Of all those who attended a Holocaust "Days of Remembrance" event at Casper College on Monday, a 7-year-old girl put it all in perspective with one question.

"Why did the people kill the other people?"

Lisette Sigler of the private Excel Academy posed that to guest speaker John Goss, the director of the Wyoming Veterans Museum.

"That's the big question," Goss said. "It goes on and on. There are a lot of reasons, all of them bad."

The U.S. Congress established the week-long "Days of Remembrance" to remember the approximately six million Jews and five million non-Jews killed during the systematic extermination campaign known as the Holocaust during World War II, and to remind the world to never let it happen again.

Goss urged Lisette to pay attention to her teachers, especially her history teachers, so she will get a better understanding of what happened during World War II and during other conflicts.

Her question followed Goss' recounting of two soldiers with Wyoming ties who were among the first troops to liberate the camps at Dachau near Munich, Gernany, and the Ohrdurf subcamp of the Buchenwald camp complex near Weimar, Germany.

They were among thousands of death, concentration and labor camps the Nazi government set up from 1933 to 1945 when World War II ended, he said.

Goss said Robert Steve Riley was the first camp liberator he met.

Riley was born in Meeteetse in 1922, grew up on a ranch, and joined the U.S. Army in 1943. He was a cook and in the 93rd Chemical Brigade that was part of Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army.

One day in 1944, Riley's unit got a call to load trucks with clothing and food and drive to Buchenwald, Goss said. "He had no idea where he was going."

Until then, the war was "'kind of fun,'" Riley told Goss because he enjoyed his work and the Nazis were a faceless enemy.

Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

"'When I rolled through those gates, it wasn't fun anymore,'" Goss said, citing Riley's story. About 56,000 people died at Buchenwald, and tens of thousands more prisoners died of disease and malnutrition after liberation, he said.

From then on, Nazis became the object of Riley's hatred.

The Army, Goss said, usually had a policy of having its communications services deal with the media with stories and photos.

But Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe, told everyone with a camera to take pictures of what they saw there, Goss said. Riley had his Kodak Brownie camera, but had the stomach to take only three pictures. He had thought of throwing them away, but finally told his family about them and donated them to the Wyoming Veterans Museum.

The other camp liberator with Wyoming ties was Melvin Morrison, born in Iowa in 1919, drove farm trucks, and had family in Wyoming. Goss interviewed Morrison's son, Kenneth, for the story.

Morrison was among a battle-hardened group of soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Divison that started its march through Europe in January 1945, and by late April arrived in the area of Dachau, which was the first camp established in 1933.

The Nazis had been trying to move as many prisoners from camps before the Allies arrived. One train of boxcars and open-top cars, known as the "death train," that carried 2,300 prisoners. By the time it arrived at Dachau, nearly all were dead in part because it wasn't marked with logo indicating it had prisoners. As a result, allied aircraft strafed the plane.

The 42nd Infantry Division came in from the east to the camp itself where they found the death train and another 5,000 bodies, many stacked like cordwood, Goss said.

The 45th Infantry Division arrived from the west and came across the SS -- "Schutzstaffel," the Nazi paramilitary organization largely responsible for implementing the Holocaust -- garrison attached to the camp.

And something snapped with Company I of the 45th Infantry Division as its soldiers passed the death train, Goss said.

"Company I went berzerk," he said. Lt. Bill Walsh of that company, acting under no authority, ordered the execution of every SS officer they found even if they surrendered.

"The American soldiers, in a rage, segregated out the SS men, set up a Browning .30-caliber machine gun and began to systematically killed them," Goss said. They killed about 50 before being stopped.

This was a war crime and reported to Gen. George Patton. However, Patton never prosecuted the case, he said. Patton didn't have the stomach to tour the camps, Goss added.

Melvin Morrison told his son, Kenneth, that he participated in the killing, Goss said. "'I do remember him telling me, "We shot any SS we found."'"

Kenneth had to deal with his father for the rest of his life, Goss said. "His dad had constant nightmares of Dachau until the day he died."


Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

K2Radio reporter Tom Morton visited Auschwitz-Birkenau during an assignment for Hearst News Service in 1986. These two main camps, and 48 satellite camps near the southern Poland city of Oswiecim, Poland, were the largest of the camps. Of the 6 million people sent to the camp, at least 1.1 million were killed there.

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