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Robert Highsmith oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (27 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (13 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 November 30, 2008.
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.
This is an oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Robert Highsmith. Highsmith was a member of the 14th Armored Division, which liberated Ampfing, a sub-camp of Dachau, on May 1, 1945. The division went overseas in October 1944 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where they had two major battles. On campaign through central Europe, they were given the objective to take the Ampfing camp. The guards had already left the camp by that time; Highsmith recalls about that about 100 prisoners remained. In this interview, he describes finding the camp and his reactions to the prisoners
Armored Division, 14th.
Armored Division, 14th
v Personal narratives.
Dachau (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.
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xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Okay. Ive got a recorder on.
Robert Highsmith: All right.
MH: Youre Robert Highsmith?
RH: That is correct.
RH: Thats correct.
MH: Whats your address?
MH: And your phone number is.
MH: And your date of birth?
RH: Thats correct.
MH: Your birth date?
RH: Its 7-7-23 [July 7, 1923].
MH: Okay. You were with the 11th Armored Division?
RH: No, I was with the 14th.
MH: The 14th Armored Division.
RH: Yes. Uh-huh.
MH: Okay. The camp that you got to was Ampfing.
RH: Yes, and I want to bring up something. In your letter, you have the word A-m-f-i-n-g. Its really A-m-p-f-i-n-g.
RH: A-m-p-f-i-n-g. Its a misspell; they probably misspelled it when they were typing the
MH: Oh, or I did it, one of the two. (laughs)
RH: I was gonna point the finger in the other direction.
MH: Well, that was nice of you. So, tellwhen did you go in the service?
RH: I entered the service on the twenty-seventh of October in 1942.
MH: Youre drafted or enlisted?
RH: I enlisted. I was a student at the Southeastern State University in Durant, Oklahoma. And in order for me to be able to finish out that semester, I joined the reserves, and was actually called up to active duty and go to basic training in May 1943.
MH: Where had you grown up?
RH: I had grown up in Rudy and Prattsville, Arkansas.
MH: Okay. So youre in the army, and how do you end up in the 14th Armored Division?
RH: Well, after I had basic training, I was assigned to go to a university in Richmond, Kentucky, and what they had there they called the ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program.
RH: Have you heard of that?
MH: Yes, I have.
RH: Okay. I was studying to be a civil engineer, but the program (inaudible) and they needed personnel and I was assigned probably in 1944by June of forty-four  to the 14th Armored Division. There were about 4,000 ASTP students who went to the 14th. I was assigned to Company C, the 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion of the 14th Armored Division. And we went over into Germany in about October of 1944.
MH: So, you get there after the D-Day invasion
RH: Yes, I did.
MH: and before the Battle of the Bulge?
RH: Yes. Now, there was what they call a southern salient of the Battle of the Bulge in Bannstein, Germany and I was in Bannstein, Germany [sic] for that battle.
Bannstein is actually in France, a hamlet of guelshardt in the Moselle dpartement.
And there was a movie made of that story called Combat Command, starring Howard Keel.
Armored Command was directed by Byron Haskin and released in 1961.
And we lost a considerable number of our personnel there at the battle of Bannstein.
MH: Was that your first major combat?
RH: Well, no, we had had several other engagements and activity before that, but that was probably one of the most major ones. And then in Steinsfeld, Germany, which was the Siegfried Line, that was the second big one; have you heard of that one?
RH: Okay. I was inparticipated in that. Those were the twoall of them were bad, but those were probably two of the most major.
MH: As armored infantry, whatre you riding in?
RH: I was riding in a half-track.
RH: But not all the time, because what would happen was, if we were gonna move to attack a village or a position, we had to get down from the vehicle and go there on foot.
MH: Did you have any choice of assignments? I mean, could you have been a tanker as opposed to being in the armored infantry?
RH: No, I did not. We were assigned to the infantry, and we did that during the entire period of the war. Now, let me bring this up: After I was discharged in 1946, I guessprobably in about January forty-six I went back to college, got the commission, and was retired in 1967, a blue pin colonel.
MH: So, you stayyou went back and stayed in the Army?
RH: Yes, I did. Made a career.
MH: Did you serve in Korea?
RH: Yes, I did. I went back to Germany first, and I did that in 1948 and we stayed over there till 1952; and went to Fort Hood, Texas, and all the other different places.
MH: What about Vietnam?
RH: No, I retired before Vietnam. I retired in 1967. And I took note of the fact that you werewere you in the service then, or
MH: I was in the 25th Infantry Division.
RH: Yes, okay.
MH: So, to come back to Germany and World War II, were you aware of concentration camps as you were fighting your way up there?
RH: No, not really.
MH: So the word hadnt spread; the Army hadnt done anything official to tell people.
RH: No, they hadnt. But this was supposed to be the DP [displaced persons] camp, was it not?
MH: Im not sure; I havent looked it up before I called you.
RH: Okay. Well, you can get on the computer and look up Ampfing, and it will come up on the computer.
MH: Yeah, Ive got it.
RH: Youve got it?
MH: Yeah. Were you in Mhldorf?
RH: Um, no, it was in Ampfing.
MH: In Ampfing, okay.
RH: Yes, and we were not there very long. But I have some very positive memories about some things that happened there.
MH: Tell me about your discovery of the camp. How did you first find it?
RH: We were given this as an objective, to take it and attack. We went into the area there, but all the German guards had already left by then, so it was only the individuals that were the Jewish personnel.
MH: The prisoners inside the camp
RH: Yeah, the prisoners, uh-huh. There was only prisoners then.
MH: What did you see when you first got to the camp?
RH: Okay. What really stands out in my mind most vividly was there was about four or five of the prisoners who were standing therenow, they spoke German and I spoke English only. But about four of them were tall, their hair was unkempt. They were very, very, very skinny; they had lost a lot of weight, with one exception. There was one of the persons therehe had a haircut, was shaved, skinhead. He was fat, he hadwhen he smiled, you could see a stainless steel tooth there in his mouth. And I know to this good day that he was a collaborator, because his physical appearance was so much different from all the others that were there.
MH: And nobody was pointing a finger at him?
RH: Huh? No, they werent. No, they werent.
RH: We did not stay there very long. We left, and Im not even sure that we spent more than one day and a night there at that camp.
MH: I mean, theres a lot of Army units who spent, you know, less than two hours at camps that they came into. Did you drive your half-track into the gates?
RH: I dont think that we did. I think that we dismounted and moved in on foot.
MH: Whats your attitude at that point? I mean, is your rifle at the ready, are you thinking theres trouble, or is it
RH: Well, youre alwayswhen youre infantry and on the attack like that, youre always at the ready, because you dont know what youre gonna get when you get into there. Only a few days before, we had gone to another prisoner of war camp. We went into that camp and there were German guards there. And one of the individualsIm sorry. But he had been captured in Bannstein just about two or three months before that, and he was there and he had lost a lot of weight. He must have lost thirty or forty pounds.
MH: Did you know where this man was from?
RH: He was from our company.
MH: From your company?
RH: Yes, he was. I dont remember his name now. I could research
MH: Thats okay.
RH: I have a history of the 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion, because he was a friend of mine, but I just cant remember his name now.
MH: And where did they find him?
RH: In this camp, prisoner of war camp. Do you have a copy of the 62nd Battalion history?
MH: No, I dont.
RH: You dont have one?
MH: No. And that happened how long before you got to Ampfing?
RH: Probably about a week or ten days, something like that.
RH: And we went into Ampfing on 1 May.
MH: Okay. What do you think as you walk into the camp?
RH: Im thinking that, if there are any German guards there, that were going to take and do everything we can, you know, to eliminate em. (laughs)
MH: Ive discoveredby now, Ive interviewed probably about 150 men and fouractually four women, four nurses. And I dont know why it took me by surprise at how many of them said that after seeing the camp, you know, some people said, We didnt take any prisoners. You know, it wasthat it just affected them to the point that they just wanted to eliminate every German they saw.
RH: I dont think I had that attitude. I dont think so. Had they been, you know, willing to engage us in combat, thats one thing. But if the individual is going to surrender, you know, you dont shoot him.
MH: Even if you find out that theyre SS?
RH: Even if I find out that theyre SS. I only had one encounter with an SS, and that was after the war was over.
MH: Where did that happen?
RH: I think it was Berghausen, Germany, and the only reason I know that he was the SS was because he had this, you know, identifying tattoo on his arm. And after that war was already overthis was probably, lets see, June, July, something like that: a couple of months afterward.
MH: So, was he somebody who was under arrest?
RH: No, he was not. He was a civilian, and the only reason I know he was SS because I saw his identifying tattoo.
MH: So, come back to Ampfing. Youre carrying, what, an M1 rifle or a carbine?
RH: Oh, absolutely. M1 rifle.
MH: And youre walking into the camp
RH: Im walking into the camp, and
MH: And what do you see? Do you see many people?
RH: In my recollection, there were probably a hundred or so left, you know, prisoners at that point in time. This was on the first of May. Some other of your interviewees might have a different figure, because it could have been later in the year.
MH: So, you walk in, and?
RH: Were walking in, and these people, they come out to talk to us. And there were no SS guards, or any guards.
MH: Did it surprise you that, without guards, they had stayed in the camp?
RH: They had no way to do anything themselves. Most of them were emaciated, starved, ill; and as I understand, a lot of them died later because they had been maltreated, malnourished, and then no medication.
MH: So, they come out to talk. Do they speak English? Or did you speak
RH: No, they didnt speaknot any of them spoke any English.
MH: Did you speak any of the languages that they spoke?
RH: (laughs) None.
MH: None. So how do you communicate?
RH: Just do. Ask em, you know, questions. How are you? I know a little German, though. Wie geht es ihnen? it means How are you? And Was ist los? is Whats the matter? You know, I know just a few words. But sitting down and interview a person like you and I are doing, no, I dont have that much German. Dont have that much command.
MH: Are youdoes their physical appearance repel you, or do you get
RH: You feel very sorry for these people because of the fact that they were so malnourished and ill kept, their hair long and stringyexcept this one guy. (laughs)
MH: So, what do you do? Do you go into the barracks?
RH: No, I did not.
MH: What about any other buildings?
RH: Uh, none. I did not go into any of them. We stayed out in the open areas and the streets.
MH: Was it all men, or were there women as well?
RH: No women.
MH: No women.
RH: There could have been women that I didnt see, you know, but the only people that I saw were male.
MH: Is there anyyou know, was there any particular person, other than that one you saw with the stainless steel tooth, who stands out in your mind?
RH: There was one individual. He could probably behe stood tall, I guess for Jewish. He was probably 61, 62 tall, and if he weighed eighty pounds Id be surprised. Very tall, but smiling. We were not veryyou know, there very long.
MH: They understood that you were Americans?
RH: Oh, yes.
MH: What about the inclination to give them food?
RH: We did, but we didnt have much food ourselves. We had, you know, C rations. I can remember one town where we on attack and I dont think I had anything to eat for about three days. I finally got into aand this was in Germanyin a turnip field, and I sat down and took a turnip and peeled the thing with my bayonet and ate it, cause I hadnt had anything to eat for a while.
MH: You just ate it like it was an apple?
RH: Yeah, thats right.
MH: How did it happen that American troops went without food for so long?
RH: Well, the mess hall, they didntyou know, they stayed back in what they call rear echelon. Im sure youve heard that term. And they would issue
MH: Yes, Im here.
RH: Okay. They would issue you some C rations or K rations. And, because the source of supply wasnt all that good, they used to have something called a ten-in-one rationhave you heard of that?
RH: All right. Well, a ten-in-one was fine, but the squad was composed of thirteen people when it was up to full strength, and so you had to take them and do the best that you could as far as dolling out food. Ten peoplethirteen people for ten rations. We didnt have a lot of, you know, comfort food or anything like that. You got a K ration and have a piece of cheese and some crackers in it, and that was about it.
MH: So, what were the circumstances thatyoure walking around Ampfing. At what point do you figure out you have to leave and keep going?
RH: Based on, you know, orders from our unit commander. He told us to evacuate, and we went onthis was on the first of May, and I think the war was over almost immediately after that.
MH: On the eighth.
RH: On the eighth of May.
MH: How many of your men from your unit were walking around at Ampfing at that point?
RH: Probably our platoon, which could have been, you know, twenty, twenty-five, thirty people that were in there.
MH: Whats the conversation thats taking place between you and your buddies?
RH: Very casual, say, Hey, look at this guy, you know, How bout this? Or, How could this have happened? And we were really more concerned that, you know, leaving the area and going on whatever our next objective was, cause the war wasnt over at that time. We still had another week.
MH: Right. When you left, was there another unit there to replace you?
RH: Im sure there was. But thatyou know, this was real small, a small little camp; it really wasnt that big. If there was more than a hundred people in it when I was there, Id be very surprised.
MH: Have you ever had any contact after the war with any of the survivors?
RH: No. No.
MH: How do you think seeing that has impacted your life, if at all?
RH: Not as much there as what had happened over in Bannstein and Steinfeld, because we lost more of our troops in those two battles than in anything else. But Ill always have this memory of going in and seeing these four or five people and this one guy that washis physical appearance was so different. Ill never forget that.
MH: Im just amazed that they didnt
RH: I was amazed that they didnt try to kill him.
RH: This wasI dont know when the SS troops left. I dont know. But they were so happy that the SS had gone that they were not concerned in, you know, taking and having vengeance against this one person.
MH: Did you see any other camps? You know, after Ampfing?
RH: No, no, I didnt.
MH: Ive been trying to find some people from the division who went to the camp calledwell, at Mhldorfcalled Dachau III B.
MH: Yeah, it was at Dachau III B. It was a sub-camp of Dachau.
RH: I have been in Dachau. I was in Dachau in, oh, 1950, fifty-one , along in through there.
MH: Thats when you were in the Army?
RH: (inaudible) But by that time, I had already gone back to college, got a commission, and been reassigned to Germany. And there was one thing I will always remember about Dachau, was the ovens. And then there was a tree, and on this tree had a limb that was sticking out, and the limb was just shiny becauseyou know, tie ropes around, hang people. And Ill never forget that.
MH: Do you have a photo of yourself from your World War II days?
RH: Probably do. I could probably get something. I got your address.
MH: If you could find me a photo from then and then a recent picture, Id appreciate it. Â If you send them to me, Ill put them on the computer and Ill send them back to you.
RH: A recent picture?
MH: Uh-huh, and one from World War II.
MH: You didnt take any pictures in Ampfing, I assume?
RH: No, we didnt. No, we didnt. But I do have some pictures here. I think I have a picture taken of me in Braunau [am Inn], Austria. You know what that is, dont you?
RH: Thats the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.
MH: Oh, okay.
RH: Im standing out in the street, and ImIm sure that thats one I can remember, but now, today, there (laughs) that was sixty-eight years ago, or fiftyeah, fifty-eight years ago. But no, it wasthe war was in forty-five . That was in
MH: Sixty-three years ago. If you can send me a picture of you from World War II and a current one, Id appreciate it.
MH: And youve got my address there.
RH: Yes, Ive got your address. Let me read it to make sure, because there was a typographical error there. Its Michael Hirsh.
MH: Thats right.
RH: I know I have your right phone number.
MH: Right. Exactly. Do you have email?
MH: Whats your email address?
MH: Okay. Well, I appreciate your calling me. Any other guys that you know of who were there?
RH: I have not maintained any contact with people after I got out of service, and I dont know if anyhas anybody else responded to your?
MH: Uh, one man, a man named Nathan Melman.
Nathan Melman was also interviewed for the Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is C65-00089
RH: Nathan Milton?
MH: He was inIm trying to thinkmechanized calvary recon.
RH: Okay. He was in 94th Recon, probably. I haveokay. Well, I was gonna look through the roster, because I am in the 62nd Division history, and it has a roster of all the people including the reinforcements that wereI think in our company, we went over with 255, that was our T.O.N.E component in our company. And there was probably close to 400 people whobecause they were replacements, you know, wounded, killed and whatever.
MH: Were you wounded there?
RH: No. No. And Ithe good Lord really took care of me both in Bannstein and Steinfeld, and the whole thing. I never even got a scratch. People, you know, were getting killed within feet of me and I never got a scratch. I was in the infantry platoon carrying an M1 rifle.
MH: ItsI mean, theres no rhyme or reason to it.
RH: No, there isnt. There isnt, cept I figure that God had a different plan for me.
MH: I suppose so. Well, thank you very, very much for calling me.
MH: I look forward to seeing the photos.
RH: Okay, Ill go through and Ill see what I can do for you.
MH: Okay, thank you very much.
RH: Okay. Bye-bye, Michael.
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