I try to never miss a meeting at the Terrace Restaurant in Walnutport, Pennsylvania, just outside Allentown, where the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge meet each month. This is a Mecca for storytellers. It’s where I get to know the vets and become their friend. The luncheon meetings usually draw about 80 people – the vets, their wives and family members, veterans advocates and people like me who are interested in the these men — now in their mid-80s and beyond – and the stories they tell.
As a reporter for Allentown’s The Morning Call, I write a series called WAR STORIES: In Their Own Words. I wanted a Battle of the Bulge story for the series when I showed up there in the fall of 2008. The guys there recommended that I talk to Don Burdick, a local vet, about his experience at Bastogne, Belgium, surrounded by the Germans at Christmas 1944.
I did get a harrowing account from Don about the desperate days he spent at Bastogne with his 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, under the 101st Airborne Division. They were encircled by the Germans, cut off from food and supplies. The Germans were so close, Don could see their tanks. I noted in passing that after the breakout from Bastogne, Don went on to have a role in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. With that note, I was hinting that I had more to tell. I did, but it wasn’t for months that I myself would have any idea of how much.
One day, we were sitting at his kitchen table, talking. I asked Don how the war had played out for him after the Bulge. He explained his unit had come into Dachau when the prisoners were still there. Their task was to arrest the German SS officers who were guarding the prisoners in the camp. The young German officers were hiding under the heaps of bodies there, hoping to evade the notice of the American GIs. Don’s unit was there for about six hours and he told me what he smelled, saw and heard that harrowing day. Then he said quietly “Well, I took pictures. I have never shown them to anyone. Not even my wife.”
“Would you show them to me?”
Don went down to his basement and brought me up a box. Tucked in a standard white envelope, there they were: seven small, fading prints of corpses piled up in boxcars, with a few of the photos showing GIs standing around. I gaped at them. He had kept these pictures to himself for more than 60 years.
As we looked at his old photos, I asked him if he’d be interested in seeing them published in The Morning Call. He didn’t hesitate:
“Yes,” he said. “That would be a good thing to do.”
I met with the editors and we hatched a plan. They wanted to feature the photos in a meaningful context that focused on the death camp at Dachau in World War II. Don, a high school biology teacher for 25 years, felt strongly that the denial of the Holocaust could be countered by sharing these photos. He thought the photographs, as gruesome as they were, made the liberation of the camps 65 years before seem real.
That was the plan, and it worked out exactly like that. The executive editor reviewed Don’s grisly photos and okayed the use of several inside the paper, with the story’s runover, because they were so disturbing.
Don was, after all, an eyewitness to Dachau. As a young soldier, he took photographs with a looted camera even though the Army brass expressly forbade taking pictures. He tucked his camera in his backpack and waited sixty years to tell anyone what he had done. Still, if I hadn’t gone to talk to him about something else entirely, the story might never have come out – and the disturbing pictures he took might still be sitting in a box in the basement.