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Robert Ray 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 (14 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsh (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted July 18, 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.
Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Robert Ray. Ray was a rifleman in the 3rd Armored Division, which liberated Nordhausen on April 11, 1945. When Ray's division arrived at the camp, one of the tanks in his unit punched a large hole in the wall and the prisoners came out. The soldiers could see how emaciated they were and gave them food and cigarettes. Ray also saw several flatcars loaded with bodies on a railroad track outside the camp, some of which still moved. His unit was unable to stay at the camp for very long; after giving the inmates their rations, they had to continue on their mission. After the war, Ray stayed in Europe on occupation duty for another year, during which time he was reassigned to the 2nd Armored Division as a photographer.
Armored Division, 3rd.
Armored Division, 3rd
v Personal narratives.
Nordhausen (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, 20 1 0 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 copyrig hted 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. Fo wler Avenue, LIB 122, Tampa, FL 33620.
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Robert Ray: Ive got a short history written out on all this stuff, but youll probably be disappointed. You want dates?
Michael Hirsh: I dont need dates; I can figure out dates usually.
RR: Oh I see.
MH: Before we start, your name is Robert Ray, R-a-y?
RR: Thats right.
MH: And your address, please.
MH: And your home phone is.
RR: Thats right.
MH: And your date of birth.
RR: August 12, 1920.
MH: And what unit were you in the Army?
RR: I was with the 3rd Armored Division.
MH: And you got to Nordhausen?
RR: Well, actually, I was in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. That was in the 3rd Armored Division, and I was in camps all over this country before I went overseas.
MH: Well, let me start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
RR: Right here in Nashville.
MH: In Nashville. What were you doing before you went in the Army?
RR: I was a newspaper photographer.
RR: For the Nashville Banner; that used to be an afternoon paper here, but they folded.
MH: And had you been to high school and college?
RR: Just high school.
MH: Did you enlist or were you drafted?
RR: I enlisted.
MH: In what year?
RR: In 1941.
MH: Forty-one . Right after Pearl Harbor?
RR: Yes, right after Pearl Harbor.
MH: Im curious: Ive talked to a number of guys who enlisted then, as did many Americans, but what went into your decision? Did you discuss it with parents? What did you do?
RR: Well, I just felt like it was something I had to do. Everybody else was doing it. So, I joined. I just joined up and enlisted.
MH: Whered the Army send you?
RR: Well, lets see. To start out with, I went to Camp Grant, Illinois, and then I went to Camp Crowder, Missouri. And Fort Eustis, Virginiathat was a big anti-aircraft campand then I went to a camp down at Stuart, Florida [Camp Murphy]. It was a radar [training school]; radar was real secret stuff at that time and if it hadnt been for the Battle of the Bulge, I probably never wouldve gone overseas, but they needed infantry replacements. So, I was just automatically put in the infantry, and went from there to Camp Gordon, Georgia, for a brief infantry training, then went home for about a week or so, and then I shipped out overseas.
MH: When did you ship out? This would have been forty-four ?
RR: It was aboutit was around forty-four ?
MH: Whered you go? You were going over as a replacement, or were you already with?
RR: Yes, I was going over as a replacement, infantry replacement, and of course, back then we all went by ship, you know overseas. Landed in England and went down through England on a train. And crossed over the English Channel by boat, of course, and then we unloaded at Le Havre, which was in France. And then from there we went across Belgium and France and Holland and went on into Germany.
MH: When did you hook up with the 3rd Armored Division?
RR: Well, when I reached Cologne, Germany, I was met by an old sergeant that had been wounded four or five times, and he told us what divisions we was gonna be in, and at that time, the 3rd Armored was at Cologne, Germany. And we crossed over the Rhine River there by pontoon boats, and then from then on, it wasevery man was for himself.
MH: What was your rank at the time?
RR: I was a T-5, which is the same as a corporal.
MH: Howd you feel about being assigned to an armored unit?
RR: Well, I didnt really know what it was. I later found out that being in an armored infantry, you never had to do no walking. You just had to ride on the back of a Sherman tank all the time, and we had a massive roundup of the division. They used to call it jumping off, and then from there we went from town to town, and
MH: What was the first combat you were in?
RR: Well, it was all the way across Germany, of course, and the 3rd Armored wastheir nickname was the Spearhead Division, and of course were always far beyond the enemy lines, and the foot infantry would come in behind us and round up the pockets that we formed. And I dont know the exact date, but we had a breakthrough. We were at this place where everybody thought the war was over; wed made fifty-some-odd mile that day, longest drive in history. And all of a sudden, a big old German Tiger tank come rollin out, cut loose and hit the tank I was riding on, and of course, we just jumped and scattered and run like the devil, and we was lost from our division. After several days, just eating what we could find, we finally met back up with the 3rd Armored, and of course, they was all glad to see us.
MH: How many guys were with you that leaped off the tank and disappeared for a while?
RR: I dont have any idea. The full squad was about twelve, but you never did haveyou were always short two or three men, wounded or killed.
MH: How many guys could ride on the outside of a tank?
RR: Well, a squad, which was normally about twelve men, but never did have that many. It was pretty doggone tight, had to hold each other on. And the tanks, they had four big old Cadillac engines in them, and them son of a guns wasit burned you up. You couldnt hardly stand to sit down on the darned thing because it was so hot. But some of the boys would actually go to sleep and sleep; somebody would hold them on and keep them from falling off.
MH: You got pretty much blown off the tank and had to fend for yourself for a while.
RR: Yeah, thats right.
MH: When you linked up with your unit again, did you know where you were?
RR: Well, we just knew that they knew where we were, so thats all that mattered. And this Nordhausen thingwhen we reached Nordhausen, we didnt know anything about this Holocaust, had no idea about it. And we reached this prison of war camp, and one of the tanks just busted a big hole in the wall of this camp, brick, concrete wall or something. And all them poor devils come screaming out there, some of them so doggone thin from malnutrition; we gave them all the rations we had, and cigarettes. Theyd eat cigarettes just like theyre candy.
MH: Was this a camp with barbed wire or the big prison or?
RR: It was a big, enclosed prison.
MH: When you saw the prison, you couldnt see into it, right?
MH: So, the tank just drives through the wall?
RR: Just knocked a big hole in it so they could come out.
MH: But you didnt know what was on the other side of the wall.
RR: We had no idea. Didnt have no idea, but we saw flatcars on the side track there that was loaded with bodies: some of them you could see theyd move a foot or a leg once in a while, have a little life in them. Those people [who] lived around there, they claimed they didnt know anything about it, but that was a bunch of nonsense, because they could smell it, as far as thats concerned.
MH: Were the flatcars inside the wall or outside?
RR: No, that was outside on a sidetrack rail.
MH: Was that the first thing you saw, or the prison was the first thing?
RR: The prisonwell, it was all there together.
MH: How manythese are flatcars or cattle cars or boxcars?
RR: Well, they were just old flatcars like youd haul timber on, you know.
MH: They were just loaded with bodies?
RR: Yeah, just loaded. That was about the end of my Holocaust experience.
MH: When you saw the railroad cars, were you able to get off the tanks and go over and do anything?
RR: No, we justthe division decided to keep on rolling, and like I said, we gave them all the rations we had, and we just left them behind. I have no idea what happened to them.
MH: There were no German guards there at the time, were there?
RR: Oh, there were.
MH: They were still there?
RR: They were there, but most of them run like scalded dogs.
MH: Was there any shooting going on?
RR: Oh, yeah, yeah.
MH: So, Im just trying to get the sequence. So, the tank busts through the wall, and you see the inmates of the place. Do you see guards inside as well?
RR: Yeah, they wereof course, they were outside and inside, too, but they saw that they didnt have a chance against a tank outfit, so they just run like rabbits.
MH: Did you track down any of them and get them
RR: No, we just kept on rolling. Went on to a little river called the Mulde River.
MH: Thats M-u-l-d-e?
RR: I think it was spelled M-u-l.
RR: And we gotwe could hear the Russians coming, and we was afraid theyd mistake us for Germans, and so we decided to set there for a few days. And we lost several men right there at the river, and thats when my staff sergeant was killed, my squad leader and thats when I took his place. They made me staff sergeant.
MH: There were Germans that were running from the Russians that you got into fights with?
RR: Well, they were just in between, and wed take turns about looking up over the bank of that river so them jokers wouldnt be slipping up on us. I had a good friend thathis name was MacDuff, we called him Mac, and we took turns about peeping over this bank, and he raised up his head once in a while, and Id look over there once in awhile, fire a few rounds. But he raised up one time and one of them bullets got him right in the top of the head, just blew the whole top of his head off.
MH: Oh, man. So, that was German snipers?
RR: Yeah, that was when the war ended for us. We decided to pull us back for about fifty miles and let the Russians take care of things. And that was the end of the war for us. The war didnt end but a little bit of time later on, but that was just about the end of the whole thing.
MH: How many days after Nordhausen was that?
RR: I have no idea.
MH: Nordhausen was April 11, and the war didnt end until May 7 or 8.
RR: Yeah, and some time right along through there, I know Franklin Roosevelt died.
MH: He died the day after you liberated Nordhausen, on the twelfthactually, he died on the thirteenth, in Germany.
RR: We didnt hear about his death until later on. Didnt have no way of communicating. I saw old boys cry when they heard he had died, because everybody was crazy about him.
MH: I was going to ask you what the impact was when you heard the president had died.
RR: Well, it was pretty big impact, because most people were really crazy about him. And then, of course, when he died and Harry Truman took his place, he decided to drop the A-bomb and that saved a bunch of lives, because we were scheduledour division was scheduled to go to Japan. So, he done us a big favor by dropping that bomb.
MH: Can I take you back to Nordhausen for a couple minutes? Do you remember what the weather was like that day? I know thats a really strange question to ask.
RR: I dont remember. I know the day we heard that Roosevelt was dead, a lot of the peach trees or cherry trees or something were in bloom, and I can remember that part of it. So, it was in the springtime of the year.
MH: When you punched a hole in the wall and saw these people coming toward you, what did you think? Because you told me that you hadnt been told anything about the Holocaust.
RR: Well, we still didnt knowwe just thought they were what they used to call DPs, displaced persons from all over the country and mostly from France. We didnt know anything about no Holocaust.
MH: But you could tell these people had been starved.
RR: Oh, yeah, they just been literally starved to death.
MH: Whats the conversation like among the guys youre with?
RR: Well, I dont remember too much about it. After they saw that, they felt like they had a good reason to be fighting the war, so
MH: Were there lots of bodies stacked up in that camp?
RR: Yeah, well, I dont know about inside. None of us never did go inside that place, but on them flatcars, there was.
MH: Did you have any interaction with the German citizens who lived around there?
RR: Nothing, except they wouldG-2, what was called intelligence officers at that time, would question some of them and they said they didnt know anything about it. Of course, that was just a big lie. Theyd bound to know something about it.
MH: There were a number of smaller camps around there. Nordhausen was the big camp, and there was a camp called Dora where they were building rockets underground.
MH: Did you get anywhere near Dora?
RR: I dont remember whether we did or not. We knew they were building some kind of a secret weapon, and at timeslater on, we could hear them things go over. They sounded like an old T-model Ford. They had a sorry engine in them, but what theyd do, theyd fire one of them things and they had just enough fuel in them to get to England, and then theyd run out of fuel and drop. Of course, they had a heck of a explosion in them and done a lot of damage to England and London.
MH: They were firing these in the area that you guys were in?
RR: I dont know where the thing was coming from, but a lot of times, we could hear them coming over at night.
MH: Were you concerned that that stuff was going to drop on you?
RR: We didnt know what they were.
MH: None of the officers told you what it was or they didnt know, either?
RR: No, they didnt know either.
MH: When did you finally get back to the States?
RR: Well, I stayed over there. They had a thing called a points system. You had to have so many points before you could come home, and the time I spent in the reserve before I went into active service, at that time it didnt count, so I had a low point count. So, I stayed over there for maybe a year in the Army of Occupation and just went from town to town. Wed go into a little old country town and run all the civilians out, and wed take over their houses and lived in them. Had pretty good food.
Then one day, the 2nd Armored Division found out through records that Id had some experience in photography, and they called my commanding officer and had me sent to the 2nd Armored Division headquarters. I was assigned as the division photographer, so I got to do a lot of traveling and went back into France, and I had an assignment to make pictures of all the 3rd Armored Division graves that were in France, and they were gonna send each one of these pictures back home to their families. It was quite an interesting job.
MH: When you were with the 3rd Armored Division in combat, did you shoot pictures?
MH: So, you didnt have a camera with you?
RR: No, I was just an old rifleman and had an M1 rifle.
MH: But you didnt carry your own personal camera.
RR: No, no.
MH: Do you have any pictures of you overseas?
RR: Well, I have maybe some, you know, after the war was over. We didnt have time to make no pictures during the war. I wish they had picked somebody there. The 3rd Armored had a convention here in Nashville a few years ago and I went to it. Didnt see a soul I knew, and it was kind of disappointing, but I didntthere was twelve of us that joined the company as replacements, and when the war ended, there were only three of us left. And Id sure like to see those three guys, but theres no way in the world. I guess most of them are dead by now.
MH: Yeah. You have a picture of yourself from after the war, from when you were still over there in uniform?
RR: Im sure theres something around here.
MH: I would just like to get a picture of you from back then and one from now to be able to use in the book.
RR: Well, Ill see if I cant dig up one. Lets see, I dont have a computer, so I cant email it. Id have to send it in the
MH: If you can dig one up and you can send it, Ill scan it and send it back to you.
RR: Well, thats okay. Ill have to have a mailing address.
MH: Okay, you know what Ill do is Ill send you an envelope
MH: And just so I have it.
RR: Thats right.
MH: Okay, Ill send you an envelope and
RR: Yeah, I might dig up three or four pictures.
MH: Okay, and if you have a current one, thatd be good, too, so we can see what you look like now.
RR: You wouldnt want to see what I look like now.
MH: Hey, were all getting there. Im a little younger than you. The interesting, thiswhen you told me they made you a photographer, I was a combat correspondent for the 25th [Infantry] Division in Vietnam.
RR: Oh, you were?
MH: So, I dragged a camera and an audiotape recorder, you know, all over the central part of Vietnam, for a year, for 1966. I was lucky because I had been a journalist before I went in, so they said, Okay, you can still be one. But I thank you very, very much for your time. Whatd you do when you came back to the U.S.?
RR: Well, I come back and a job was kind of hard to find and the country was just coming out of, more or less, a depression, and times was kind of hard. I worked for a hardware concern for a while, and then I went to work as a bookkeeper for a wholesale company, wholesaled Zenith, Philco radios. Wasnt no television sets back then. You stirred up all this stuff now, I dont know if I can take my afternoon nap or not.
MH: Im sorry, sir.
MH: You got married?
RR: Well, I was married before that.
MH: Oh, you were married before you went into the Army?
RR: I was married in November of 1941, Christmas Day [sic].
MH: So, youve been married sixty-seven years.
RR: Sixty-seven years.
MH: Man, long time. You have children?
RR: One daughter.
MH: One daughter.
RR: I tell everybody we were married in November, and Pearl Harbor was December 7, and we had a short honeymoon.
MH: (both laugh) Must be. Thank you very much, and Ill send you that envelope, and if you can find some photos thatd be great.
RR: Okay, I appreciate you calling.
MH: Take care, sir.
RR: Okay, bye-bye.