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A Local Life: Al Ungerleider, 89; old soldier recalled nightmare mission

Al Ungerleider, right, in Normany in August 1944.
Al Ungerleider, right, in Normany in August 1944.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 4:12 PM

"I've had many nightmares over the years," Gen. Al Ungerleider once said, "about what happened at Nordhausen."

He was 23, he recalled, an Army lieutenant and a Jew. He had been "battle-tested" at Normandy in June 1944, he said, riding the second wave of the assault on Omaha Beach and then pounding his way through France, Belgium and Germany.

But Nordhausen, in central Germany, was different from those other experiences, said Gen. Ungerleider, who died of pneumonia in Washington on Feb. 13. He was 89.

He approached Nordhausen on April 17, 1945, a date, he said, that was "burned into my soul." His orders were to take and hold part of an industrial complex there.

His detachment had to fight its way through the gates and the barbed wire, dodging machine-gun fire from enemy soldiers hiding in towers near the entrance.

After his men took out the enemy, the camp inmates began to appear. They were so emaciated that only a few could stand upright. Some fell over, he recalled. Still others were lying in bed, covered in lice and sores.

Lt. Ungerleider sent his men to check the grounds for remaining Nazi soldiers. He said they captured 44 SS troopers, all of whom surrendered.

"Billy Millhander, one of my soldiers, and I entered a large building at the center of the camp and discovered 10 huge ovens - crematoriums - but I didn't know that at the time," he told the authors of the 2005 book "War Stories III: The Heroes Who Defeated Hitler."

"The ovens were cold, and the doors were closed," he said. "I looked at Millhander and said, Billy - have your M1 rifle ready. I'm going to open each door of these things and see if anyone's hiding inside."

The first four contained ashes. But when the lieutenant opened the fifth, Millhander immediately fired several rounds, killing an armed German guard.

"He just toppled forward, dead," Gen. Ungerleider said, "and Billy got a nice Lugar pistol out of the deal."

They returned to the main yard, and Lt. Ungerleider spoke a mixture of Yiddish, English and German to the camp inmates. He asked how many were still alive. The reply came: maybe 250 out of thousands.

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