Less than six months after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1944, Gen. McAuliffe was serving with the 89th Infantry Division in Europe as a field artillery officer. In a brief account of his career written for his family, he noted that he “walked across all of Germany” in the final months of World War II.
In April 1945, he was a young lieutenant in a unit that entered the Ohrdruf concentration camp, part of the larger German concentration camp of Buchenwald.
Ohrdruf was the first Nazi concentration camp to fall into U.S. hands and, as Gen. McAuliffe wrote, “I was among the first Americans to see it.”
He recalled a scene that was beyond horrific. Among other things, he saw the corpses of three U.S. airmen who had been shot in the head.
“Inside the camp,” he wrote, “were thousands of bodies, of mostly Jewish men, stacked three to twelve feet high, unclothed, awaiting burning.”
In archival films of the liberation, Gen. McAuliffe can be seen ordering Nazi officials and local townspeople to enter a death chamber and view victims of the Holocaust. When three top Army generals — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton — visited the camp, Gen. McAuliffe was close enough to see the expressions on their faces.
“General Patton became ill,” he wrote, “excused himself, and threw up.”
Days later, Eisenhower described the scene in a letter to Gen. George C. Marshall.
“The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were . . . overpowering,” he wrote. “I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’ ”
Gen. McAuliffe participated in another grisly military operation later in his career. As commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama in 1978, he helped organize the recovery and transportation of bodies from Jonestown, the settlement in Guyana where about 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide.
After retiring from the Army as a three-star general in 1979, Gen. McAuliffe was named by President Jimmy Carter to be the administrator of the Panama Canal Commission. His job was to manage the difficult transition of the canal to Panamanian control, as mandated by a treaty.
During the 10 years he held the post, Gen. McAuliffe tried to fend off interference from the Panamanian military and government, as well as demands from Congress. He supervised a workforce of 8,000 that included almost 2,000 Americans, many of whom felt isolated and scorned in an increasingly hostile place.
Less than two weeks before Gen. McAuliffe retired in 1989, U.S. forces invaded Panama in an attempt to force strongman Manuel Noriega from power. The 50-mile canal was temporarily closed to traffic for the first time since it opened in 1914.