The sun was hidden behind clouds as the young Army officer and one of his soldiers motored through the south German countryside.
Suddenly, they were overcome by the stench of rotting corpses.
The two men glanced at each other but said nothing. Both had an idea of the horrors that awaited them at Dachau; neither dared speak of it.
Nearly seven decades would pass before Col. Eddie Shames finally broke his silence. With trembling hands and a steady voice Sunday at Temple Israel, the 90-year-old Norfolk native told the story of being one of the first American soldiers to reach German concentration camps.
It was April 1945, and the second world war was grinding to an end. Shames and a young private first class from his unit were about to see the worst of it.
A day earlier, Shames and the men of Easy Company – the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment unit immortalized as the “Band of Brothers” in a book and HBO miniseries – had come upon the concentration camp at Landsberg.
The smell of death greeted the soldiers from miles away. Once at the camp, they saw railcars full of bodies and starved prisoners – “walking skeletons with rags,” Shames said – stumbling through the main gate.
Nazi guards had abandoned the camp hours earlier as U.S. forces approached.
Horrified, the soldiers tried comforting the frail prisoners and offered whatever food they had. But after months of starvation, even small portions of solid food made the prisoners ill, sending many of them into shock.
Officers from a graves registration unit arrived on scene and told the soldiers to move on.
“We were doing more harm than good,” Shames said, as the crowd of about 40 people sat silently inside the Temple auditorium.
Shames’ grandson, Aaron Shames, was in the audience. Aaron listened intently, unblinking at times, as his grandfather shared the stories that haunt his dreams – stories the retired soldier has long kept from everyone including his wife.
Family members have always known that he saw concentration camps during the war, but little else.
In 2003, Aaron traveled to Europe with his grandfather and visited many of the places he had been during the war. Germany – and the sites that still torment him – was not part of the tour.
“We asked him all the time,” Aaron said. “Every year at Hanukkah we would buy him journals, notebooks, typewriters, computers, and every year we just begged him to put the story down on paper.”
Again and again, Shames, who is Jewish, refused to talk about those sights, often turning down major speaking engagements.
Something changed a year ago. At 89, Shames agreed to tell his story at a museum dedication in Arizona after learning that a Holocaust denier was running for Congress in Illinois.
“I thought, my God, here we go again,” Shames said. “I guess it’s finally time to remind people what happened back then.”
Sunday was the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day – or Yom HaShoah – and marked the first time Shames had ever shared in his hometown his stories from the camps.
He was at ease discussing the grueling boot camp for members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and other war stories leading up to his time in the concentration camps. His hands trembled as he began to describe the scene at the first camp.
That night after the men came across Landsberg, Col. Robert Sink, commander of the 506th, asked Shames to meet at his quarters. The colonel told Shames that he had heard rumors of “something big” about 10 miles northwest of Munich, and that he wanted him to take a company jeep and a soldier to scope it out.
The next day, Shames and a German-speaking soldier from his unit were on the road to Dachau.
They soon smelled the same horrid odor from a day earlier, and within minutes, they could see the fortified perimeter of the camp.
Shames would later learn that Dachau was the first of Germany’s concentration camps and became a headquarters for a series of satellite camps in the area. As Allied Forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from camps near the front to prevent the liberation of large numbers. Thousands of them arrived at Dachau, a former munitions factory that was renovated to house 5,000 prisoners.
More than 30,000 people were confined there when Shames and a wide-eyed private pulled up to the gate.
“What we saw is a sight that no human being ever should witness in his entire life,” Shames said. “What I saw in that moment I’ve seen every night of my life for the past 68 years.”
He can still see the endless line of railcars, each filled to the roof with rotting remains; the stack of clothing – all sizes, youth to adults – piled outside the gas chambers; the look of desperation on the faces of people who no longer appeared human.
Shames tried talking with the victims so he could report back to his commanding officer. Most were too far gone to communicate. One man, a baker from Poland, was in better shape than the rest and able to fill him in.
The baker first shared his story. He said everyone else in his family had been murdered. The guards liked the way he cooked, so they kept him around and made him their personal chef.
Shames pointed to a wild-eyed woman. She was babbling incoherently to herself.
“What happened to her?” Shames asked.
The guards kept her around as a “showpiece,” the baker told him – a cautionary tale for anyone who might defy their orders. She had arrived at the camp two years earlier with her 6-year-old daughter. When German soldiers tried to separate them, the woman fought back, the baker said, and the guards responded by throwing the girl on the ground and stomping on her “until her intestines ran from her mouth.”
Several in the crowd at Temple Israel gasped.
“I could go on and on, but there’s no way… you could believe what I saw,” Shames said, noting that he takes no pleasure in describing such horrible things.
“I often wonder in my brain, did I actually live that part of my life, or did I dream it?”