On April 9, 1945, Eddie Willner was one of 500 prisoners on a death march out of Langenstein-Zwieberge, a subcamp of Buchenwald concentration camp. Marching four abreast, under the watch of SS guards and German shepherds, the prisoners moved, unsure where they were being taken or what their guards were planning.
“We were in our third day of marching when six of us prisoners, who had long planned escape, felt that our time had come,” Willner said. “We had just crossed a small bridge that passed over a narrow stream and that’s when we made our break, spreading out in different directions to make it more difficult for the guards to target all of us, which meant some of us would probably survive. The dogs were released, some of the prisoners [were] shot, but we kept running.”
Eddie Willner was 18 at the time. Several years earlier, He and his parents, German Jews, had fled Germany to France and were on the run. While in hiding, they were betrayed, arrested and put on a transport to Poland. His mother was sent to her immediate death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and he and his father were made slave laborers at a nearby subcamp. Willner’s father, who had earned the Iron Cross medal for valor while fighting on the front lines for Germany in World War I, would be killed two years later. Considered too old for labor when he turned 50, he would perish in the gas chambers.
Willner, now orphaned, endured his first death march from Auschwitz through Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald concentration camps before arriving at Langenstein in February 1945. At Langenstein, he was put to work blasting tunnels and removing rock in the Harz Mountains that were to secretly house Adolf Hitler’s new “super weapon” intended to turn the tide of the war—V-2 rockets. Few prisoners made it out of Langenstein alive.
By April 1945, the Allies were moving in on German positions. The SS guards ordered those who could still walk to assemble and march out the back gate of the Langenstein camp. On the third night of the march, Willner and his fellow prisoners made their escape. Only two of the six succeeded. The others were likely shot.
As Allied planes flew overhead, the escapees, wearing blue and white striped concentration camp uniforms and weighing only 75 pounds, ran for several days. Hiding in ditches and a barn by day, they moved toward distant artillery fire, which they assumed came from the Western Front, at night.
When they heard the sound of rumbling tanks a half-mile away, “We jumped up and threw our hands up in the air,” Willner said. “The first tank stopped and we showed them the number tattoos on our arms.”
The soldiers were members of Company D, 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, under the command of Army 1st Lieutenant Elmer Hovland. Hovland and his crew dismounted, approached the emaciated survivors and pulled them up onto the tanks. In the following days, the soldiers, including Staff Sergeant Brady Laird saw to it that the boys were cleaned up, received medical attention and clothed in the soldiers’ own reserve uniforms. The mess sergeant, Sergeant Louis “Pepsi” DeCola, took particular care to feed the boys and comfort them.
“There were no questions asked,” DeCola told The Washington Post in 2002 during Willner’s reunion with “the boys” of Company D. “[Willner] was somebody’s child, he was somebody’s son.”
Having lost 27 members of his family in the Holocaust, Willner made his way to the United States after the war and enlisted in the Army before marrying a German, and having six children.
During his 21 years of military service, he completed Officer Candidate School and achieved the rank of major before retiring in 1969. He went on to work as a civil servant with the Commerce Department for another 20 years before retiring in the Washington area.
Willner was grateful to the soldiers of Company D and to his adopted country—and he was proud to be an American.
Major Eddie Willner died in March 2008. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60.
Nina Willner, a former Army captain, is Eddie Willner’s daughter and the author of the forthcoming Forty Autumns, due for release in Fall 2016.