Book Reviews

Jones County WWII Vet Meets former Commander’s Son

Jones County WWII Veteran Walter Presley, left with Presley commander’s son, Dr. Richard Macdonald from Washington, Illinois. Photo by Linda Cranford

Jones County WWII veteran, Walter Presley, had the rare opportunity of meeting his former commander’s son and the two shared their stories with local veterans at the Veterans Memorial Museum, Wednesday, November 6, in Laurel.

Presley’s grandson, Chris Hodge, located Dr. Richard Macdonald, from Washington, Illinois, the son of Presley’s U.S. Army 139th Evacuation Hospital (semi-mobile) commander, Lt. Col. Hugh Macdonald, when researching his grandfather’s war experience. Hodge’s interest was piqued after visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and recalling the many stories his grandfather had told him about the war while growing up a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. However, there was no information or reference to Ebensee at the holocaust museum.

Hodge began his research and found a book written by Dr. Macdonald entitled, “Inside the Gates,” which not only describes Macdonald’s father’s role and the role of his brother’s in the war, but documents the history of the “phantom unit,” the 139th Evac unit, and its role in the liberation and rehabilitation of thousands in the Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria, which, until now, was never recorded. The 139th Evac unit was organized at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg and according to Hodge, his grandfather remained with the unit from its beginning until it was disbanded after a little over a year later when the war came to an end. “They were on a ship headed toward Japan when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,” said Hodge. “When they returned to the U.S. the 139th was disbanded.”

“He would chew me out,” exclaimed Presley, referring to Lt. Col. Macdonald. “He was always firm and he was usually right. He was a great commander.”

Presley was Lt. Col. Macdonald’s driver and sergeant of the 139th motor pool. Presley relayed a story when Macdonald wanted him to drive him back to a camp one day and Presley knew the bridge on the road had been knocked out and tried to tell him so. “He said, ‘I know that bridge is ok, I just crossed it earlier today,” said Presley in a deep voice imitating Macdonald. “Well I drove him clear over the edge of that bridge,” exclaimed Presley, laughing. “When we got back they all said to me, ‘What ya trying to do, kill our major.”

In the Forward of Dr. Macdonald’s book he writes: “The sole purpose of Kinzentrationslager (KZ) Ebensee Concentration Camp, a sub-camp of KZ Mauthausen system, was to work to death thousands of Jews and political prisoners to further the research and production of SS Officer Wernher von Braun’s V-2 missile program; Hitler’s eventual victory over all of Europe and Russia. The military units and individual stories in this book tell the tales of one of the worst slave labor camps in Hitler’s grand plan.

Liberation began on Sunday, May 6, 1945 with the sound of an unfamiliar rumbling to the ears of a human mass of barbed wire-enclosed emaciated prisoners at the KZ Ebensee, Austria. The roar of tank tracks and a cloud of road dust signaled to the lice-covered gaunt prisoners the initial sound and sight of freedom.

As WWII history books state, the Eightieth Infantry Division was given credit for freeing the 16,694 KZ Ebensee slave labor inmates. The Eightieth Infantry Division was actually 40 miles behind the tanks of the Third Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron of the Third Calvary Group, which was coming up that dusty road at 10:45 a.m. on May 6, 1945. At 2:45 p.m., the Third Platoon of F Company opened the gates into the camp, turning the hope of freedom into a reality for almost 17,000 prisoners.

The U.S. Army 139th Evacuation Hospital (semi-mobile), like the two tanks and one jeep from F Company, became a phantom WWII unit in historical archives. Until now, it has been denied credit of its humanitarian accomplishments at KZ Ebensee. The 139th Evacuation Hospital brought thousands of human beings the hopes and dreams of postwar life. This book will detail the 139th Evac’s involvement in the liberation and freedom of KZ Ebensee so it can receive its rightful place in the history of WWII.”

During Dr. Macdonald’s presentation he showed several pictures relating to the conditions of the camp and diagrams of the huge tunnels being dug by the prisoners to house Wernher von Braun’s research.

In addition to Dr. Macdonald and Presley sharing their stories with the veterans in Laurel, they visited the Camp Shelby Armed Forces Museum in Hattiesburg and recorded a video of their conversation discussing Presley’s experience with Macdonald’s father at KZ Ebensee for the museum’s archives.

Dr. Macdonald book, “Inside the Gates” the Nazi Concentration Camp at Ebensee, Austria is the result of two years of research in the National Archives and Records Administration, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Holocaust museuk and library in Ebensee. The book can be ordered from Xlibris Corporation, 1-888-795-4274, or online at Amazon or Barnes and Nobles.

Bibo: Son telling dad's tale of WWII camp assistance

Dr. Hugh Macdonald rides a camel during North African Campaign in 1943 while with 94th Evac Hospital.

Posted Nov 14, 2009 @ 10:37 PM
Last update Nov 16, 2009 @ 07:26 AM

Dr. Hugh Macdonald was a formal and quiet man.

He wore a tie at home. He donned a fedora every time he left for the Downtown Peoria office where he practiced medicine in the 1950s. He insisted upon order, and peace, which can appear to be a loaded blessing from the perspective of five sons.

"Schoolmates did not want to play at our house," Dr. Richard Macdonald says a bit ruefully.

The elder Dr. Macdonald did not talk about himself, although he could have regaled the neighbors with tales to curl the hair of the rowdiest boy-child. Fifty years after his death, that task would be assumed by his youngest. Even though it hasn't been completed yet, Dick Macdonald's book "Inside the Gates" already has attracted international attention and connected him to a network of people his father knew.

"It's not a closing," Dick Macdonald says. "It's really an opening into my father's life."

Outside of Peoria, Dr. Hugh Macdonald was best known as one of the researchers who developed the whooping cough vaccine, testing it on himself and his sons. That seems book-worthy, but that is not why several groups already have placed advance book orders and asked Dick Macdonald to give presentations. In World War II, Lt. Col. Macdonald led the Allied force that helped rehabilitate the liberated KZ Ebensee, a concentration camp constructed on the orders of Adolf Hitler himself so SS Officer Wernher von Braun could research V-2 rockets.

More than 8,000 people died at Ebensee. Technically, 11,000 skeletal prisoners were still alive when Lt. Col. Macdonald arrived there with the 139th Evac Hospital in May of 1945. Even as the Americans tried to feed the survivors, many dropped dead before their eyes. In some circles, Ebensee was considered the worst camp in the Nazi system.

More than six decades later, the younger Macdonald would find his father's now-declassified report in government files in Washington, D.C. Even a condensed version of those six single-spaced pages is appalling:

Water supplies had failed. Latrines were inoperable. An "unimaginable filth" covered every inch of the buildings and grounds. Buildings designed to hold 50 prisoners were stuffed with more than a thousand of them, the dead sometimes lying alongside the living. At least half of the prisoners were naked. Without serving utensils or bowls, the starving men would scoop thick soup out of common containers with a black bread containing sawdust. They weighed, on average, less than 75 pounds. They spoke one of a dozen languages. And the most able-bodied among them had dispatched the remaining camp guards upon liberation. According to rumor, one of those guards was stuffed in a crematory while still alive.

Ministering to this miasma meant requisitioning 50 local women to clean the buildings and a tank dozer to clean a stretch of land. Bedding was burned. Ex-prisoners were de-loused with a spray of DDT powder. New latrines were constructed. Inmates had to be retrained to use them rather than the nearest spot of open ground.

For more than three weeks after the Allies broke through the gates of Ebensee, members of Macdonald's group did their best to bury the dead and help the living. The next company in received the medals.

"Originally, I was thinking about calling the book 'The Phantom Hospital,'" Macdonald says. "Nobody knew about it."

Lt. Col. Macdonald had done his best to ensure that outcome. Although he documented those days with more than 200 photographs for himself, he rarely if ever spoke of his experiences, and he tried to make sure the memories died when he did.

"I asked my mother what happened to the pictures," Dick Macdonald says. "She said, 'He burned them all. Because of man's inhumanity to man.'"

Dick Macdonald was 21 when his father died in 1957. For decades, he had his own family to raise and his own medical career. Now 73 and retired, he has spent most of the last two years piecing together his father's missing memories. To do so, he has traveled to Ebensee, researched via the Internet, scoured the public records.

"It's cool to find your father's signature in the National Archives," he says.

In the process, he's found and interviewed some of the people who worked alongside his father and solved puzzles he never anticipated. Most dramatically, he says, he met a German woman who was the result of her mother's one-night stand with an American GI.

" 'Can you find my father for me?'" Macdonald said she asked. "And I have. Her father was 92 and living in Arkansas."

Like Lt. Col. Macdonald, some of these people had kept their stories to themselves. Many felt a renewed mission to tell them now, since the Holocaust is not always taught and sometimes denied. Tank commander Bob Persinger, who broke down the gates at Ebensee, now lives in Rockford. Although his wife is seriously ill, they drove to Peoria last month to help Macdonald lecture on the subject at Bradley University.

"It was a filthy, dirty, terrible, rotten place. Those memories are just glued in my mind," Persinger said in a recent telephone interview. "People say, 'How can you remember?' Well it was a terrible, terrible, terrible war."

Macdonald has lectured in Mississippi and will soon speak in Kansas City, Mo. He compares the effect of this book to throwing a rock in a still pond. "The ripples keep going further and further and further," he says.

Some are big; some are small. Fred Kubli, his father's personnel clerk, offered Macdonald 100 pictures along with information for the book. As a belated celebration of Veterans Day, Kubli will toss the coin at Monday night's NFL game when Cleveland plays Baltimore. Ken Colvin wrote a poem about Ebensee that gave Macdonald the title of his book. Earlier this month, Colvin was giving interviews in San Francisco to a young student who knew little about the Holocaust.

"I'll tell you that if she has to be here for 12 hours she'll know what went on at Ebensee and two hundred labor camps and another two hundred concentration hell holes," he vowed to Macdonald via e-mail. Colvin is Jewish, and he warned Macdonald that once touched by the Holocaust, these connections will continue.

"I'm sure things will keep rolling in," Macdonald says. "This is why I'm literally doing a book tour, and I haven't even finished the book yet."

If Colvin has his way, the quietly untold story of Lt. Col. Hugh Macdonald will be spread far and wide, sooner rather than later.

"P.S." he wrote to Macdonald, "Finish your book. I'll be 85 on the 28th of the month and want to be around to read it!!!"

Columnist, Journal Star
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