Kevin L Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Arcata’s oldest surviving firefighter, Allen Masterson, served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne in World War II. Last week, someone asked him if he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He does, from a couple of experiences he generally keeps to himself.
“I never talk about it,” he said last Thursday. “I keep quiet.”
But now, at age 92, something has him talking.
Masterson was raised an Irish Catholic. Graduating from Arcata High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 18. In 1943, he went to paratrooper school and was assigned to the famed 82nd Airborne Division. He was thrown into the thick of the war with his first posting in North Africa.
“From there, I went to Sicily, then Italy, France, Holland, Belgium and then Berlin,” he said. “I made five jumps.”
The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major campaign during the winter of 1944/5, threw Masterson into the frigid wastelands of embattled Belgium’s Ardennes forest, where 110,000 Allied soldiers were to die, along with 85,000 Germans.
When some German soldiers encountered a line of Allied tanks, Masterson said, “They mowed ’em down. And when they hit the ground, they froze, it was so cold.”
To sleep without freezing, soldiers had to pair off and share body heat. “We dug a hole in the snow at night, wrapped our feet in newspapers – the Stars and Stripes – and the two of us slept together like dogs,” he said. “You’re pretty close, as close as you could be.”
As bad as that was, there was worse to come.
In May, 1945, Masterson was sent to Wöbbelein concentration camp, near the German town of Ludwiglust. The camp held up to 5,000 male prisoners from neighboring countries, among them Jews and others.
“I was 20 when I walked through these big wire gates,” he remembers. “They had guard stations, but there was no guards. The Germans had left. All there was was these bodies.”
In a building used as a latrine, alongside a trough full of sewage, hundreds of naked, emaciated corpses had been stacked.
“It went all the way down the whole latrine, from the floor right up to the ceiling, as far as it goes,” Masterson said. “They starved them to death. They were there to die, that was it.”
Entering the barracks, he and his fellow troops encountered more bodies in wooden bunks. Dead and barely living men, some children, lie side by side, “only the blue-black skin color of the dead to differentiate between the two,” according to one account.
The living dead grasped desperately at the U.S. soldiers walking down the corridors. “Their wrists were as big around as my thumb, their eyes rolled back in their sockets” Masterson said. “They’d try to grab you, to hold on to something.”
One image from 72 years ago lives vividly in Masterson’s memory. “I saw a guy trying to reach for a potato that was lying on the ground,” he said, but the emaciated prisoner was too weak. “That fella tried and tried, but he couldn’t do it.”
The troops offered the barely living survivors food, but for many it was too late. “They couldn’t eat,” Masterson said.
Others with enough strength left to move attacked a food truck like animals, some licking the ground for crumbs. One man collapsed and died running for the truck.
On standing orders from Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, the liberating 82nd Airborne and 8th Infantry Division made the 10,000 residents of Ludwiglust tour the Wöbbelein death camp. Individuals from a cross section of professions were recruited to bury the bodies, some in the town square.
“We had the villagers come out and marched them through there,” he said. “They said, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t know.’ They had to know. It was so close to town, you could smell it.”
Now, Masterson has learned that the event that changed his life and ended millions of others is being called a hoax.
“My heart doctor told me yesterday that there’s a movie coming out that says there was no Holocaust,” he said. “Lots of people think there was no Holocaust.”
He understands how those born after World War II can’t appreciate the magnitude of what took place. The systematic slaughter of millions of human beings is something we today know only from grainy film clips and books – or the memories of elders.
Masterson carries those memories, and has a very special book. Bound in embossed red leather, the Saga of the All American is a history of the 82nd Airborne from World War One through 1946. Its musty, yellowed pages feature abundant photos of the unit’s exploits and stories of its many battles. A section on Wöbbelwein documents the horrors now burned into his memories.
Masterson would never be the same. He returned to Arcata, married his wife Arletta and now lives quietly on F Street.
“I won’t be here too much longer.” Masterson said, his voice gaining intensity. “I want people to understand that there was a Holocaust, from somebody who had been there and seen it.”