WASHINGTON -- Retired Brig. Gen. Alvin D. Ungerleider remembers fighting his way into a German-run slave-labor camp near Nordhausen, Germany, with other soldiers in his company in April 1945.
They had stumbled upon a camp being guarded by about 50 German soldiers, whom they quickly overpowered. The American soldiers freed about 300 prisoners, many of them virtual skeletons.
"The sight that met my eyes is still burned intrinsically into my soul," Mr. Ungerleider said. "We thought we had entered the gates of hell."
The soldiers didn't call themselves liberators 51 years ago, but visitors to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington will now know them as such.
The 74-year-old Mr. Ungerleider and about 25 others who were members of the 29th Infantry Division of the National Guard presented their division flag and patch to the museum Thursday night. Theirs will be included in a rotating display of the flags and patches of 30 other U.S. military divisions that have been recognized as liberators of Nazi concentration camps.
"This is the end of a long road of quest for me this evening," Mr. Ungerleider, who lives in Burke, Va., said at a program honoring the veterans.
He spent more than two years documenting his company's presence and actions in aiding the captives of German concentration camps. When the Center of Military History recognized the division as liberators last year, Mr. Ungerleider won the right for the 29th Infantry Division to be included in the museum's collection.
"I thought that the 29th had done so much on D-Day and so much to open the door that they deserved to be in the museum with all the other divisions," he said.
The division was formed originally from National Guard troops from Maryland and Virginia, but replacement soldiers came from all over the country.
At the program Thursday night, Frank Oberle, 70, rested his body on two canes just inside the doors of the exhibit. Mr. Oberle, of Lancaster, Pa., was 19 when he landed at Normandy with one of the two regiments from the 29th to go ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He survived that harrowing day, and after months of battle in the French and German countryside, he thought he had been hardened to the sights of war.
bTC But in the spring of 1945, he and fellow soldiers began to encounter refugees from concentration camps. In one instance, they came across a burned-out bus garage that held the charred bodies of more than 300 prisoners who had been on a forced march.
The soldiers of the 29th, the only National Guard division to participate in the D-Day invasion, remember their service in World War II vividly. Now, they say, their place in history is secure.
"What's the connection between D-Day 1944 and this museum?" Mr. Ungerleider asked as he spoke to those gathered for the presentation. "If we had not been successful on the beaches of Normandy, there would have been no liberation of any of the camps."