Liberator from Galesburg-- Gordon Walberg

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Sixty years ago Monday a young soldier from Galesburg and his jeep driver liberated a German concentration camp; just one week prior to the official war's end in Europe. Gordon Walberg is 82 years old now but his memories of World War II remain fresh and vivid as does his disgust at the inhumanity of the German captors. Like most soldiers Walberg assumed his role was lost to history but just this spring he was honored twice. First by the Quad Cities Yom HaShoah [Holocaust] Committee  for his role in liberating the Wobelein Concentration camp on May 2, 1945. Second as “Man of the year” by his colleagues in the Eighty-second Airborne Division at this year's annual reunion in Atlanta. At the reunion Walberg met boxing promoter Don King who has been a very generous benefactor toward the Airborne Memorial at Fort  Campbell, Kentucky.

“I entered the service somewhat late in the war, January 1943,” explained Walberg. “I joined the 82nd Airborne Division and we trained here in the U.S. Before being sent to England just before the Normandy invasion. Although the 82nd had participated in North Africa and the Italian campaigns that all happened before I arrived. I was actually too late arriving to participate in the initial Normandy airdrop the night before D-day. I was sent across the channel the day after D-day as part of a replacement company.”

As part of the Allied invasion the 82nd was responsible for capturing and holding a key French town of Saint Mere Eglise despite heavy counter attacks by the Germans who wanted to deny use of the key crossroads to the Americans. This was the first town on the western front liberated by the Allies. Last year Gordon returned to France as part of the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings where he spent two weeks in France, Holland and Belgium touring the former battlefields.

Walberg was a heavy machine gunner who was converted into squad leader for a 57mm anti-tank gun crew. He, his crew, gun and precious ammunition participated in the ill-fated Market Garden operation to create a path to Germany that was immortalized in the Cornelius Ryan book and later movie “A Bridge Too Far.” On September 17, 1944 he was landed by glider near Nijmagen, Holland. During the landing he lost his rifle and most of the gun's ammunition but he and his squad still man-handled the weapon that was meant to be towed by jeep into position along a contested roadway. When the Germans counterattacked with tanks and heavy infantry the lightly armed paratroopers fought back as they waited for Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery's main body to arrive by they couldn't capture the key bridge.

Walberg's gun position was overrun by German troops during the operation. Despite a valiant effort to defend themselves Gordon was seriously wounded and all but three of his eleven man squad were killed or wounded. He eventually made his way back to an aid station where he received basic emergency care before he was returned to England for surgery and 3 ½ months of hospital recuperation. By the time Walberg was released from the hospital many were beginning to believe that the war was all but won and the Army wanted to send him back to the states. Gordon refused and insisted that he be returned to rejoin and fight with his unit. As he explains it the military brass eventually relented and told him he was on his own to travel through France and find his unit. He succeeded just in time to be present as the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes commenced.

As the Battle of the Bulge began Gordon and his company commander stationed northwest of Paris were monitoring radio traffic and surmised that something was up before the American command began alerting forces. “I asked if we could mount up and take our gun toward the front where we might be useful,” remembers Gordon. “I was reminded that all we had for ammunition was 12 rounds and my squad was understrength but he let us take off as soon as we were ready to move in about two hours. With my driver Paul Schlupp and part of our crew we took off toward the German border. I just new this war wasn't near over just yet.”

And it wasn't. The Germans sent 200,000 men and 600 tanks against out-numbered and ill-prepared American troops stationed in the Ardennes. In what was to be the last major German offensive of the war the goal was to force an armored spearhead through the front lines, capture American fuel and drive a wedge between American and British forces. German success depended on bad winter weather, blitzkrieg swift success and surprise and they almost pulled it off. At daybreak on December 16th the Germans attacked during weather that neutralized Allied air supremacy against two green infantry divisions (the 99th and 106th) and a badly chewed up 2nd infantry division sent to the sector for “rest and recuperate.”

After great initial success the German attack bogged down due to failure to capture the needed fuel for their tanks and determined resistance from American troops that quickly regrouped and held their ground until General George Patton arrived with his 3rd Army to counter attack the Germans. The Americans suffered heavy casualties: over and above the 733 tanks lost were 8,607 dead; 21,144 missing; 23,500 taken prisoner and 47,139 wounded. The German casualties were slightly less: 12,652 dead; 14,000 missing; 2,000 prisoners and 34,439 wounded plus 700 tanks.

Walberg and his squad never got into the fight directly but they were among the lead American forces across the Elbe river and into southeastern Germany in the spring of 1945. The war was by now coming to a close with the Allies pushing from the west and the Russians charging from the east. There was concern by Allied political leaders that the Russians could not be allowed to capture all of Germany. Lead elements of the 82nd Airborne, including their leader General Jim Gavin and Walberg's squad (by then doing reconnaissance)met with the front edge of the Russian on May 1, 1945.

Walberg and his jeep driver Schlupp were sent north to scout a highway and determine where the current German lines were located. On their trip they came across a German village of about 10,000 called Ludwigslust, home to the magnificent palace of the Grand Duke. As Walberg and Schlupp emerged to the north of the village they could “...begin to smell a foul stench. The odor was so bad... We didn't know it at the time but what we smelled was the odor of the Wobelein Concentration Camp. I told Paul to follow the smell and we came upon a fenced-in camp about four miles north of the village.” Like most such camps the fence was actually two barb wire fences around a large compound of barracks housing sick and starving Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and political prisoners forced to work as slave laborers by the Germans.

“When we got up to the gate I could see an emaciated prisoner is ragged uniform laying on the ground but no sign of any Germans. I asked him in German what this camp was and where the Germans had gone. He told me he was a Dutch political prisoner and that the day before the German guards left out the back gate relocking it and leaving the prisoners alone. We used our jeep to force the gate open and went in to inspect the camp before reporting it to our command. Paul and I stayed there for the next two days and others from our division joined us in assisting these prisoners.”

Over 200 bodies were found in the camp according to official records. After the two days Walberg and Schlupp again headed to the north eventually coming within 33 mile of Berlin before they turned back and headed once again for their division headquarters in Ludwigslust. Two days following V-E Day the 82nd Airborne Division forced the citizens of Ludwigslust to dig up the park in the town center to provide for a proper burial for the 200 dead found in the camp plus 800 more that had been buried in shallow graves in the forest adjoining the camp. The adult residents of the village were then required to walk amongst the graves prior to final burial to witness the results of the horror that went on just outside of their town. The next day these same adults were paraded through the squalid camp itself and witness some of the surviving 700 emaciated prisoners. Amazingly many claimed total ignorance of even the existence of this foul-smelling camp.

At War's end Gordon was offered the opportunity to take the converted liner Queen Mary back to the state but chose instead to leave earlier on a much less grand Liberty ship. “We arrived in New York harbor on December 19, 1945 and it was a very emotional experience sailing past the Statue of Liberty. Walberg completed his service later in January 1946 and returned home to Galesburg where he graduated from high school less than six years earlier.

This April 10th Walberg was honored by The Quad Cities Yom HaShoah [Holocaust] Committee as a “Liberator.” He was presented with a handsome plaque thanking him “For the Gift of Redemption his compassionate efforts in the liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps will always be remembered.” Years later here in Galesburg Gordon recalls meeting a German jeweler here in Galesburg who came from near Ludwigslust tried to claim that stories of the concentration camps were fabricated. “I tried to set him straight but even my eyewitness evidence wasn't sufficient to defeat his denial. It is sad that there still exist so many others just like him who refuse to acknowledge these atrocities.”