During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the younger boys of the Baby Boomer generation had heroes they admired. Some looked up to sports heroes of the day, others had legendary or imaginary heroes … Davy Crockett, Zorro, or Sgt. Saunders of the TV show “Combat.”
But these were fictional heroes. Kids were not aware that the real heroes were dads, aunts and uncles, and other men and women in their lives.
TV journalist Tom Brokaw named them ‘The Greatest Generation.” They were … they are. And, one by one, they are passing from our midst.
As adults, boomers became aware of the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation”.
Many of the WWII heroes still living endured horrendous experiences that they have carried with them for many decades. Their stories of bravery, strength, and love of country are worth hearing and remembering.
One of many heroes living in Yucaipa, Anthony C. Acevedo, was a very humble man…not one to dwell on his war experiences, but not shy about answering questions regarding them either. He was well-known here in the community.
Acevedo passed away at the Loma Linda Veterans Hospital on Feb. 11. A couple years ago, a teacher from Yucaipa asked him if he would be willing to come down to YHS and tell his stories to her classes. The students were attentive, curious and respectful as he very quietly told all about his time at Berga, Hitler’s G.I. death camp.
Berga, about 170 miles southwest of Berlin, had been established as a secret concentration camp for American prisoners of war, especially for those who were of Jewish heritage. Three hundred and 50 G.I.’s that had been captured at the Battle of the Bulge in January of 1945 were crammed fifty or sixty at a time into rail cars with no food or water, and without basic toilet facilities. It was so overcrowded that they could not sit or lie down, but had to remain standing. There was little air. One POW said that they almost had to inhale and exhale in unison because of the tight conditions. While on the journey, the train was strafed and bombed by American fighter planes whose pilots and bombardiers had no idea what was in the boxcars.
Tony was part of this miserable journey because the Germans in charge of sorting the prisoners had never seen a Latino before, so they thought that he must be Jewish.
Upon arrival at the camp, the men learned that they were part of a program of slave labor for the Nazi war machine. The Germans called it “Vernichtung Durch Arbeit,” or “annihilation by work.” They were given little or no food, no medical care, and little rest. Toilet facilities were barrels that had to be emptied daily. The men soon became covered with lice. Working 12 hours in shifts around the clock, they were forced to blast and dig tunnels designed to hide secret weapons manufacturing.
Tony witnessed many of his comrades suffer at the hands of the inhumane guards. One POW, who had become so soiled the Germans demanded that he be washed, died instantly after having a bucket of icy water from a nearby creek poured over his head. Brutal beatings were the order of the day … every day. With their only daily ration of food a slice of bread that contained sawdust and sand, the men, in desperation, took to eating the lice from their own bodies.
As a trained medical corpsman, it was Tony’s job to care for and to comfort the sick and wounded. He did this without any tools, supplies or medicines. He kept a secret journal, entering and dating information concerning each of the men he treated. That journal, along with all of his other personal effects from his months at Berga, is now enshrined in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
After some months in the camp, the prisoners who were still alive, as well as the guards, became aware the Allied forces were nearing the camp. The camp was evacuated on April 23, 1945. The men were forced then to undertake a 150-mile death march away from the Americans. Many were shot or died from sheer hunger and exhaustion.
Fewer than half of the G.I.’s sent to Berga survived the time spent there and the death march. And only a handful of them are still living.
To this day, the U.S. government has not publicly acknowledged the tragedy of the Berga death camp. Because the story never officially came to light, the lessons of the brutality suffered by these heroes may soon be lost or forgotten.
To learn more about Tony Acevedo’s wartime experience and heroism, go to YouTube and search for “Hitler’s G.I. Death Camp.”
Authors note: When I was ordained a deacon in 2007, I did my first funeral service out at Riverside National Cemetery. One of the attendants mentioned to me that they were interring 70 WWII vets every day. I suspect that number has decreased tremendously since then as the heroes pass from us.
Even now, I enjoy hearing from my Dad, who at the age of 93, still likes to tell stories of kamikazes crashing on the deck of his carrier during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific. My own hero.
As a young teacher at Yucaipa Elementary, I introduced my fifth-graders to a friend who had been a tail-gunner in a B-17. He had been shot down over Berlin, parachuted down and was nearly killed by citizens with pitchforks. He was rescued by a German officer and spent the duration in a prison camp. My second hero.
Tony Acevedo was my third hero. I am so very glad that I got to visit Tony again at the Veterans hospital a couple weeks ago, and I was honored that he remembered me. We had a great talk over his lunch.
Yucaipa was so blessed to have Tony among us for many years. We will truly miss him. His story must not be allowed to fade. We must not allow that to happen.
Services for Tony with full military honors will be held at Riverside National Memorial Cemetery on Thursday, March 8, at 1:30 p.m.