WASHINGTON -- As a fighting man, 'Buffalo Bill' Quinn knew well the ravages of war, but he was changed irrevocably by the horror he saw at the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Dachau.
Lt. Gen. William W. Quinn, then a colonel and now retired, who 40 years ago helped liberate the survivors of the camp near Munich, said, 'Naked bodies of men, women and children were spilling from 25 to 30 railroad cars.
'They had been packed into the box cars standing up,' the general said quietly, as if still stunned by what he had seen a few hours after American forces liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945.
The facility built in 1933 was the first and one of the most notorious of the Nazi camps operated by Adolf Hitler's SS storm troopers.
'They had left wherever they came from alive, but when the train got to Dachau they were all dead,' said Quinn, who was then the top intelligence officer for the U.S. 7th Army.
'We found thousands of bodies in an open pit in the camp,' he said.
Quinn, 77, is an articulate man, but words failed him as he recalled the horror he witnessed.
'The atrocities ...' he said, searching for words to convey the magnitude of the cruelty. 'They were just too horrible to describe.'
Then, musing, the general said, 'I believe it was Anatole France who said human language is too gross a vehicle for the exchange of human thought.'
Still, Quinn knew then that he must somehow try to preserve for posterity the horror that he had seen. To do that, he decided to use army photographers, as well as the human language.
'I was incensed with this genocide,' he said. 'I knew this had to be documented.'
So Quinn summoned intelligence teams who compiled in words and photographs a U.S. Army document dealing with the horrors of Dachau.
He believes most copies of that publication have been lost over the years, but the general plans to see that one of his own is presented to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
'I still feel very deeply about it,' the old soldier said in an interview in his apartment near downtown Washington. 'I'm not carrying placards in front of the White House but I'll never forget it. I was determined to perpetuate what I had seen -- to see that it was never lost.'
Quinn said the 7th Army had collected no intelligence indicating the extent of the horror the liberators of Dachau would find there.
'We had no appreciation of the fantastic circumstances under which the camp was operated,' he said. 'The first reports just said Dachau was seized and liberated and that the atrocities were so staggering it was just impossibe to report them.'
So, while some of the camp guards still were holding out against the liberators, Quinn went to the camp to see for himself scenes still horribly vivid in his mind after four decades.
What he saw there included a crematorium and liberated inmates so physically wasted by starvation they resembled skeletons.
Despite their condition, Quinn said, some of the freed men 'actually killed some guards with their bare hands.'
He also recalls 'happiness and exhilaration' as the liberators passed out food.
'Our medical people went in to make sure they didn't kill themselves eating,' Quinn said.
The general said his intelligence officers found that Germans living in the town of Dachau knew of the atrocities at the nearby camp 'but they didn't offer any objections. A lot of them said, 'Yes, we knew but what could we do?''
Records disclose that at least 206,200 people passed under the sign on Dachau's main gate that proclaimed in German, 'Work makes you free.'
The first inmates in 1933 were Communists, socialists and other 'enemies of the state.' Large numbers of German Jews began arriving in November 1938.
After the annexation of Austria and the conquest of Czechoslovakia, citizens of those countries were the next victims. Polish prisoners became the largest group in 1940.
Of the 30,442 Dachau inmates liberated by American forces, about 5,000 were women. Another 37,223 prisoners were freed from branch camps near Dachau.
Dachau had a shower room rigged as a gas chamber but it is believed the facility was not put to use, although thousands of inmates were executed in the camp by gunfire and hanging. Many others were transported to their deaths in gas chambers elsewhere.
The first known general execution at Dachau took place on Nov. 11, 1940, when 55 Poles, including former senators and diplomats, were shot. In the fall of 1941, several weeks after the beginning of the war with Russia, mass liquidations took place daily. Well over 6,000 were executed but their names were not recorded.
In the last months before liberation, an outbreak of typhoid claimed hundreds of lives daily.
In one prisoners' block designed to accommodate 180 inmates, liberators found 1,800 of the camp's most grievously ill prisoners.
Heinrich Himmler, who commanded the SS, ordered Dachau shelled and burned in the closing days of the war. His orders were not carried out, but inmates were randomly murdered right up until the main gate was forced open by American soldiers.
Four decades later, in a very different time and place, 'Buffalo Bill' Quinn, in an apartment filled with the memorabilia of a distinguished military career, talked about soldiering and men who bear arms in war.
'Our prisoners of war were not brutalized by the German Army,' the general said. 'The SS were the bastards.'
Some day, the general believes, children such as his grandson and namesake, 3-year-old Quinn Bradlee, son of his daughter, writer Sally Quinn, and Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, must know and understand what he saw at Dachau.
Of President Reagan's plan to visit a German military cemetery that contains some graves of Hitler's storm troopers, the old soldier said, 'It's a stupid idea.'