"The Day the Thunderbird Cried"
World War II History Magazine
In this fine anthology, author David Israel, a veteran of the 45th "Thunderbird" Infantry Division, brings to light a multitude of little-known wartime episodes. After discovering that the history of World War II was being distorted (and in some cases, especially regarding the Holocaust, denied) by universities and others with their own agendas, Israel, whose unit liberated the notorious Dachau concentration camp, set out to set the record straight.
Within the book's 308 pages are the chilling, true tales of Dachau's liberation; the incarceration of American GIs in the Nazi slave-labor camp of Berga; Patton's failed attempt to liberate a POW camp that held his son-in-law; Japan's attempts to start forest fires in the U.S. with incendiary balloons launched from Japan; the destruction of the 106th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge; the massacre of French civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane and Russian Jews at Babi Yar; the valiant service of African-American troops, and much more. Although the events described are not in chronological order, the stories are sure to open the eyes and minds of those not well schooled in the history of WWII.
Medford man's book documents the massacre of Germans at Dachau
By JOHN DARLING
for the Mail Tribune
IN the waning weeks of World War II, U.S. soldiers liberating Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, Germany, came upon thousands of emaciated corpses. They became sickened and enraged and -- in violation of the Geneva Convention on rules of combat -- summarily executed many German guards and SS officers.
The little-known massacre of unarmed noncombatants on April 29, 1945, is the subject of a book by former World War II Army intelligence officer David Israel, 76, of Medford. His book is titled, "The Day the Thunderbird Cried."
The thunderbird, a Native American totem of happiness, was the insignia of the 45th Infantry Division, whose I Company (of the 157th Infantry) members committed the act.
Israel's book is based on interviews with ten soldiers who witnessed or carried out the executions; a "Stars and Stripes" military correspondent who was present; and an inspector general's report, called "Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau," which was kept secret until declassified in 1992.
"It's a very touchy subject," said Israel. "These guys had been through over 500 days of heavy combat with a 75 percent casualty rate. They'd seen a lot of death and killing. But when they went in and saw these corpses, just skin and bones, not even resembling human beings, many of them cracked. They went berserk."
The killings began when I Company soldiers came upon 30 railway cars containing 2,400 corpses a half mile from the camp, said Israel, who arrived at Dachau with an intelligence team four months after liberation.
"They weren't prepared to see that and it drove some of them past the ability to reason," said retired Army Lt. Col. Hugh Foster, 56, of Carlisle, Pa., a researcher on the incident and a source in Israel's book.
Four Germans wearing medical armbands approached the GIs to surrender, Foster said in a phone interview. But the company commander, Lt. William Walsh, yelled at them, "You call yourselves medical officers?" He then pushed them in a boxcar with the corpses and killed them with his .45 pistol, Foster said.
Walsh, a source in Israel's book, has since died.
The company segregated several hundred SS officers from other camp personnel, lined them up against a wall in the coal yard outside the camp, placed machine guns in front of them, said Israel, "and blew them away."
The firing was quickly halted, he added, by Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, commander of the 3rd Battalion, who recognized a war crime was being committed.
"It was a spontaneous thing. There was no order to do it," said Foster. "There's a lot of conjecture about whether the guns were set up to control them or to execute them. The most charitable explanation is that the Germans saw the machine guns being set up and some of them ran, then the machine gunners opened fire and everyone joined in with rifles and small arms."
Because many of the Germans dropped and played dead, only 17 were killed, Israel said. Forty others were later tried at Dachau on war crimes charges but few ended up being executed.
Still photos and movies were taken of the killings by soldiers of the Army Signal Corps, and when higher-ups in England viewed them, an inspector general was ordered into Dachau to interview participants and witnesses in the days following the incident.
The film disappeared into government archives, said Israel, and the report was sent to 3rd Army commander Gen. George S. Patton, who "called it a bunch of junk, burned all the papers on his desk and said get back to work."
At first unable to find photos to back up his book, Israel finally located a Signal Corps soldier in New York who told Israel he possessed, in his garage, undeveloped photos of the killings.
He processed them and gave Israel prints showing a prone machine-gunner, dozens of Germans crumpled against a wall and Sparks making a clear "halt" gesture with his left hand while pointing a .45 pistol in the air, barrel slide locked back (meaning the magazine was expended).
The Pentagon never quite believed Sparks' story that he stopped the killings, so he was never able to remove the cloud of doubt that he may have participated, said Israel.
Sparks left the Army after the war, entering law and eventually becoming a Colorado Supreme Court justice.
"When I gave the photos to Sparks, he said, 'Yes that's me, there's the map in my pocket.' He just broke down because he was finally proven innocent."
Israel began hearing about the killings at Army reunions in the late 1980s. In the early years of his research, he was sometimes suspected by participants of being a spy for the Army, which -- for all the veterans knew -- might still prosecute them, he said.
Israel made it clear to participants in the killings that his book and talks intend no judgment of the American soldiers as war criminals.
"All war is a crime and they became part of the insanity," Israel said. "I've never talked to a GI who didn't totally understand what they did (at Dachau)."
Foster said he believes the killings were a war crime and should have been delved into deeper.
"Armed soldiers aren't supposed to do that -- but soldiers had not heard about the Holocaust yet, and many were literally driven insane by it. It was all set aside because we were just finishing fighting a war to stop people from killing and no one wanted to look at us doing the same thing."
The machine-gunner at the Dachau killings, John Lee, then 19, now dead, described the mental state of the soldiers (but not the massacre) in a newspaper story years ago.
"It was just stunning, believe me," he was quoted as saying. "Nobody spoke a word. Guys were just looking at each other and were sick to their stomachs and all of a sudden there was anger, fierce anger. Every guy was literally crying and bawling. Everybody was sick to their stomachs and couldn't eat, couldn't sleep."
Officers at the liberation were unable to prevent further killings of unarmed noncombatants, said Foster, and soldiers of both the 42nd and 45th divisions summarily executed somewhere between 15 and 60 more unarmed Germans in small groups.
One inspector general interview had an American soldier saying an execution of eight Germans was triggered by a German reaching for a concealed gun.
The inspector general's report was sent back by the 7th Army for clarification on "the effects of extended combat on the soldiers," said Foster, with finalization delayed till well after war's end.
It was mis-filed and lost "accidentally or maybe on purpose" for 47 years, until dug out by Foster in military archives in Carlisle, Israel said. "It was squelched by the Army because the war was over and people only wanted to get back to their homes, families, jobs and lives."
When author talks to high school students, they 'get it' that war is sheer hell.
In talks at Ashland Middle School, Crater High School in Central Point and a high school in Dachau itself, David Israel said it's not hard to get across the message that war, far from being "Rambo glory," is sheer hell.
"The impact is pretty phenomenal," said Crater social studies teacher Bud LeFever. "The kids are in tears. They want to get his autograph and take pictures with him. It's one of those moments in education when you see them really 'get it' and come alive."
Students have heard about the Holocaust, he added, but it wasn't until they saw a film of the death camps and bodies, then heard firsthand from David Israel and Isabella Lider (survivor of Auschwitz, living in Medford) that they could understand what war really is.
"David doesn't have to present an anti-war message," LeFever said. "All you have to do is present the images and facts and it says -- this is how horrible war is and you don't want to do this. Then you've got not just the facts, but the feelings. The fact that battle-hardened soldiers fought their way across Europe and then lost it at Dachau, that tells the story about war."
The class capped the unit on the Holocaust with a visit to the veterans domiciliary (the old Camp White training camp of World War II) in White City and the Eagle Point National Cemetery.
The book, The Day the Thunderbird Cried: Untold Stories of World War II, written by David L. Israel is a flawless example of what literary nonfiction should be, and hopefully that was the intention of the author. The ability to catch the attention of the reader in this genre is very rare. Although the book’s topic is sinister the delivery is interesting, and its message is optimistic. Through the use of cinematic situations, unquestionable truth, and the ability to master the “seven second sound bite” Israel is able to keep the readers attention while still giving factual, unadulterated, and meaningful lessons in history.
The book is divided into four different sections, with about sixty completely different ideas that add to the author’s main purpose. Unlike fictional novels, books in this genre, are to explain a simple idea as it happened, which gives the book a purpose. His purpose above all is to educate and portray the horrors of the Holocaust. There are countless other books discussing this period in time, so what sets this book apart from the rest? Israel’s ability to grasp the reader’s attention and hold it for more then seven seconds is what sets him apart from many other authors. Imagine reading a book about the entire second Word War, sure we’ve read books about WWII, but never have we read books about the entire World War. If an author like Israel, or even Israel, were to write a book covering every inconsequential detail of the War, it would take the readers even longer to read the book, then the war lasted. When I read TDTC: USWWII, I could feel a sense of enlightenment, as if I had recently finished reading a short synopsis regarding the War. The fact that the author was able discuss one idea and create essays around them was staggering. In fact most of the ideas in the book couldn’t be summarized any less then it already is. This is how the author manages to keep the readers attention.
I’m not saying that the subject matter is monotonous, but I am saying that without any sort of artistic flare it would be quite arduous to read. Unfortunately, the Holocaust did happen, and regrettable wars are fought. What can we do to stop these tragic events? A driving force through out the book is the author’s position on knowledge. Knowledge is power, the power to stop further wars, which is his mission in the book, to inform the people of the past so that they do not forget. “The past is not dead. It is not even past,” this quote, as William Faulkner said, portrays the importance for remembering the past. If I was speaking to a 2nd grader, discussing this quote, I would ask them what they had for lunch yesterday. I know that some children would remember, but what about the other half? How would the child remember what they like and disliked if they couldn’t remember what they had for lunch the previous day. I personally dislike cauliflower, but how do I know that I dislike cauliflower? My memory serves as a protective shield that will make sure that I never come in contact with that “stuff”. The point that the author is trying to make regarding this book is that our understanding of the past is what will save us from the future. When Faulkner said that, “the past is not dead,” I know that it is safe to assume that if the past does die so will the future.
Finally, the author’s most important message in the book is his anti-war teachings. In many books war is taught as human nature, like eating and sleeping, but in Israel’s book, war is an abomination of man. What drove the German people to commit such terrible acts of genocide? This question still lingers in my head, even after I have read this book. For the decades following the Holocaust many historians have given reasonable explanations to the occurrence. The most feasible is that the German people were going to a depression so fierce that the majority of people were unemployed and starving, the impoverished Germans looked for someone to blame, and did so.
In conclusion, Israel’s book was a great read. Interesting and informative, which is a combination rarely seen in any type of book. If Israel didn’t go with this particular type of format I can honestly say that this book wouldn’t of had that big of an effect on me as it did. This is a must read for everyone, especially those who doubt that the Holocaust ever happened. Obviously the Holocaust did happen as the effect from it is still present today, which was definitely proved in this book. The book had more facts then I could have ever asked for. I believe that the New York Times should follow the examples set by Israel, when it comes to publishing factual information.
Proud Son of a Thunderbird
By the way, I have been reading from your book every few days or so and love it! I even purchased a digital copy from Amazon (Kindle Edition) so I would have it with me while traveling.