The first flesh-and-blood black men that Holocaust survivors David Yeager of Poland and Ben Bender of Romania ever saw were the soldiers of the all black 761st Tank Battalion of General George S. Patton's Third Army who roared into Buchenwald's dreaded death camp on April 11, 1945.
"I thought they had come down from heaven," said Yeager, 67, yesterday from his home in Bayside. "I was very weak by then, I weighed 72 pounds and I thought I must be hallucinating.
"I grabbed one of the soldiers by the arm and kissed him. Are you American?" I asked him over and over. He was crying. I couldn't because by then I had no life left in me, not even enough for crying. "
The American blacks, derisively known in that segregated army as "Eleanor Roosevelt`s Niggers" -- she had fought for recognition for them -- were also the first black men Ben Bender had seen outside of movies and magazines.
"I saw them break through the gates," he said. "I was spellbound. I couldn't speak. They were crying as they saw the piles of corpses. eyes bulging, ribs sticking out, lying in piles everywhere.
" I heard one dying prisoner say to one or the soldiers. `I am dying, give me your hand.' The soldiers had walked right into the inferno."
Bender. now 64 and living in Boynton Beach, Fla., said over the telephone yesterday that it was black soldiers who liberated the death camp and not, as has sometimes been reported, Russian soldiers or the French underground."
"I was there," says Bender simply. It was his 1985 letter, revealing that black soldiers were the first to enter Buchenwald, that led to a fascinating and well-written book", "Liberators," and a 90-minute documentary to be aired Nov. 11 -- Veteran's Day -- on public television.
The exploits of this celebrated all-black tank unit of 800 men are just now attracting the belated attention of historians and television documentary makers. Film Director Stanley Kramer is reported to be working on a film that like "Glory" will spotlight black soldiers who, as the book by Lou Potter says, were involved in "Fighting on Two Fronts in World War Two."
One front was the war in Europe, of course. The other was the constant fight against discrimination in the Army that extended from the White House down to the foot soldiers.
It took 33 years for the 761st to be officially recognized. President Jimmy Carter awarded the unit a presidential citation lauding its bravery in battles including the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
Earlier this year the Anti-Defamation League honored the men of the 761st, noting they were the first to see the horrors of the Holocaust when they liberated Buchenwald and Dachau death camps.
"But the black soldiers of the U.S. Army were kept apart from whites. That exclusion extended to the black women of the Women's Army Corps, the WACS. Blacks were not allowed to mingle with white soldiers at USO dances, and reporters from Stars and Stripes, the Army's newspaper "went right by us to the white troops" after combat, says Johnnie Stevens of Carteret, N.J., a tank commander and holder of the Purple Star with Oak Cluster and the Bronze Star.
"Yeah, it was racism," said Stevens, 71, yesterday. He was one of the black soldiers of the 761st that rolled into Buchenwald, outside the city of Weimar. "it followed us from the training camps in the South all the way overseas and afterwards when we came back after the war."
Stevens retired after years of bus driving for New Jersey Public Transit. He was the first black to be given a long distance driving route. "People would come on the bus and some would say, `look here! A nigger's driving our bus," he recalls.
From his home in Queens Village yesterday, William McBurney, 68, recalled crashing through the gates of Dachau near Munich in the spring of 1945. He was driving a medium tank on a search and-destroy mission and he had no idea what awaited him.
"I thought I had come into a prisoner of-war camp," says McBurney. "It looked like the land of the living dead. They were nothing but walking skeletons. We carried food on the backs of our tanks because our food kitchens couldn't keep up with us. We gave some people food but that was the worst thing we could have done. They just weren't used to real food. Some of them got sick."
McBurney, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen and in Harlem. was blown out of his tank in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he worked as a supervisor at a plastics plant in Brooklyn. His grandson fought in the gulf war.
"He had it 100 per cent better than we did," says McBurney. "Now the troops are integrated and you have a chance to go somewhere. We were fighting for a better country but it took a long time after that war ended."
Some of the survivors and their liberators have become close friends. Last year many of them traveled to Buchenwaid. Bender remembers taking a group, including his friend Leonard (Smitty) Smith, 67, an ex-Brooklynite and a black soldier in the 761st who now lives 40 minutes from him in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to view a torture chamber.
"There were 48 hooks where the Nazis hung their victims," he says.
"If they didn't die on the hooks they were piled onto a hydraulic lift
and dropped into a chute that led to the ovens. "I cried that day, the
first time I had been back to the camp in almost 50 years. Smitty came
over and hugged me. I thought to myself, in all the years I spent in those
camps that was the first time I had ever been hugged by another human being."