by Stephen J. Solarz and Rafael Medoff
(Rep. Solarz served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1993. Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust – www.WymanInstitute.org)
World leaders will gather at Auschwitz, site of the former Nazi death camp, on January 26 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of the camp. The event will help focus needed attention on the horrors of genocide, then and now. But it will be haunted by the knowledge in 1944, that Allied bomber pilots had Auschwitz within their gun sights, yet were never given the order to attack.
George McGovern was one of those pilots.
McGovern, the former U.S. Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, recently spoke on camera for the first time about his experiences as one of the American pilots who flew over Auschwitz. In a meeting with interviewers from Israel Television and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, McGovern recalled his days as the pilot of a B-24 “Liberator” in the 455th Bomb Group, targeting German synthetic oil plants in occupied Poland–many of them within a few miles of the Auschwitz gas chambers.
After the Allies gained control of the Foggia air base in Italy in December 1943, Auschwitz was for the first time within striking distance of Allied planes. In June 1944, U.S. diplomats and Jewish leaders in Switzerland received a detailed report about Auschwitz, prepared by two escapees. They described the mass-murder facilities, and drew diagrams showing where the gas chambers and crematoria were located.
As a result, Jewish organizations repeatedly asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of Auschwitz and the railroad lines leading to the camp. The War Department rejected the proposals as “impracticable,” claiming such raids would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort. U.S. officials claimed to have conducted a “study” which found that bombing Auschwitz was not militarily feasible. But no evidence of the alleged study has ever been found.
Ironically, military resources were diverted for various other non-military reasons. Secretary of War Henry Stimson blocked the Air Force’s plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto, because of its artistic treasures, and his deputy John McCloy –who rebuffed many of the requests to bomb Auschwitz– diverted U.S. bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg, because of its famous medieval architecture. General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops in order to rescue 150 Lipizzaner horses in Austria.
The administration’s “diversion” argument was just “a rationalization,” Senator McGovern said in the interview. How much of a “diversion” would it have been, when he and other U.S pilots were already flying over the area?
In the summer and fall of 1944, the Allies repeatedly bombed the oil factories near Auschwitz–at a time when hundreds of Jews were being gassed daily in the camp. On December 26, McGovern’s squadron dropped fifty tons of bombs on oil plants in Monowitz, an industrial section of Auschwitz, located less than five miles from the site where an estimated 1.6-million people were murdered during 1942-1944.
“There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said in the interview. “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”
Even if there was a danger of accidentally harming some of the prisoners, “it was certainly worth the effort, despite all the risks,” McGovern said, because the prisoners were already “doomed to death” and an Allied bombing attack might have slowed down the mass murder process, thus saving many more lives.
Some years ago, in a supermarket in my old Congressional district in Brooklyn, I (Stephen Solarz) chanced to meet a woman who had a tattooed number on her arm. When she told me she had been in Auschwitz, I asked her what she thought of the argument that bombing the camp would have been wrong because prisoners would have been killed. She replied: “It would have been our finest hour, because we assumed we would all be killed anyway and this would at least have shown us that the world had not forgotten us and some of the Nazis would certainly have been killed as well.”
“Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero,” McGovern said. “But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.” One was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the decision “not to go after Auschwitz … God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.”
One hopes the world leaders meeting at the Auschwitz site on January 26 will reflect not only upon the savagery of the Nazis, but also on the role of bystanders, then and now. As Senator McGovern emphasized, the Auschwitz experience should produce “a determination that never again will we fail to exercise the full capacity of our strength in that direction … we should have gone all out [against Auschwitz], and we must never again permit genocide.”