How a teenage corporal nabbed commandant of Dachau

Bergen (New Jersey) Record, Thursday, June 12, 2003 (link to article)

By JUSTO BAUTISTA, STAFF WRITER

Henry Senger of Fort Lee didn't have a deck of "most wanted" cards to help him in 1945.

Unlike the war in Iraq, in World War II, the allies didn't issue 55 cards identifying top Nazis.

The average GI knew what Adolf Hitler looked like, but it was doubtful any could recognize his henchmen. The job of bagging them was left mostly to intelligence officers.

Nevertheless, on April 29, 1945, Senger, then a 19-year-old corporal from Brooklyn, captured SS Col. Martin Gottfried Weiss, commandant of the notorious Dachau concentration camp.

"It was a chain of miracles ... a lot of luck," said Senger, 77, a financial adviser at Salomon Smith Barney in Paramus.

Senger didn't talk about the incident for 50 years.

"I was just doing my job," he said, referring to his Army days.

He finally told the story in 1995, at a reunion of the 292nd Field Artillery Observation Battalion in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"We applauded," said Gerald Rees, 78, of Ann Arbor, Mich., a retired teacher who served as a staff sergeant in the battalion.

Like others in the 292nd, Rees rarely talked about Dachau.

"We were young, essentially kids," Rees said. "After the shock wore off, we went about our business. There wasn't any permanent scarring experience because of our youth, our optimism. The tendency was not to talk about it."

Senger is satisfied today that his actions - the capture of Weiss and his adjutant - helped bring some closure to the survivors and the families of those killed - about 30,000 were murdered or starved at Dachau.

"When I talk about it, I tear up," Senger said. "I choke up. All that stuff they [prisoners] went through."

American soldiers from the 42nd and 45th Infantry divisions liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945. The Army wanted to keep the 32,000 prisoners in the camp so they could be fed and undergo health checks, but some of them walked away.

The same day, a squad from Senger's unit was sent to Munich - which is about nine miles from Dachau - to help military police round up remnants of the retreating German army.

"They were mostly young boys and older men who were drafted into the Wehrmacht as Hitler's last resort," Senger said.

Squad members posted themselves outside a stone building near a park in Munich. While some of the squad negotiated with "two beautiful frauleins" who wanted cigarettes and chocolate, Senger stayed put outside the building.

Two "walking skeletons" in gray-striped Dachau garb approached Senger, both "talking a mile a minute."

"Langsam bitte" - slow please, Senger told them. The moment was a link in the "chain of miracles." Senger understood German, having studied it at Georgetown University.

The newly liberated prisoners told Senger that two men across the street in civilian clothes were Dachau's commandant and his adjutant.

Senger, like a lot of GIs that day, had heard of Dachau, but did not really know about its horrors.

The day before the Americans arrived, Weiss and more than 1,000 "death's head" SS guards had fled the camp.

Senger, armed with a carbine, asked his buddy Don Notary to cover him while he walked across the street to question the two men.

"Bist du von Dachau?" Senger asked them.

They denied they were from Dachau, and presented identification papers that turned out to be phony, Senger said.

Senger said he might have released them had the ex-prisoners not exploded in anger at the denials.

One ex-prisoner shrieked and pointed at one of the Germans, he said.

"You killed my best friend last week," he screamed.

The other ex-prisoner pointed to the other German, shouting, "You have a short memory. You beat me mercilessly just four days ago."

"It was confusing at the time," recalled Notary, now an 80-year-old retired mechanical engineer living in South Bend, Ind. He, too, rarely talked about Dachau after the war.

"I get a little choked up when I think about it," he said.

After the ex-prisoners' outburst, Senger said the two civilians admitted they were from Dachau.

"Then, the commandant said he wouldn't surrender to me," Senger said. "He would only surrender to an officer."

In the brief questioning, during which the commandant had a carbine pointed at him, he "acted like a gentleman ... he behaved himself with me," Senger said. "I thought the other guy [the adjutant] was going to jump me. He was nasty."

Senger ordered the Germans to place their hands against a wall, while the ex-prisoners frisked them for hidden weapons.

He waved down a weapons carrier and took his prisoners to the nearest MP station. But at the main MP station in downtown Munich, the SS men were returned to Senger because they were dressed as civilians, and the MPs could only detain military men.

Accompanied by an MP and the two Dachau ex-prisoners, Senger took the SS men to a counterintelligence unit at Munich City Hall, where he was told it dealt only with civilians.

Senger demanded to see the officer in charge. He and his prisoners were escorted to a colonel's office on the second floor.

"I just wanted to get rid of these guys and get back to my squad," Senger said.

Senger waited in a hallway while the SS men and ex-prisoners were questioned for 20 minutes.

The mood changed when the colonel emerged from his office.

"You've done a wonderful job, son," Senger quoted the colonel as saying. "We've been looking all over for these two."

He shook Senger's hand and provided a Jeep and a driver to take Senger back to his unit.

No one ever asked Senger to write a report.

"I believe in his authenticity, given the type of detail and knowledge," said Harold Marcuse, a Dachau expert and a professor of modern German history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It makes sense."

In the last chaotic days of the Third Reich, a chance encounter between a 19-year-old corporal and two Dachau prisoners was unlikely to be recorded in official Army history, said Marcuse, the author of "Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp."

What happened to Weiss was well documented: He was tried in Dachau and hanged as a war criminal in May 1946.

After the war, Senger went back to Georgetown on the GI bill, attended the Wharton School of Business, and was an administrator at Curtiss-Wright in Wood-Ridge, before joining Smith Barney in 1965.

It was only when he began reading about Dachau that Senger understood the importance of what he did on April 29, 1945.

"But for my action, these two SS officers, who were involved in thousands of murders, and uncountable acts of torture and starvation against their prisoners, may have escaped to South America or elsewhere," he said.

Most of all, said Senger, the families and survivors of Dachau "needed to know that God's justice had been done."

Justo Bautista's e-mail address is bautista@northjersey.com


This story is based on a narrative Senger wrote in conjunction with Harold Marcuse in April 2003.
This archive copy was created for H. Marcuse's Dachau Memorial Site webpage, June 12, 2003
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