Archive for Thursday, May 22, 2003

Local veteran recalls horrors of war camps

May 22, 2003

Dwight Runnels didn't set foot in the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom but can speak first-hand about liberating people from tyranny.

He never attended the Nuremburg tribunals but knows all about war crimes.

Although he played no role in the recent war, Runnels, 80, a Basehor resident, has done more than most to help repressed, suffering people.

As Memorial Day approaches, Runnels understands the value of freedom. He learned that lesson in 1944, in Europe.

In 1944, Runnels was a member of the 414th Regiment of the 104th Infantry Division, the Timberwolves.

The unit, a quick moving sort, stormed its way through the European theater during World War II, battling Nazis and liberating concentration camps along the way.

"We went fast, relieving camps as quickly as as we could," Runnels said.

"I saw so many small camps. They just didn't give (the prisoners) anything to eat or drink."

In 1942, America's entrance into World War II beckoned most young and able-bodied men into the military. At age 19, Runnels was no different.

"I knew I was going to be," he said. "I was 19 years old and I was choice."

His original career goal was to become a barber, he said.

Before entering the service, Runnels traveled from Nebraska to Basehor, where his father served as minister of the local Methodist church. He would meet his future wife in Basehor, but the union wouldn't commence until after the war.

After training in Oregon, Runnels and his unit were thrown into the thick of World War II. They landed in France, advanced through Belgium and freed Holland in their march through Europe with Allied forces.

Eventually, their path led them to Nordhausen, a northeast German town, across the Rhine River. The town is a scenic prelude to Germany's sprawling mountainous region .

But what Runnels and his unit found inside the town was anything but picturesque. The town housed one of Germany's harshest concentration camps.

"When we went into that town it was horrible," Runnels said. "We saw hundreds of dead bodies stacked like cordwood.

"That was definitely the worst of them."

Dead bodies were stacked into mass graves. Upon liberating the camp, U.S. forces rousted the town's people and made them bury the dead prisoners.

Kept locked inside the camp were Russian, Polish and Jewish prisoners, their bodies reduced to little more than skin and bones.

"They would just look at you, with those eyes," Runnels said. "I can still see them."

The Nazis used the prisoners as slave labor in the manufacturing of German artillery, or "buzzballs," as Runnels said.

While the sight of the deprived prisoners proved difficult for soldiers to stomach, an even tougher task would lie ahead.

"We were told 'don't give them anything to eat or drink,'" Runnels said. "(Prisoners) would just fall over if they were given anything. I never saw it, but I heard about it."

The prisoners had become so undernourished even the slightest meal or drink could overcome their vastly reduced stomachs.

Medical personnel had to monitor their food and drink intake for several months after prisoners were set free.

Although he saw the most vile side of their countrymen, Runnels said the concentration camps were not typical of the German people.

During his unit's advance through the country, Runnels and other men stayed in the homes of several German families.

"They were nice people and they hated Hitler," he said. "Oh, how they hated Hitler."

In 1945, the war ended and Runnels had accumulated enough points to come home. He returned to Basehor, where he would spend his days with his wife and help raise their three children.

He fulfilled his goal of becoming a barber and partially followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Sunday school teacher.

He would never again hold a weapon.

He traded a German Luger, a highly sought-after item by American GI's during the war, for a fishing outfit, he said.

"I never ever thought it would be enjoyable for me to look at a man and shoot him and I never did," Runnels said.

Basehor is different today than it was in 1945.

His father's church is long gone, having been destroyed by fire.

Runnels points to the church's new building when putting his war experience into perspective.

"In that building are kids being taught the right way," he said. "That's what I want to see kids being taught, the right things. Kids in France, Holland and Germany weren't taught anything, they didn't have anything. They were starving.

"I never want to see anything like that again. Hopefully, I won't."

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