As Frank Burns approached the gates of Dachau in the early morning hours of April 29, 1945, he had no idea what to expect.
A soldier in the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division during World War II, Burns’ unit had been sent on an overnight patrol with orders to take the camp if any Schutzstaffel (or S.S.) remained within its gates.
This week, seven decades later, the former Clinton resident stood at the entrance once more. The infamous sign reading “Arbeit macht frei,” — a replica of the original which was stolen in October 2014 — serves as a reminder to visitors of the thousands of prisoners who passed through the gates to be worked, starved, beaten and experimented upon until death.
It is the first time Burns, 91, has returned to Dachau, located just outside of Munich, Germany, the birthplace of Hitler’s Third Reich.
As he stood at the entrance, Burns spoke with Berlin-based NPR international correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. The walls, the guard houses are the same, he told her.
He was accompanied by fellow veterans, Holocaust survivors and their descendants for a commemorative event recognizing the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Munich.
In addition to the public events, such as the replacement of the sign and a ceremony led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich in honor of the liberators, Burns and fellow vets were scheduled to have a private discussion with Dachau survivors.
Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazi regime in 1933 and served as a model for future camps.
By the time U.S. troops overtook the camp 12 years later, more than 206,206 prisoners of various nationalities, religions, ethnic descents and political affiliations had been held there, according to intake records.
This number did not include the thousands of Russian prisoners of war who were executed en masse at the site.
The memories of the camp left their mark on Burns. His daughter, Clinton resident Gail LaVassar, said he kept his experiences largely to himself, though there were times when he briefly mentioned them, such as when a long ago house fire claimed the life of a neighbor. When he told her of the tragedy, he said there were some smells from the war that he would never forget, LaVassar recalled.
Though her father said little else about his wartime experience until he was in his 70s, Burns always told his children to avoid watching war movies or television shows which glorified the act.
Her father has always been humorous and easy-going, she said, except when the topic is war. It was too painful for him to talk about, LaVassar’s mother had told her.
Burns was first exposed to war on Dec. 7, 1941. He was 17, a high school senior living in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
He volunteered for the Coast Guard, taking supplies by boat to the leper colony of Kalaupapa.
After graduating from high school, Burns moved to Seattle, where he met his future wife Dorothy and completed the first two years of an engineering degree at the University of Washington before being drafted in April 1944.
About four months later Burns shipped off to France, arriving in Paris on Aug. 25, 1944, the day the German garrison had surrendered, liberating the city from German occupation.
Not long after his arrival, Burns and fellow soldiers and companions Arnold Goss and Stan Weisberg found themselves in a “crash infantry-training course” and were sent to the front lines with the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division.
The group replaced those lost in heavy fighting at Schweinfurt and embarked on a march through Germany, walking 20 miles a day while dodging sporadic shots.
It was during this time that Burns first saw the corpses of German soldiers.
In an interview with The Record prior to his departure for Munich, Burns recalled his surprise at how similar the deceased looked to him and his friends, Goss and Weisberg.
“We were fighting other humans,” he recalled. “The ones that weren’t humans were the S.S. They were behind the German soldiers, driving them.”
The Rainbow division was one of three, including the 45th Infantry and 20th Armored to liberate Dachau April 29, 1945.
By the time the 42nd arrived that morning, an earlier-arriving division had taken the camp, capturing or driving out remaining S.S.
Burns was instructed to stand guard at the gates until medical units arrived to administer aid to victims.
All he could see over the high walls, recalled Burns, was a smoke stack, which was part of the crematorium.
When service units arrived and opened the gates, Burns glanced in to see carts filled with the corpses of Dachau victims.
He said he has been contemplating that moment quite a bit as of late, while working on a speech for the memorial. Survivors specified questions they’d like the GIs to answer, including how the soldiers felt when they encountered the victims’ bodies.
Burns’ emotions are no less complex now than they were 70 years ago.
“That was one of the questions asked of everybody who participated,” Burns said. “Everybody said, ‘I don’t remember how I felt.’”
“My theory is that you’re in this state of battle,” he said. “You’re extremely intense, and you’re more worried about keeping yourself alive than what happened to these poor people.”
“The other side of that is that… it is the primary memory of the war, seeing those people, the dead,” he continued. “The ones that were alive were just barely alive.”
Although Burns did not personally encounter any Dachau survivors that day, U.S. soldiers discovered more than 30,000.
“It’s something that’s been on my mind since then,” Burns said of that day in 1945.
LaVassar, who is in Seattle caring for her mother while Burns is away, wrote in an email to The Record that she gets chills when hearing of the gratitude the Dachau survivors are expressing to Burns and thinking of the lives he saved.
“My dad is a very humble man. In his conversations and writings he portrays himself simply as a soldier following orders,” she wrote. “I feel in awe. Mostly, I feel fortunate that he survived the war and I am proud that his contributions helped to bring freedom to the people detained at Dachau.”