Before he was a banker, he was a WWII soldier who witnessed horrors
Published 9:25 am Saturday, July 14, 2018
Editor’s note: Most of this story originally appeared in The Star-News about 20 years ago, and was written by then-publisher Jim Morgan. We are reprinting it in honor of Eland Anthony’s 95th birthday, which he is celebrating this week.
Anthony, who is a retired banker, remains active in the community.
He witnessed heroism. He witnessed history. But he also was witness to what many consider the worst horror of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.What Eland Anthony saw in war, he’ll never forget.
A platoon leader in the 7th Army’s 4th Infantry Division, he was among the first Americans to reach the Dachau concentration camp.
Although the exact number will never he known, it is thought that more than 11 million men, women and children were killed in concentration camps, including more than 6 million Jews.
While rumors of the camps leaked out during the war, few believed that something so horrible could be true until Allied troops discovered the camps in the spring of 1945.
“I’ll never forget it so long as I live,” Anthony said. As U.S. troops were approaching, guards had nailed boards across the doors and windows of the concentration camp barracks, soaked the buildings in gasoline, and then burned them.
“The smell of human flesh burning was unbelievable,” he said.
The survivors were little more than walking skeletons dressed in rags. They were dazed and disoriented, he said.
“They had t heir freedom, but didn’t know what to do.”
And they were ravenously hungry. Anthony’s platoon gave away all of their K-rations: Spam, cheese, crackers and chocolate.
“Whatever we had, we gave them,” he said.
The memories haunted Anthony for years.
“It’s something you’ll never forget,” he said.
Anthony had finished his sophomore year at Virginia Military Institute when he got his orders in 943 to report to Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Ga. In 1944, he received his commission.
“My wife, Jane, and I got married when I received my commission,” he said. Six weeks later, he had his orders to go to Europe.
It was the hardest goodbye he’s ever made, he said.
For boys like Anthony, college men, the war forced them to grow up fast.
“We were pretty young when we went, and we had to grow up overnight,” he said. “You had to in order to cope with it … when you’re 18 or 20 years old, you don’t know a lot. The war showed you who you are.
He remembers being on the Ile ‘d France, one of 15,000 soldiers on board, steaming out of Boston and watching the Queen Elizabeth, then the largest ship in the world, coming into the harbor. On its sides were painted massive red crosses more than 200 feet tall.
“I asked what the cross was for, and one of the officers said it was because they were coming back with the dead and wounded. I thought to myself that I’m headed that way,” he said.
Anthony’s company arrived at the front at Bastogne within days of the Battle of the Bulge. From there they moved into Germany.
He was decorated for valor and received the Silver Star of gallantry in action, the third highest medal that can be awarded. He was reluctant to talk about it.
A clipping from the Troy newspaper from March 1945 told what happened. The account was taken from the citation:
“Lt. Anthony’s company was assigned the mission of securing and holding Belsdorf. While moving toward the town across 300 yards of exposed terrain, he and his platoon were immobilized by enemy machine gun and rifle fire. Seeing that his men were in a desperate situation and useless to his attacking company, he ran across the open field to the nearest building.
“Concealed by the building, he worked his way to an advantageous position overlooking the enemy machine gun. From this point, he fired on the gun crew and succeeded in wounding one man and dispersing the others.
“Signaling his platoon forward, he led them into the town. With the machine gun eliminated, the town was captured with a minimum of casualties.”
(In a later video interview documenting oral histories of veterans, Anthony said of the incident:
““We ran just as hard as we could. Several in our platoon were killed and wounded. I knew the closer got, we’d have more casualties.
“When we got within 100 yards, I told the platoon, ‘Lie down. Don’t move a muscle. I’m going up there, and get rid of that machine gun.’ ”
Anthony said he ran, walked, and crawled toward the machine gun.
“When I got close enough that I could not miss, I opened up with my rifle, and wiped out the ones that didn’t run.”
He said the loss of one of his men was the hardest part of the war.
“The shock of losing a man who was killed or badly wounded was something you agonized over,” he said. The 36 men in his platoon were like brothers, he said. By the end of the war, more than half had been killed or wounded.
“You could make one mistake and your life would be gone,” he said. He recalled when the platoon found itself in a minefield. “We didn’t know we’d entered a minefield until one exploded. That was a terrible day … all you could do was stay where you were until the engineers came … a buddy was blown up that day. He was as close to me as you are. Close enough to touch”
Anthony said he said the same prayer every morning – “Lord, don’t let me get it today.”
Ask him about a good memory of the war and two come immediately to mind.
“We loved it when the mailman would catch up to us, he said. His wife wrote to him daily, as did other family members. It was not unusual to get 12 to 15 letters at a time. “Jane would number her letters on the outside so that I could read them in order,” he said.
She wrote about anything and everything. Each letter was like a visit home. The other memory was of May 8, the day the war ended.
“You’ve never seen such happy people in all your life,” he said. “I think people are appreciative of what soldiers did in time of war,” he said, adding that, while some have forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day, others have not.
He said he wasn’t sure if people today understand what the veterans of war faced.
“I’m nt sure they understand the trauma that was there for soldiers,” he said.
“Adjusting to a strange land …being shot at … having to shoot someone. But I think people appreciated what we did.”