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Local veteran recalls sights of concentration camps

Norm Hirst still chuckles when he recalls the sight of fellow soldiers tossing grenades into a Czech river in order to get some fish to fry.

It was the spring of 1945, and the war in Europe was over.

“Man,” Hirst said, like it all just happened last week, “what a relief.”

The Springfield resident had been part of the Fourth Armored Division’s legendary, 295-day push during World War II from the beaches of Normandy in France to the present-day Czech Republic.

Now 95 with declining eyesight, Hirst can barely see, but in his mind’s eye, he still sees it all.

“These aren’t supposed to be in there,” his wife, Mary, said almost apologetically while flipping through a photo album recently of her husband’s service. “This is supposed to be a happy book.”

But there they are — snapshots of bodies.

Bodies strewn on the ground. Bodies stacked on top of each other.

On April 4, 1945, the Fourth Armored Division became the first American unit to enter a Nazi concentration camp.

“You couldn’t hardly believe it,” Hirst said. “It was terrible.”

The camp in question was Ohrdruf, near the German city of Gotha.

Hirst said the division had been sent toward Gotha to capture Hitler himself, who had reportedly fled there.

A satellite camp of the more infamous Buchenwald, Ohrdruf held 11,700 prisoners when the SS tried to evacuate it just days before the Fourth Armored Division’s arrival.

Those too weak to make the march to Buchenwald, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, were killed onsite.

Buchenwald and its more than 20,000 living prisoners would be liberated seven days later by the Sixth Armored Division.

“We didn’t know that was there,” Hirst said.

In all, the Nazi regime killed an estimated 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, but also imprisoned and destroyed the disabled, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.

“People in Gotha didn’t know what it was all about,” Hirst said. “Some of the dignitaries might have known. They knew there was a lot of action, but they didn’t know what it was.

“I keep telling people, ‘There were good Germans.’ They were scared to death of the Nazis.”

Hirst, a mechanic with the division’s maintenance battalion, has carried the sights — and smells — of that and another camp with him every day for 68 years.

He vividly remembers walking into what appeared to be some kind of medical examination room, with a huge box inside.

“Two-thirds of it,” he said, tears filling his eyes, “full of baby shoes.”

Any remaining German soldiers at the camp, he said, were shot by the sickened and angered Americans.

“Tears me up when I see him crying,” said Mary Hirst, his second wife of 12 years. “It’s good for him to talk instead of bottling it.”

Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Norm Hirst was lured to Springfield at the age of 21 by an offer of factory work from a brother-in-law. During the Depression, his family had lost virtually everything.

“It was touch and go for all I could ever remember,” he said. “We did anything we could to make money.”

He recalls not knowing anything when he came to Springfield about handling sheet metal, shredding his hands in the process. “But I learned,” he said.

That ability to hunker down and study hard paid off in the Army, Hirst said, and he was promoted in rank. With that came a raise from $21 a month to $66.

“I thought I was a millionaire,” Hirst said with a laugh.

By the time the Fourth Armored Division arrived in England, in January 1944, Hirst was a technical sergeant in charge of 39 men.

And there, for months, they waited until D-Day.

“It was getting down to the nitty gritty,” Hirst said of the men’s patience. “Guys were getting fed up and fighting among themselves.”

Given over to Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army once in France, the fabled general soon took the leash off the Fourth Armored.

Most called them the “breakthrough division.” The Army once called them the “spearpoint of the spearhead.” Nazis called them “Roosevelt’s highest paid butchers.”

“We traveled further and killed more Germans, took more territory, captured more people, than any other division over there,” Hirst said. “Everything you can imagine, we’ve done.”

The statistics don’t lie.

According to division records, the Fourth Armored took 90,354 prisoners, killed 13,640 enemy personnel, captured or destroyed 579 Nazi tanks and shot down 128 German planes.

“You haven’t got time to be scared,” Hirst said.

While Hirst said he personally never fired a shot, the rounds he did fire could’ve easily claimed his own life had he not been a more skillful mechanic.

At Bastogne in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, the cold wreaked havoc on the recoil mechanism of the division’s howitzers. It was up to Hirst to get them working.

Then, Hirst had to personally fire the first shot.

“If it blows up, it’d blow me up, not the crew,” he explained. “That’s standard procedure for the Army.”

Of the decorations pinned onto an Army uniform that miraculously still fits, Hirst instead remains most proud of a simple gesture of respect he received from his company commander at war’s end.

As they prepared to leave Europe, the commanding officer, a major, wanted to shake the hand of every man.

When it was his turn, Hirst said, “He took three steps back and gave me a big salute.”

In telling the story, Hirst welled up with tears — tears that seemed to capture the entirety of those 295 days across Europe.

“He said, ‘Hirst, one hell of a job.’”

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