to make such a denial.
3) Do experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum also say the 761st didn't help to liberate either concentration camp?
Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The New Republic , "A statement issued by historians at the U.S. Holocaust memorial Museum also states that they could find no evidence that the 761st Battalion helped free either camp."
A more complete excerpt of the text of that statement reads:
After a thorough search of documents in the National Archives, we are unable to find positive written evidence that the 761st Tank Battalion was involved in- the liberation of either the Buchenwold or Dachau concentration camps. Based on the available evidence, we can neither confirm nor deny that the 761st Tank Battalion was involved directly in the liberation of either the Buchenwald or Dachau concentration camps. This does not mean, however, that no individuals or units of the 761st were involved in the liberation of Buchenwald or Dachau, only that we have no documentary evidence to that effect.
The absence of written documentary evidence, however, is often not conclusive. The military circumstances in the Spring of 1945 were so chaotic that evidence of concentration camp liberations is usually scant in official unit records. Individual military units were moving very quickly and their whereabouts on any particular day is often difficult to reconstruct solely on the basis of written documentation. Almost fifty years after the fact, the process of identifying liberator units is still ongoing.
Again, this can hardly be taken as a contradiction of the clear statements of the survivors and liberators shown in this program.
4) Did you just ignore written documentation entirely?
Despite the omissions and deficiencies in official records, the filmakers did conduct exhaustive research at the Washington National Records Center in Sutland, Maryland, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Department of the Army, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
5) Why do veterans of other liberator units deny that the 761st was involved?
We can only conclude that they are stating what they believe to be true, based on previously published materials or personal recollections. However, as described above, military documentation is not complete, so materials based exclusively on these sources reflect those omissions. The eye-witness testimony of these veterans is an important part of the historical record, but it does not discount the eye-witness testimony of the African-American soldiers or the camp survivors who were also there. As the film makes clear, the men of the 761st who were at Dachau, were there only briefly. That some other veterans, who were at the camps before or after or in another area, may not recall seeing the African-American soldiers does not change the facts of their presence.
The film does not take credit from any other soldiers who have been justly credited for arriving at the gates of these horrific camps. What it does is enlarge the record of history also to credit some of those soldiers who have been overlooked by historical records.
6) Do all survivors of Buchenwald remember that African- American soldiers were present that day?
Nobel-prize winning author Elie Weisel, the current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Israel Lau, as well as other survivors who now reside in America including Alex Gross and his brother Sam, David Yaeger and Ben Bender have all publicly stated that black soldiers were present at Buchenwald at the outset of the liberation of the camp. It seems possible, without denying the credibility of these witnesses, to conclude that not every survivor saw the African-American soldiers on the day of liberation.
7) Is it possible the soldiers who say they helped liberate Dachau were just confused about where they were?
Walter Woodson, a 761st tanker who participated in the liberation of Dachau, moved to the perimeter with the other 761st tankers after passing through Dachau. The next day, however, he went back into Dachau and went through the camp. He was told he was at Dachau. Furthermore, their recollections precisely describe features of Dachau.
Also, international attorney and author Samuel Pisar was rescued from a death march only 25 kilometers from Dachau by a black tanker.
After the war Mr. Pisar was able to positively identify that specific member of the 761st. In this case as well, there is no military document that places that tanker in that place on that day. But the fact remains.
8) Why do you refer to these veterans as "liberators" if they were at the camps only briefly and didn't do much fighting there?
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and many centers for holocaust history define a "liberator" as any soldier who was at the camp within the first 48 hours that it was occupied by the Allies. Some centers amplify the definition of the term to include soldiers present in the first week. Both time frames are accepted uses of the term as it applies to concentration camp liberation.
The oral history testimony in the film by 761st tankers. which describes how they fired on remaining Nazi forces at Dachau, places these members of the 761st there in the first hours of liberation. Pertaining to Buchenwald, the detailed testimony by several veterans of the 183rd, one 761st tanker, and a number of camp survivors, places them at Buchenwald the first day of its liberation. By all accepted standards, these soldiers are entitled to the designation "liberators . "
However, the film also repeatedly uses the term "liberator" in its broader meaning referring to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis and the heroic, though largely unacknowledged, contribution of the 761st and the 183rd to that effort.
9) Why would E.G. McConnell, filmed at Buchenwald in the beginning of the documentary with another veteran and survivor, say he was never at Buchenwald before?
The film's narrative, in stating at the beginning of the film that "two veterans of the 761st Tank Battalion returned to Buchenwald with Ben Bender who was imprisoned there" means to say that Ben Bender returns, and the two veterans returned with, i.e. accompanying, him. Had the filmmakers any reason to believe that this one sentence would by parsed in such detail and used as the illogical underpinning for an argument that the African-American soldiers were never there, they would undoubtedly have constructed the sentence differently. Needless to say, they regret any ambiguity.
For the record, the two veterans were intended to be representatives of the 761st veterans. Beyond the use of the word "return" in the narrative, nothing they say or do in the film is inconsistent with that. Indeed, in the film Bender gives the veterans a tour of the concentration camp as you would guide someone who has never been there before. They are an audience for Bender's recollections about the day black soldiers liberated the camp too late to save his brother. Bender was aware that Smith and McConnell were merely representatives and, in his unscripted recollections, used the word "you" to refer generally to the African- American soldiers he saw on the day of liberation.
10) Why would E.G. McConnell say that no veterans of the 761st helped to liberate Nazi concentration camps?
E.G. McConnell was severely wounded in the winter of early 1944/45.
He describes in the program how a shell pierced his helmet and his skull.
As a result of this wound and a subsequent illness, McConnell was not at
the front in April, 1945, so he is not is a position to confirm or deny
the oral history of other 761st veterans still in action in April, 1945,
and who have asserted their participation in the liberation of Buchenwald