More than 100 of the greatest generation's greatest heroes gathered in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol today to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. The 120 men and women who liberated the survivors of the Holocaust from Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war were honored by Gen. David Petraeus, members of Congress, and Holocaust survivors.
As the veterans walked into the Rotunda, many wore hats bearing the insignias of the military units of their youth, their faces now lined with age. The liberators are in their late 80s and 90s, and the organizers of today's event were aware that the gathering of these eyewitnesses becomes more remarkable with each passing year.
Petraeus told the gathered veterans that today's men and women in uniform stand on the shoulders of their generation's deeds.
"These heroes carried out one of the noblest of the World War II missions when they rescued the survivors of the concentration camps from certain death," said Petraeus. "The liberators here with us today should know that their actions continue to inspire those who wear our nation's uniform. Their units remain proud of their noble actions."
Wednesday many of the liberators met at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to tour the exhibits, some for the first time. For many, the artifacts brought back horrifying and vivid memories from more than a half a century ago.
Sgt. Robert Patton, 88, served in the 65th ID, 3rd Army and helped liberate the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp on May 6, 1945.
"The odor of death could be detected outside the camp," Patton said. "Once you smell that odor, you will never forget it."
Patton saw hundreds of bodies piled onto pallets outside the gas chambers, "stacked like cord wood."
For Capt. Bernard Metrick, 94, the sight of the living at the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp was almost as horrifying as the dead.
"It was just a shock to see skeletons walking," Metrick said. "The dead bodies and live bodies were together, and I saw one body moving. ... I asked him, 'How long has this man next to you been dead?' He said two days. I said, 'Why didn't you get out of bed?' He said, 'I don't have the strength to get up.'"
At the Dachau concentration camp, Pvt. Virgil Westdale, 92, witnessed desperate people pulling meat out of a dead horse with their hands and eating it.
In another part of the camp, he found the cremation oven still hot, and the survivors overwhelmed by their liberators' arrival.
Initially, the survivors feared the soldiers in Westdale's unit, the 442nd regimental combat team, made up entirely of Japanese Americans. Once they realized that American, not Japanese, troops had arrived, the survivors shed grateful tears.
"They came down out of the hills. They saw the uniform, the rumor had spread we were Americans," he recalled. "We gave them blankets, gave them food. We really saved their lives."
In the Capitol Rotunda today, some of those who survived lit candles to commemorate those who did not. Elderly survivors lit six candles, for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Stephen Johns Jr., the young son of the security guard who died in June 2009 when an anti-Semitic gunman shot him inside the . Holocaust Memorial Museum, participated in the candle-lighting ceremony.
Afterward, some of the survivors shared memories from 65 years ago, and their thanks for the American heroes.
"I really appreciate Americans, Americans gave me love again," said survivor William Luksenburg, 87. "I was liberated."