A version of this article was originally published at Daily Caller
For the first time, and at 95 years of age, Henry Langrehr, a World War II paratrooper who was captured and forced into brutal slave labor, tells his story for the world, even the parts that he is ashamed of.
After escaping a labor camp, the raggedy young soldier draped in an American uniform was behind enemy lines and was in a precarious fight for survival. He was starving, and his likelihood of making it out alive was quite low. But with the help of the stars to guide his direction East and a loaded gun in his possession that he took from a Nazi who killed his friend, Langrehr found his way to the American front.
Surviving that treacherous journey left a trail of German blood, something that haunts Langrehr to this day.
For example, when Langrehr was attempting to drink water out of a well a woman began to scream, “Yankee!” (Yankee is slang for an American). Langrehr lifted his weapon and shot her.
“There is one place in the book where I did something that bothers me and it still does — that young lady — under the circumstances you gotta realize that you’re like a caged animal — and I had such a hatred for the Germans anyway after seeing everything they had done and seeing what happened during combat — so I had a terrible hatred. Like the book said ‘whatever it took.’”
Langrehr said he couldn’t think about what he was doing at the time, he just had to continue moving and find sustenance, even if that meant killing an apparent civilian or drinking water from a vase with flowers that was placed on a fresh grave.
By the time Langrehr volunteered to serve in World War II, the German troops had taken over France and most of Europe. The Nazi SS officers had been running death camps like a smooth whistling machine, and succeeded as part of ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’ to murder millions of Jews and other people they deemed inferior.
The book Whatever it Took is of great historical significance. This account shows the valor and sacrifices of American soldiers who gave their lives for the freedom of others. Whatever it Took is also an important eyewitness account of one of the greatest atrocities to have ever occurred: the Holocaust.
As a soldier on the ground, Langrehr had not heard about what was going on in the concentration camps. After his capture in France, however, the train in which he was sent stopped in front of a death camp, which he believed to be Auschwitz.
“We saw the train that brought the people into the concentration camp and even the smell was terrible there,” he said to The Caller.
The smell was caused by a chimney that ran 24 hours a day as it attempted to cleanse the Earth of the tantamounting forensic evidence of the Nazi death machine by cremating the human flesh. It was the final act of insult to Holocaust victims — sending them into what the Nazis hoped would be a forgotten oblivion.
“You could hear dogs barking but I did never see [the arrivals] getting out of the train but I did see them after they were gassed,” he said to the Caller, referring to the bodies after they were brought out of the gas chambers.
“They couldn’t cremate them fast enough — so they gassed them and filed them next to the fence where we were at,” he said.
The gas chambers could fill over a hundred victims, and Langrehr described that the bodies were piled near the barbed wire fence of the camp.
“There was little children and mothers and old men but they took all their clothes they had nothing on. They even sheared the hairs off of them. It was pretty bad. So nobody could ever say that there wasn’t a Holocaust, there certainly was. And I know because I was there and I saw it.”
Langrehr makes an interesting distinction between the SS officers who had worked at the camps and the Germans that were fighting against the Americans. He said that the soldiers for the most part were just doing the job of fighting for their country, but the SS were “cold-hearted people.”
“The German soldier — he probably was alright. Talking to some of the [German] prisoners [of war] who could speak English — they were glad to get out of the war, period. But people who were in the [camps], they were a different kind. The SS — they were terrible people — they didn’t care whether you lived or died, period,” he said.
While explaining the difference between German soldiers and the SS, Langrehr repeated the description “cold-hearted” multiple times because there are hardly any words in the English language or any language that can be used to describe the horror that Nazis caused by their devotion to Hitler. Two out of every three European Jews were killed, the ultimate number being 6 million Jews. 5 million non-Jews were also killed by the Nazis whose lives the SS believed to be unimportant if they were gypsies, homosexual, disabled, communists, or political opposition.
Langrehr then explained to the Caller the characteristics of an SS officer. He said they were arrogant, cruel, and had no sense of value in human life.
“Hitler is their God, period. And they stood up for that — I mean they did anything they had to do that’s why they had the concentration camps and that’s why they treated people the way they did cause’ they were told that way. And they were cold-hearted people. So they were not good people, period.”
Langrehr, just one inmate of many millions, was subjected to beatings and was forced to work in the coal mines in order to help the war effort, in violation of the Geneva Convention. He describes in the book that if one could not work, he was beaten and killed. And the hard labor in of itself was designed to kill.
Picture of Langrehr before departing to Europe
“Down in the mine, you worked so hard you sweat. Then you’d come back up, and as you were marched back to camp your clothes would freeze on you,” he wrote. “The bodies kept appearing at the end of each shift.”
At some point Langrehr realized that he would die sooner or later and so he decided to escape with a fellow inmate. During their attempt, his friend was killed by an SS guard.
Surviving the war with everything he had experienced and all the buddies he had lost has been hard to live with as Langrehr feels guilty. He asks himself why he was chosen by God to survive, especially since he regarded himself as a “heathen” and a non-believer during the war. At one point during his lifetime he made the trip back to France with his family to the town where he had fought the Germans in France.
“There are so many of my friends buried in the cemetery there, to see their name on the marble cross, just made me feel bad. Why did I survive and why didn’t they? I’ve gotten married, I had a family, children and grandchildren, and they didn’t they died setting people free.”
Henry Langrehr still has his World War II possessions that reminded him of a life that was waiting for him at home, a Bible and a picture of his girlfriend Arlene, now his wife of nearly 74 years. These items gifted him strength starting from his descent into France, and throughout capture, forced labor and escape.
The gun Langrehr took from the Nazi who killed his friend.
“[Arlene’s picture] was the thing that brought me through, because I wanted to get back home. She has always been everything in my life,” he said.
“I had two friends die in my arms. One was saying the lord’s prayer and the other one said the 23rd psalm. And that made an impression on me. Nobody in my family ever went to church. I had no faith myself but when I seen how they died compared to the other guys I knew who weren’t Christians — [who] would be calling for their mother or something else — but [the soldiers with faith] would think of the here-afterwards, where they were going.”
Having been raised in a non-religious home, it was war, and afterwards, Arlene, who taught Langrehr about God and faith. Arlene believed her Henry would return home even while he was declared missing in action and there was no information about his whereabouts. As the story goes, “she just knew.”
Picture of Arlene and the Bible
The book, published May 5. during Military Appreciation Month, doesn’t focus on blood and guts, as many military memoirs might. This absence of these details capture Langrehr as a person — he is a soft spoken, deeply moral man, who believes that we are here to do good in the world, as his comrades had done when they had fallen fighting to free people who were under Nazi occupation.