August 16, 2019 — World War II didn’t officially end until September 2, 1945, but it was generally considered to be over two weeks earlier. With the announcement that Japan surrendered on August 15, a flood of previously classified and other war-related stories hit the newspapers in the following days.
Among those being published in North Dakota was a letter received by a Minot attorney from his son, Sgt. Paul McCutcheon, who had witnessed the conditions in newly liberated concentration camps. The younger McCutcheon was a Minot State graduate who had worked for International Harvester before joining the army in 1942. Two years later, he was sent overseas with a field hospital unit and ultimately ended up caring for Holocaust survivors.
“At Nuremberg,” McCutcheon wrote, “we had charge of a number of displaced persons who were for the most part prisoners of war until liberated. While these cases were bad, they nowhere came near approaching the persons at this notorious slave labor and concentration camp. There is a large cemetery here, and beside it a long trench filled in, in one mass grave, for I don’t know how many of the dead.
“Believe me,” he continued, “if you have seen any...pictures of these camps, you can be just plain damn sure they show a softened scene. You must understand that now these people are receiving the best medical care and attention we can give them...,” he wrote. “They are fed well, but not the same food as we, for it probably would prove fatal to them.
The death rate has fallen almost vertically since the U.S. took over. But some are just too far gone to save.”
McCutcheon went on to describe the beauty of the Austrian countryside, the clear, blue-green water of the Danube River, the small picturesque farms and victory gardens. But, neither he nor any of his fellow soldiers ever wanted to see the area again.
“Beautiful as it is,” he wrote, “it is only skin deep. That is the tragedy of the thing, for the people really have everything they should want to be peaceful and happy. (But) you know they are not content... a large portion of their country lies in total ruins to remind them of their folly... Beautifully landscaped countryside,” he went on, “coupled with advanced industrial areas and poverty-stricken rural communities – blissful in their ignorance – and above all, concentration camps, just don’t mix.”
McCutcheon wrote of the stench of the death camps. Images of the horrific treatment the “human skeletons” had endured would remain with him forever.
“To see people,” McCutcheon wrote, “lots of them...who are nothing but a skeleton covered with skin... arms and legs no larger than broomsticks, was sickening enough. To have them fight over the garbage we throw out, or pathetically to beg for scraps of leftovers, is almost too much to (handle). But above all is the way they act about the whole thing... They dart and scurry like rats. Long, skinny bones dart out to steal whatever they think they can eat or use. If gently reprimanded, they slink away like dogs with tails between their legs.
“Above all else,” he wrote, “are their eyes. I wish I could...describe them. They are all big and very prominent. It’s almost the first thing you notice. Like snake’s eyes, seeing everything, watching everything, hunted, hurt, pathetic and as surely as the sun rises, reflecting like a painted picture the consequences of man’s inhumanity to man...”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.