Ohrdruf, Germany isn’t a very big town. When Ray Hayden drove through it in April 1945, its inhabitants kept to their houses.
In their front yards, bedsheets were tied to stakes indicating their surrender. The flags were a reminder that the German Army was on the retreat.
The town was unremarkable except that some 11,700 people had been kept as prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp established near it.
The camp was liberated on April 4, 1945, by the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry Division and has the distinction of being the first concentration camp in Germany to be liberated by the U.S. Army.
Hayden, then a lieutenant serving in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, was a part of the team that discovered the camp. He counts that memory as one of his most gruesome from the war.
By the time U.S. forces arrived at the Ohrdruf camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, the majority of prisoners had been evacuated and forced on death marches to Buchenwald. Hayden said the small number who remained were barely recognizable as human beings.
He would later tell his son that they looked like “eyeballs and skeletons.”
When Hayden arrived at the camp, he said the dead bodies of prisoners were visible in the courtyard. The people had been shot by SS guards during the evacuation because they were too weak to walk to the rail cars.
Hayden, who was with Patton when the general toured the camp, can still remember coming upon a room filled with eyeglasses, hair and teeth and another building where severely emaciated corpses were stacked six by six across and piled six feet high.
He said the bodies had been sprinkled with lime to mask their scent and speed up decomposition.
The furnaces in the camp were no longer burning, but Hayden said it was apparent they could not handle the number of bodies waiting to be cremated.
His involvement with the camp ended soon after the discovery of it, but Hayden said he believes the townspeople of Ohrdruf, despite their denials, had to have known what was going on, particularly in light of the town’s proximity to the camp.
“Man’s inhumanity to man was never truer,” he wrote in 1991 in a narrative to his son.
“But the war went on,” he said. “I went on, and after that, I heard nothing about it.”
Hayden said that he was in the vicinity of Ohrdruf after following Patton across Europe.
He enlisted in the Army in 1939 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he grew up, as a part of the Iowa National Guard.
He was in training in Louisiana when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, and, as a private, was sent in a convoy in March 1942 to Ireland.
He said the ship, a “bucket of bolts,” took 30 days to cross the Atlantic. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Hayden said. “I was petrified.”
It didn’t help that the convoy was stationed in a Scottish town called Killrey, which to Hayden sounded too similar to “Kill Ray.” It provided a disconcerting omen for the inexperienced soldier from Iowa.
But, once in Europe, Hayden went on to become a first lieutenant and platoon commander in the 546th AAA AW Battalion, which was assigned to protect Patton’s Lucky Rear.
Under Patton, Hayden said they would no sooner arrive at a place before he had the order to move out and move forward again.
“Everyone who was under Patton was really proud to be there, but he was a go-getter,” he said. “He wanted to end that war real fast.”
Hayden was in Linz, Austria when the war in Europe ended, stationed on the banks of the Blue Danube River, “the ugliest river you’d ever want to see,” he said.
After the war, he returned to the United States and attended the University of Southern California, and in 1948, he married Virginia Hayden, whom he met while she was vacationing in Yosemite National Park.
Hayden retired from the Army as a major in 1963, having been stationed in Japan, Korea and once again in Germany.
Hayden documented the Ohrdruf experience and two others two decades ago at the request of his son, Curtis, who is now a local orthodontist. He did so in a fashion that foreshadowed the plotline of “Memorial Day,” a movie that debuted here last week.
In that film, a son asks his veteran father to recall war experiences, and the father uses items stored in an old foot locker to recount three of them.
The three events Hayden recorded were the liberation of Ohrdruf, his passage across the Atlantic Ocean and an atomic test.
In 1942, Hayden was a passenger on the USS Wakefield when it had to be evacuated for an on-board fire, during which he lost all of his supplies.
In 1953, he was invited to witness an atomic bomb test at Desert Rock Camp outside of Las Vegas. He terms that experience the most spectacular thing he has ever witnessed, though he ponders whether the blast was responsible for his present-time loss of eyesight.
Hayden, who will turn 91 on May 31, said other high notes included seeing actress Marlene Dietrich in Nancy, France, and comedian Bob Hope in Linz, Austria. He also said he won’t forget driving to Maastricht in the Netherlands after the war ended to safely reunite a young Dutch man with his wealthy family, during which time he met Queen Wilhelmina.