Warren R. Johnson —
Though it is not a particularly well-known fact, the “bunker” of the former concentration camp at Dachau was used after World War II as an American stockade. Until 1970, soldiers either awaiting trial or sentenced to less than a year’s confinement were imprisoned there. The “bunker,” a series of cells, is directly behind the former administration building that is now the museum dedicated to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The “bunker”’ was used between 1938 and 1945 as an additional means of punishing prisoners who refused to toe the Nazi line.
In late 1968, I was tasked with escorting a prisoner to Augsburg for his court-martial from his pre-trial confinement in Dachau. It was not the first time I had been to Dachau. A few years earlier I had boarded the train to Munich and transferred to a train heading for the city of Dachau. Once there, I asked complete strangers how to find it. Some shrugged their shoulders either because they misunderstood my question, or because they truly did not know the answer.
Others pointed me in the right direction and after walking several miles, I reached the memorial site. Thanks to the efforts of former prisoners, the memorial was opened only the year before, blocking an attempt of hopeful realtors to turn the site into a housing development.
Many things remain in my memory from that first visit, but the most pertinent one was seeing a 1933 issue of the Völkischer Beobachter in which Heinrich Himmler announced the upcoming construction of a concentration camp near Dachau intended for the incarceration of communists and other dissidents. Soon the camp was referred to as a resocialization location about which ordinary citizens need not worry. If they had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. Many years later I met Anna Pröll, who had been a prisoner in Moringen, a concentration camp in the heart of Germany. Himmler came to inspect the camp and asked each woman in a row—lined up for the occasion—a question as his aide noted their answers. When Himmler got to Anna Pröll, he wondered sarcastically how she liked the new German Reich. Her answer was both courageous and dangerous. “So far,” she said, “I’ve only gotten to know it from its worst side.”
In 1968, things were a good deal more mundane. A drunken sergeant after duty hours entered the room of an African-American private named Jones (not his real name) and demanded that the young soldier pull his duffle bag down from atop his wall locker, open it, and empty its contents on the floor. When a photo of Jones’s girlfriend fell out, the sergeant eyed it jealously and stomped on it, breaking the glass and the picture frame, and tearing the girl’s photo. Private Jones did what many of us would have done. He hit the sergeant hard enough to knock him to the floor. Jones was immediately reported for striking a non-commissioned officer. It did not take long before a guard carted Jones off to pre-trial confinement in Dachau.
Why it fell to me to escort Jones for his trial I do not know. I did let my feelings be known, though. I thought the sergeant had harassed Jones simply because he was white and Jones was black. That did not matter, I learned. A private under no circumstances—justified or not—may strike his superior.
All the same, I was sure, the court-martial would exonerate Jones. Assigned a driver and issued a loaded pistol, I headed for Dachau in a 3/4 ton truck—something like a pickup truck with a canvas top. It did not take long to notice a .45 caliber pistol is uncomfortable to lug around, so I took its magazine out for safe keeping and put the pistol in the glove compartment. A half-hour later, having arrived at the stockade, I reloaded and holstered the pistol just for show before handing over the appropriate paperwork to the person in charge and picking up our prisoner. I knew Private Jones well enough to know he was good-natured, meant no one any harm (except the sergeant he struck), and would have a lot to talk about on the trip back to Augsburg. Again, I put the .45 in the glove compartment.
At the time, scuttlebutt had it, if a prisoner tried to escape and was shot, his guard would get two cartons of cigarettes and a transfer to another unit. I understood the idea was bogus, but knew what the sentiment meant—prisoners are dispensable. Jones knew that too and could have jumped out of pickup truck without much of a problem. But what good would it have done him? He was in a foreign country, did not know the language, and was clad in an army uniform. He would have been caught in no time flat.
As we arrived in Augsburg, it was lunchtime, so we went to the chow hall. Again, but only for show, I holstered the .45. While waiting in line, Jones asked permission to use the latrine and when he received it, darted off. I was aware, as before, that he could escape by jumping out of a window and running away, but what good would it do him?
After about 15 minutes, I wondered if he was coming back and began to consider the odds of becoming a prisoner in Dachau myself, before the sun went down. About 20 minutes later, Jones returned to the chow line, which hadn’t gotten much shorter. And then he said:
I had one foot out the window and was about to run before I thought of how you put your pistol in the glove compartment, figuring I wouldn’t take off. The guard who took me down to Dachau was different. He called me, “Martin Luther Coon” and told me, “Run nigger, so I can shoot your nasty ass!”
Despite how I hoped the trial would turn out, Private Jones was convicted of striking a superior and was sent to Mannheim, a sturdier stockade. I do not know what became of him. Judging from what he said though, sometimes people act stranger with a gun in their hands than they would without one. Sometimes they act like Nazis. Maybe it was only because it was 1968 when racism was worse than it is today. Or maybe it was our proximity to a place called Dachau. From time to time, it’s shadow looms over all of us.
David Graham Scott (2010), “The History of Dachau and What American Soldiers Did There,” furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/the-history-of-dachau-and-what-american-soldiers-did-there.
Der Spiegel (1962), “KZ-Pater Roth. Schwarzer Winkel” (Father Roth, Black Triangle), Feb.14, magazin.spiegel.de/EpubDelivery/spiegel/pdf/45138991.
Durant Imboden (2018), “Dachau Bunker,” europeforvisitors.com/munich/articles/dachau-bunker.htm.
Saskia Schieber (2016), “Anna Pröll (1916 – 2006): Widerstandskaemferin, Antifaschistin und engagierte Demokratin” (Resistance Fighter, Ant-fascist, and Dedicated Democrat), lpb-bw.de/proell_6_2016.
Warren R. Johnson (Author) – Served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1960s. He returned to the U.S. and attended Northern Illinois University under the G.I. Bill, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in sociology. He then repatriated to Germany and taught college courses through the University of Maryland-Europe, mostly to U.S. service members and their families, for 40 years. He currently lives in Bavaria.