HE SILENCE MUST HAVE FRIGHTENED EMILY WILSEY. In the seven months since her husband had gone to war, Captain David Wilsey, a 30-year-old anesthesiologist with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, had never gone more than a day or two without sending her a letter. Every step of the frigid, mud-soaked, and bloody Allied advance across France and Germany, he had written to her of his experiences. But now, with victory assured and the newspapers declaring the war in Europe all but over, the letters had stopped.
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His last letter, dated May 1, 1945, was sent from “Somewhere Else Yet Again, Germany.” He had written about how excited he was that his unit would get the chance that night to see The Keys of the Kingdom, a movie starring Gregory Peck. He marveled over how fast the latest issue of the Elko Daily Courier, the daily paper in their town in Nevada, had reached him. “The advance party is out to reconnoiter the new site we will move to in a day or two, ” he added, making his first reference to KZ-Gedenkstätte-Dachau—the Dachau concentration camp. Dachau opened in 1933 and was initially used to house political prisoners. It later became a training facility for the SS, the elite Nazi military force responsible for planning and executing the “Final Solution, ” or the annihilation of the Jews. An estimated 41, 500 prisoners were murdered there. Some went to the gas chambers, or were shot or beaten to death; others expired from exposure or starvation, or died subsequent to medical experiments conducted by SS doctors. Dachau was the inaugural Nazi concentration camp and served as a model for their massive killing system. “The war could end any hour yet we keep moving, racing, working just as if it weren’t over, ” he told her, closing the letter by writing, “I love you, ” to his wife nine times in four long rows.
Then a week of uncharacteristic quiet. When the letters finally resumed, her loving, joking, open, and optimistic husband had been transformed by what was evidently the defining trauma of his life. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, David Wilsey began a seven-page letter to his wife, addressing her as “My Most Precious Being”:
We roared through the gates of Dachau figurative “minutes” after its liberation while 40, 000+ wrecks-of-humanity milled, tore, looted, screamed, cried as/like depraved beasts which the Nazi SS has made them. In those early “minutes, ” I saw captured SS tortured against a wall [by U.S. soldiers] and then shot in what you Americans would call “cold blood”—but Emily! God forgive me if I say I saw it done without a single disturbed emotion BECAUSE THEY SO HAD-IT-COMING after what I had just seen and what every minute more I have been seeing of the SS beasts’ actions. . . . AND! To think this is only “The Queen Bee” camp—others are worse though much smaller and it is here the “policies” were worked out for the lesser camps. In fact, this Dachau is THE home of SS Bestiality—Himmler’s “laboratory” and hangout.
. . . It is not only structurally the equivalent of a city of 50, 000 but it is the warehouse/supply point for hundreds of thousands more SS troopers. Thus I (yes, I!) and others have “liberated” (call it looted if you will) warehouses for three intensive days and five less intensive days. Dear, I just can’t even start to touch upon all that is stored here after years of Nazi looting the Continent of Europe.
If I turned you loose in the Chicago downtown Loop of five square miles, you would find every item there and here. Maybe I’m raised “different” but I’m still not a “good” looter. However, I have hundreds of smallish items that are of practical value. We regret only that we each don’t have one freight car apiece to go to the USA in—it’s PHENOMENAL/STUPENDOUS! I’ll only mention a few: a fine deer rifle, twin sweaters for you and I; silk smock for your house—”hasty” work; beautiful and expensive punching bag; I passed over most of the beautiful Dresden-ware; anesthesiology equipment; fine optical lens equipment (I missed the best); swords-tools-machinists apparatus; fountain pens; lotions; Swastika & SS banners to decorate our Rumpus Room, etc etc.
In that first letter and the many that followed, Emily Wilsey was an audience of one for an account of the end of the war in Europe that has never been a part of the accepted iconography of the Allied victors. In the respectful, carefully presented narratives found in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, the works of Steven Spielberg, plus countless other books, articles, museums, galleries, and radio shows, and much more, the American G.I. has been canonized as an altruistic and honorable moral opposite of our unspeakably cruel and vicious enemy…
By Steve Friess, a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, New York, and other publications.