Saturday, July 08, 2000

Dachau liberators to hold reunion here

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Louis Hendricks Jr. and Martin Bente served in the Rainbow Division. Hendricks holds a map of the division's march to Austria.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Louis Hendricks Jr. can't believe 55 years have passed since he witnessed the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

        It was April 29, 1945. A few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Pfc. Hendricks was a member of the U.S. Army units of the 42nd Infantry, widely known as the Rainbow Division. He was assigned to guard the house of a German doctor, about a half-mile from the camp, and visited Dachau shortly after it had been secured.

        “There was a long stream of boxcars,” said Mr. Hendricks, now 75 and living in Mariemont. “The corpses were stacked like cordwood. Some of our guys found one guy still alive.”

        The Nazi SS special police force had run out of coal to burn the bodies of prisoners. About 30,000 people died at Dachau — either murdered, worked to death in arms factories or simply allowed to succumb to preventable disease.

        Liberating 32,000 prisoners at Dachau, one of Hitler's first death camps for Jews, is what the already-distinguished Rainbow Division is best known for. And that story and others will surely be told and retold when its surviving members meet at its annual reunion next week at the Regal Cincinnati Hotel. More than 600 veterans and wives are expected to attend the event, which has been held in different cities for several years.

        “I don't think you truly appreciate something like the Rainbow when you're 18, 19, 20, its history, what you are part of,” Mr. Hendricks said. “You sure appreciate it when you're older.”

        The unit was formed during World War I by then-Maj. Douglas MacArthur. Dwight Eisenhower was under

        the command of Maj. MacArthur, who gave the unit its name when he said, “In the makeup and promise of the future of this division, it resembles a rainbow.”

        A rainbow was employed as its shoulder patch after the press dubbed it the “Rainbow Division.”

        “We were selected from each of the states,” said Martin Bente, 75, of Terrace Park, one of the dozen World War II-era Rainbow veterans from the Tristate who are expected to attend the reunion. “Our generals had us paint huge rainbows across bridges after we took them.”

        In World War I, the Rainbow comprised soldiers from 25 states and the District of Columbia. The Rainbow participated in five major battles of WWI, including the Marne offensive.

        The Rainbow recently lost its last living World War I member. Fewer than than 1,000 American WWI veterans are alive today.

        The Rainbow's 1,900 alumni from World War II — all of whom are 75 or older — are thinning, too. There are about 6 million World War II veterans alive, but they are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day.

        That's why this reunion and others like it become more meaningful with each passing year.

        In an effort to keep the Rainbow alive, a National Guard unit in New York state wears the Rainbow patch as official Rainbow members, and a millennium chapter for children and grandchildren of Rainbow veterans was started recently.

        “We're very proud of the division,” said Mr. Hendricks, a Withrow High School graduate who was sent from Fargo, N.D., to Camp Gruber near Tulsa to join the new Rainbow.

        The division was reactivated for WWII duty on July 14, 1943, the 26th anniversary of a victory against the Germans in WWI.

        Mr. Bente, a Cleveland native, was also sent from Fargo to Tulsa. Both men were in the 222nd infantry division — Mr. Bente in Company L, Mr. Hendricks in Company I.

        An estimated 15,000 members of the Rainbow landed in Marseilles, France, in December 1944 and went into the line Christmas Day.

        “They wanted us to have a hot meal on Christmas, so they gave us turkey,” Mr. Hendricks said.

        “A bunch of us got sick,” Mr. Bente addded. “We were used to our K-rations.”

        The Rainbow's mission was to advance on the Nazis from the south. They slept two or three men to a foxhole to keep warm during the winter. Mr. Hendricks carried a spoon in his boot.

        As they advanced and took village after village, Rainbow soldiers had to check houses and other buildings. Contraband — weapons, cameras, radios — was seized and brought to the town square.

        “I kicked in doors all across Europe,” Mr. Hendricks said.

        The tide of the war had turned decidedly in favor of the Allies.

        After fighting ended in Europe, the Rainbow spent several months in Vienna, Austria.

        “It was split into four sectors, just like Berlin,” Mr. Bente said of the city, which had American, British, Soviet and French occupiers.

        “The Germans kept telling us that the Russians were our real enemies,” Mr. Hendricks said.

        “But the Russian men themselves were fine with us. You'd walk into a bar, and the Russians would be there. They didn't speak English. We didn't speak Russian. But we both knew a little German, so we communicated in German.”

        Mr. Hendricks sang in the 60-man Rainbow glee club. One night, the glee club entertained at a party thrown by a U.S. general.

        “He had all these colonels serving us cookies,” Mr. Hendricks said. “We enlisted men got a kick out of that.”

        Time has sweetened many memories.

        Other images can't be softened.

        “We were schooled to how terrible war is,” he said. “Folks at home had no appreciation for the suffering of civilians.”

        Like the suffering Mr. Hendricks saw as a teen-age liberator at Dachau.

        “One day, some of our troops were marching the German guards away,” he said. “Even though the former Jewish prisoners were so emaciated, they tried to lunge at the Germans. They had so much vengeance. Our troops had to push them away to protect the Germans.”

        • What: Annual reunion of the 42nd Infantry, the Rainbow Division.

        • When: Wednesday through July 16.

        • Where: Regal Cincinnati Hotel, 150 W. Fifth St, downtown.

        • Miscellaneous: Veterans and their wives will go on several outings while in Cincinnati. Various divisions will have hospitality rooms, and the public is welcome to come in and hear stories. There will be a memorial service for the Rainbow members who died in battle. Scholarship money is raised for relatives of Rainbow members.

        • Information: Louis Hendricks, 271-6125, or Regal Hotel, (513) 352-2100.


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