Friday, February 27, 2015

Remembering Iwo, 70 Years Later


Atop Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima sits a granite memorial dedicated to the American and Japanese soldiers and sailors that fought and died there during the six-week battle in the winter of 1945. Ever since its unveiling on the 40th anniversary of the battle in 1985, thousands of Marines and navy veterans of that epic clash have converged on the island every year to pay homage and tribute to the heroes that never made it off the tiny, volcanic islet. For many of these now frail and elderly combat veterans the pilgrimage to Iwo Jima is a necessary and almost compulsory journey to revisit the land that had come to shape and define their lives like nowhere else on the planet. It is a dutiful passage in commemoration to honor their brothers-in-arms who made a long life possible for the thousands of survivors that persevered through the hellish nightmare of the month-long struggle. For the United States Marine Corps as an institution, the Battle of Iwo Jima holds a legendary importance unequaled in their long and illustrious history of battlefield exploits. It is the one defining battle that has become synonymous with the unrivaled, soldierly qualities of the Marine Corps fraternity. Perhaps it is no coincidence that roughly one quarter of the Marine Corps’ WWII recipients of the United States Medal of Honor would earn their reverence on Iwo Jima. 
Iwo Jima memorial atop Mt. Suribachi

Unlike the conventional clash of arms that dominated the colossal battlefields in Europe during WWII, the Pacific Theater is seldom given its due for defining the aspects of ground warfare that has shaped and determined military strategy in the decades that followed. Many warfare enthusiasts view the Pacific Theater of operations as a primarily naval undertaking sprinkled with numerous island-hopping campaigns that exclusively showcased the asymmetry of amphibious warfare. But it is precisely the unconventional nature of amphibious warfare and its abject reliance on the cohesion of all four dimensions of war-craft to elicit operational effectiveness, which has showcased the combined-arms operations of the Pacific Theater as the relative progenitor of the modern day battlefield that we know today. The Battle of Iwo Jima stands out today not so much for its gruesome portrayal of the sacrifice of the small combat unit in action but rather because of the intricate connection between all the various arms on the battlefield which made victory possible. Although victory was achieved ultimately by the courage, grit and determination of the grunts on the frontline, Iwo was also a textbook example of the combined-arms battlefield in motion; equal in size and scope to the operational art used on today’s battlefield.

Iwo Jima was also a stunning example of the effectiveness of a properly planned, practiced and formidable defense-in-depth system. It was the extent of Japan’s vast defensive network primarily underneath the volcanic island which forced the Marines to adopt the insipid frontal assault methods that would end up costing them dearly in time and casualties. Ostensibly there was no other way around this quite challenging development and this compelled the frontline formations to expend enormous amounts of manpower in neutralizing the individual obstacles that interspersed the battlefield yet could not be avoided or isolated. But rather than limiting the Marine’s need for more extensive firepower to overwhelm each obstacle, the frontline infantry was forced to rely on a variety of outside fire-support resources to diminish the more daunting defensive bastions. Close-air ground support operations, although initially disappointing, got progressively better as the battle raged on. Offshore shelling by warships caused considerable damage to the Japanese defenses but was still ineffective against interior-facing bunkers, caves and caissons. As a result the use of flamethrowers, grenades and satchel charges became increasingly valuable to the Marines as the Japanese defenses were reduced to individual strongpoints. The one certainty throughout the battle was that the Marines would have to fight and die for every square meter of land on the two-by-four mile wide island.

Iwo Jima was to the Pacific Theater what the crossing of the Rhine was to the Western Allied armies in Europe. Somehow by the weight of sheer momentum and overwhelming firepower the allies were going to conquer both these formidable obstacles yet the one underlying question was at what cost would the allies pay to bring their plans to fruition? The neutralizing of Iwo Jima opened up an unimpeded path to the Japanese Home Islands just as the crossing of the Rhine presented the gateway to Hitler’s Third Reich. Iwo was an almost miniscule sliver of land in the central Pacific yet it posed an enormous impediment to the flight course of American bombers softening up Japan’s defenses from the Marianas Islands. Iwo was the linchpin in Japan’s early-warning radar system that warned its air defense network of the imminent approach of American bombers nearly three hours in advance. Certainly the significance of Okinawa held a more strategic value for the eventual fight to subdue the Japanese Home Islands but the taking of Iwo Jima was a necessary evil that had to be undertaken in order for the allies to dictate the further progression of the war on their own terms. Its strategic importance was compellingly affirmed by the enormous amounts of time, energy and resources the government in Tokyo was expending to prepare its impressive defenses. 

Operation Detachment
Rear Admiral Harry Hill

The conceptual plan for investing the island of Iwo Jima emanated from the offices of Admiral Chester Nimitz’s planning staff at CinCPOA headquarters in Hawaii. Nimitz, as Commander-in-chief of the Pacific Oceans Area command saw in the interval between mopping-up operations on the Philippines and the commencement of joint army-navy operations on Okinawa, scheduled for April 45’ as an opportune time to complete the conquest of the strategically important Iwo Jima. The order to commence comprehensive planning of the operation was forwarded to Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in whose area of operations the invasion would take place. Spruance’s command was subdivided into eight separate task forces numbered 51 through 58. All eight sections would play a contributing role in the planning of Operation Detachment, which came under the overall command of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner as the joint expeditionary force commander of Task Force 51. But the tactical planning and operational command of the assault elements fell to Rear Admiral Harry Hill, as attack force commander of Task Force 53 and his Marine Corps counterpart General Harry Schmidt, the commander of the V Amphibious Corps.
Gen. Harry Schmidt CO V Amphibious Corps

Hill and Schmidt worked well together when they weren’t being interfered with by their often egotistical, supporting cast members. Hill would control the navy’s attack force elements while Schmidt directed the ground advance of more than 60,000 Marines; split between three reinforced infantry divisions. With eight Marine regiments under his command Schmidt would control the highest number of Marines ever assembled on one battlefield during WWII. Many of these Marines were seasoned, combat veterans from the numerous amphibious assaults the US had conducted over the last twenty-eight months. They were considered the cream of the crop of the Marine Corps’ island-hopping fraternity. The Marine 4th Division, commanded by Maj-Gen. Clifton Cates and the Marine 5th Division, led by Maj-Gen. Keller Rockey would spearhead the assault-landing force on D-Day, Feb. 19. Maj-Gen. Graves Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division served as a floating reserve until it was wholly committed to the battle less than a week after the initial landings. Both the 3rd and 4th Marine Divisions were fresh off successful deployments on the Marianas Islands where they liberated the islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian. In the months between the two battles all the assault force battalions had been brought back up to full strength and subsequently reinforced with additional mortar and machine gun detachments, sapper teams and amphibious bulldozers. 
Maj-Gen. Clifton Cates 4MAR DIV

Behind the Marines sat an armada of more than 450 capital warships, landing craft, command and service vessels, artillery platforms, cargo ships and a host of top-of-the-line, floating hospital boats ready to tend to Marine casualties. More than 400 attack aircraft flying from the decks of 12 fleet and escort carriers were available to the Marines for close air support throughout the battle. The air support was enhanced considerably for the initial landings and preparatory bombardment with the presence of Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 fleet of fast carriers, cruisers and destroyers. However Spruance made the call to send Mitscher’s carriers off to the north after just three days on station, taking with them all eight of the Marine Corps’ veteran fighter squadrons and leaving the Marine’s air support to a host of untested navy pilots with little experience flying in the ground attack role. It was only after the first harrowing weeks of combat that the Marines began to feel comfortable calling in the navy flyboys to assist in reducing some of the more formidable obstacles. But the navy made a considerable impact on the battlefield by running the whole logistics train from beginning to end and providing more than 2,000 doctors and corpsmen to the battlefield, in which close to 900 were to also fall on the field of battle. Another 5,000 Navy Seabees would prove instrumental in bringing the island’s two airfields on line despite deadly accurate enfilading fire and constant shelling from Japanese strongpoints. 
Maj-Gen. Graves Erskine 3rd MAR Div

Preparatory bombing of Iwo Jima began almost eight months before the actual landing force embarked for the amphibious assault. These sporadic bombing runs gradually increased as D-Day approached but it wasn’t until the last three days before the assault began that the navy commenced round-the-clock, precision bombing of the island with both aircraft and naval gunfire. Schmidt of course pleaded for a more comprehensive, 10-day preparatory bombardment but he was overruled by Spruance, who was wary about depleting his ammo stocks so close to the start of operations on Okinawa. The Japanese on the other hand had been more than prepared for the aerial onslaught. More than 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors under the command of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi had been fast at work over the last six months preparing an extensive network of underground tunnels, strongpoints and interconnected concrete bunkers that transformed the tiny island into one of the strongest defensive bastions on the planet. Kuribayashi was under no delusions as to the fate that awaited him and his men on the island. They were all expected to fight to the death while defending every inch of ground beyond the landing beaches. Once the Marines reached beyond the outer beach berm they would be left exposed to a dizzying array of interlocking field fire zones, machine gun nests, minefields, mortar traps and prearranged, artillery kill zones that could reach every square inch on the island. Kuribayashi’s whole defensive scheme was predicated on holding out as long as possible thus bleeding the attackers white while forcing them to pay dearly for their entrance onto hallowed, Japanese ground.

D-Day February 19, 1945
Iwo Jima looking N at Suribachi

Iwo Jima rose out of the Pacific like a hungry serpent looking to devour everything around it. Its south-facing head featured the island’s highest point, Mt. Suribachi. At 528 ft. above sea-level Suribachi held a panoramic view of the whole island and was known to be laden with dozens of natural caves and caverns as well as more than fifty man-made bunkers and firing points at nearly every level of altitude. Below the head and the northern slope of Suribachi was the narrow neck of the island; a shallow basin that ran roughly 700 yards from the east to west coast of Iwo. The bowl-shaped neck was the lowest point on the island and held all kinds of inherent dangers because of its susceptibility to crossfire from Suribachi and the gradually rising northern half of the island. To the north of the neck sat the island’s main airfield and after a 200 yard craggy gap, the second airfield rose up from the Motoyama Plateau. Kuribayashi’s most formidable defenses were situated on this plateau, which held four of the other highest points on the island; a set of ridges known in military parlance simply as Hill 382 and Hill 362 A, B and C. Because of the volcanic nature of the land the island was dotted with hundreds of sulfuric cisterns that oozed eerie smoke spirals during the night and brought an apocalyptic haze over the bomb-cratered moonscape. Its formidable cliffs on the north and northeast shore punctuated the island’s forbidden landscape and truly hellish environment.

Due to the prevailing wind and sea currents surrounding the island the only suitable place for the primary landings was on the southeast facing beaches just to the north of Suribachi. The black, volcanic sand on these beaches presented the first major obstacle to the assault teams because the coarse powder was like quicksand, which wreaked havoc on both wheeled and tracked vehicles unloading from the LST’s and other transport vessels and tended to jam the firing mechanisms on the Marine’s rifles and machine guns. The 2000 yards of beach was divided into four separate landing zones, labeled from south to north: green, red, yellow and blue. Schmidt allotted the southern half of the beachhead to Rockey’s 5th Marine Division and allocated the northern half to Cates’ 4th Marine Division. Four separate Marine regiments would land at each landing zone, three of them heading north and one of them wheeling to the left in order to invest Suribachi. This grim task was given to Col. Harry Liversedge’s 28th Marines, which would have to cut across the 700 yard neck of the island first so that it could safely isolate the Japanese defenders on Suribachi. The two middle regiments, Col. Thomas Wornham’s 27th Marines and Col. Walter Wensinger’s 23rd Marines were tasked with moving on and around the main airfield, with Wensinger’s group acting as the hinge of a northward wheeling motion away from the beachhead. However the grimmest assignment of the day inevitably fell on Col. ‘Pat’ Lanigan’s 25th Marines, which had the unenviable task of securing the far right flank below a set of formidable cliffs known as ‘the quarry’.  
Beach Red 1 D+0030

At 0900 hours the first landing craft pushed ashore and began carving out a long, continuous beachhead between Beach Green and Beach Blue. The landings were surprisingly free of gunfire and the only major mishaps occurred when the troop transports began pitching in the surf because of the loose volcanic sand, causing their exit ramps to jam and forcing the Marines to bail over the sides. But once the assault troops moved over the berm at the edge of the beach all hell broke loose. All the lead units were swiftly pinned down in carefully prepared kill zones and cut down by deadly accurate enfilading fire from the highlands to the north and from the slopes of Suribachi. Frantic calls were being sent from all the assault battalions pleading for air support, counter-battery fire and most importantly, medics. The 28th Marines made the longest immediate advance as they grinded away across the narrow neck of the island. But for the first hour of the landings the beachhead remained relatively free from any concentrated counter-fire. Unbeknownst to the Marines ashore, Kuribayashi had purposely held back his heavy guns until the Marines started their push inland. The crafty Japanese general was just waiting for all the incoming assault craft and second-wave motor vehicle transports to begin bunching up on the beaches before he unleashed his heavy guns.
Chaos on the beach amid black volcanic sand

Roughly an hour after the first assault group came ashore the whole island erupted in fantastic explosions of fire and molten steel. Kuribayashi unleashed the first sustained salvo of an unprecedented artillery barrage from every heavy gun he had concealed on the island. The Japanese artillery wreaked havoc on the beachhead as the second wave of assault troops was just reaching shore. Kuribayashi’s 150mm howitzers and 120mm mortars rained down on the beachhead from every point on the island. His 47mm anti-tank guns and horizontally firing AA flak guns smashed through the incoming transports and armor, shattering bodies and vehicles alike. Then there was the dreaded 320mm “spigot mortars”, whose loud screech at its approach earned it the nickname “the screaming Jesus”. These five foot barrels of molten steel could wipe out half a platoon in one salvo. For the next two to three hours the Japanese gunners fired non-stop at all the Marine positions beyond and below the beach berm. And as the Marine casualties began to pile up the beachhead broke down into chaos as hundreds of tanks, amtracks, jeeps, artillery guns, construction equipment and transport craft lay burning and twisted in the surf or abandoned axle-deep in the sand. To make matters worse some of the Marine’s fire-control parties were completely wiped out on the beach, leaving the frontline troops temporarily blind and unable to direct counter-battery fire. By the end of the day both Rockey and Cates were committing reserve units all throughout the island.
bivouac for 24th Marines outside "the quarry"

Yet through all the hellish explosions, rocket fire, shell bursts and flying lead whizzing across the battlefield, the Marine assault battalions grinded ahead platoon by platoon. Before noon the 28th Marines had cut across the neck of the island and began the process of isolating Mt. Suribachi. Wensinger’s 23rd Marines bore the brunt of the enemy’s first concentrated counterattack but still managed to reach the eastern side of the main airfield and were steadily engaged along with the 27th Marines in neutralizing the enemy’s individual strongpoints dotting the tarmac. Exactly as Schmidt had predicted, Lanigan’s 25th Marines found themselves in the fight of their lives as they attempted to scale the cliffs leading to the quarry. The quarry was one of the Marine’s main objectives for D-Day since a failure to take its imposing heights would leave the northern side of the beachhead directly in the line of fire. Lt.-Col. Justice Chambers’ 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines had suffered nearly fifty percent casualties during numerous attempts to reach the heights; at one point losing nearly every one of his company commanders. Chamber’s eventually had to cede the initiative to his XO Capt. James Headley because of battlefield wounds yet it would not prevent him from earning the Medal of Honor only three days later as he rallied his decimated platoons to push beyond the quarry. 
Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi

Sensing the Marine’s vulnerability without their own organic artillery at their backs, Schmidt ordered all his artillery regiments onto the beach during the afternoon despite the growing carnage that was swiftly piling up along the waterline. It was a controversial decision because of the added chaos it brought to the already confused beachhead and resulted in tons of weapons and equipment losses but the additional firepower that eventually made it onto firing positions was a welcome development that greatly boosted morale on the frontline. By nightfall both Marine divisions had their artillery regiments firmly in place and in firing positions throughout the beachhead and beyond. The Marines could now concentrate on knocking out the more formidable obstacles at their immediate front, as well as reducing the enemy’s firepower on the imposing heights of Suribachi. Coupled with a concentrated strike by carrier based aircraft at twilight and the Marines finally began to overcome their numerous D-Day misfortunes. But the nights on Iwo Jima only brought more unseen dangers to the exhausted grunts at the front. Kuribayashi used the evening hours to infiltrate his “prowling wolves” assault teams into the Marine lines rather than inundate the battlefield with costly and useless ‘banzai’ attacks, which had become the norm during the earlier battles in the South Pacific. Kuribayashi hadn’t the manpower at his disposal to affect such wasteful methods so he used these company-sized infiltration teams to wreak havoc among the Marines at night while they were most vulnerable.

The first 24 hours on Iwo Jima was literally hell on earth. More than 2400 Marines were lost including some 548 KIA, 48 missing and 99 troops declared unusable because of nervous stress. With some 70,000 troops at his disposal Schmidt knew these were casualty numbers that the assault force could not sustain for long. The Marines had occupied less than one-third of the island yet they had still to reach Kuribayashi’s main defense line along the ‘meat-grinder’ and there was still the imposing task of reducing the Japanese forces on Suribachi. The dome-like caldera now became the main focus for Schmidt, Rockey and Col. Liversedge. Although the beachhead could never be shielded from all the Japanese artillery on the island, the taking of Suribachi would surely eliminate its most daunting threat. Over the next 24 hours Adm. Hill turned all his naval gun-sights onto the rocky, volcanic massif and unleashed a steady barrage of high explosives from his battleship’s 16-inch guns and his cruiser’s 12-inch guns in preparation for the coming assault. Inside the mountain lay Col. Kanehiko Atsuchi and his garrison of some 2,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors and a plethora of medium and heavy caliber artillery, mortars and well-camouflaged machine gun nests. With his communications to Kuribayashi effectively cut by the advance of the 28th Marines, Atsuchi was completely isolated yet fully prepared to die a samurai’s death while goading his troops to fight to the last man.  

Suribachi: A Tale of Two Flags
Gy-Sgt. John Basilone

For the next three and four days on Iwo the fighting could not have been any more difficult. There were now six Marine regiments on Iwo inching forward under debilitating fire and artillery from all across the island. The veteran Marine forces had never experienced such a horrific network of enemy strongpoints, kill zones and booby traps. On those first few days on Iwo three Marines were falling every minute as casualties. Indeed their discouragement continued to amplify as news filtered across the island that Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, one of the Marines first Medal of Honor recipients of the war for his gallant actions on Guadalcanal, had himself fallen on the field of battle as he stormed the main airfield with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines. The fighting for the airfield had gotten so heavy that Rockey began feeding in piecemeal the battalions of the 26th Marines. On the far right, the 24th Marines were needed to reinforce Lanigan’s decimated 25th Marines as they slowly scaled the quarry amid furious fire from Kuribayashi’s camouflaged bunkers and pillboxes. As was usually the case in such a closely contested battle, jubilation and tragedy was often joined at the hip. When Maj. Paul Treitel’s 1st Battalion, 24th Marines finally made it to the top of the quarry their celebration was short-lived when the Marines were inadvertently strafed by “friendlies” and then subjected to heavier ordnance from their own navy’s big guns. More than 100 Marines fell during this unfortunate case of fratricide. 
Landing craft unloading at Beach Yellow

After neutralizing the substantial Japanese defenses on the bottom slope of Suribachi, Col. Liversedge made his first concerted effort to take the massif on the third day of battle. He sent Lt.-Col. Jackson Butterfield’s 1st Battalion behind the mountain on the western edge and pushed Lt.-Col. Chandler Johnson’s 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines up the eastern slope. Butterfield’s group encountered less resistance as they battled along the south-facing cliffs and swiftly made a lunge for a level outcrop three-quarters up the side of Suribachi. But Johnson’s battalion was stymied considerably by the extensive bunkers and hidden caves along the eastern face and quickly got bogged down in heavy close-quarter combat and hand-to-hand fighting. While the fighting for Suribachi was taking place Schmidt sent the first complement of Marines from the 3rd Marine Division into the fray and temporarily allotted them to Cates, whose forces were taking horrendous casualties maneuvering through the airfield and the quarry. During the third night of the battle the Japanese launched another shocking surprise on the America fleet anchored offshore with a massive ‘kamikaze’ raid with fifty planes that had been hidden away underneath the second airfield on Iwo. In one of the first concentrated kamikaze attacks of the Second World War the suicide bombers sank the escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea and did considerable damage to the fleet carrier USS Saratoga and several destroyers. Adm. Hill was livid at the lax defenses and ordered an immediate realignment of the naval covering force, which somewhat diminished the number of warplanes available for ground support.

Finally on D+4 Liversedge got the break he was looking for when his 2nd Battalion broke free from the maze of interlocking bunker complexes carved into the eastern face of Suribachi. Anticipating that the peak of Suribachi was now within reach, Lt.-Col Johnson sent a runner with a parade flag up the mountain to give to 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, whose 3rd Platoon of Company E was closest to the peak. Several hours later Schrier’s group fought their way to the precipice and hoisted the stars and stripes on a makeshift flagpole to the raucous cheers of the Marines below. This original flag-planting was duly recorded by combat photographer Staff-Sgt. Lou Lowery, who was swiftly blown off the peak by an incoming Japanese shell-burst, although miraculously his film was left undamaged. An hour later Liversedge ordered a larger flag to be sent up the mountain to replace the original banner. It was the planting of the second flag, caught through the lens of AP war photographer Joe Rosenthal that garnered worldwide attention for its magnificent portrayal of the patriotic passion of the American soldier in battle. Sadly, three of the original flag planters would be dead by the end of hostilities, although Schrier survived both flag ceremonies and later went on to command Company D of the battalion for the remainder of the fighting. With both Suribachi and the quarry in American hands the navy was finally able to bring a sense of normalcy to the shell-shocked landing beach. Every one of Atsuchi’s 2,000 fighters was killed in action defending Suribachi. 

The Turning Point

As great as the momentous capture and subsequent flag-waving ceremony atop Mount Suribachi was it was still merely a brief footnote in the 36-day struggle to conquer Iwo Jima. A full month’s worth of fighting still remained for the worn and battle-scarred Marines of the V Amphibious Corps and much of it was to prove even more difficult than the first, loathsome week on the hellish island. After a full day of regrouping Schmidt realigned his forces for the long, hard drive north to capture the remaining two-thirds of the island. On D+5 Schmidt brought the 9th Marines ashore and inserted them into the line with the rest of Gen. Graves Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division, at the center of the northward moving front. Erskine’s division was minus its 3rd Marine Regiment because Gen. Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith, the overall commander of the Fleet Marine Force, made the decision to return the regiment to the Marianas ostensibly over his concern with the high number of casualties that were swiftly accumulating on Iwo. Once again Schmidt voiced his objections to both Smith and Adm. Turner even though his original mandate had clearly allocated eight instead of nine Marine regiments to accomplish his mission. The 3rd Marine Regiment had been preserved solely as an emergency stopgap measure to be used only if the original assault forces had met catastrophe on the beaches. Since this was no longer the case Schmidt would have to make do with the forces at his disposal, which meant he was compelled to delve into the pool of new and inexperienced, replacement troops to replace his losses sustained on the battlefield. This ominous development would prove quite demoralizing since the average lifespan of a replacement soldier on the battlefield at Iwo Jima was less than 48 hours.  
Maj.-Gen. Keller Rockey 5th MAR Div.

Schmidt made his first push north on D+5 using three regiments abreast from west to east. In the west on his left flank and in the 5th Marine Division’s sector, Col. Chester Graham’s 26th Marines had taken the baton from the 27th Marines and began advancing along the west coast toward the craggy outcrop known as Hill 362A. In the center of the line Gen. Erskine had assigned his spearhead assault force to Col. Hartnoll Withers’ 21st Marines; charged with investing the second airfield along with the landmarks, Hill Peter and 199-Oboe. On the eastern or right flank, Gen Cates had pushed the 24th Marines, under Col. Walter Jordan, through the badly decimated 25th Marines’ line and assigned them the ominous and quite formidable obstacle of Hill 382. The hill itself, known as ‘turkey knob’ by the grunts in the field, was a series of slightly rising, rocky and jagged ridges that gradually rose out of a loud expanse of volcanic moonscape dotted with craters and crevices, which was appropriately dubbed ‘the amphitheater’. Collectively, the whole area was known as ‘the meatgrinder’ because of the ease at which it sucked in reinforcements and the pleasure it derived from chewing them up and spitting them out. To open up the offensive Schmidt collected all his tank strength and assembled them into their own armored regiment under Lt.-Col. William ‘Rip’ Collins. After all the equipment losses in the beachhead because of heavy surf, violent enemy shelling and the implacable volcanic sand, Collins was able to garner almost one hundred light and medium tanks for the impending onslaught. But the tanks most called upon were the two dozen or so M4A3 Sherman flamethrowers, which the Marines’ had affectionately nicknamed ‘Zippos’. These novel tank hybrids interchanged with the navy’s Mark 1 flamethrower would become the preferred weapon-of-choice for the Marine infantry for the remainder of the battle. 

It was in the northern part of the island where Kuribayashi had his main defenses constructed. Although the real estate on this side of the island was approximately four or five miles square, the Japanese had carved out nearly ten miles of tunnels, which interconnected strongpoints to individual bunkers, pillboxes and gun nests. The cratered landscape was also pockmarked with hundreds of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, which the Marine engineers were obliged to exhume with their bare hands because the sulfur content in the soil rendered their magnetic mine detectors useless. Scarier still was the fact that the defenders were nowhere to be seen. The Japanese had made just as great of an effort to conceal themselves as they did in masking their artillery and machine guns. Many an ethereal image was conveyed by an awestruck surveillance plane pilot who was often startled to look down and see thousands of Marines and all their mechanical weapons of war pushing forward against a ghostly landscape devoid of any movement or human habitation. Consequently the Marines daily advance would be measured in yards from here on out as they resorted to backtracking to retake lost real estate thought to have been neutralized hours earlier. 
Landing Beach Red II looking north

After the offensive got going Graham’s 26th Marines made the swiftest advance as they skirted the western shore between the coast and the second airfield. But both regiments on the right ran into a virtual brick wall when they reached Kuribayashi’s outer defense perimeter. Withers’ 21st Marines immediately got bogged down on the runways of the airfield while Jordan’s 24th Marines were channeled into the amphitheater and cut down by the interlocking fields of fire from Hill 362B and 362C. It would take Erskine’s Marines more than three days to completely clear the second airfield and even then their extensive losses precluded them from moving forward any further. Col. Howard Kenyon’s 9th Marines began replacing the 21st Marines one week after the offensive began. Jordan’s group suffered equally attempting to provide flank protection to Withers’ battalions while simultaneously attempting to charge ‘turkey knob’. Lt.-Col. Alexander Vandergrift Jr., the namesake son of the recently appointed Marine Corps commandant and unfortunate commander of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, became one of the 4th Marine Division’s 10,000 casualties during the weeks-long fight in the ‘meatgrinder’. Graham’s initial fortunes proved short-lived as well when his 26th Marines began hemorrhaging manpower attempting to move around Hill 362A. Yet through it all the Marines inched forward, yard by yard, rock by rock and acre by acre.  
enemy cave complex on Iwo

Iwo’s turning point was more or less reached when the Marine’s finally chewed through Kuribayashi’s outer defense perimeter along the high plateau line that made up the ‘meatgrinder’. The taking of Hill 382 and its ‘turkey knob’ extension by the assault forces of the 24th Marines released the pressure on the Marine units caught in the ‘amphitheater ‘ and allowed Cates to push through the 23rd Marines and brought the 26th and 21st Marines to bear on Kuribayashi’s shrinking perimeter. It was fatal for the
defenders because Kuribayashi’s artillery was now deprived of their most potent firing points on the Motoyama Plateau. Most of the larger guns were now being steadily tracked and neutralized by counter-battery fire and concerted attacks from Collins’ armor. After the fighting in the ‘meatgrinder’ fell silent the Japanese were compelled to match bullet for bullet with the Marines because most of their heavy ordnance had been lost or expended. Indeed, this positive development began registering immediately when Marine casualties started coming back with less critical gunshot wounds rather than the hideous shrapnel wounds that only heavy ordnance can produce. The Marines got an additional boost on March 4 when the first B29 bomber returning from Tokyo made an emergency landing on Iwo’s main airfield. This is what the Marines had spilled so much blood for and no one was happier than the anxious bomber crews that were no longer obliged to ditch their crippled aircraft into the ocean. On the next day Schmidt sanctioned a 24 hour pause in the fighting to regroup for the last push into Kuribayashi’s final defense line. 

Climax, Conclusions and Casualty Counts
Marine F4 Corsair in ground attack role

On March 7 and only hours before Schmidt commenced his final drive to smash the Japanese defenses, the first P-51 Mustangs from the USAAF 47th Fighter Squadron began deploying on the runways of Iwo’s No. 1 airfield. With this Admiral Hill began withdrawing his escort carriers away from the island and turning over air support duties to the army. The Marines welcomed the change because it drastically diminished the call times for incoming air strikes and as the air support umbrella increased so too did the Marine’s confidence grow that all their aviation needs were being met. Even the supply situation improved somewhat with regular airdrops being parachuted in to Marine units on the more remote parts of the island. For the final strike into Japanese lines Schmidt gave most of the honors to Gen. Erskine’s 3rd Marine Division, which was to spearhead the attack along with the 26th Marines on Kuribayashi’s inner defense line anchored on Hill 362. In conceiving the tactical plans for Kenyon’s 9th Marines spearhead force, Erskine contrived of a daring night attack that bypassed the preparatory artillery barrage and infiltrated its attack elements into strike positions utilizing stealth and ambush rather than raw firepower. No doubt he was aware by now of the enemy’s clever penchant for evading the Marine’s heavy ordnance by waiting out the initial volleys and counterstriking the attackers after the barrage had been lifted. Erskine reasoned that every attack the Marines had commenced so far had nearly met with disaster because of the losses sustained by the assault elements. These extensive losses only served to sap the momentum from each attack before they ever got started. By attacking at night and without artillery Erskine was hedging that the element of surprise would be more than enough to sustain the attack momentum, just as long as his losses could be kept down. 
M4A3 "Zippo" on Iwo

This eventually held true as the 9th Marine’s nocturnal assault ended up becoming a smashing success. Infiltration teams slipped into the Japanese lines and in some cases entered their caves and tunnels while the enemy was fast asleep. The Marine units, spearheaded by future commandant Lt.-Col. Robert Cushman’s 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, winded its way around the landmark known as 199-Oboe, which constituted the ridge between Hill 362A and C, and began herding the now exposed Japanese defenders into a tightly controlled salient known as ‘Cushman’s pocket’. Fighting was fierce and at times subject to violent hand-to-hand combat but Kuribayashi’s whole defensive anchor began to unravel once Col. Graham’s 26th Marines slipped in behind the Japanese lines just north of the unfinished runways of the 3rd airfield. From here on out Japanese resistance was no longer centralized. Scattered pockets of defenders had been corralled toward the northern reaches of the island yet were unable to coordinate interlocking fields of fire against the Marines. The battle had now digressed into a short-range, shooting gallery as the Japanese desperately tried to hold back the Marine onslaught with small arms, swords, grenades and other improvised explosive devices. On March 11, Erskine called forward his medium artillery and flamethrower tanks and began to fire into the remaining Japanese strongpoints at point-blank range.

Perhaps out of desperation or more than likely because they had lost contact with Kuribayashi, but on the night of March 12-13 the Japanese resorted to their time-tested, sacrificial battle-cry, the banzai charge, in order to retake the 2nd airfield. Capt. Samaji Inouye led a battalion-sized force of Japanese soldiers, sailors and pilots in a concerted, suicide charge into Erskine’s lines outside the 3rd airfield. In an hour-long, fight-to-the-death the Marines suffered more than 350 casualties before they snuffed out the final enemy attackers. Inouye’s whole battalion was wiped out to the last man; all 784 of them. As bad as the attack was it was also a sign that the Japanese defenses were coming apart at the seams. Kuribayashi was no fan of the banzai charge and it was precisely this divergence from Japanese doctrine which had enabled the general to preserve his frontline troops for so long under the crushing effects of American firepower. Now as the Japanese strongpoints all began to lose contact with one another individual officers began taking matters into their own hands by implementing the primitive tactics that inevitably came with the glorification of the samurai way of war. Suicide bombers and sacrificial charges into Marine lines occurred more regularly as the final Japanese defenses were pierced. On March 16 the Marines relayed news to Spruance that Iwo Jima had been secured although there was still an eerie and unpredictable, weeks’ worth of fighting to be completed. 
Rare surrender on Iwo

The last script written into the pages of the epic battle on Iwo Jima occurred during the third week in March when Rockey’s 26th Marines corralled Kuribayashi’s remaining forces into a shallow, volcanic depression known as ‘the gorge’. In Marine parlance ‘the gorge’ was known unforgettably as ‘the valley of death’. Three days of vicious, close-quarter fighting were needed to strangle the last breath out of Japanese resistance, which was finally consummated through the concerted attacks of Lt.-Col. Dan Pollack’s 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and Lt.-Col. Jack Butterfield’s 1st Battalion, 28th Marines. Butterfield’s group took part in the attack solely because Rockey’s other formations were already spent. However Kuribayashi had one last surprise in store before tranquility swept across the battlefield. On the night of March 25-26 Kuribayashi’s last ‘prowling wolves’ detachment; a 300-strong outfit of raiders and quasi-commandos slipped through the Marine lines and descended upon the No. 2 airfield. In a last-gasp attack the Japanese inflicted serious losses on the army pilots of the 47th Fighter Squadron and the navy Seabees’ and Marine pioneer battalions stationed at the airfield. Indeed the sacrifice of Marine blood in the taking of Iwo Jima was indelibly inked in the annals of the Marine Corps’ storied history when 1st-Lt. Harry Martin of the 5th Pioneer Battalion was posthumously awarded the last Medal of Honor given out on Iwo for rallying the inexperienced and combat-starved service troops to defend the airfield from this unprecedented attack. 

 Throughout the 38-day battle to secure the island of Iwo Jima the US Marines had suffered approximately 24,053 casualties, including 6,140 who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It was the Marine Corps’ most costly victory in all of WWII. In one of the Marine Corps’ more conspicuous firsts, the Battle of Iwo Jima was the only engagement of WWII where Marine casualties exceeded the enemy’s. Overall American casualties among Marines, USN and USAAF personnel surpassed 26,000, with some 6,821 having been killed in action. Roughly 22,000 Japanese troops participated in the defense of Iwo Jima, in which 18,844 were listed as being killed in action or died by ritual suicide at the close of hostilities. Only 216 Japanese troops voluntarily surrendered on Iwo Jima; that is, 216 captives taken from the start of the battle on Feb. 19 to the day on which Schmidt declared an official end of combat operations on March 26. The Marines estimated that no more than 300 Japanese stragglers were still hidden throughout the island and had not yet acquiesced to their formal captivity. In fact there were more than 3,000 holdouts that continued to surrender to US Army authorities well after the official Japanese capitulation on September 2, 1945; the last one finally turning himself in on January 6, 1949. 
Original cemetery on Iwo Jima

To punctuate the extreme sacrifice and courage of the Marine’s heralded performance on Iwo Jima it is only fitting to put some of their losses in perspective. Captain William Ketcham was the commander of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines. He landed on Beach Blue 2 on February 19 with 131 grunts in tow. His company was taken out of the line with just nine survivors. Captain Frank Caldwell lost 221 men in his Company F, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. The losses to his lieutenants and NCOs became so acute he was forced to place PFC’s in command of two of his three platoons. Captain Tom Fields began the battle in command of 250 Marines from Company D, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. He relinquished his company command to become battalion XO when that officer fell in battle. At the conclusion of the battle he returned back to lead his company once again only to find that there were just 17 survivors. Company B, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines went through nine separate commanders and twelve different Marines served as troop leader of the 2nd Platoon, the last two of whom were buck privates. Gy-Sgt. John Basilone’s 1st Battalion, 27th Marines had four different officers commanding throughout the battle. 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and 1st Battalion, 21st Marines went through three different commanders apiece. These were just brief examples of the losses sustained by the Marine’s low to mid-level officer corps and their precious collection of senior and battle-seasoned NCO’s, which at this stage of the war were considered irreplaceable. 

 Though controversy continued to surround Adm. Chester Nimitz’s decision to commence combat operations on the remote and some would say, strategically insignificant island in the central Pacific; the fruits of the Marine’s labor were duly confirmed when some 2,251 American B29 bombers and their P-51 Mustang escorts used the island’s three runways for emergency landings in the remaining 22 weeks left in WWII. Consequently it could be surmised that the 6800 Marines and sailors who gave their lives on and around Iwo Jima were instrumental in saving the lives of nearly 25,000 pilots and aircrew who would find their salvation on Iwo’s hard-earned airfields. Perhaps this was the reason why 27 Medals of Honor were awarded to both Marines and sailors—14 of them bestowed posthumously—for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the normal call of duty; save for their overriding desire to end the war as quickly as possible and return home safely and with as many of their brothers-in-arms at their side as humanly possible. Iwo accounted for more than a quarter of the US Marines, Medal of Honor recipients in all of WWII, which is one of the reasons why the battle is so venerated by Marine veterans, past and present. Perhaps the most fitting testament bestowed upon the Marines for their unequaled contribution to the American victory at Iwo Jima was submitted by Admiral Chester Nimitz with his gracious salutation, “of the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue”. So on the 70th Anniversary of that brave undertaking which quickened an end to the war in the Pacific, we salute the gallant Marines and sailors and the dwindling number of aged survivors that fought in the epic clash on Iwo Jima. And of course we salute the real heroes, those who died on the field of battle for their country but most importantly, for their brothers-in-arms. Semper Fidelis!!!                                         

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Holocaust Revisited: A Chronology of Tragedy... Part V


For Adolf Hitler’s German war machine the last two and one half years of WWII in Europe was spent in a state of perpetual retreat as the Western Allies closed in on the Third Reich from three sides. But far in the interior of this virtual siege perimeter Himmler’s SS was still fast at work finalizing the remaining deportations of European Jews to the death camps in occupied Poland and beyond while massacring thousands of others in the labor camps and ghettos of Eastern Europe. The beginning of 1943 saw the winding down of the death camps at Belzec and Sobibor but a momentary intensification of the mass murder at Treblinka to expedite the final liquidation of the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos. And as the Aktion Reinhard operatives were putting the finishing touches on their murderous obligations to the Final Solution program, the sprawling new death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau became the focal point for the murder of all the remaining Jews in Europe. Indeed the Upper Silesian industrial basin, from which Auschwitz was to provide the bulk of its manpower needs, was now swarming with millions of slave-laborers from all across Europe as the Nazis’ commenced a crack effort to transfer its most important armaments industries far away from the reach of the American and British strategic bombing campaign.

1943: The Halcyon Days of Auschwitz and the End of Polish Jewry
Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau 1943

After Belzec closed its doors in January and was quickly dismantled and ploughed over, Himmler and his SS chiefs began to institute a major revision of the Final Solution directive to consolidate the bulk of the remaining deportations at one, all-inclusive and centrally located facility. Auschwitz-Birkenau, because of its location astride the main east-west and north-south railway lines connecting through Central Europe, was perfectly suited to take on the role of the Nazis’ principal extermination facility for the last phase of the Final Solution program. Adolf Eichmann, now in overall control over all the Jewish deportations, directed the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess to commence a wholesale expansion of Birkenau’s mass murder capacity. The camp’s two undersized gas chambers were taken off line and replaced with four new, industrial-sized, community saunas and their accompanying coal-fed crematoriums built alongside the inmate barracks. The first of these colossal, mass-murder factories processed its first transport in the first week of May, 1943; followed by three more, dual crematorium-gas chambers coming on line successively in roughly one-month intervals. At Birkenau’s peak level of capacity during the summer of 1944 its four, industrial-strength, mass murder facilities could gas and completely incinerate more than 12,000 human bodies every twenty-four hours. One out of every six of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust would meet their death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

With the massive number of slave-laborers from the three main camps of Auschwitz and its forty sub-camps now available to the German armaments industry, the SS began to take on a prominent role in the running of Germany’s wartime economy. Because they also controlled the wealth and redistribution of millions of dollars’ worth of confiscated inmate property from the bulk of European Jewry, the SS soon became a state within a state; allowing thousands of its less scrupulous bureaucrats and party-appointed apparatchiks to profit from the immense amount of graft and corruption that came with running such an iniquitous enterprise. By the last two years of WWII the SS Economics Office had far surpassed the fiscal importance of Hermann Goering’s parallel economic office of the Four-Year Plan and even that of the German Economics Ministry, which greatly increased Himmler’s prestige in the regime’s inner sanctum and left his murderous SS underlings as the impervious overlords of the Nazi police state. But rather than enhancing the quality of life for the inmate-laborer, whose blood and sweat was reaping such grandiose profits for the SS officers; Himmler’s henchmen opted simply to squeeze every last ounce of energy from their quarries to the point where both Jews and non-Jews were dying at a rate that Germany’s shrinking military conquests could hardly sustain. But the Jew’s death rate was still far worse considering that less than 10% of any given transport was designated for slave labor duty while the remaining 90% were marched off to the gas chambers. 
Women's barracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1943

Even for those Jews who had endured through the camp selection process and were sent to the inmate-laborers barracks at Birkenau, their increased misery only betrayed their luck at having escaped extermination with all the others. Considering that the SS guards at the Jewish barracks in Birkenau were some of the most demented and sinister figures in the whole camp guard fraternity, a reprieve from extermination in the selection process only bought time for the inmate to incur death in other more grisly ways. By April of 1943 Jews were dying at a rate of 3,000 per month in the barracks; many of them at that time perishing from physical beatings, summary executions and hanging for the most menial of offenses. Later on in 1944 this rate would rise rapidly as the malnourished inmates began succumbing from the effects of prolonged physical abuse, exhaustion and numerous epidemics. Every day sonderkommandos would bring carts full of mangled corpses to the Birkenau crematoriums from the tortuous labor camps of Monowitz and Auschwitz I, in addition to the hundreds of Jewish inmates at Birkenau that never arose for the morning roll call. Sadly both men and women suffered equally in this macabre daily ritual as the guards were being increasingly pressed to cull the number of Jewish inmates inside the camp. 
Jews in Greece being prepared for deportation

Throughout 1943 the deportation of Jews from Western Europe was stepped up to coincide with the dwindling number of Polish Jews remaining in the General Government. Most of these Jews were destined for the gas chambers at Birkenau, as only a small fraction of new deportees were selected for labor detail. Dutch, French, Belgian and German Jews were all involved in these transports to Birkenau, although a small percentage of them were diverted to Sobibor and Chelmno when the increased rail traffic began to bunch up along the railroad sidings. During the spring the Greek Jews were added to the mix of transports reaching Birkenau. Starting in March the ancient Sephardi Jewish community of Salonika—nearly fifty thousand strong—was virtually wiped out in a series of weekly deportations that went on until May. Only 367 of Greece’s Sephardi Jews survived the Holocaust and only after vigorous protests from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to have the Jews repatriated with the sizeable Sephardic community in Spain. Eichmann’s transport specialists even made their way down to North Africa and right before the surrender of German forces to the Western Allies in May, they eliminated the Sephardi Jewish community in Tunisia by murdering more than 3,000 in the Axis labor camps outside of Tunis. 

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Signs of Hope Turn to Dismay

Less than 18 months after the infamous Wannsee Conference, Poland’s two and a half million-strong Jewish community had been reduced by almost eighty percent. Belzec and Sobibor had been instrumental in trimming the number of Jews inhabiting Eastern Galicia and Zamosc by more than ninety percent of its prewar population of more than one million. Treblinka was still murdering nearly ten thousand Jews per day midway through 1943; having been responsible for the extermination of eighty percent of the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos and the sizeable Jewish communities along the west bank of the upper Vistula River. This amounted to more than 800,000 Jews or roughly one third of the prewar Jewish population in Poland. But unlike the Jews of Western Europe, who had still not come to terms with the exact meaning of the Nazis’ resettlement policy, most Polish Jews were now fully aware of the fate that awaited them at the proceeding end of the deportation trains. With that realization had originated the first isolated cases of Jewish resistance to their oppressors. At first these were individual cases of insubordination and civil defiance which was immediately and brutally suppressed by the SS. These quickly manifested into small-scale mutinies and collective escape attempts from the labor camps. These too were also put down quite ruthlessly by the Nazis’ who often resorted to draconian reprisal measures against the remaining inmates in the camps or toward Polish nationals that aided or harbored the escapees.
Mordechai Anielewicz

News about the Jewish rebellions gradually made it back to the Jewish inhabitants of the ghettos and began to breathe some life into the larger resistance cells in Warsaw and Bialystok. One of these cells was the Jewish Fighting Organization, which had already begun to smuggle small arms and other incendiary devices into the two ghettos. Led by Mordechai Anielewicz, the Warsaw group was the first cell to collectively rebel against the Nazis. This group came out from the underground on Jan. 18, 1943 in an attempt to halt the last deportations to Treblinka from the Warsaw ghetto. The Jewish patriots in Warsaw defiantly fought back against the SS when they entered the ghetto to round up the customary five thousand names on the list for the next deportation. After a brief struggle between the Jewish rebels and the heavily armed SS, the Nazis’ retreated and then postponed all subsequent deportations from Warsaw indefinitely. For the next three months the Nazis’ held off on deporting the remaining 50,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto while Anielewicz and his army of 5,000 Jewish fighters scrambled to gather arms, prepare hideouts, store food and provisions and cautiously await the Nazi onslaught that they all knew would be coming. 
Jewish rebels fallen to their deaths in Warsaw Ghetto

Quickly tiring over the stalemate that had befallen the Warsaw ghetto since the rebellion of Jan. 18, Himmler replaced the SS leader there with Major Jurgen Stroop, a particularly brutal and combat-savvy SS police leader who once plied his trade with the einsatzgruppen. One day after taking command over the SS in Warsaw, Stroop marched into the ghetto on April 18 at the head of a thousand-man, heavily armed army and began to systematically lay waste to every building, street, block and neighborhood in the ghetto. The badly outgunned Jewish patriots swiftly stunned the Nazis’ with their audacious, combat-ambush skills and their ability to use the sewers and alleyways for quick hit and run guerrilla tactics. But once the rebels had exhausted their arms and ammunition, Stroop’s forces ruthlessly set fire to every building in the ghetto to flush the combatants out rather than fight for every hallway and tenement room in the thirty acre ghetto. Although less than 5,000 Jews actively took part in the month-long fight for the ghetto, all 40-50,000 Jews that remained there were subsequently killed either in the fighting during the uprising; the ensuing arson fires ignited by the SS or the later deportations to Treblinka and Majdanek. After the Jewish uprising the Warsaw Ghetto was completely destroyed. Some Jews managed to escape into ‘Aryan Warsaw’ or hid out in the burned-out remains of the ghetto but most were subsequently caught and murdered over the next year and a half before Warsaw’s liberation. Of the nearly 500,000 Polish Jews who were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto since 1940, less than a thousand would survive the war.
Ruins of the Bialystok Ghetto after 1943 uprising

Following the initial rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto which ultimately led to the Jewish uprising, the SS diverted their attention to Bialystok as a way to keep the gas chambers of Treblinka working at maximum efficiency. Large-scale deportations from that northeastern Polish city began in February and continued well into the summer. The Jewish ghetto in Bialystok was one of the last ones to be liquidated and as such, had fostered by this time a quite vocal and active resistance movement inside its forbidden walls. Although they were nowhere as near as a formidable resistance cell as their brothers-in-arms in Warsaw, the hundred or so primitively armed, Jewish fighters in Bialystok had boldly resolved to go out fighting rather than resign themselves to a fate which ended at Treblinka. Their heroic rebellion began on August 16 and lasted a mere three days before their lack of ammunition rendered further resistance futile. Most of the leaders chose suicide rather than fall into the hands of their sadistic enemies but several dozen managed to escape to the woods where they were quickly absorbed in with Soviet partisan bands fighting in the nearby Pripet Marshes. After the uprising ended the SS deported the remaining Jews of Bialystok to Treblinka where they sadly met the same fate as their 60,000 neighbors who were murdered there over the last six months.

Aktion 1005: Covering Up the Unthinkable
Dr. Irmfried Eberl

Right about the same time as Bialystok’s Jews were being corralled to their deaths at Treblinka, Heinrich Himmler issued a special order to the commandant of Treblinka to begin the process of excavating the corpses from the mass grave sites and incinerating them into dust so as to erase all evidence of the camp and its gruesome purpose. The excavation and incineration order had already begun at Belzec since the camp had ended operations in January but Himmler’s order for the staff at Treblinka to commence this grisly procedure before they had concluded their own operations could only mean that the SS hierarchy was beginning to have doubts about Germany’s ability to win the war. Part of the order stemmed from the sheer ineptitude of Treblinka’s first commandant, the sinister Dr. Irmfried Eberl, whose thorough mismanagement of the day-to-day operations of the camp had led to the grievous accumulation of corpses from the gas chambers lying exposed and decomposing on the railway sidings leading into the camp. But for the most part it seems that Himmler was nervous about the Soviet Red Army’s sustained offensive since the debacle at Stalingrad and the Western Allies’ sudden supremacy in the Mediterranean. Thus Himmler judged the time appropriate to begin the massive cover-up of at least the Aktion Reinhard consortium, since the extermination camps held the most incriminating evidence of the Final Solution program. 
SS Capt. Paul Blobel

Several months later Himmler reiterated the excavation and incineration order to the einsatzgruppen in the occupied eastern territories to take into account the numerous atrocity sites in the Western Soviet Union. This order went down the chain of command to Friedrich Jaeckeln, who appointed einsatzkommando Paul Blobel to oversee the massive project. Beginning in the summer of 1943, Blobel took charge of Aktion 1005 and sent his commando squads scouring the earth to dig up and incinerate the einsatzgruppen’s nearly one million victims murdered since the summer of 1941. One of the first sites Blobel’s commandos moved in to whitewash was a mass burial ground he was all too familiar with; the Ukrainian ravine of Babi Yar where more than 33,000 Jews from Kiev had been executed. And in the nearly two years since Blobel perpetrated that ghastly crime another 40,000 bodies of Soviet POWs and assorted political prisoners had been added to the mix at Babi Yar. Blobel’s operatives spent the rest of the year and well into 1944 digging up and incinerating the victims from nearly one hundred different sites, including the horrible killing fields of Rumbula, Borki, Simferopol, Ponary and Kovno’s 9th Fort. As oftentimes was the case, most of the laborers assigned to these grisly tasks were Jews or Russian POWs who were subsequently dispatched with a shot to the head once their chores were concluded. 

The commencement of Aktion 1005, though it was never meant to halt the deadly progression of the einsatzgruppen, nevertheless served to put a brake on the fraternity’s more organized slaughters. But by the fall of 1943 most of the einsatzgruppen’s more challenging actions were already far behind them. Most of the killing squads had wafted toward anti-partisan operations or were just backtracking across the lands that they had already visited to hunt down stragglers and Jews in hiding from the ongoing deportations that were still transpiring in the occupied east. They had already accounted for close to one million Jewish victims in the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Southern Russia and another half a million were largely in captivity in the various ghettos and labor camps still in operation. In the summer and fall of 43’ the einsatzgruppen once again turned to Ponary to begin culling the number of Jews in the Vilna, Riga and Daugavpils ghettos and were making a renewed push to clear the Byelorussian lands between the Dnieper and Berezina Rivers. Many of the Jews in this region were being deported to the death camp at Maly Trostenets or were summarily executed in the towns and villages where they were found. The einsatzgruppen’s merciless hunt for Jews would continue right up until the Red Army chased the Wehrmacht back across the prewar Soviet border during the summer of 44’, in which time nearly every Jewish community from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine had been effectively erased from existence. 
Sonderkommandos at work hurling corpses into pyre

One of the repercussions of the Nazis’ hasty push to cover up the evidence of their atrocious crimes against humanity was their failure to deal with the Jewish sonderkommandos in a timely fashion. These unfortunate souls had been tasked with the most hideous duties during the Aktion 1005 directive and as a consequence, could serve as the only victimized eyewitnesses to the atrocities the SS had committed. For some strange reason the SS decided to transport the Belzec sonderkommandos to Sobibor for liquidation rather than executing them and disposing of their corpses in the pyres they had erected inside Belzec. Consequently before this group was dispatched in Sobibor’s gas chamber they forewarned the Sobibor sonderkommandos to expect similar treatment when their camp was slated for demolition. These warnings in turn were brought to the attention of the Treblinka sonderkommandos, who accordingly, began preparations to revolt at the first sign of their camp’s closing. After the last deportation of the Bialystok ghetto to Treblinka the attending 600 sonderkommandos revolted and attempted a mass breakout. Several of the buildings were torched, several guards were killed and hundreds of inmates made it over the fence; only to be hunted down and murdered in the following days. Less than sixty of the escapees survived the war. Two months later in October, the Sobibor sonderkommandos went into rebellion and launched their own breakout attempt. Only fifty of these Jews survived the breakout, the rest being murdered only hours after the revolt erupted. 

The fate of the Aktion Reinhard sonderkommandos bares mention because those few survivors of the three extermination camps were the only ones who could corroborate their existence, let alone expound upon the enormous amount of humanity that was mercilessly wasted there. After the revolts at Treblinka and Sobibor both camps were completely dismantled and planted over with lush grasses, shrubbery and evergreens. Every bit of evidence related to the camps’ primary purpose was painstakingly removed by the SS so plausible guilt could be disputed. It is only through the eyewitness accounts of the few survivors of Treblinka and Sobibor and the one surviving victim of Belzec that the Western Allies could piece together the extent of the Nazis’ Final Solution program and firmly establish the existence of the Aktion Reinhard directive, which accounted for roughly one third of the six million Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust. The rest of the evidence pertaining to the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps was gleaned through the archives of Adolf Eichmann’s personal correspondence with the General Government in Poland and intercepted radio transmissions between key SS operatives like Hermann Hofle, Wilhelm Kruger and Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. The termination of the extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka was one of the last acts of the Aktion Reinhard consortium and all the associated guard staffs and administrators were hastily withdrawn from the scene of their crimes and shipped off to Northern Italy, where their iniquitous skills would be used in desecrating the Jewish communities of the Julian March. 
Mass grave uncovered at Majdanek; Harvest Festival 1943

The final action of the Aktion Reinhard fraternity was to destroy the one last, sizeable cluster of Polish Jews left in the General Government. These were the fifty thousand or so Jewish laborers working in the labor camps around Lublin. In November of 43’ Odilo Globocnik initiated Operation Harvest Festival; a weeklong massacre of the Jews inside Poniatowa, Trawniki, Lipowa and Majdanek work camps. The Jews in these camps were rounded up on the pretense that they were being deported to the west to toil in the armaments industries back in Germany. Instead they were corralled into Majdanek and disposed of in the gas chambers or were lined up and shot. Many of these Jews were the surviving POWs from the Polish Army and the final deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto. After the first day of slaughter they were awakened to their fate and launched a sacrificial rebellion in order to allow the more able-bodied survivors to escape. But very few of them did because the SS and their Ukrainian accomplices went on a weeklong killing frenzy through all the camps and the surrounding towns and villages and mercilessly hunted down every last Jew in the Lublin Reservation. Approximately 42,000 Jews were murdered during Operation Harvest Festival; the last of prewar Poland’s population of two and a half million Jews. This was the last macabre act of the Aktion Reinhard directive. From this point on the fate of Europe’s remaining Jewish communities rested in the hands of Adolf Eichmann and his callous cohorts tending the crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

1944: Luck Runs Out for the Italian and Hungarian Jews

By the start of 1944 the Nazis’ Final Solution program had accounted for the lives of more than four and a half million Jews murdered throughout Europe. In the seventeen months remaining in WWII they would add another 1.3 million more Jewish victims to that number. So far the SS had been quite thorough in dispatching all the Jews from the territories they had conquered, especially in the eastern territories where the bulk of Europe’s prewar Jewish population had resided. The task of destroying Western Europe’s Jewish population was still ongoing, as transports continued to arrive nonstop in Birkenau and to the various labor camps still operating in Poland. Yet the Nazis’ were keenly aware of the sizeable Jewish populations that still resided in the lands of their military allies; most of which did not harbor the same virulent anti-Semitic viewpoints that their Nazi comrades espoused. Only the Romanians and Croats, whose abominable treatment of the Jews in Transnistria and Yugoslavia was already well documented, readily collaborated with the Nazis’ in fulfilling their commitments to the Final Solution program. But Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as well as Bulgaria and Hungary were fiercely opposed to the deportation of their Jewish populations to the Nazis’ eastern resettlement areas. Even when the German Foreign Office began to put pressure on these defiant Axis holdouts the governments in Rome, Budapest and Sofia continued to protect their Jewish populations from the unscrupulous sway of Eichmann’s henchmen. Unfortunately, as was the case with their hapless brethren in the rest of Europe, the Jews in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria began to feel the heat from their relentless Nazi pursuers as soon as their political protectors were driven from power.
Romanian Jews on their way to Palestine

Mussolini’s Fascist government in Rome was the first of the Axis holdouts to fall in the autumn of 1943. And as the American and British armies pushed into Southern Italy at their first arrival on the European continent, the German Army pushed into the north of the country and brought their Nazi overlords to power in Rome. Within weeks of the German’s ascension to power in the rump of Italy, the Jews in the far northern regions were being rounded up indiscriminately and ushered off into freight trains bound for Birkenau. Significant numbers of Italy’s small but vibrant Jewish community in Florence, Genoa, Bologna and Turin were either dead or on their way to their deaths before the festival of Hanukah commenced in December. But Italy’s passionately secular, civic organizations and religious institutions were much more receptive to the plight of their Jewish compatriots than the indigenous people of Eastern Europe and as a result the Nazis’ had a quite difficult time preparing the Italian Jews for deportation. The unintended maelstrom this produced finally gave pause to the Iron Cross government in Bucharest to halt their persecution of the Jews in Transnistria as Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu attempted to curry favor with the ascending Western Allies by saving what remained of Romania’s dwindling Jewish population. Late in 43’ Romania unshackled its surviving Jewish internees at the brutal labor camps in Transnistria and brought them back into the interior, where the remaining 15,000 Jewish laborers were repatriated forthwith to Turkey and Palestine. Bulgaria too went to great lengths to keep its ancient Jewish population from falling victim to the Nazis’ rush to complete the Final Solution program.
Hungarian Jews arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Tragically, for Hungary’s more than half a million-strong Jewish population there were very few benevolent protectors intervening on their behalf. Hungary’s Jews had suffered through their fair share of political persecution, forced segregation and egregious, social ostracism throughout WWII nevertheless their community had remained largely intact due to the government’s reticence in collaborating with the Nazis’ Jewish policies. Following the Nazi-led overthrow of Admiral Miklos Horthy’s government in Budapest, Eichmann’s SS cohorts swiftly moved in to eliminate what little freedoms remained to Hungary’s Jewish population. Shortly thereafter the evisceration of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish community began in earnest with the deportation of Jews from Kitarcsa to the crematoriums at Birkenau. From there the SS moved onto the plains of Pannonia and then onwards to Hungary’s eastern territories of Transylvania, Ruthenia and the Danubian basin. Soon five to ten thousand Hungarian Jews were being deported each day to Birkenau where many of them were murdered less than an hour after they had arrived there. Only the Nazis’ overtaxed armaments industry prevented the complete annihilation of Hungary’s whole Jewish population during the spring and summer of 1944. In fact, Germany’s industrial mavens made a huge push to expand the slave labor camps in the Upper Silesia region to accommodate the large influx of Hungarian Jews who were selected for labor detail because of the now devastating manpower shortage plaguing the German war effort. 

The deportation of Hungary’s half a million Jews to Birkenau marked the zenith of the killing facilities’ murderous efficacy. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1944 the crematoriums at Auschwitz burned non-stop for four months straight, as 5,000-12,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered each and every day. By the second week of July Eichmann could proudly report to his superiors the deportation of more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and the surrounding labor camps in the area. This left the 170,000 Jews in Budapest as the sole survivors from Europe’s once third largest Jewish community. The fate of the Budapest Jews was forestalled however by the intervention of a host of benign foreign dignitaries from the neutral nations of Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican and the International Red Cross. One of these benevolent mavens was the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who worked diligently throughout 1944 to safeguard and shelter the Budapest Jews in their own internationally recognized safe haven inside the Hungarian capital. Wallenberg was compelled to intervene several times to prevent a premature slaughter of the Budapest Jews by Hungarian fascist groups who nevertheless continued to bomb and murder the Jews right up until the city’s liberation by the Red Army early in 1945. Somewhat miraculously, the Budapest Jews were given a reprieve from the deportation trains when Eichmann and his cohorts—with the Red Army closing in—left Hungary for good later in the summer; although thousands of Jews were to die in the brutal, months-long fight for Budapest.
French Jews entering transport bound for Birkenau

Yet the killings at Auschwitz did not stop with the termination of the Hungarian deportations. The Nazis’ still found the time to round up and deport the ancient Jewish communities in the Greek isles; in Corfu and Rhodes and all across the Dodecanese. In September the last Jewish ghetto in Poland at Lodz was completely liquidated when its final inhabitants were hastily shipped off to Birkenau and Chelmno with the liberating Red Army less than 30 miles away. The final shipment of Jews from France left Paris in August, even though their American liberators were only kilometers away from intercepting the train. The very last transport of Jews to Birkenau in September 44’ hailed from the Greek isle of Kos. These were the 1800 descendants of Jews from Spain, sent into exile in 1492 during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. For the next several months the SS worked to dismantle the camp at Birkenau while disposing of the remaining Jews from the barracks that were too sick and frail to work. In October, with their gruesome duties inside the gas chambers and crematoriums coming to an end, the remaining sonderkommandos revolted. More than six hundred Jews took part in the rebellion which quickly spread to three of the crematoriums. Fires were set, guards were killed and two of the crematoriums were virtually destroyed in the ensuing melee. Unfortunately, of the 269 Jewish sonderkommandos who made it across the wire, nearly every one of them was subsequently tracked down and murdered by the SS.

The Swansong of the Jews in Europe: The Death Marches
Fully intact gas chamber & crematorium at Majdanek today

By the autumn of 1944 Nazi Germany was in a rapid state of collapse. American, British and Canadian troops had pushed up to the western border of Germany and except for the Netherlands, had liberated most of Western Europe. In the south, Rome was now in allied hands, with American and British-led armies advancing to the foothills of the Appenines Mountains. Following the massive summer offensive of the Red Army, Soviet forces had chased the Germans all the way back to the Vistula River in Poland and had surged across Romania and Bulgaria, deep into Hungary and Slovakia. The swift and dynamic advance of the Red Army had brought the first conclusive evidence of the Nazis’ genocide program, along with the liberation of the few remaining survivors of the labor camps in far Eastern Europe. First to fall was the extermination camp at Maly Trostenets, which had just completed the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto and was in smoldering ruins when the first Soviet soldiers appeared at its gate. But the Soviet advance into Poland was so rapid that the Nazis’ barely had time to dismantle the extensive labor camp system in the Lublin district. The death camp of Majdanek was liberated virtually intact with thousands of surviving Russian POWs still congregating throughout the compound. Majdanek was to become the best preserved out of all the Nazi extermination camps and quickly sounded the alarm among the Western Allies that there was a possibility that similar camps existed deeper inside the Reich.
The sprawling concentration camp at Dachau

The swift collapse of the Wehrmacht very quickly set in motion the final, tragic chapter in the plight of Europe’s Jews during WWII. During the summer and fall of 44’, the SS had commenced deportations of Jews from Auschwitz back to the concentration camps inside Germany. Many of these camps were ringed with factories, quarries and mines central to the German armaments industry and badly in need of a fresh influx of slave laborers from the crowded camps in Poland. For the first time ever Jews were now departing Auschwitz in droves rather than leaving through the smokestacks of the crematoriums. And as the Soviets pushed in from the east and the Western Allies pushed in from both the south and west, the SS pushed all the Jews and other able-bodied inmates before them and into the shrinking confines of the Third Reich. The original deportees left Auschwitz in freight trains bound for the German concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Stutthof. Although some Jews were already laboring in these camps, for the most part the inmate population was made up of German political prisoners, criminals, undesirables and hundreds of thousands of indigenous slave laborers from the once occupied countries of eastern and Western Europe. It was only after the swift collapse of the German Army in the east when the concentration camps in Germany became teeming with Jews and quickly took on the atmosphere of the proverbial extermination camp hitherto common only in Poland and far Eastern Europe. By the beginning of 1945 these camps were now swarming with more than 200,000 of the last surviving Jews from the labor camps in Poland.

Early in 1945 the accelerating pace of the Allied advance made railway transport nearly impossible. As a result the SS took to marching the remaining Jews in Poland by foot on a long, arduous trek back into Germany; in many cases only a few kilometers in front of the pursuing Red Army. This occurred in many of the camps throughout Silesia and West Prussia as one by one they were shut down and compelled to flight, with their would-be-liberators fast on their heels. By this time of their captivity, after months and years of prolonged abuse, physical exhaustion and debilitating malnourishment, the surviving Jews were in no state to endure such an incapacitating journey accompanied by their pitiless tormentors. Tens of thousands of Jews perished along the way when their merciless escorts summarily executed those who had reached the end of their physical endurance. Other tragic stories played out all across Eastern Germany as Jews, sometimes within minutes of their imminent liberation, were cut down and murdered by the vengeful SS rather than being released to their freedom. In East Prussia, nearly 9,000 Jews from the surrounding labor camps were marched off to the cliffs at Palmnicken and told to jump for their freedom. Many survived the jump only to be washed away out to sea or were mistakenly strafed by Soviet warplanes; only thirteen survived. Thousands more Jews were made victims of circumstance when they boarded ships on the Baltic along with the exodus of German civilians fleeing the Russians, only to be drowned when the vessels were torpedoed by Soviet submarines.
Thousands of pairs of childrens shoes piled in Auschwitz

When the Red Army reached Auschwitz on January 17 they found nearly 40,000 surviving inmates from its three main camps and the assorted sub-camps throughout the area. Less than 15,000 of these survivors were Jews; the rest having been force-marched out of the camp only hours before the Soviets entered. Along with this mass of humanity the Red Army discovered the remnants of the un-evacuated storehouse of Jewish belongings containing 836,255 women’s dresses; 348,000 men’s suits and more than 38,000 children’s shoes. Most of these had manufacturer’s labels from factories in Hungary. More than 10,000 Jews died in the march from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen and another 3,000 died when they were forced out of Sachsenhausen on their way to Buchenwald. These tragic endings happened all over Germany as the SS kept evacuating Jews from the camps at the approach of the Western Allies. Once inside the German concentration camps Jews began dying by the thousands every day since absolutely no effort was made to feed them or provide running water. It were these Jews that posterity remembers from the photographs and newsreels of the Western Allied armies which first encountered the stacks and piles of emaciated corpses that were left decomposing all over the newly liberated camps. Sadly, this was not the end of the Jew’s suffering.
American soldiers inspecting corpses at Buchenwald

For weeks and months after the end of WWII in Europe Jews’ continued to die by the thousands every day. With their frail and weakened state far beyond recovery, many simply languished inside the camps unable to reap the rewards of their long overdue liberation. To accentuate  the horrendous nature of their tragedy, thousands of Jews would succumb to the effects of over-indulgence, when their compassionate American and British liberators shelled out their abundant food rations and unknowingly began killing them because their malnourished digestive systems could no longer cope with the rich foods and caloric intake. Upwards of 30-50,000 Jews perished from the effects of their debilitating captivity after their liberation and even that number wouldn’t account for the hundreds more that returned months later to their former homes in Poland and Eastern Europe, only to fall victim once again to the rampant anti-Semitism that the Nazis’ left entrenched in their former occupation zones in the Slavic heartland. It was no wonder why the bulk of Europe’s surviving Jews chose to emigrate abroad rather than remain on the continent that had shamefully ignored their plight and had inadvertently abetted in the greatest criminal conspiracy in civilized history. In the end the Nazis’ Final Solution program had succeeded in exterminating two-thirds of Europe’s nearly nine million Jewish inhabitants. Although it fell short of its ultimate goal of eliminating every Jewish person on the continent, it did however succeed in essentially erasing the communal ties and cultural bonds that the Jews had attempted to forge with the indigenous peoples of Europe for more than two millennium. 


Of the eleven million victims which were murdered during WWII due to Nazi Germany’s abominable racist creed, six million of them were Jews. Although millions of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs and other Slavic groups suffered disproportionately more than their Western European cousins, only the Jews and Gypsies were specifically targeted for annihilation solely because of their race and religious preference. The Holocaust or Shoah, as it is referred to in Hebrew, only pertains to the six million Jewish victims that died as a result of Nazi racial policy. Of the six million victims of the Holocaust, roughly 3.5 million victims were murdered in the extermination camps; 1.5 million were executed by the einsatzgruppen and a further one million succumbed from the effects of physical exhaustion, starvation, neglect and mistreatment in the various labor camps, ghettos and railway lines across Europe. Out of all the countries that had sizeable Jewish populations, Poland incurred the highest number of Jewish deaths with close to 2.5 million. By percentage of their prewar Jewish populations, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Greece would suffer nearly catastrophic losses to their Jewish communities. Aside from the einsatzgruppen, the greatest number of victims were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau; followed closely in order by Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Maly Trostenets and Jasenovac. It is impossible to tally the number of Jews who were murdered in the other, non-extermination camps since each and every one of them carried the stigma of enduring their own level of violence and brutality. However it is probably safe to assume that none of them were known for their benevolence.
final deportation from the Lodz Ghetto

In dispensing responsibility on the perpetrators of the Holocaust certainly no one deserves more blame than Adolf Hitler, who’s virulent anti-Semitism and deeply xenophobic, world perspective became the underlying theme of Nazism throughout its short and contentious history. Ultimately as the supreme leader of an intensely totalitarian state Hitler cannot escape culpability for anything his regime may have been guilty of committing. Despite the lack of an identifiable and documented trail of orders emanating personally from Hitler’s office, the German fuehrer must be held accountable as the main protagonist behind the Final Solution program. This holds equally true for both of Hitler’s immediate subordinates, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, who set the gears of genocide in motion by dispensing the fuehrer’s commands to all the relevant organs of state involved in the general conspiracy. Himmler, as the undisputed leader of the Nazi SS is most decidedly more culpable since it was his organization charged with carrying out the Final Solution and his leadership that guided its conventions and saw them through every step of the way. It was Himmler who then appointed Reinhard Heydrich to oversee the whole enterprise wherein the Final Solution program swiftly developed from concept to conception. It was only through Heydrich’s meticulous guidance and cultivation that the whole undertaking toward genocide was allowed to foster and grow, which permitted it to take on a life of its own after the demise of its tenacious steward. 

Aside from Hitler himself there was probably no one more ruthless and sinister in the Third Reich than Reinhard Heydrich and it was precisely these traits which provided the gumption he fostered to choose a host of contemptibly shameless and unsavory characters needed to run the day-to-day business of genocide. Men like Adolf Eichmann who kept the homicidal momentum moving from beginning to end or Odilo Globocnik, who eagerly stepped up to manage the mass murders during its most prolific and violent stage. And from this villainous rabble came a horde of mid-level administrators uniquely qualified to handle the most brutal aspects of the grisly, daily rituals. The Aktion Reinhard trio of Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl and Dr. Irmfried Eberl were three of the most callous and sadistic monsters of the Second World War; accounting for the lives of some one and a half million Jews. Then there were the einsatzkommando leaders which played the major role in the destruction of the two million Jews from the former Pale of Settlement in far off Eastern Europe. It was Friedrich Jaeckeln’s “system” which brought the mass execution pits into existence at Babi Yar, Rumbula, Ponary and dozens of other sites and it was cold-blooded murderers like Paul Blobel, Eduard Strauch, Oskar Dirlewanger and Dr. Rudolf Lange who gladly joined in on the killing frenzies when their sickened and distraught underlings could no longer fire their weapons. Lastly, no discussion about the highest of Holocaust perpetrators would be complete without mentioning the sinister camp commandants, of which Rudolf Hoess stands out the most for singlehandedly engendering the mass murder of close to two million human beings inside the hellish facilities of Auschwitz. 
Dr. Josef Mengele

There was probably no greater illustration of the abominable treatment inflicted upon the concentration camp inmates than their unwitting conscription to serve as live test modules for the SS medical board’s grisly experimentation on human subjects for remedial research. It wasn’t enough that these pitiful victims were compelled to endure untold depravities and misery at the hands of their tormentors in the forced-labor facilities and in the wretched living conditions of the camps, yet many would be singled out for further abuse in the camp medical wards serving as human guinea pigs in the Nazi’s macabre racial pursuits. These medical experiments were the culmination of the illicit abuse specifically sanctioned by the Nazi’s in order to denigrate, despoil and dehumanize their racial enemies and at the same time attempt to retrieve an instructive purpose for their costly sacrifice. As a result a host of morally-challenged, medical upstarts gained notoriety by descending upon the concentration camps and murdering thousands of Jewish inmates in thoroughly meaningless and palpably depraved medical experiments that made practically no impression on the medical research profession. Nazi witch doctors such as Josef Mengele, Aribert Heim, Sigmund Rascher, Carl Clauberg, Horst Schumann, Karl Brandt, Waldemar Hoven and Karl Gebhardt, to name just a few, would go down in infamy as the subjective face of one of Nazism’s cruelest legacies. Their sinister pursuits would become the culminating point in the Nazi’s shameful, decades-long contempt for the Jewish race.

Finally, the guilt for the Holocaust rests predominantly on the shoulders of Nazism’s most brazen and unabashed practitioners but in no way should this grievous malady be branded exclusively as a German trait. Nazi Germany may have conceived of and carried out the Final Solution program but it was the long arm of fascism’s perverting tentacles that made its incontrovertible attraction to humanity’s darkest attributes such a pervasive and wide-ranging phenomenon. The insufferable stew of fascism, mixed with rampant xenophobia and racial prejudice, which advanced the ideals of Nazism, made its mark through every nationality in Europe and quite intentionally nurtured the hate and intolerance that abetted the Nazis’ in every state they occupied. Racist hate groups were everywhere in Europe, from France and Scandinavia all the way out to far Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the western reaches of Asia. The Nazis’ may have unleashed and empowered these groups when they overthrew their governments but these were factions that were powerfully entrenched in these societies long before the Nazis’ came to power and no matter how dormant they may have lain, they were bound to come out sooner or later whether or not they were doing the Nazis’ handiwork. Thus the SS had an ample amount of foreign volunteers from every country in Europe which gladly traded in their national allegiances to become a part of a larger structure that held racial inequality as the basis for their collective greatness. Sadly, humanity paid the price in tens of millions of lives for the moral majority to render the narrow minority’s intentions improper and no longer valid.