The 371st Fighter Group and the Aftermath of the Holocaust

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

During this April 24 through May 1, 2022 Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust, with the Russo-Ukrainian War raging in Europe and perhaps some of the ghosts of World War II being stirred, we remember the terrible things that can happen when one group of human beings are demonized, scapegoated, abused and killed by another group of people because they are different in some way. 

Human beings are capable of doing profound good, yet also of extraordinary evil.  We must remember the terrible times and events of the past which could happen again if we are not careful and ignore the lessons of history.

During the Second World War, the 371st Fighter Group, today’s 142nd Wing, flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter and fought in the northwest of the European Theater of Operations in order to help liberate the continent from Nazi tyranny.  The group began combat operations from England in the spring of 1944, then moved to France after D-Day, and operated from various bases eastward across France into the spring of 1945.

The 371st Fighter Group’s last base in France before moving forward into Germany was at Metz (Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) Y-34).  Group members participated, with other American military personnel in the area, in Easter and Passover celebrations held in the city.  The group’s War book mentions that “It was the first Passover observed in Metz in five years, and was conducted by Chaplain Feldhym of XIX TAC, assisted by Capt. Goodkind, our dental officer.  Over 100 French civilians were there, out of several hundred left from the pre-1940 population of five thousand.  The sight of their synagogue filled by over 2,000 American young men moved their thin ranks to tears.  It was both a sad and joyous occasion.” It was perhaps the unit’s first brush with the impact of the Holocaust.

Into the Reich

The 371st claimed to be the first USAAF combat group to be based at a forward airfield in Germany, east of the Rhine River, in the first week of April, 1945 at Frankfurt-Eschborn Airfield (ALG Y-74) just northwest of Frankfurt-am-Main.  Here, near the end of the war, unit personnel began to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust and the massive disruption of the European population, the upheaval of millions upon millions of lives amidst all the death and destruction.

At about the same time the 371st moved forward across the Rhine to Y-74, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army, which the group often supported in the battles from Normandy to Germany, liberated the first concentration camp and prisoners freed by the western Allies.  Patton’s 4th Armored Division and 89th Infantry Division liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald on April 4, 1945. 

After viewing the shocking scene at Ohrdruf personally, General Patton asked the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D.  Eisenhower, to come and see the camp, which he did on April 12.  Eisenhower later wrote how the visit “…etched the date in my memory….  I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency.” 

Afterward, Eisenhower was determined to ensure that American and British leadership and citizens were fully informed about what Allied armies found.  He felt that “…the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British public in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”  On April 19, General Eisenhower formally requested members of Congress, the British Parliament and senior magazine and newspaper editors come to Europe to investigate newly discovered Nazi atrocities.

In the American response, six senators and six representatives from both sides of the aisle arrived by C-54 transport in Europe on April 23, followed shortly thereafter by 18 editors from major American newspapers and magazines.  After viewing the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, on April 24, where they “talked with the prisoners, checked over the installations … and gathered evidence on a great mass of atrocities,” the congressional group flew to the Frankfurt-am-Main area where the 371st was. 

By this time, word had spread about what was discovered in these camps.  Perhaps this shaped the unattributed remarks of one Non-Commissioned Officer in the group, a Staff Sergeant quoted as saying during the days at Y-74: 

”To me it was like the raising of a curtain on a long-awaited scene - the unveiling of a monster.  The monster called Nazi.  It was a shock, and a little disappointing at first to discover that the monster looked like ordinary people.  Some were old, some young.  Some were fat, some thin.  They could have been French, English, or even people back home.  Yet after we had been in Germany awhile, after I had talked to some of the displaced persons, Czechs, Poles, Russians, after I heard the stories of liberated prisoners of war, I realized their well-fed appearance merely concealed the cancer underneath.  It reminded me of the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray,’ beautiful outwardly, and rotten inside.  In short, their very appearance of normal human beings, the nonentity of their disguise, only added to the monstrousness of their crimes.”

The Congressmen and media editors also noted the presence of many displaced persons (DPs) in Allied-controlled territory.  Chicago Sun newspaper editor E. Z. Dimitman noted the multitudes “sleeping by the roadside - in a barn - in an empty house - in a bombed-out building.”  He wrote “roads are filled with people seeking their homes… You ask them - ‘where are you going?’ The answer is always ‘home.’”

As the congressional group passed through the Frankfurt area, some of the members had the opportunity to meet with some 371st Fighter Group personnel.  The group’s blue leather war book mentions this visit, the unit’s next brush with the Holocaust which came in late April at Y-74:

“Later in the month some of the Congressmen who were in Germany to investigate the German atrocities, stopped off at the field.  They talked to some of their constituents, and stayed for dinner.  All went well except for one little incident.  Some of the Senators were conducted to the 404th (Fighter Squadron’s) mess tent… one of the cooks had grown used to seeing a few non-English speaking Polish and Russian displaced persons in the chow line.  “My God,” he cried as the Senators passed through the line, “Some more damned DPs!”

Into Bavaria

Within a week’s time, that cook and the rest of the group would move deeper into Germany, to Fürth-Industriehafen Airfield (ALG R-30) just outside Nuremberg where they would come in closer contact with the Holocaust as well as more DPs, many of whom could have become additional victims of the Holocaust had the war continued. 

Jewish people lived in Nuremberg, a medieval city once the seat of power for German kings, from the 12th Century, and numbered over 9,000 in the 1920s.  Persecution of the Jewish minority in Nuremberg began in the 1920s, encouraged by the Nazi weekly newspaper Der Stürmer, founded in 1923, the year of Hitler’s attempted putsch in Munich, and during which uniformed Nazis began to harass Jewish citizens in Nuremberg. 

Nuremberg was the city which became the epicenter of the infamous Nazi mass rallies held from 1927 to 1938.  Once Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, things gradually worsened.  The notorious 1935 propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was filmed in Nuremberg at the 1934 Nazi rally.  In the violent anti-Jewish demonstrations in the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938,  91 Jewish people were murdered, including 26 in Nuremberg alone.  By the fall of 1942, the only Jews left in Nuremberg were those married to non-Jews.  The Nazis crowed that Nuremberg had become “Judenrein” – cleansed of Jews.  The once thriving community had either fled earlier, been deported or imprisoned in places like Dachau Concentration Camp.

US Seventh Army forces, the 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions, captured Nuremberg after a fierce four-day battle, April 16 – 20, 1945 – the 20th was Hitler’s birthday.  By evening that day the battle for Nuremberg was over, with the American flag raised over Adolf Hitler Platz.  It cost 800 American battle casualties to seize the city. 

On April 22, US Seventh Army held a ceremony in the Zeppelintribüne stadium on the former Nazi rally grounds to award five soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division the Medal of Honor for actions above and beyond the call of duty in the battle for Nuremberg.  A large American flag was draped over the 25-foot swastika above the speaker’s platform from where the Nazi dictator once mesmerized hundreds of thousands. 

Three days later, on April 25, Army soldiers destroyed that symbol of the Nazi regime with 200-pounds of TNT.  The New York Times’ Richard H. J. Johnson wrote “There is no more hideous spot today than Nuremberg, shrine city of the Nazis.”  Thus the stage was set for the 371st Fighter Group’s move to R-30 just outside Nuremberg to continue the fight against Nazi tyranny. 

By May 7, the bulk of the unit’s personnel were at R-30 – the war ended the next day and the P-47’s from Y-74 arrived at R-30 on May 9 and flew their last combat mission of the war.  The remaining group personnel arrived by May 13.  As the group settled into Bavaria in the waning days and hours of the war in Europe, it found itself in the heart of a complex of suffering and indignity never imagined.  For an in-depth look at what group personnel saw of the Holocaust in their time at R-30, see the article “Airmen Remember the Holocaust,” on the wing website here.

Concentration camps

The nearest major concentration camps to Nuremberg were to the south at Dachau (the oldest and longest running such camp), near Munich, and to the east at Flossenbürg, near the Czechoslovakian border.  However, each of these camps had many subcamps in the region, about 100 for Dachau and 80 for Flossenbürg.  Both Dachau and Flossenbürg had subcamps in Nuremberg.

Although these concentration camps were not dedicated death camps, such as Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka and others, death was a constant spectre, from disease, starvation and/or torture.  Inmates of concentration camps served as forced labor for the Nazi war machine, and many prisoners were worked to death under horrible conditions. 

The Flossenbürg camp subcamps in Nuremberg were associated with the Nuremberg SS-Kaserne (barracks) adjacent to the Nazi rally grounds, active between May, 1941 and April, 1945, and the Siemens-Schuckertwerke (SSW) concentration subcamp, which was active between October 1944 and March 1945.  Subcamps of these were also established in Nuremberg at Zeltnerstrasse near the main train station (after an air raid destroyed the SSW camp) and south of Nuremberg at Eichstätt. 

The SS-Kaserne inmates were males numbering from around 150 up to 300 at any given time, including Germans, Poles and Czechs, who principally worked to maintain the physical infrastructure of the kaserne which was a training center for SS radio operators.  They performed tradesmen’s tasks such as laying water lines and mains, building garages and roof work.  They were also impressed into work details in the area for private companies and government authorities.

The female prisoners at the SSW subcamp were some 550 Hungarian Jewish women and girls aged between 14 and 40 years old, selected by Siemens company personnel at Auschwitz-II Birkenau and transported by cattle car to Nuremberg to work for the company.  Most of them performed unskilled labor tasks such as removing rust from metal parts at a fenced-in barracks at the transformer plant on Katzwanger Strasse and some worked at the Siemens transformer and meter factory.  Both male and female inmates were impressed into post-air raid cleanup of Nuremburg, which was heavily damaged by Allied bombing.

The SSW women were transferred to other subcamps in early 1945, such as the Holleischen Subcamp after the air raid destruction of their accommodations and after their use to clear rubble in the heavily bombed city.  The prisoners at the SS-Kaserne also cleared air raid damage, and those who could move and march were transferred to Dachau as American forces neared the area in mid-April.

POW and Forced laborer camps

Deep inside the former Third Reich, the 371st Fighter Group was also near a number of prisoner of war (POW) camps which held POWs from all over Europe.  In Nuremberg on the old Nazi rally grounds was Stalag XIII-D Nurnberg Langwasser, initially a camp for prisoners from Belgium, France, Great Britain, Norway, Poland, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.  After Italy changed sides, the camp also held Italian Military Internees.  In December, 1944, there were about 29,000 POWs in the camp – over 21,000 were assigned to work details.  These were joined in late 1944-early 1945 by about 6,000 American and British Airmen formerly of Stalag III at Sagan (site of the March, 1944 “Great Escape”), in Lower Silesia, Germany who were force-marched to Nuremberg to avoid liberation by Soviet forces approaching from the east.

Of note, 186 Allied airmen were captured and imprisoned at Buchenwald Concentration Camp during the war, before the Luftwaffe found out about them and transferred them to POW camps – too late for one American P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, 1st Lt. Levitt C. Beck of the 406th Fighter Group, who died there in October, 1944.  He was one of 56,000 human beings who perished at Buchenwald.

As US Army troops approached Nuremberg in late April, most of the Stalag XIII-D POWs, like the concentration camp inmates, were force marched again deeper into Bavaria.  They went to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg near Munich, including at least one 371st Fighter Group P-47 pilot, Capt. Luther “Luke” Canup.  See the article “Kriegie on the Move: The POW Experience of Luther P. Canup,” here.

Stalag XIII-D was liberated by US Army on April 16, 1945, the first day of the effort to capture Nuremberg.  There remained about 13,000 POWs quarantined for typhoid fever, Serbian officers and the staff of the POW hospital, most of them also Serbs.  There were some wounded Americans there too who had survived a friendly fire strafing incident on April 5 in which 29 American POWs were inadvertently killed. 

Of note, adjacent to Stalag XIII-D was a large company camp for Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (Nuremberg) (M.A.N.), which accommodated some 1,000 civilian forced laborers.  The M.A.N. works in Nuremberg produced 40% of Germany’s deadly Panzer V Panther tanks and was one of several important military targets in Nuremberg for Allied bombers.

So, at the end of World War II the 371st Fighter Group was based near the remnants of Nazi party rally grounds, concentration camp subcamps, POW and forced laborer camps in the Nuremberg area which provided evidence to group personnel of the brutal treatment and terrible conditions of prisoners held in the Third Reich. 

Displaced Persons camps

Some of these camps transitioned postwar into camps for the many DP’s in and transiting the area.  How many of these DPs were former military POWs now freed and changed in status to DPs along with civilians liberated from concentration camps is unclear.  It was a turbulent time. 

A no-fraternization with the German population order was in place for American military forces and enforced to varying degrees during the 371st Fighter Group’s time in Germany; one 406th Fighter Squadron Cpl. caught “frattin’” at Fürth was busted to Pvt. and fined $25. 

With this kind of disincentive to be with the locals, members of the group sought social interaction with some of the DP population, such as when around 50 women from a nearby Polish and Russian refugee camp were invited to attend a 406th Fighter Squadron dance held on May 28, 1945. It was that early postwar time for people seeking a return to some kind of normality and civilized existence following the chaos, death and destruction of the war and the Holocaust.

Some DPs were apparently employed by the unit as well, though there is not much detail in group or squadron historical records.  The 406th Fighter Squadron history for June, 1945 mentions that on the morning of June 7 the Russian DPs associated with the unit departed enroute to Prague, Czechoslovakia for repatriation, led by the squadron’s Sgt. Steve J. Kropp.  Polish DPs then replaced the departed Russians.  This was likely for mess hall duty, as the squadron’s history for August, 1945 mentions the use of DPs and Austrian citizen workers in the Enlisted Men’s mess hall after the unit moved to Hörsching Airfield (ALG R-87) in Linz, Austria in mid-August.


During this weeklong observance of the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust, as a major war continues in Europe and threatens to escalate and/or expand, let us remember what happened 80 years ago.  “Never again!” is an oft-repeated phrase to encourage people to remember the state-sponsored manmade horrors of the past.  It is startling to hear reports of Holocaust skeptics and deniers, especially when ample evidence is available from that time that those terrible things happened. 

For the men and women of the 142nd Wing, the unit’s history is woven with the service and sacrifice made to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.  A price paid in blood and treasure, in men and machines to ensure that the evil of that time was defeated, and it was. 

But as the wing’s motto says, “Semper Vigilans,” Always Vigilant, we too, those in uniform and the people whom they serve, must be vigilant.  We must be careful, aware and on guard because evil still lurks in this world - another Holocaust is possible, lest we forget.