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Eugene O'Neil oral history interview

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Material Information

Title:
Eugene O'Neil oral history interview
Series Title:
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
Uniform Title:
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects
Physical Description:
1 sound file (30 min.) : digital, MPEG4 file + ;
Language:
English
Creator:
O'Neil, Eugene, 1926-
Hirsh, Michael, 1943-
University of South Florida Libraries -- Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center
University of South Florida -- Library. -- Special & Digital Collections. -- Oral History Program
Publisher:
University of South Florida Tampa Library
Place of Publication:
Tampa, Fla
Publication Date:

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Concentration camps -- History -- Germany   ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Concentration camps -- Germany   ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Concentration camps -- Liberation   ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Atrocities   ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Personal narratives, American   ( lcsh )
World War, 1939-1945 -- Veterans -- United States   ( lcsh )
Veterans -- Interviews -- United States   ( lcsh )
Genocide   ( lcsh )
Crimes against humanity   ( lcsh )
Genre:
Oral history   ( local )
Online audio   ( local )
Oral history.   ( local )
Online audio.   ( local )
interview   ( marcgt )

Notes

Summary:
Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Eugene O'Neil. O'Neil was a member of the 80th Infantry Division, which liberated Buchenwald on April 12, 1945. He went to Europe as a replacement and joined the division in Belgium in January 1945 at the end of the Battle of the Bulge. His division came into the city of Weimar, and O'Neil and his unit stood outside the Buchenwald gate and saw the emaciated prisoners. As an infantryman, he did not go inside; his unit had to continue moving. O'Neil served in the Korean War as a member of the Naval Reserve, and was also in the D.C. Air National Guard before becoming a government worker.
Venue:
Interview conducted July 18, 2008.
Preferred Citation:
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.
Language:
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.
Statement of Responsibility:
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
General Note:
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsh (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of South Florida Library
Holding Location:
University of South Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 025749091
oclc - 692693365
usfldc doi - C65-00096
usfldc handle - c65.96
System ID:
SFS0022146:00001


This item is only available as the following downloads:


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Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Eugene O'Neil. O'Neil was a member of the 80th Infantry Division, which liberated Buchenwald on April 12, 1945. He went to Europe as a replacement and joined the division in Belgium in January 1945 at the end of the Battle of the Bulge. His division came into the city of Weimar, and O'Neil and his unit stood outside the Buchenwald gate and saw the emaciated prisoners. As an infantryman, he did not go inside; his unit had to continue moving. O'Neil served in the Korean War as a member of the Naval Reserve, and was also in the D.C. Air National Guard before becoming a government worker.
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PAGE 1

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xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript segment idx 0 time 00:00:0.0 text Eugene ONeil: Eugene ONeil, E-u-g-e-n-e O apostrophe N-e-i-l. 1 00:00:9.1 Michael Hirsh: And your address? 2 00:00:10.3 EO: 3 00:00:12.8 MH: And your phone number. 4 00:00:14.0 EO: 5 00:00:14.9 MH: And your birthday. 6 00:00:16.2 EO: January 9, 1926. 7 00:00:20.7 MH: Where you before the Army? 8 00:00:22.0 EO: High school. 9 00:00:24.0 MH: In where? 10 00:00:25.0 EO: Eastern High School in Washington, D.C. 11 00:00:27.1 MH: And how did you end up the service, drafted? 12 00:00:32.4 EO: Drafted. 13 00:00:33.1 MH: When? 14 00:00:34.1 EO: In 1944. 15 00:00:35.8 MH: You were how old? 16 00:00:37.2 EO: Eighteen. 17 00:00:38.5 MH: You finished high school? 18 00:00:40.5 EO: Yes.  They allowed me to finish high school; they drafted me, and I was waitin to go into the service, but they let me have a couple of months to finish high school. 19 00:00:48.9 MH: And where did they send you? Once they drafted you? 20 00:00:51.4 EO: I went to Fort McClellan, Alabama for basic training. 21 00:00:53.6 MH: And then take me through until you get to Europe. 22 00:00:58.1 EO: Well, from Fort McClellan weactually, I came through Fort Meade, inducted at Fort Meade, Maryland, onto Fort McClellan, Alabama, for seventeen weeks infantry basic training. From there, I left and got a two-week delay in route and shippedand back through Fort Meade to Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts, and we boarded ships in Boston, Massachusetts. 23 00:01:36.4 MH: Did you go over with the 80th? 24 00:01:37.9 EO: No.   25 00:01:38.6 MH: You were a replacement? 26 00:01:39.6 EO: I was a replacement, as most of us were. 27 00:01:42.2 MH: So you get to wherewhere do you land in Europe? 28 00:01:44.7 EO: I landed at Le Havre, France.  From there, we took the 40 and 8 across France into a repo depot in Belgium.   29 00:01:55.0 MH: Whatd you think about being put into a boxcar? 30 00:01:57.2 EO: I didnt think nothing about it.  I didnt know what hell wasI was so young, I didnt know.  It was just strange, and it was so cold, we even had to set the thing on fire, trying to light a fire in the middle of the car.  We put it out. 31 00:02:11.3 MH: You literally set the car on fire? 32 00:02:12.9 EO: Right.  Had to keep warm somehow.  Yeah. 33 00:02:16.2 MH: How many guys were in the boxcar do you think? 34 00:02:19.4 EO: Oh, I guess maybe twenty-five or thirty, each boxcar. 35 00:02:24.3 MH: You had winter clothes? 36 00:02:27.5 EO: Yes. 37 00:02:28.8 MH: Because a lot of guys got sent over with summer uniforms. 38 00:02:32.1 EO: No, we went over in the winter; we had our whole winter clothes and so forth. 39 00:02:35.6 MH: So, the train takes you where? 40 00:02:38.3 EO: The train takes us to a repo depot, a replacement depot, in Belgium.  From Belgium, I was assigned to the 80th Division and taken into the 80th Division in, I guess it was early January forty-five [1945], right at the tail end of the Bulge.  And from thereand then I came into the C Company 319, 1st Battalion, they brought us up on trucks and dropped us off.  And how I ended up in C Company, today I dont know.  Because when we got in, nobody said, Hello, goodbye, go to hell, nothin else.  Because the feeling, I think, was these guys are coming in to die, because of the rate and so forth. So, nobody wanted to make any friends and the first big battle I went into was at the Our River. 41 00:03:40.2 EO: Which river? 42 00:03:40.9 MH: The Our River, in the Luxembourgits the Siegfried Line, which was nothing but concrete pillboxes built into a hillside and so forth. We carried pontoon boats down to the riverand fortunately, they didnt hear us, or we would have been shelled heavily, but shelling was going on behind us.  And we got into these pontoon boatsthe Our River was swollen, and from what I understand, theyd opened the dikes up in the Holland area and the water was swollen and secondly from the melting snow and the rain and everything else.  So it was almost like twice its size.  And we went across.   43 00:04:24.3 I was carrying a twenty-five pound satchel of TNT and didnt know it, what they call a pole charge.  They just handed it to me and said, Carry this.  I carried it over my shoulder, soif Id have known what it was, itd have been in the river, Im sure. (MH laughs)  But anyway, I got across the river. We rode in the river, which fortunately, being swolled [sic], it took us over the minefields there at the riverbank, which saved a lot of us.  And we got off there and it was early in the morning, and we reorganized with what was left, cause a lot of guys went right in the river, cause if you went in, you were gone.  There was no way to getyeah, so we lost a lot of guys.   44 00:05:6.4 So, what was left, we all pulled together there, and I dont know whether it was a sergeant, a lieutenant or whom it might have been, but they said, Man, lets get the hell out of here.  And we went across flat ground, which was mined ground, there, and as werea guy between myself and Jim (inaudible), he got killed right there.  I dont know why these minefieldswe walked through.  Its unbelievable. And then we got up into the bank there and laid into the bank and Sergeant Jim Rogers, who was our squad leader, a mortar came in between him and me, and it hit him, it didnt hit me.  That was really my initiation in there.   45 00:06:1.3 And after I survived, we dug up in the Siegfried Line.  We were pinned down for aboutId say about five or six days there.  We couldnt get out of the foxhole and constant shelling, mortar fire.  Screaming Mimis, they used to call them, rocket fire, and about every fifteen minutesit was enough to blow your mind.  Some guys did lose their mind there. 46 00:06:29.8 MH: Howd you manage to stay sane? 47 00:06:31.8 EO: I dunno.  Just being a dumb Irishman.  No, I dont know, really.  Today, theres no explanation. 48 00:06:42.1 MH: Why some guys break and other guys dont 49 00:06:44.1 EO: Others dont, you know. And why you do things and why you dont do things, you know, and then we moved around there, I guess we moved a couple hundred yards.  We went into a pillbox for a night and kinda rested up and so forth.  And I moved from that pillbox probably another hundred yards, and then 50 00:07:15.7 MH: Is this one of these, you know, big deep underground pillboxes? 51 00:07:19.9 EO: No, big concrete boxes above ground, boxes built into the ground, but above ground.   52 00:07:24.9 MH: With slits? 53 00:07:25.6 EO: Right, with slits so they can fire machine guns and also some of them had artillery pieces, so, small artillery pieces mounted inside and everything else.  They had that river just zeroed in.  And by the grace of God we got there, but then we went up probably another 150, 200 yards and we dug in.  Well, there were some holes already there, we got in those holes.  And the hole I got into had about ten to twelve inches of water in it.  So, we took the iron pod hathelmet, if you want to call itand sat on those, held each others feet up as best we could out of the water there. 54 00:08:8.7 And there was a pillbox over here and across the river there were some U.S. tanks, so I guess they were 75mm tanks, firing on the pillbox.  And as soon as they started firing, they would come out, and as soon as theyd stop, theyd go back in.  And then wed be kept pinned down by machine gun fire.  And soI dont remember so much of it.  But from there we wentmoved a little bit, and I guess anotherI got my feet wet and I got my feet frozen at that timefortunately, not serious; some of my friends lost their feet with trench foot from it. But moved into a pillbox to spend the nightI was outposting it, and I was relieved by a replacement, and the next morning, he was dead, there.  Thats the difference between God being on your shoulder or not on your shoulder, thats all I can say.   55 00:09:22.5 And then we moved out there.  As we were moving out towardsI think it was Saarbrcken, and as we were there, captured towns and so forth and captured a lot of prisoners.  And Paul Stafford and myself were assigned to bring back a bunch of prisoners; we must have had several hundred prisoners we were bringing back. We got em back to the rear and I told Paul, I cant go no further.  And I went to the medics for my feet. And they checked it out; fortunately, they were frozen, but not damaged.  I got three days in the kitchen to thaw them out, then back up to the line again, and then never missed another day to the end of the war. 56 00:10:17.2 MH: At what point do you know anything about the Holocaust?  About the death camps, that sort of thing. 57 00:10:22.7 EO: Actually, I dont thinkId heard of them, but I had no idea. The first time I ever really [knew] is when we took Buchenwald.  Yeah.  We took that camp and we saw the horror of the people, how they were treated. 58 00:10:41.1 MH: Tell me about the approach to Buchenwald.  What was going on that day? 59 00:10:44.5 EO: Thats a 60 00:10:51.2 MH: Its only sixty-three years ago. 61 00:10:54.7 EO: Thats all.  If I remember, we werewe were just moving out as infantry does, you know, and so forth.  I dont know if we were on trucks, off and on, walkin.  And then, I remember near Kassel, I remember Erfurt here, right here. And for some reason, I believe, if Im right, between Erfurt and Jena, which is just this side of Weimar, our trucks got ambushed.  And a machine gun opened up on it and it hit the truck I was on, and it hit the guy sittin next to me in the leg, and I know his leg later onhis name was Sergeant Glenn (inaudible)was amputated there.  Must have hit an artery or something.  And then we started walking again from there, and I think we walked into the Weimar area there. 62 00:12:5.7 MH: So, you come into Weimar 63 00:12:9.1 EO: Well, we came in the outskirts of Weimar.  We did not go into the city of Weimar, we was on the outskirts of Weimar.  We stayed pretty much on the highwaywe call it the beltway, but I forgot what they call it over there.  But pretty much on there. 64 00:12:26.1 MH: The autobahn? 65 00:12:27.0 EO: The autobahn, yeah.  Pretty much.  And we pulled up into Weimar, and all I remember is standing outside the camp and seeing these guys 66 00:12:38.9 MH: The camp is right at Weimar?  Or its miles away? 67 00:12:43.3 EO: It was just a few miles outside of Weimar. 68 00:12:45.2 MH: Okay, so whats your first sight of the camp? 69 00:12:44.2 EO: I guess it was firststanding in front, standing outside of the camp at one of the entrances there and so forth. 70 00:12:58.8 MH: And what do you see? 71 00:12:59.9 EO: All I saw was a bunch ofa lot of men who were nothing but skin and bones.  The smell was real bad.  And beyond that, I didnt go into the camp. Some of the guys had gotten into the camp and went into it, and so I have a couple pictures home of it, that was taken by one of the guys. 72 00:13:23.7 MH: Picture of you there? 73 00:13:24.8 EO: No, not of me, but of the bodies being stacked up and everything. 74 00:13:29.0 MH: Did you throw up? 75 00:13:31.0 EO: No.  I mean, so much horrorone thing after another. 76 00:13:37.2 MH: Ive talked to guys, and theres people who said just that, that theyd seen so much death and so much horror that this is just one moreon a different scale, but just one more.  And there were other people who just couldnt handle the camp, the sight, and just lost it. 77 00:13:53.4 EO: Well, you gotta realize the difference between an infantryman and some of the other guys that came in.  The guys that came in afterwards and did the police work and did the cleanup and so forth like that were not combat troops, per se; they were strictly the support troops like the MPs and things like that that come in along behind you.  Yeah.  But when the infantry hits something, they get them out as quick as they can, particularly in a situation like that.  So, its very easy to have someone go ape and open up onyeah.  But I mean, other than that there, thats about all I really remember of it.  I can picture those human beings there with nothing but flesh and bones, which was one of the most horrible sights that you could see.  I didnt know and didnt understand the full horror of the camp until after the war was over. 78 00:14:53.6 MH: How did that come to you, after the war? 79 00:14:56.4 EO: Well, theywe heard about Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, and these different camps you would hear about, and thatsand Stars and Stripes came out with some printing and stuff like that.   80 00:15:13.2 MH: Did it change the way you dealt with the German soldiers, the SS people? 81 00:15:23.5 EO: Not really.  I mean I dont ever recall hatingI never hate.  I never knew what hate was and still dont.  Dont understand that. 82 00:15:38.0 MH: There were other guys whose reaction wasseveral had told me, After we saw that and after Malmdy, we didnt take prisoners. 83 00:15:49.2 EO: I know of situationswe took prisoners, but I do know a situation later on, outside ofwhat was the town?Jena.  Captain Scott of B Company the night before got killed, and I know they took some troops out and retaliated.  I didnt see it, but I saw some of the troops. Because that next day, I was second scout going into the woods in the Jena area.  Youre out here fifty yards in front of everybody else, and youre either gonna be a good target or theyre going to let you get through and wipe out everybody else, you know. But thats the main thing I remember. 84 00:16:44.3 MH: When did you get back home to the U.S.? 85 00:16:46.2 EO: June of forty-six [1946].   86 00:16:50.2 MH: Could you tell that you were a different person?  Or did other people like your family tell you you were a different person? 87 00:16:58.3 EO: I was just a kid.  I was only twenty years old. I do realize later in years that it took me ten years to get my head on straight. I was restless.  I didnt know what I wanted to do or anything else.  I got marriedfortunately the marriage stayed togetherin forty-seven [1947], going from one job to the other.  I enlisted in the Naval Reserve in forty-seven [1947], got called back in Korea for two years with the Navy from fifty [1950] to fifty-two [1952].   88 00:17:29.4 I had a couple of years left on that enlistment, and a good friend of mine, my best buddy, came back from Korea and was up on the chosen reserved there with a M.A.S.H. [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] unit, and they were setting up a M.A.S.H. unit in D.C., and he was getting a commission and he told me, You got a couple years yet to go; would you come over and serve in the Guard with me as supply sergeant? which I did. Then I got caught in the recession of fifty-four [1954] to fifty-seven [1957], fifty-eight [1958] and I wasI was selling at the time with a big company out of Baltimore, but they had a Washington office and they closed the Washington office. I wouldnt go to Baltimore. 89 00:18:14.6 So, I gave that up, and then I took a job with the D.C. Air National Guard, so I was in the Air Corps.  And in 1955, I think it was, as a Supply Specialist GS-5, and during that period of time, I wrote a clerks exam in the federal government, at GS-3, which is the only way I could get into the federal government.  I passed that and got to the federal government.  And in fifty-eight [1958], they were starting to call up for Vietnam again, and drafting a call, and I was facing another recall for Vietnam. And I thought about it and so forth.  I had two children, another one on the way, and my career was startingI thought it was what proved to be my career was developing. And so I dropped and got out after fourteen years in the reserves, Guard, the military. Thats basically my career there. 90 00:19:28.8 But its hard to sayI mean, I went to college for a while.  Id go a semester or so and get tired of it and walk away from it. I couldnt get a decent job anyplace, really, but I worked.  And my wife was working, very fortunately. But once I got the break (inaudible) in the government, I went to the very top.  I retired a GS-14 in Step 8. The highest you could go was a fifteen, and I turned fifteen down for the simple reason I had a nice office of seven people and they wanted me to take over a buying branch of 100 people. And if you know in the seventies [1970s] and eighties [1980s], you had many, many problems with affirmative action, equal opportunity and whatever, you know.  You try to boss 100 people; youre fighting more of the problems of society than you are doing the work that youre supposed to do. 91 00:20:26.9 But thats really, basically, for me.  My philosophy in life has been, I guess, in the right place at the right time. Thats why I survived, I think.  And I pass that same philosophy on to my children: work hard and be in the right place at the right time, things will fall in place.  I know friends of mine with masters and doctorate degrees that never got as high as I have with just a high school education.  I finally ended up equivalent of two years of college. But pass on information: I spent my younger years in Catholic grammarelementary school, under the nuns.  They taught me to read and write and arithmetic, and from that 92 00:21:22.3 MH: And to behave. 93 00:21:24.4 EO: And, well, discipline was there.  Discipline was not only there, it was at home.  If I got corrected by a nun at school 94 00:21:31.8 MH: You got double at home. 95 00:21:33.0 EO: I got it double at home.  There was nothingI had no claim against society, you know, but that was the way we were raised, very strict, but our mother was home with us.  And my dad only had a fourth grade education; my mother only had an eighth grade education.  My dad was a sheet metal worker.  I mean, I know hard times in the thirties [1930s]: we almost lost our home, didnt know where the next meal was from. Dad was in the hospital from being in World War I, my uncle was the chief engineer at the Naval Hospital, and he got my dad in the Naval Hospital.  But there was no benefits in those days, for any of us.  And my family, mothers familymy fathers family came to our aid, and thats what saved our home and put food on our table.  But you dont hear of that today.   96 00:22:31.6 MH: Did you have nightmares about the war? 97 00:22:35.1 EO: Oh, once in a while.  Not really.  The worst thing I have, even today, is shellany kind of explosion going off, if its at the right angle, then it bothers me.  Sittin at the ball game with my wife and my grandsonmy grandson has real tender ears and so forthand settin off the fireworks.  The first couple blasts went off, I got shook up, and she grabbed me and grabbed him.  But I still, every once in a while, will get an effect from an explosion of some kind that just seems to trigger it.  But other than that, I dont think that other than being restlessI grew up as a kid as a family, with a family, and I hadntI grew up in hardship.  I grew up in an Irish Catholic family.  And there was just four of us, six with Mother and Father. But it was 98 00:23:44.4 MH: There are four kids? 99 00:23:47.4 EO: No, I have four.   100 00:23:50.4 MH: But when you were growing up? 101 00:23:53.5 EO: Growing up, actually there was five of us, but my sister, youngest sister, didnt come along until 1940. But during the thirties [1930s], there were really four of us.  I have two older sisters and a younger brother.  Other than that there, but I worked withI went to work for GSA [General Services Administration] as a GS-5 in 1958, and by 1970 I was a Grade 14, which in those days was very difficult to obtain.  But I couldI had a photographic memory.  That was the difference, even recalling this back, at this age.  But I had a photographic memory, and it just helped me get through everything, and so forth: once I heard something, and if it impressed me, it stayed.  I never lost it.  Thats the big difference.  But other than that there, I had no gripes at all.  They say were the greatest generation, but when you think about it, maybe we are.  But I think you now have comingI think today you have another great generation. 102 00:25:23.6 MH: Why do you say that? 103 00:25:26.5 EO: I have a lot of respect for the young people, particularly those in Iraq and so forth. Ive attended reunions put on by the 80th there and so forth, and these guys coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq, and places like that, and the job they do and everything.  I understand warfare much better than the press understands it. If two men get killed, thats a big story.  In the area I live, around D.C. in the metropolitan area, we have ten, twelve, fifteen killed every weekend.  But thats not warfare, butwe have more people killed in our area than they have killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Thats not news because thats around every big city. 104 00:26:12.8 MH: You couldnt get out of that neighborhood. 105 00:26:14.5 EO: You cant run.  I dont care where you go, rich neighborhood, poor neighborhood, or in between.  That hasnt got anything to do with it. Youre always going tothe biggest problem you have today is dope, which they dont talk about it.  Its the biggest problem they have in Afghanistan is the poppy crop and the black market on that.  And as long as that big moneys being made on that, youre going to have the problem that you have.  But you wont hear that.  Thats my opinion, anyway. 106 00:26:52.9 MH: Theyve talked about ittheyve said, I guess the last two years the crop has increased, I dont know, by 20 percent, by 30 percent.  They thought they had a way of getting it under control, but they dont. 107 00:27:6.0 EO: Its all being black marketed through Pakistan, up in that area. 108 00:27:8.9 MH: Our allies. 109 00:27:10.0 EO: Right.  Who knows?  I have to depend on the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States for their judgment on that type of thing.  And they know everything thats going on, we only know piecemeal.  But I respectthe 80th today is the reserve training unit for the whole United States Army Reserve and everything there.  They just changed commands.  Were going to have General [John P.] McLaren here, whos now taken command of that; hell be here, maybe in today.  And they tell you a whole different story, stories that I hear that boys and girls are going to school together over there.  That never happened.  Women in the workforce, and in politics, that never happened. 110 00:28:10.0 MH: But it went like this, then you had that, and then it started dropping off again. 111 00:28:14.7 EO: Well, but the 80th (inaudible) Company, the 80th Reserve unit, they went over there; they trained the police and the army. 112 00:28:26.4 MH: Talking about Iraq or Afghanistan? 113 00:28:28.1 EO: Iraq.  And Ive attended a couple of their reunions and stuff. Theyre an amazing, good bunch of young people.  Im very proud of them.  This is something hereI think you80th division take Weimar. Germans fail to resist Yanks. 114 00:29:0.1 MH: Is this Stars and Stripes? 115 00:29:4.1 EO: This is Stars and Stripes put out in forty-five [1945], I think it was.  This was put out in 1945, right after the war was over.  Its the Blue Ridge that was put out there, it has the Ardennes onhave you seen this paper? 116 00:29:26.5 MH: No. 117 00:29:27.3 EO: Ill get Celia to make you a copy if she can. 118 00:29:30.7 MH: That would be great. 119 00:29:31.5 EO: Ill give you a copy of it. See, we captured Hitlers hideout, therelets see if theres anything further.