“We went into the crematorium and we could see the residue in the ovens — the rib cages, the skulls. And it was so hard to believe, to try to understand why. What did these people do that merited this kind of treatment? Why did nobody scream and shout, ‘Stop!’ They never did.”

— Sgt. Leon Bass, Army 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion and concentration camp liberator

About 50 Marines and sailors heard Bass’s words read aloud at a Holocaust memorial ceremony Thursday at Camp Hansen, sponsored by Navy 3rd Medical Battalion.

Servicemembers indicated the words had grabbed their attention — but the film that followed made the biggest impressions.

“Seeing the starving humans, and the dead bodies piled up like firewood with no one caring … it’s almost hard to imagine something like that could happen,” said Sgt. William McQuarters.

It was McQuarters’ first time at a Holocaust memorial ceremony. As an African American, he said, he identified with the horrors that racial and ethnic prejudice can breed.

It was 60 years ago, during the march toward Berlin, that Allied forces began finding camps of people who resembled walking skeletons.

For years, these people had watched their spouses and children be marched off to gas chambers. They had been beaten and subjected to medical experiments considered too inhumane for lab animals. When found, many were too weak to walk or eat.

“Is it true? Is it over?” asked one concentration camp survivor, as he touched the sleeve of Jewish Chaplain Herschel Schacter during a camp liberation.

The servicemembers in attendance read Schacter’s description of dazed people coming out from the foul barracks where they were cooped up, wondering if the world knew what had happened to them.

“It’s important that we look back on this and remember,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Patterson. “It reminds us of our obligation, when things are going down the wrong path, to come forward.”

Some in attendance expressed concern that the 6 million Jews who were murdered, and the millions more “undesirables” who died gruesome deaths, were being forgotten.

“The younger generation isn’t learning about it, and they’re losing sight of the past,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Steve Bilderain. “We learn a lot from history about what could happen in the future.”

Others wondered how the rest of the world could have allowed German leader Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime to get so far.

“I don’t understand how one individual can have that much power, how people let someone like that take so much power,” said Lance Cpl. Stephanie Mendez.

In similar situations of genocide, Mendez said, she would have had no qualms about fighting for a people’s liberation. “Pack my bags and I’m there,” she said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now