Some people may disagree that the Holocaust even took place, but Cecil Callahan will disagree -– he was there.
The 95-year-old Grayson native served in World War II for 23 months between 1943 and 1945, and might be one of the few veterans still living who witnessed the horror inside Auschwitz – Birkenau, a concentration camp where the largest number of European Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
“I was a medic with the 76th Armored Medical Battalion, 6th Armored Division, under the direction of General George Smith Patton III,” Callahan recalled recently while seated in his patriotically decorated home. “I was a leader in charge of taking care of the wounded and dying during the Battle of the Bulge, the major battle during World War II. It
was so cold all the time. In this battle, 25,000 soldiers had frozen feet.”
While leaving behind a wife and children, the then 29-year-old Callahan answered his draft call to the war and headed overseas on the Queen Mary – to a place where he would never forget.
“I was one of the first to go inside Birkenau, one of Hitler’s concentration camps,” he remembered. “There was only one live person inside there strong enough to talk.”
According to history, Auschwitz – Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, became the killing center (named Death Gate 1 and the Death Factory) where the largest numbers of European Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
After an experimental gassing in Sept. 1941 of 850 malnourished and ill prisoners, mass murder inside Birkenau became a daily routine. By mid 1942, mass gassing of Jews using Zyklon-B began at Auschwitz, where exterminations were conducted on an industrial scale with some estimates as high as three-million person eventually killed through gassing, starvation, disease, shooting and the burning of live bodies. The gas chambers and crematorium were kept going every day, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air constantly.
Callahan backed up the history of Birkenau while telling of the horror he witnessed.
“One Sunday night we had so many dead they were stacked like railroad ties,” he said. “I still wonder how so many of them were still alive. There were woodbins filled with the dying, and a lot of them were burned alive. I just don’t know why it was allowed to go on for so long. The odor of burned bodies is something you can never forget. I can still
smell it sitting here today. “
During his time serving as a medic, Callahan witnessed hundreds of fellow soldiers dying from war-related injuries. While being much older than many of his comrades, Callahan was known to most as “Pop.”
“I was helping to take care of this little boy (younger soldier) one day,” he said. “We had to take his leg off. But he died, and I was holding his cut-off leg when it happened. We tried, but we couldn’t save him.”
Among other duties performed by the 76th Medical Division was to guard and medically treat some 300 German soldiers held behind a fence.
“Every hour and every minute of the day we were trying to save a life,” he said. “It was certainly nothing to laugh at. I could sit here a week and tell all that I saw – and a lot of it wouldn’t be good. But I was glad to have been in the group that helped to liberate Birkenau. To tell you the truth, the Germans starved those people to death. They wouldn’t
feed them for days and then set a plate of food outside a door and open it. They laughed when those poor people trampled one another to death trying to get a bite of food.”
Callahan said he also witnessed the deaths of thousands of women and children
“Some of it was really hard to see and accept,” added during his sad recollections of the war. “I’ve had some people to say, “That Callahan’s out telling awful tales about the concentration camp, and none of it is true. Well, it was true. I saw it with my own eyes. You can never forget watching women and children being put in train boxcars and drove
up to a trench and thrown off and buried alive.”
Despite the horrible memories of WWII, Callahan remains proud to have served in the Army.
“You just didn’t know what to expect from day to day,” he said. “They (troop leaders) would dig a big hole and tell you to get down in it and then they would drive over you in a big tank. Or, they might have you to dig a really huge hole and then turn around and make you fill it back up -– That was training.”
Although, he said during the two years overseas, his thoughts remained in Carter County with his family and friends.
“That’s all that kept me going,” he said. “I just spent a lot of time thinking about my wife and children. It was so cold over and our boys were dying off right and left. It was just really different. We were all homesick. I will just say there were no warm beds or covers from home.”
Meanwhile, letters from home also helped to make the snowy days and frigid, cold nights a little easier.
“There would sometimes be no mail for weeks and weeks,” he said. But, one day a truck came, and I was the only one to get mail from my mom. She had written 24 letters and they all arrived together. I felt really bad that the others didn’t get any mail. They also were homesick, too. Some asked if they could read mine – I let them.”
Callahan can recall one particular gift sent overseas from a relative. “My sister made me a Christmas cake,” he said. “But it had molded before it got to me.”
One other detail, Callahan will never forget is the day he learned he would be returning home.
“We were put in a truck and driven all night,” he remembered. “We didn’t know where we were going, but the driver did. I could see lights close to the harbor. We thought we might be going to Japan. It was about daylight and we then ended up being interviewed and given clean clothes. The commander then said, ‘There is no work for you. Things look good. If you are good the rest of the day, you will see the Statue of Liberty soon. See that boat over there? It’s the Queen Elizabeth and going to take you back to the states.’”
The proud veteran still smiles when asked about his time in the Army. “I’m seated here doing very well,” he continued. “My mind is good, and I feel pretty good. When some folks start grumbling about past and present wars, I tell them if we hadn’t gone over there, we wouldn’t all be here today. I’m just thankful to God that I’m still here and can tell people about the concentration camps, some folks still say it all didn’t happen – Well, I know it did.”