Idaho veteran who witnessed Nazi horrors shares his memories
By Anna Webb | The Idaho Statesman | Published: May 25, 2014
BOISE, Idaho — Robert Tullis saw bodies, sprinkled with lime, stacked like cordwood. He smelled the stench of Nazi death camps. He saw starving camp victims die from just trying to eat.
Sixty-nine years later, Tullis remembers smaller, quieter moments as well, such as children who were thrilled to get the candy he gave them. Born in wartime, they'd never seen candy.
At age 88, he's speaking about his experiences because he doesn't want anyone to forget what happened during World War II. He wants to preserve history so that younger people know to be on guard, to not let unparalleled horrors happen again.
Tullis was a 19-year-old football star from Nampa, attending Colorado College, when he became an Army infantryman in 1943. He trained at Fort Shelby, Miss., and shortly after New Year's Day 1945, landed in Le Havre, France.
Mere months later, he and his fellow soldiers became "liberators." They were among the first allies to reach Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
On an April day in 1945, Tullis and his fellow troops arrived at Ohrdruf-Nord, a satellite camp of the infamous Buchenwald camp 32 miles away.
"By the time we got there, everyone was already dead," recalled Tullis.
A couple days earlier, the Germans had evacuated thousands of prisoners in a forced march back to the main camp. They shot anyone who remained behind.
Soviet troops had arrived at the Auschwitz camp three months before. Word of what they'd seen had filtered through the military ranks. "But no one believed the stories," said Tullis.
Among his World War II memorabilia are his well-worn photo albums. They contain snapshots — proof carefully taped to heavy black pages — of what he found at Ohrdruf and other camps, including Dachau outside of Munich.
Prisoners, newly freed from camps and walking along the roadside, were a common sight. They were trying to get back to their homes. They didn't want to wait for aid from the allies. They were like skeletons, said Tullis.
Soldiers gave freed prisoners food. They had the best intentions. But no one realized that the prisoners were so malnourished that eating food quickly — as they did — would kill them.
Tullis plans to soon record his recollections of World War II at the Warhawk Museum in Nampa. His video interview will become part of a Library of Congress chronicle.
The memories Tullis shares for the Library of Congress will include stories of the camps as well as heartening stories, those of a young man barely into his 20s who tried to be kind in the ways he was able.
In Europe, Tullis drove a jeep. That came with a lot of freedom. He recalls driving through the French countryside when he spotted a girl about the age of his youngest sister back home. He stopped to give her a piece of candy.
She turned and gave the candy away to another child. That child passed the candy to another child. The process repeated itself, with Tullis scrambling to find more candy and other small items. He kept giving things away until the first girl was satisfied. Her friends were taken care of. She finally kept something for herself.
Shortly before coming back home in 1946, Tullis decided to take up running to stay in shape, hoping to one day return to football. He was running with a friend when he heard cheering. He looked over and realized they were running past a hospital for children injured in the war. The children had spotted them through the window and thought Tullis and his friend were racing.
Tullis went back to camp and told his fellow soldiers about the children. He gathered as much candy as he could and returned to the hospital. He tried to give it to a nurse to give to the children, but she made Tullis hand it out himself.
"The looks on those kids' faces. One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't have enough candy for everyone. I think about those children all the time," said Tullis.
World War II was different from more recent wars, including current conflicts with just a small percentage of Americans in service. World War II affected every household.
"Everyone had been in the service," said Tullis, "so everyone had had similar experiences."
Still, after he got home, he ran into an old friend who insisted that the extermination camps were a myth.
"Boy, I told him," said Tullis.
"In seeing the camps, I found out how miserable people can be. I found out what horrors humans are capable of."
Tullis' daughter Elizabeth Tullis said that her father came home from the war and always treated people with respect, with kindness. Because in the war, he'd seen the opposite.
"My dad has relived that time in his life every day since. It affected him and, by extension, the rest of us," said Tullis. "It made him empathetic and generous. I think he took that view of the world at its most terrible and made the best world he could."
Another of Tullis' daughters, Diane Pierce, said his talk of the war has become more personal of late.
"I think that's because he feels so strongly that people shouldn't forget," said Pierce. "Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren should all know what happened."
Like many of his generation, Tullis is modest about his contributions.
"I didn't go over there to get honored," said Tullis, who returned home after the war and transferred to the University of Idaho. He married Alice Bastida Tullis and raised a large family in South Boise.
He has returned to Europe several times, including for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1994.
"If I hadn't gone to war, the war wouldn't have ended one minute sooner, or lasted one minute longer," he said. "I got there late. I did nothing compared to what some other guys did."