Del Cooper was camp liberator

  • Published
  • By Mike Wallace
  • Skywrighter Staff
Del Cooper went to Europe in March 1945, near the end of World War II in Europe. The sights and smells of his relatively short stay there affected much of his life however, and his pictures, his Eisenhower jacket and articles about him are on display in the Holocaust Exhibit in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Cooper joined the Army at age 19 in 1943. He eventually was assigned to the 14th Infantry Regiment, part of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army, and in 1945 found himself close to a concentration camp in Gunzkirchen.

Cooper helped move food supplies from a captured German train into a truck, then he and some others drove it to the camp.

"We knew of the camps, but didn't know exactly what to expect. As we approached the camp, we smelled something. I'd never smelled anything like it. I call it the odor of evil. The people that were strong enough came out along the road. They were so happy," said Cooper.

"They were staring, diseased, and stinking. They weren't people anymore, they were nothing but things. They came up to us and we fired our pistols into the air, trying to signal the people to stay off the road."

Cooper recalled that the victims helped move the boxes of food off the trucks. "I don't know how they helped," Cooper said. "The boxes were heavy, and the people were so wasted and infested with lice. They'd touch us as if to see if we were really there.

"There were dead people all over in the woods. People would go there to relieve themselves, and they'd just die. I saw people die coming towards us. I remember one old man sitting on a rock, throwing his hands up, praying.

"I opened a door on one of the buildings, and there were people just stacked in there. If anyone doesn't believe in the Holocaust, I know it's true. I saw it."

After returning to his unit, Cooper told his company commander, Capt. Swope, that a railway ran near the camp and that they could move the train there rather than make trips in the truck.

"Capt. Swope, who also was a pilot, drove the train to the camp," said Cooper.

Near the very end of the war in Europe, Cooper said that Germans were surrendering everywhere. He recalled going into a farmhouse where there were "four or five German soldiers and a French DP (displaced person) inside. He said the Germans surrendered, and the Frenchman told him there were "two SS troops in the barn (SS is an acronym for Schutzstaffel, a unit formed as Hitler's personal guard.)."

He crept to the barn, peeked around a corner, and saw "a young guy in civilian trousers and no shirt," said Cooper. "I had two pistols, and I point them at him and asked him if he was a German soldier. He never said anything, but looked at me--he knew he was going to die and I motioned for him to put his hands up. He looked me in the eye and put up his hands. I wanted him to do something, make any kind of motion. I wanted to shoot him, but I couldn't bring myself to kill him in cold blood. I took him to the farmhouse, and eventually turned him over to a military policeman. He probably shot him."

Cooper's jacket in the museum made him "the best dressed soldier in Europe" he said. He recalled that the regimental colonel had a German tailor assigned to him, and the "never smiling" tailor looked at Cooper's uniform disdainfully. He took it, along with measurements, and modified it with "smaller pockets and lapels so it would fit me better," Cooper said. He also said that the German sewed a cloth holster for Cooper's small pistol that he always carried despite orders forbidding it.

Coming home in April 1946, Cooper went to work at the Defense Electronic Supply Center in Kettering, and joined what he called "a special unit." He went to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Germany. He also went to Vietnam twice.

Besides traveling on business, Cooper and his wife, Joanne, also traveled for pleasure. On one of his trips, he spread some dirt from his garden at his home in Beavercreek on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China.

Today, Cooper occasionally talks to school kids about his World War II experiences. Some of these occasions have included the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force when students go to visit the Holocaust Exhibit.

Looking back, Cooper said, "If I was called today to serve, I'd go. I tell the students, 'Respect the flag.' You can't believe the looks on those people's faces (in World War II and later) when they saw the American flag."