Traipsing through southern Germany in April 1945, U.S. Army Private Gilbert De la O saw from a distance what looked to be piles of wood stocked for the coming winter.
As he got closer, the 18-year-old soldier realized they were dead bodies, thousands of them stacked upon each other at Dachau concentration camp, one of the Nazis’ top 10 holocaust counts with an estimated 32,000 deaths.
“I could not believe what it was,” said De la O, who lives in Golden Valley with his wife, Jo Ann. “Piles of people, Polish and Jewish. They wanted to bury them and burn them. All the box cars were full of Jewish people, dead.
“I couldn’t believe a human being could do this to another. I just couldn’t believe it. I feel so bad about it.”
De la O, in good shape for a 92-year-old World War II veteran, was scarred by the atrocities, yet proud to have liberated the prisoners at Dachau. He got a good look at the horrific reality of the war.
Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich, was one of the first and longest-running Nazi concentration camps, and was used as a prototype and training center for others. Scientists performed experiments with the prisoners that resulted in crippling, disfiguring and death.
Many years later, De la O was watching the “Jewish Voice” TV show from Phoenix, where a woman was being interviewed about surviving the Dachau camp. Rose Price had written a book, “A Rose from the Ashes,” about her childhood experience in Poland and how she survived the holocaust, how she had been tied and whipped at the camp. He called the station to get her phone number.
“We liberated her from that concentration camp. We saved her from starvation or whatever,” De la O told the TV producer. “Jewish people are God’s ‘chosen people.’ That’s why they killed over 6 million Jewish people. So I’m part of the people who saved her.”
Born in New Mexico and raised in California, De la O was drafted in 1944 and sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, for six months of training as a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gunner.
The Germans had taken over France, and were protecting the strategically important port city of Le Havre on the eastern side of Siene Bay following the Allied Forces landings in Normandy.
Before he could finish gunnery training, De la O was shipped to France.
“They were killing Americans trying to get up there like they were sitting ducks. What they said to us, ‘We’re short of men over there in Europe because all the infantry divisions were shot down by Germans.’ All the training didn’t do us one bit of good. They took us to Paris, Texas, for three months of infantry training and shipped us out.”
De la O had yet to turn 19 years old, but he got a taste of what it was like to fight Germans. They were smart and had superior tanks, he said. Instead of trying to scale the mountains, American troops took a different route for a surprise attack at night.
“A lot of the Germans didn’t expect us to be that close to them. Before daylight, we already had position. The Germans thought they had protection, but they had a big surprise from our infantry division,” the World War II vet recalled.
“We started running into them and killed the Germans in their foxholes. We took over the area with two divisions of American soldiers and we started to move farther into France, and little by little we started to gain more ground and more GIs were coming. We took over Paris, we pushed them farther into Belgium. The rest is history.”
Serving the Lord
It was by the grace of God that De la O survived World War II, he said.
He was honorably discharged in 1946 and returned to California, where he operated two upholstery shops in the Los Angeles area and started a family. He has two sons and a daughter.
Then he had a health battle on his hands. He had a ruptured ulcer and was throwing up blood at night, drained to the point he could hardly walk or raise his arms.
He’s not a big man, having boxed as a featherweight and welterweight in the Army, and his weight dropped to barely over 100 pounds. He said he looked like he was 100 years old, when he was still in his 50s.
“I made a covenant with the Lord. If you heal me, I’ll serve you the rest of my life,” De la O said. “I walked around for three days without blood, and on the third day, the Lord replaced my blood.”
He served as a Hispanic chaplain in Redding, California, where he was called to minister a Mexican mafia don who wanted to get on the right side of God before he went to prison. He also worked at the prison in Golden Valley.
Despite a bad back and a few minor health issues, De la O still hauls his own water, works in his yard, attends Golden Valley Baptist Church and plays cards with his friends, Bruce and Beverly Paul, on a weekly basis.
“He’s a whiz kid at cards,” Beverly said. “These guys don’t care, but we come to win.”