In commemoration of Veterans Day 2016, John E. Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 wrote a guest piece in the Finger Lakes Times about his uncle’s service during World War II.
The article features an April 1945 excerpt of his uncle’s written journal. Norvell’s uncle, who recently passed away at the age of 91, served during the Battle of the Bulge.
His uncle’s entry begins: “Our 11th Armored Division was moving faster each day as we pushed through Austria. Enemy action was reduced to small pockets of resistance and sniper fire. … The roads were narrow and the countryside was covered by a thick forest which we knew was excellent cover for an attack on our forward units. Our 41st Cavalry which was the point of our advance was notified that there were two German Concentration Camps near them. It turned out that the German Army Guards wished to surrender themselves and the camps to the Americans.”
The journal entry accounts the Division’s arrival and attention to help those at the camps.
Norvell is a retired Lt. Col. in the U.S. Air Force and served as alumni director at HWS until 2002. While a student at Hobart, he was a Druid and member of the Canterbury Club and Echo and Pine. His full article is reprinted below:
Finger Lakes Times
Journal words say it all
John E. Norvell • Nov. 11, 2016
It is estimated that more than 16 million Americans served in World War II. My uncle, who died recently at 91, was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about his time in combat, but it was most often what followed battles like those that showed the courage of these Americans and all they witnessed.
These are words from his journal:
April 1945 — Our 11th Armored Division was moving faster each day as we pushed through Austria. Enemy action was reduced to small pockets of resistance and sniper fire. We were moving through the beauty of the Austrian Alps. The roads were narrow and the countryside was covered by a thick forest which we knew was excellent cover for an attack on our forward units. Our 41st Cavalry which was the point of our advance was notified that there were two German Concentration Camps near them. It turned out that the German Army Guards wished to surrender themselves and the camps to the Americans. They wanted to avoid any contact with the Russians. The regular SS guards escaped into the country side as we got close. The two concentration camps turned out to be KZ Gusen and KZ Mauthausen. The two camps contained about 2500 prisoners held by the Nazis.
My unit bypassed Gusen and arrived at Mauthausen the day after it was turned over to the Third Army. The camp was located on a hill above a long beautiful valley. All around the camp was a high electric fence. Inside we could see a headquarters building which was used to house the SS Guards and row upon row of one story wooden barracks which housed the inmates. Down below we saw a brick building with two high smoke stacks. Outside this building were piles of dead bodies, some still in their black striped uniforms and some without any clothes at all. It was a sight of horror. Inside this building was the cremation furnaces and death room where prisoners were gassed.
Mauthausen was a death camp where the inmates were waiting to die. Many died from poor treatment and starvation; others were murdered by the guards or sent to the gas chamber. The ovens had been working 24 hours a day but could not keep up. There were piles of bodies piled along the road outside. This mess was cleaned up by rounding up civilians in the countryside and forcing them to dig a mass grave to bury the bodies as it was becoming a health problem. Action had to be immediately taken to restore order in the camps and to provide medical assistance to the starving inmates. Conditions were beyond belief and the people able to walk were walking skeletons in their striped uniforms. Everything possible was done to bring medical relief to these poor people.
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When I attended his funeral, they played Taps, folded the flag and presented it to his widow on behalf of “a grateful nation.” Truer words were never spoken.
John E. Norvell is a frequent contributor to the Times oped section. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, decorated air combat veteran, and former assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy. He has written for The Washington Post and several newspapers and historical journals around the nation. A 1966 graduate of Hobart College, he lives in Canandaigua.