Staff Sergeant John N. Petro: Liberator
42nd "Rainbow" Division, 232 Infantry, E Company
1921-1975

A Modern Visit to Dachau, March 2003

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John Petro
Photo credit: John Petro

My father, John Petro, served in the European Theater of Operations during World War II where he was awarded the Bronze Star. He saw action in France, Germany and Austria. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated the Dachau concentration camp. While my father rarely volunteered information about the war, when I asked, he would tell me. Here are some of his stories and pictures.

His story of the liberation of Dachau is featured at HBO's "Band of Brothers" Living Memorial section and is told below in greater details, and with the pictures he brought back.

[Warning: some photos are of the dead at Dachau]

 


John Petro, Rainbow Division, US Army
Photo credit: John Petro

John Petro entered the Army with one kidney. Disease claimed the other when he was 15 and the Navy wouldn't admit him. The Army Air Force did not like his flat feet. In retrospect, his comment to me of the Air Force was that they where the "sunglasses and Coca-cola boys"... unlike the Infantry. He didn't mention either of his conditions to the Army and in 1943 he entered the service. A 9 to 12 month delay in shipment overseas, my brother recalls, involved more training State-side. John went through boot camp three times in three different locations, eventually becoming part of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division, 232nd Infantry, Company E.

 


John Petro, Rainbow Division, US Army
Photo credit: John Petro

As part of the 7th Army, they landed in France in December of 1944 and were the first of their corps to enter Germany in March of 1945. Research suggests that his Division's involvement in the Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Offensive) was south of the Southern Shoulder (Luxembourg City and South - before and during the Second Front of Operation Nordwind in Northeast France)

 


John Petro in Europe
Photo credit: John Petro

The Rainbow Division history reports: 'In the Autumn of 1944, the three Infantry Regiments were rushed overseas ahead of the remainder of the Division. They were designated as "Task Force Linden" and, in the words of one infantryman, "flung into the maw," totally fragmented, segregated with no artillery or back up support to bolster other thinned-down divisions trying to prevent a breakout of two German armies in Alsace. Task Force Linden's companies were used to defend against and attack and counterattack powerful German forces along a 30-mile furious battle front in January 1945. The rest of the Division arrived in France in January and the Division was at last intact. The Rainbow Division as part of the expanded 7th Army attacked through the strong German defensive positions in the Hardt Mountains of France, penetrated the Siegfried Line at the German frontier, crossed the Rhine, and advanced into the cradle of Nazism, capturing Wurzburg, Schweinfurt, Furth (Nuremberg's twin city), Donauworth, liberating Dachau concentration camp, on April 29, 1945, and swept through Munich on April 30, shortly before the war ended on May 8.'

 


John Petro and truck
Photo credit: John Petro

By the end of the war, the 42nd Division had established an enviable record. It was first in its corps to enter Germany, first to penetrate the Seigfried line and first into Munich. Rainbow soldiers had seized over 6,000 square miles of Nazi held territory during their march across Europe. The Division ended the war serving as occupation forces in Austria and was inactivated in June 1946.

 


John Petro (right) and buddy, in New Orleans?
Photo credit: John Petro

My father had a keen sense of humor and wrote letters to his older brother Ken, who was in the Navy but did not see action. He regaled him with funny stories about his officers at the time. These were so amusing, that Ken posted them on the local bulletin board.

 


John Petro in New Orleans?
Photo credit: John Petro

"John N. Petro, 39 542 822, Sergeant, Infantry, Company E, 232d Infantry Regiment, [is awarded the First Oak Leaf Cluster to the Bronze Star Medal] for heroic achievement in action on 5 April 1945, at Wurzburg, Germany.  When
the Second Battalion encountered heavy machine gun, rifle, and bazooka fire while advancing into Wurzburg, Sergeant Petro led his squad in the direction of the heaviest enemy fire.  Approaching a church tower from which the heaviest sniper fire was pouring, he led his squad into the tower, killing
five of the enemy with his rifle.  Encouraged by his aggressive and courageous action, the squad killed fifteen and wounded twenty of the enemy, thereby removing a serious pocket of resistance that had been holding up the battalion advance.  Entered military service from Burbank, California."


American soldiers stand at the gates of the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. Inmates were immediately given medical attention.

Photo credit: 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division : A Combat history of World War II, Lt. Hugh C. Daly, editor, 1946.

Dachau was the first concentration camp, originally established in March 1933 near Munich, Germany. At first Dachau held only political opponents, but over time, more and more groups were imprisoned there. Thousands died at Dachau from starvation, maltreatment, and disease. 

On April 29, 1945, they fought their way and finally made it through the gate.

 


Dachau concentration camp wall
Photo credit: John Petro

Dachau sat along a train track. As it became clear to the camp guards that the Allied troops were approaching, the captors sent some of the prisoners by train to other camps. When those camps refused them, they were shuttled from camp to camp without food or water, ultimately ending up back at Dachau. Most died during the trip.

 


Dachau boxcar victims 1
Photo credit: John Petro

My father had seen a lot of action up to this point in the war. But nothing he had seen so far prepared him for what he saw at Dachau. Buchenwald was the first camp liberated. When General Eisenhower visited there he vomited. Dachau was worse.

There were over 40 train boxcars outside the camp with about 2,000 dead.

 


Dachau boxcar victims 2
Photo credit: John Petro

My father said that he watched his commanders vomit when they saw what had happened at the camp.
The horror.
"My lieutenant lost it" he told me.
The smell of death was overwhelming.

 


GI and bodies
Photo credit: John Petro

In some cases, the prisoners killed their former captors. Some of the Nazi guards tried to escape. In other cases, U.S. machine gun fire killed some 30 guards, although General Eisenhower later reported, `Our forces liberated and mopped up the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. Approximately 32,000 prisoners were liberated; 300 SS camp guards were quickly neutralized.' 

 


German guard in camouflaged uniform
Photo credit: John Petro

The Inspector General found the firing squad wall contained 20 bullet holes

 


Liberated prisoners
Photo credit: John Petro

Initially, the prisoners thought they were dreaming. "They could not believe it was true that after so long, they were finally being liberated." The liberated looked like the dead. "They were skeletons," he told me.

It was only later that fear gave way to joy.

 

My father left me these photos taken during the liberation. I still have these photos -- of those who survived, who looked like "living skeletons." I also have these photos of the skeletons of those who did not survive -- of the open train boxcars with bodies piled high. 

May it never happen again

 


Nazi general's pistol and holster with Nazi eagles
Photo credit: Bill Petro


The next day, on April 30, 1945, with his squad being one of the first into nearby Munich, my father captured the Nazi general in charge of all the German anti-aircraft artillery outside of Munich. The general's lieutenant came out and told my father "My general will surrender only to someone of equal or greater rank." My father, was only a lowly staff sergeant, but he wore no stripes, which was not uncommon for Non-Commissioned Officers, "otherwise they'd be the first ones shot by the enemy." So John Petro, all of 23 years old said, "OK then, bring him out!" The general surrendered to my father his pistol. "Stars and Stripes" the official U.S. military magazine later recounted the story, with a picture of the general and his daughter, with her hair shorn short. The general believed the propaganda that if his daughter were captured by the Allies, she'd be mistreated. The magazine could not attribute the capture to a lowly sergeant, when the story was published it was credited to a higher ranking US officer. The last time I saw my father before he died in 1975, he told me the story. And now I have the general's surrendered pistol, a Sauer and Sohn 7.65 mm side arm. 

 

At the end of WWII, U.S. troops found camps of Displaced Persons, whom the Nazi's had used for forced labor. There was also the question of what to do with the captured German soldiers and service people.

John Petro was in charge of three P.O.W. camps. From one he brought home a carved nameplate. It was done for him for a Bavarian clockmaker, he told me, "for some extra food." 

Another one of the camps was a women's camp. He told me it was filled with "the Mata Hari type"... but explained no further. My brother recalls that my father told him it was populated by mistresses of the German officers.

 




At the end of the war, my father was in Salzburg where he had made a commemorative metal canteen inscribed. On the front was "42 Div, 232 Inf, CoE" between two Rainbow arcs. Below that, the Infantry sharpshooter emblem and the word Salzburg with the Austrian crest, surrounded by "19 OKT 1945" and "S/Sgt Petro" below. On the back was "France, Germany, Austria".

The Hallmark was "RZM" inside a circle, with the numbers "M6/2/37". 

Ironically, my first visit to Salzburg was in October of 1995... almost exactly 50 years later.

 

After the war was over, Army leadership was distributing battlefield commissions, or what my father called "foxhole promotions." My father refused, knowing that these officers would have to remain following the war. Indeed, the "Rainbow" Division would remain in Austria for 10 years until 1955 as an occupation force. My father didn't want that. He told me, "I'd had enough, I wanted to go home."

Useful links:


Map of Rainbow Division's Travels, by Col. T. R. MacKechnie, US Army Retired


Rainbow Division: History

Never Again, by Margaret Sheffer, Holocaust Remembrance Project

Dachau Liberation, by Chuck Ferree at remember.org

My Holocaust Experience, by Chuck Ferree

HBO's "Band of Brothers" site.

Liberators: A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust

Photos of the Liberation: A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust

The Liberation of Dachau, by Abram L. Sachar, The Redemption of the Unwanted. New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1983

Dachau 29 April 1945, the Rainbow Liberation Memoirs

Dachau and its liberation, personal account by Felix L. Sparks Brigadier General AUS (Retired)

"Tell us who were there that it never happened" remarks by Felix L. Sparks on May 8, 1995 at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Liberation from United States Holocaust Museum

History of Dachau Concentration Camp

Dachau Concentration Camp Scrapbook

42nd Rainbow Division of US 7th Army

Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site, by Prof. Harold Marcuse, UC Santa Barbara Dept. of History

 

 

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