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Rheney, John W.,
John W. Rheney Jr. oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (16 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (10 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 June 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.
Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator John W. Rheney, Jr. Rheney was a staff sergeant in the 104th Infantry Division, which liberated Nordhausen-Dora on April 11, 1945. When he got to the camp, another regiment had already liberated it, and the guards were gone. Inside the camp, there were stacks of corpses of people who had apparently starved to death. A few survivors approached the soldiers and hugged them, but Rheney could not speak their languages. He was only in the camp for a few hours and did not see the crematorium or the caves where the V-2 rockets were built. Rheney continues to work at a nearby military base and regularly attends his division's reunions.
Rheney, John W.,
Infantry Division, 104th.
Infantry Division, 104th
v Personal narratives.
Dora (Concentration camp)
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
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: First of all, your name is John W. R-h-e-n-e-y, Jr.
John Rheney: Correct.
MH: And your date of birth is what, sir?
JR: 7-20-23 [July 20, 1923].
MH: You sent me a note that said you were at Nordhausen.
JR: Thats correct.
MH: Wherever youd like to start, tell me how you came to be there.
JR: Well, Im not sure. Â I dont remember whetherI might tell you this before you turn that on. Â Im not sure because I dont remember whether certain people were selected from each company to go over there and see this by General [Terry de la Mesa] Allen, or whether the whole company went over there. Â I just dont recall. Â I think it was probably a few people were selected from various parts of the division to go over there.
MH: What division were you in?
JR: The 104th Infantry, which was known as the Timberwolves.
MH: And were you a doctor at the time?
JR: Oh, no, no, no. Â Id completed two years of college and then the reserve was called up, and I became a doctor after I got out of the army.
MH: So what was your rank at the time?
JR: Staff sergeant.
MH: And you were what, a rifleman?
JR: Yeah, I was a rifle squad leader, yes.
MH: So, the word went out for people to go see this camp?
JR: No, when one of our regimentsI think it was not the 413th, which I was on. Â The 414th came across and liberated that, in our advance toward Berlin, which we never got to. Â But and then I think the general wanted everybody to see this, and then General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower said, Take pictures, because theyre going to say it didnt exist fifty years from now. Â And I think he wanted people to see it, to assure future generations that this sort of thing did occur.
MH: So, tell me about the day that you went there.
JR: Well, they trucked us over there right to the gates, and the guards were already gone by then. Theyd gone off whenever the regiment that liberated the thing got there. Â And it didnt look too bad from the outside, but when you got inside there were just stacks and stacks of corpses. Â All of them had apparently starved to death.
MH: You could tell by looking at them.
JR: Oh, they were nothing but skin and bones. Â Now, there were a few people up that I remember, and they greeted us like weve never been greeted before; but most of them, I think, were French, if Im not mistaken. Â I did not speak French so I didnt understand them, but some of the people that were with us did. Â And there were some people alive, but there were just rooms and buildings stacked with corpses: these people had starved to death.
MH: So, corpses were inside and outside.
JR: Inside and outside, right, some right where theyd fallen and some had been obviously moved and stacked by the guards before we got there.
MH: When you say they greeted you like youve never been greeted, can you describe that for me?
JR: Oh, those people, they were in rags and starvedthey, too, were starved, I guess, but for some reason they had survived a little bit. Â But they threw their arms around us and I dunno, they just greeted us like we had saved em, which I guess we had.
MH: And so the communication was all physical, you couldnt understand them?
JR: Some of the peoplesome of our members talked French and other languages, too, and they could communicate with them. Â I just couldnt.
MH: So, what did you do in the camp, how long did you stay in there, and what did you do?
JR: Oh, we werent in there but part of a day. Â I personally wasnt there but part of a day, but theysomebody sent, I guess, I dont know as part of our division or not, but sent troops in there and forced the people in the nearby town to come out and dig mass graves and bury most of these people. Â The ones that were alive, the medics took care of them. Â And some of them survived.
MH: Were you there when the mass graves were being dug?
JR: No. Â I just read about that.
MH: So, what else did you see on that day? Â I mean, how many living people do you think you saw?
JR: Oh, I dont know. Â Not a great deal, Id say less than fifty. Â But that doesnt mean there werent others, because I did notI went fairly deep into the camp. Â I did not go into the cave, where the V-bombs were being built.
MH: So, the camp you were in was probably Dora, which was part of Nordhausen.
JR: Yes, thats correct.
MH: Thats where they were building the V-bombs.
JR: Thats right.
MH: What did the buildings in the camp look like?
JR: Oh, they weresome of them were just framed buildings with places for these people, stacked up; they were open to the outside. Â I did not go into any buildings that were offices or anything like that.
MH: What aboutdid you see any places where they put people to death, or where they burned people?
JR: No. Â I understand they was there, but I did not see any of that.
MH: Whathow old were you when you were going through that?
JR: Lets see, that was 1943
MH: That would have been forty-five 
JR: Forty-five , so I was twenty-two.
MH: Whats that do to a twenty-two year old, to see that sort of thing?
JR: (laughs) I tell you, it shakes you. Â It really does. Â And Ive never seen like that, of course, and I hope never to see it again. Â But it shook everybody.
MH: Do you remember talking about it with your fellow soldiers afterwards?
JR: No, cause some of em were along with us; we talked about it among ourselves about it.
MH: Thats what I mean.
JR: Yes. Â We just talked about it and could not understand how human beings could treat other human beings like that.
MH: I mean, war is brutal in itself. Â But even in the midst of a war, this was above and beyond?
JR: Oh, it was. Â Of course, Id read about the Civil War and the slaughter that took place there, but at least theyand the camps that they had, Camp Anderson andbut I had never seen those, and even those were not like this was.
MH: You mean Andersonville
Andersonville Prison, or Camp Sumter, in Georgia, was a Confederate POW camp during the American Civil War. Â This camp was particularly cruel to the soldiers housed there, and instances of starving, malnutrition and disease were reported en masse.
MH: Yeah. Â So how do you reconcile it, I meanlet me ask you, are you or were you a religious person?
JR: Well, I am. Â I dont think Im over-religious, but I am. Â I just didnt connect this with religion somehow. Â I justI blamed this on human beings, notall religions were brutalized by the Nazis and by Hitler, and it wasnt a religious thing. Â Except, of course, the Jewish were singled out; but there were all religions in these camps.
MH: What about after you got homedid the memories of this come back to you?
JR: No. Â I mean, I remember it, but I didnt have nightmares about it or anything like that.
MH: Did you ever meet any of the people who survived the camps?
JR: No. Â I say noI never personally, but the 104th Division has had a reunion every year from 1945 to the present, and they have had survivors of the camp and descendents of survivors at these meetings. Â Incidentally, theyre having one in Washington this fall, and theyre having one in Portland, Oregon, next year and that will be the last one.
MH: So, they have two more reunions to go. Â Have you gone to the reunions?
JR: Ive been to the last fifteen of them, yes.
MH: The last fifteen of them. Â Im curious, what is it that makes you go to the reunions? Â What pulls you?
JR: Oh, I knewyou knew people closely who were in your platoon, and less closely in the other platoons of the company, but its just seeing those people whowell I guess they were your best friends at the time, and they guarded your back, and you guarded theirs.
MH: And when you see them at the reunion?
JR: We have what wethe different organizations, platoons and companies, have tables, and most of the people that are in given tables and given companies sit around them. Â Theyll tell some war stories, but not many. Â They just sit around and talk: what have you done and how many children do you have and how many grandchildren do you have. Â We dont talk about the war very much.
MH: How many children or grandchildren do you have?
JR: I have four children and eight grandchildren.
MH: Was there a point at which you told them about the war?
JR: No. Â They have never really asked me about it. Â I dont mind talking about it; Ive heard that a lot of people dont want to talk about it, but I guess you remember if there were some funny parts or some interesting parts, you dont talk about the slaughter that went on.
MH: What was your first combat action?
JR: In Holland. Â We landed directly inwe didnt go through England, we landed directly on the French coast, on the beaches. Â And then we were attached to the Canadian 1st Army in Holland and helped to free the port of Antwerp.
MH: And that was so the allies could bring supplies into Antwerp.
JR: Thats right.
MH: Did you see any other camps?
MH: Nothing, okay. Â And did anyone tell you about these places before you got there?
JR: Of course, Id read about emI think it was general knowledge that there were camps that people were ill-treated in. Â But we had a picture that they showed recruits when you first went in the army, what we fight for, and these camps were mentioned in that.
MH: Oh, those were the Why We Fight movies?
MH: So, your guys did know a bit about them. Â But
JR: We knew they were there, but we hadnt seen em. And we couldnt imaginewe couldnt have imagined what was going on in those camps.
MH: Ive talked to some people whove said that even if they had been told about it, theres no way to prepare you for what you were going to see.
JR: That is absolutely correct.
MH: You came back and went to medical school where?
JR: Yes, Id had two years at Clemson University and I went back and finished there and went to Medical University in South Carolina in Charleston.
MH: And became what kind of a doctor?
JR: I was a pediatrician.
MH: Im just curious what led to that choice.
JR: (laughs) What led to that choice was I supposed to go into family practice with one of my best friends, and while I washe was a year ahead of meand he wrote me a letter and said, You can have it; Im going into ophthalmology. Â So I had to look around. Â And Id always been interested in pediatrics, soI applied in Birmingham and Charleston and I was accepted at both, and I knew Charleston, so I went there.
MH: How long did you practice medicine?
JR: Oh, close to forty years.
MH: So how old were you when you retired?
JR: Oh, lets seeId have to sit down and figure that up. Â I havent really retired. Â I work at Fort Jackson now in what they call MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station], M-E-P-S; its where the recruits are received and were the first one to see em. Â We do physicals on them. Â And I started out with two days a week and now Im up to five.
MH: I have a couple doctors at the VA who are in their early eighties.
JR: Is that right?
MH: Yes, sir.
JR: Well, Im eighty-five. Â I will be eighty-five next month.
MH: Well, I thank you very much for your service and for your time, sir.
JR: If I can help you any more, call back.
MH: I sure will. Â Thank you very much.
JR: Thank you.
MH: Okay, bye-bye.
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