Minn. veteran recalls his role in revealing Holocaust to the world

Gordon Fisher
Gordon Fisher, a former Air Force pilot during World War II, is seen in his home Thursday, April 8, 2010. Fisher received orders to transport journalists to Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp located in Germany, as soon as it was discovered by allied forces.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

When the week-long National Days of Remembrance begin Sunday, people around the country will honor the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors.

Those memories remain vivid for one Red Wing man. Gordon Fisher enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 to avoid being drafted into the infantry. Toward the end of World War II, he received an assignment that would unveil the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The date was April 11, 1945. That's when Fisher's unit in Paris received an order from Gen. George Patton. Something big had just happened.

"He called our headquarters ... and told us to load up every reporter or news person or anybody in Paris we could find, and take them to this little town of Weimar, which is only 10 miles away from Buchenwald," Fisher recalled. "They had an airstrip there. And bring them there so they could see what the conditions of a death camp were like."

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The Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp and used it to house political and religious prisoners, and many others. Buchenwald's prisoners were from all over Europe, and included Jews, non-Jewish Poles and Slovenians.

Among them was a young Elie Wiesel, who would become an acclaimed author and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Buchenwald was one of the largest camps in Germany.

This April 16, 1945 U.S. Army file photo shows prisoners of the German Buchenwald concentration camp inside their barracks, a few days after U.S troops liberated the camp near Weimar, Germany. The young man seventh from left in the middle row bunk is Elie Wiesel, who would later become an author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

After years of not talking much about the war, Fisher, 89, decided recently to share his stories. His 5-foot-8-inch body is lean -- just as it was when he flew B-26 converted bombers over Europe, ferrying incoming U.S. planes to bases around Europe.

After receiving Patton's order, Fisher had just a few hours overnight to round up reporters in Paris.

"Once the word got out about Buchenwald and their opportunity to go there, well, of course, we were just swamped," Fisher said. "We didn't have enough room for a lot of the reporters that wanted to go."

The next morning, about two dozen reporters met Fisher for the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Germany. When they arrived in Weimar, they loaded up a couple trucks and drove to the concentration camp.

One of the journalists was Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow also filed a 19-minute, first-person account from the camp, though Fisher doesn't recall him being on the flight.

"I have seen what I am fighting for. I wish all could see it."

Part of Murrow's radio dispatch describes his encounter with Czechoslovakian prisoners inside one of the barracks. The report was broadcast a few days later from the BBC's studios in London.

"When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders," Murrow told his listeners. "They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description."

Fisher also remembers the men at the camp. As a pilot, he had witnessed much of the war from above the ground. But walking through Buchenwald brought him face to face with the genocide committed by Nazi Germany.

"We knew it was bad, because of Patton's insistence of getting media there to see it," Fisher said. "But we didn't realize how bad it was until you got out and saw the bodies, the stacks of bodies, and the condition the bodies were in. And the piles of bones and ashes and things like that. Then you realize what had been going on there."

Fisher stayed in Weimar for two days with the reporters, who interviewed survivors and took pictures around the camp. He remembers one reporter from the New York Herald Tribune in particular.

Gordon Fisher, a former Air Force pilot during World War II, received orders to transport journalists to Buchenwald, a concentration camp located in Germany, as soon as it was discovered by allied forces in 1944. Some of the his memorabilia is seen here.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

"The only one I really talked to was Marguerite Higgins," he said. "In the same room she was writing up her column for the paper, I was writing a letter home to my parents."

Out from under a pile of papers and photographs, he pulls an oversized copy of his letter, which was published on the front page of his hometown paper, the Waukesha Daily Freeman in Wisconsin.

"This is Tuesday, May 1, 1945," Fisher wrote. "I have seen what I am fighting for. I wish all could see it. Gory and brutal murder as it is. Death and murder on the battlefield is a normal course of war. Death and murder in Buchenwald is a complete illustration of the warped, inhumane, Nazi mind."

For his parents to have had the letter published, it must have affected them deeply, he said.

"The thing that sticks with me will always be the realization that man can be pretty evil to his fellow man under certain conditions," he said.

By the end of 1945, Fisher was back in Wisconsin. He married his high school sweetheart, moved to Minnesota and had a long career as the pilot for the Red Wing Shoe Company.

In the years that followed, Fisher silenced a lot of the memories from Buchenwald. He never made much of the fact that he had rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in journalism.

He was just glad the war was behind him and he was home.