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Wayne Armstrong oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (30 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (11 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsch (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted September 10, 2008.
This is an oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Wayne Armstrong. Armstrong was a rifleman in the 63rd Infantry Division when it liberated Landsberg on April 29, 1945, finding the camp while en route to Munich. He describes his experiences at Landsberg and afterwards, including finding a slave labor camp near Mosbach and receiving a letter from one of the former prisoners decades after the war that thanked him for liberating the camp.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
Infantry Division, 63rd.
Infantry Division, 63rd
v Personal narratives.
Landsberg (Concentration camp)
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
COPYRIGHT NOTICE This Oral History is copyrighted by the University of South Florida Libraries Oral History Program on behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of South Florida. Copyright, 201, University of South Florida. All rights, reserved. This oral history may be used for research, instruction, and private study under the provisions of the Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of the United States Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section 107), which allows limited use of copyrighted materials under certain conditions. Fair Use limits the amount of material that may be used. For all other permissions and requests, contact the UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA LIBRARIES ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at the University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, LIB 122, Tampa, FL 33620.
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Okay. Your name is Wayne Armstrong? W-a-y-n-e A-r-m-s-t-r-o-n-g?
Wayne Armstrong: Yes.
MH: Whats your address, please?
MH: And your phone is
WA: Thats right.
MH: And you were with Company C of the 255th Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division.
WA: Company C.
MH: Right. Whats your date of birth?
WA: 10-21-22 [October 21, 1922].
MH: Twenty-two . When did you go in the Army?
WA: In the Army?
WA: December of forty-two .
MH: Of forty-two . Where did they send you?
WA: Camp Van Dorn.
MH: What unit did you join after basic?
MH: After basic training, what unit were you in?
WA: C Company, 394th Infantry, 99th Division.
MH: 99th Division. Who did you go to Europe with?
MH: With the 63rd. When did you get to Europe?
WA: December forty-four .
MH: December forty-four . And you were a rifleman?
WA: Yes, squad leader.
MH: Squad leader. So, what was your rank by then?
WA: Eventually, it was staff sergeant.
MH: Okay. At that point, had they told you anything about the concentration camps?
MH: You didnt know anything about them at all?
WA: No, it was a total surprise.
MH: So, tell me about discovering them. What did you find?
WA: Well, it was toward the end of the war, and we was down in Bavaria, come into Landsberg. We were moving pretty fast, and we werethe foot soldiers were riding on the outside of tanks. We came to this camp, and the gates was open, and in we went, and saw all these people in thesewe called them pajamas: blue and white striped. It was unbelievable. We justthe tanks stopped, and everybodys staring at these people. They looked like they was walking dead, almost. And corpses piled on flatcars, and we didnt know what to make of it, you know.
MH: Where were you riding on the tank?
WA: Up on the top.
MH: Up on the top. And the tank went in the gates?
MH: This is from the 10th Armored or 12th Armored?
MH: The tank was from the 10th Armored Division, or the 12th Armored Division?
WA: Well, for a while, we was with the 10th, but I dont know at that particular time whether we were still with them or not.
MH: Okay. So, you get off the tank, and whats going through your head?
WA: Well, you know, these people looked like they was starving. We started giving them stuff out of our K rations. And it was not too longword came down not to give them anything. There was too much calories, and they couldnt digest it. It was the wrong thing to feed people. But we didnt know it, you know, and we felt sorry for them.
MH: How do you deal with seeing people in front of you who you know are starving to death, and youre told you cant give them food because itll kill them?
WA: Well, it was tough, you know. They were just walking around like they was in a fog, shuffling around, and their bones was sticking out. We couldnt figure out how anybody could treat people like that.
MH: You talked about it with your buddies?
WA: Oh, yeah. We couldnt believe we was in a place like this.
MH: Do you remember any of the things that were said? I know its a long time ago.
WA: Well, we just discussedyou know, we couldnt hardly believe what we was seeing.
MH: Was anybody able to explain it?
WA: No, it waswed heard rumors that they had slave labor, but the slave labor they had was in factories, and they fed them enough to keep them working, you know. Wed run into a lot of that.
MH: You saw slave labor camps before you got to Landsberg?
WA: Oh, yeah.
MH: Tell me about those. What did you see?
WA: Well, in Hamburg, there was barbed wire enclosures with sections segregated. There was factories there, and I guess they worked in the factories. When we got there, the Germans had left, and the men and the women of the camps, they got together, you know, and they waswell, the lieutenant come got me, and we went in one camp looking for some Gestapo agent. We had flashlights and was in this building, and they didnt pay any attention to us. But most of them was laying on the floor fornicating, and they didnt pay any attention to us. We found the Gestapo man in there, took him prisoner, and then got out of there.
MH: That mustve been a really strange sight to see.
WA: Oh, yeah, it was. You know, just crazy. I couldnt believeI think they had slave labor doing most everything. They had underground factories.
MH: Did you see any of those underground factories?
WA: Yeah. In fact, they sent memy squadthat was right after the warup by Mosbach to this underground factory. It was halfway up the mountainside, and the tunnels went back in there. They built airplane engine blocks; they were aluminum. God, I dont know, they was six feet long or something. Just the blocks is all they made there. And there was all kind of machinery, and most of the machinery was from the United States.
WA: Cincinnati Milling. Had the nameplates right on them.
MH: Id never heard that. This was after the war that you saw these?
WA: Yeah, there wasnt anybody in these factories then. They was empty, but we was up there, I dont know, guarding it for some reason. I dont know. And all the brassyou know, Air Force and all kind of generals and stuff coming there to see this place, and I had to conduct them on tours.
MH: You were the tour director?
WA: Well, you know, they wanted to see all of it, and I was there with my squad, and so it was up to me. I had to take them around. This thing branched out and went different directions. It was a big place.
MH: Where was that near?
WA: I think it was near Mosbach.
MH: Mosbach. What about when the war was still going on, in the final months? Did you see any of those in the mountain, those factories and tunnels?
WA: No, I dont believe so.
MH: What about any other places where they were using slave labor?
WA: Well, they used a lot. But I dont know. I dont remember. A lot of them was abandoned and people had taken off, you know.
MH: Mm-hm. The slave laborers were gone already?
MH: Except for that one time when you had to look for the Gestapo guy?
WA: Yeah. Yeah, they were still there; I dont know why they didnt leave. The only place they left was the mix-up with the opposite sex, you know.
MH: To go back to Landsberg for a minute, how long did you spend inside the camp there?
WA: How long what?
MH: How long were inside Landsberg?
WA: Oh, we was there a day or two. But I think we got relieved there, and we pulled back for occupation duty.
MH: Inside Landsberg, did you talk to any of the inmates?
WA: No, they werent capable of talking.
MH: You mean because they were weak or they just didnt speak the language?
WA: Both. Now, I had a letter about maybe six or eight years ago from one of them, and he was in this country; in fact, I think he was in Maryland. Somehow, he got my name and address and wrote me a thank you letter for liberating him from this camp. And this was a satellite camp; it wasnt one of the main camps. It was bad enough, you know. And he wrote this letter, and he came to this country and said he joined the Army and was in Korea, so he mustve been pretty young when he was in the one that we liberated.
MH: Right. Did you ever write back to him, or talk to him?
WA: Yeah, I wrote back to him, but I never heard from him again.
MH: What was it like to get a letterthis had to be what, forty years, forty-five years after the war?
WA: Yeah, probably fifty.
MH: Fifty? So, whats it like to have that sort of come back into your life?
WA: Well, it was rather surprising. I didnt figure any of them people lived that long, you know. He mustve been a young one or something.
MH: But do you still have the letter?
WA: Well, I probably do, but the trouble is finding it. Its probably down in my basement somewhere.
MH: I know
WA: Ill look for it and see if I can find it.
MH: Okay. When you came back to this country, when did you get out of the Army?
WA: Well, actually, I was on my way to the Pacific, and I went to Camp Lucky Strike, which was in Le Havre, France. We waited for a ship, and we was there for, I think, most of July of forty-five  and part of August. We finally got a ship, and we was gonna go to the States for thirty days, and then we was going to ship out to Japan. And then, halfway across is when they dropped the bomb and they surrendered, and the war was over, you know. Then we came into Boston, and they really gave us a rousing welcome, you know. (laughs)
MH: Whatd they do for you?
WA: Well, they had the fireboats out in the harbor, and the train whistles was blowing, and they had people down on the dock and bands, passing out doughnuts and coffee and stuff. And we went to Camp Myles Standish, which is somewhere near Boston, I guess, but was only there a short time. We got on the train, and they highballed us all the way through to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and then come right through my town to go there.
MH: Which town was that?
WA: It was Indianapolis, where Atterbury was, but we went through Columbus, where I lived, to get there. Then I went home on a thirty-day furlough, got married, and then they wired me fifteen more days. And I thought, Well, I might have enough points to get out. I went back and I was two points short, so they said, You gotta go to Texas.
MH: For two points?
WA: Yeah. So, I went to Austin, Texas, Camp Swift, and 2nd Division, Arrowhead DivisionIndianhead Division. And I was there thirty days, and then they discharged me and I got to go home.
MH: Whatd you do when you got home? What was your civilian job?
WA: Well, I worked at Timken Roller Bearings for about a year, and then I went to work for the local power company and eventually got into engineering there, designing power lines and so forth.
MH: When did you finally retire?
WA: Eighty-three .
MH: Eighty-three . You have children?
WA: Yeah, I have three boys and a girl.
MH: Okay. Do you recall when it was after you came home that you told your wife or your kids about the things you had seen in Germany, about the camps or about the slave labor places?
WA: Oh, gee, I dont know. Well, I was married twenty-one years to my first wife; she died suddenly from a heart attack, and I had two boys then. One was eleven, one was fourteen. I dont know. I dont know when I told them. Probably after ten or fifteen years or something.
MH: Yeah. Have you ever run into people who say the Holocaust didnt happen?
WA: Well, not personally, but Ive heard people quoted in the newspaper that it didnt happen. But theyre crazy, because I saw it.
MH: Yeah. Is it the sort of thing that comes back to you every so often, or do you manage to put it out of your head?
WA: Well, it did for a few years, but it dont anymore.
MH: Okay. All right. Anything else you remember about it, about the camps or the slave labor places?
WA: Well, just the conditions. They wasand how theythe thing over the gate, some laborer macht frei.
MH: Arbeit mach frei. Yeah.
WA: Ill tell you one thing: some of us went to the commandants office, and, of course, all them Germans had left. And there was a big metalI think it was bronze or somethingswastika up on top of the building. We sat on a knoll and used our rifles and shot that thing until it fell off and fell down on the ground.
MH: Were the prisoners watching you do this?
WA: Watching us?
WA: No, that was kind of an area they werent allowed in. I guess they still thought they werent, I dont know.
MH: How far away were you shooting from?
WA: Oh, not very far. Just across the road from the building. It was real nice there, grassy knoll, and the building was real fancy.
MH: How long did it take you guys to shoot it down?
WA: Well, it was a good while; that thing was about a half-inch thick. Probably half an hour at least.
MH: I guess thats one way to get rid of the anger.
WA: Yeah, thats what it was, really.
MH: Ive talked to guys who said that after they saw the camps, they didnt take prisoners anymore.
WA: Well, actually, we werent in combat that much after we sawwe only saw that one camp.
MH: Right. But, I mean even the slave labor places.
WA: Well, I dont know of any that didnt take prisoners.
MH: Do you have a photograph of yourself from World War II?
WA: Yeah, I probably could find one.
MH: What Id like to doyour email address is.
MH: If I send you my address, do you thinkI could actually send you an envelope, if youd like. If you could send me a photo from World War II and from now, Ill copy them on the computer and send them back to you.
WA: All right.
MH: And if you could find that letterI know thats going to be a search, because if somebody told me I had to find something in my garage, itd take a while.
MH: So, I understand that. But if theres
WA: Well, we moved here fifteen years ago and put stuff in the basement, and we meant to go down there and sort it out and get rid of stuff, and I dont think we ever touched anything.
MH: I know that feeling.
WA: Its about time we did it.
MH: Well, listen, if you can find it and make a copy and send it to me, or send me the original, Ill copy it and send it back. But Ill send you an email with my address and the information about the book Im writing. And if you could find a picture, thatd be great. Okay?
WA: You want a picture in the States?
MH: Nowell, if you have one from Germany, thatd be great, but if you dont have one from when you were in Germany, but just something, you know, when youre in a uniform, thatd be good.
WA: Yeah, I found a camera over there in Germany. I had a hard time finding any film, and the quality isnt too good, but
MH: You didnt take any pictures in the camp, did you?
MH: No? Okay. Well, Ill send you an email, and if you can find a photo from that era, thatd be greatand a current one, as well.
MH: Okay, Ill send the email tonight.
WA: All right.
MH: Theres no rush for you to do this, so if you can get it in the next month or two thatd be great.
WA: Whens your book coming out?
MH: The bookI have to finish writing the book by next May, and the book will come out in early 2010. Ive been working on it now for about five months. Writing books takes a long time.
WA: Ill bet.
MH: I could do it faster, but the publishers are slow. They like to plan way in advance.
WA: Have you written other books?
MH: Yes, I have. This is my sixth book. I was embedded with Air Force pararescue units in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the end of 2002 to write a book called None Braver. Ive written one Vietnam bookIm a Vietnam vet. I was with the 25th Division in Vietnam. I wrote another rescue book about a unit that went to the rescue of a ship that sunk in the north Atlantic. And I wrote a book about the Terri Schiavo case; I wrote the book for Michael Schiavo, who is the husband of Terri Schiavo.
None Braver: U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen in the War on Terrorism; A Snipers Journey: The Truth About the Man Behind the Rifle; Pararescue: The Skill and Courage of the Elite 106th Rescue Wing; and Terri: The Truth.
That was in the news a couple years ago. So, its what I do.
WA: Thats great.
MH: Thank you. So, Ill send you this email as soon as I hang up.
WA: You live in Pensacola?
MH: No, I live in Punta Gorda.
WA: Punta Gorda.
MH: Yeah, I live where Hurricane Charley hit four years ago.
WA: We went in there last December on the Skybus. (laughs)
MH: Yeah, exactly. Skybusthe late, lamented Skybus. I wish they still had it. Yeah, Skybus landsor landedten minutes from my house.
WA: Yeah, we was down in Fort Myers Beach for, oh, I guess about a week or ten days or something, in December. We landed there in Punta Gorda.
MH: Yeah, Skybus was a great bargain.
WA: It looked like they got that all ready for Skybus, and then they went bust.
MH: They went bust. Now were getting a new airline, they say, called Direct Air, but we dont know where theyre flying from yet.
WA: That was a pretty good deal, that Skybus. Im sorry to see them go out of business.
MH: You and me both. I never had a chance to fly them. I was trying to get tickets to go up to Massachusetts on them, and then they went bust. So