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Tuesday, December 20, 2022

O'Hare's WWII Diary: Still No Word About Dresden Firebombing

This is the second in a series of entries from my father's recently-discovered dairy. He kept it about a week after his release from a German POW camp. This second post, like the first, is strictly present tense. Yet just three months before, my dad and writer Kurt Vonnegut had ringside seats, as POWs, to the American and RAF firebombing of Dresden - Florence of the Elbe.

POWs hid in meat lockers underneath a slaughterhouse during this incineration. One POW blurted out, "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight." I can't help but think that was my dad. That was his humor.

In a public radio interview, Vonnegut speaks of a conversation he had with my father, some twenty years later.

"What did you learn?" Vonnegut asks.

"I will never believe my government again."

Churchill, who had advocated the firebombing, was knighted.


We moved over to the other compound today. That seems to be the chief benefit accruing to those who have been deloused. The rooms here are much cleaner and better equipped. We eat three times per day restaurant style and the shilly (chile?) is both good and thick - a happy set of circumstances not found readily in Germany. We spent most of the day getting our loot in order and this afternoon learned to our gratification that we were scheduled to move out. About an hour later a sergeant from the 1st Rangers division put in an appearance and announced that trucks were on their way to bring us either to Riesa or Leipzig where there are concentrations of former P.O.W.'s. I had no idea the sight of a G.I. would be so sensational. Needless to say, the limeys hogged him before any of his own countrymen had a chance to learn much from him concerning the good old U.S.A. Well, the trucks finally arrived and after the normal red tape we piled into them and took off. Approximately two hours later we found ourselves in Riesa. Temporary quarters were provided for us in some Jerry barracks. We are supposed to move in the morning to some other place in town where there are more G.I.'s. Our present barracks aren't at all bad except for the lack of anything soft upon which to lay our weary bones. There are some limeys here who have been waiting to get out for almost a month. It seems that Stalag W-B was liberated by the Russians on April 23.

Blogger's Note: This was originally published on 12/12/07.


Patrick M. Coughlin, Attorney at Law said...

My understanding of the attack was that although there was military implications and justifications for the attacks, the were minor at best. Churchill ok'd the attacks on the basis of retarding oil, troop and communication supplies to the eastern front (based on communication from his Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair). Granted, Dresden was on the eastern border of Germany, but I personally think the systematic destruction of the city had other, retributive justifications that were hind-sighted at best.

Dresden was the artistic capital of Germany, and arguably, Western Europe. From all accounts it was a beautiful city rich in culture and with little military significance other than a supply depot. It may be impossible to get in the minds of the military leaders of the allies, but this was not a hasty decision, and it was carried out not with the intent to stop the flow of oil or troops, but to kill as many as possible and destroy a city. With that in mind, it gets a lot easier to judge.

I think the point that my grandfather and KV were making can be best summed up in his words, not mine:

"And they miss his message, in which he pleads that world governments found thier rule on something more akin to the Sermon on the Mount than the preachings of those who lead the world to Armageddon."

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed the diary posts immensely.

WWII stories cause me to consider how brutally the US fought those wars, and how we have fought all others since.

Sherman told us war was hell. Memories of the brutality of the enemy seem to fade with time, while reflection on our own brutality continues long after.

I'm glad I live in a country where it does. I'm also glad I live in a country that won those wars.

Dear Maddy said...

As someone who walked the streets of Beirut after the Syrian backed Hezbollah shelled civilians in the 80s, I consider the idea of "collateral damage" insanity.
Victors write the history of War. Dresden was a war crime. Period. The V-1 Blitz on London, was a war crime, period. But we won. Things happen in war that are unspeakable. Deal with it

Anonymous said...

War is not Hell. Unlike Hell, war is not selective in who must suffer.


Bernie O'Hare said...



Bernie O'Hare said...

The coments preceding this were posted in 2007.

Carol said...

Bernie, I was in grammar school during WWII, but I read the newspapers early on, we also had a Jewish survivor from the camps speak at our church sometime ago, in 1983, I spent 3 days in East Germany on a Lutheran tour, my son just came back from working in China for 3 weeks, God Bless America, whatever her faults. Merry Christmas, Bernie, Carol

Anonymous said...

Including non-Jews, some historians estimate the total number of persons to have died in the concentration camps to be around 17 or 18 million.

c said...

Thanks Bernie, always enjoy these stories.

Anonymous said...

Historians will forever debate the value of Dresden as a military target. That debate was fueled in part by exaggerated death figures created by the Nazi propaganda machine. That distortion only prolonged the war and led to reprisals against Allied POWs. Your father was lucky that he did not suffer from those attacks as many POWs did. For those who believe that Germany was wronged by the bombings, many deaths could have been avoided had Nazis surrendered in early 1945. I have no sympathy for civilians who repeatedly denied knowledge of concentration camps. Remember, who started the war. It was not Britain or the US. I enjoy the stories and they are most appropriate any time of the year.

Anonymous said...

I've commented on your inspiring postings about your Dad before, and I have nothing specific to add now -- but I do have the most essential of general comments that cannot be repeated often enough by enough Americans: God Bless America and God Bless your Dad (and my Dad and my very recently dearly departed Father-in-law) and all the men who fought valiantly and selflessly for our great nation. Their sacrifice made possible the the freedom and prosperity we still enjoy to this day.

We can't possibly praise and honor them enough.

- Jeffrey Anthony

Anonymous said...


Only for relatively short periods in human history was there any concept of "innocent victims" in warfare. In fact terror was curiously seen as compassionate if the slaughter facilitated an early end to combat and a speedy surrender. The US firebombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities at the close of world war 2. If I remember correctly far more people were killed in the Tokyo raid than died in either Atomic blast. Yet these mass incineration to this day draw little comment or condemnation. Perhaps Dresden gets some attention is that it was a German/European city rather than Asian. I do believe US prisoners of war were killed in the bombings in Japan.
All this said, my hat is off to all the veterans. We are free because they were willing to fight and defend liberty.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

By the way, my wife's family lived in a town named Vire in Normandy. For several reasons it was bombed by the Americans,shortly after the invasion, hundreds of civilians were killed( a significant portion of the population) and the city turned to ruble. Saw a remembrance of the event some time ago and there was no acrimony towards the bombing just a tribute to those who lost their lives and sorrow over the destruction of a once lovely old town. There were Americans present in an official capacity and all were treated as allies and liberators.

Scott Armstrong

JoAnnKennedy said...

Later, the Eighth Air Force would drop 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in three other attacks before the war’s end.

I thought this story sounded familiar -- yes, my father in law dropped bombs on Dresden


One night, he told Us children (we all were in our 20's -- the same age many men were in this war) about dropping his load and watching the explosions

Jeffrey Anthony said...

Dresden is tough to talk about, but so is war in general.

My father in law told me a story that, despite being on a small scale, I think describes the large scale necessity of Dresden.

In the first few days after the German surrender, his unit was having trouble with snipers -- mostly young, gung-ho S.S. types who put on civilian clothes and took pot shots at them because they couldn't accept the German defeat. His unit was ordered to do a house-to-house search for weapons and anyone who looked like they might be a sniper. They got laminated cards that had in phonetic German what they were supposed to tell to the residents when they knocked on the door.

Their orders basically said: If they're polite and cooperate when you explain what you're doing, you be polite too. If they give you a hard time, shove them around a little, bust-up some of their furniture, and show them who is boss. If they very actively resist, drag them outside and burn down their house.

He said they really didn't like the idea of the later -- especially if it was the home of a family with children -- but they only had to burn down a house or two. Word spread *really* quickly and everyone started cooperating and things went pretty well.

The point of the story is that sometimes in war you have to do some drastic things to prevent things that are even worse.

Anonymous said...

dresden was a war crime.the British even put up a statue of "bomber"Harris over the objections of several German mayors.


Anonymous said...

All these posts on Dresden has taken me back to the central highlands in South Vietnam in 72-73. As a 18-year old combat air controller, I was tasked with calling in bombing runs on numerous hamlets around our base camps which were highly effective and lethal to enemy counter batteries and activity. Also, the innocent civilians were also caught in the middle of it. One can never tell who were innocent or sympathizers, therefore, remorse was far from my attitude. Only later in years did I see the waste of life in all this mayhem. War is insane, but sometimes a necessity!

Anonymous said...

You probably saw it already, but your grandson was interviewed after game last night:


Thanks for sharing these stories.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I was looking for it last night bc I was right behind Groller as he interviewed Dat. Thanks for the link.

Anonymous said...

"dresden was a war crime."

The language of modern war was explained by the Germans with the bombing of Guernica in 1937. By the time Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham, Coventry, Liverpool, and London were burnt to the ground we understood this means of communication.

Most people revere the birthday cake architecture of Dresden not the souls lost there, so it gets the war crime bullshit. Liverpool or Coventry doesn't get the same consideration.

All war is a crime.

Anonymous said...

@9:52pm - "All war is a crime"

We only prosecute the losers though, then call the winners the ones who fought the "just war" and hold them as heros. Total hypocrisy. In addition to our firebombings of not only Germany but Japan, hundreds of thousands of civilians died unnecessarily, when the war was essentially already won. Folks also never hear about the post war expulsions of ethnic Germans that resulted in some 500,000-2,000,000 civilian deaths, after fighting had stopped.

The Holocaust is used as the justification, but all our crimes were decided or perpetrated before it all came to light. After having grown with the "Saving Private Ryan" view of the war, after reading more about the details, I've decided there really was no clear good or bad side. And saying this in polite society is heretical, which tells you something in itself.

Anonymous said...

As the greatest generation fades so do the stories of their experiences. Thank you for sharing these journal entries. I wish the current younger generation could fathom the sacrifices of their great-grandparents in the war. Keep telling them, keep reminding them. The idea of acting for the common good is absent in our culture of eternal adolescence.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, thanks for posting these every year. I always enjoy reading them, and the comments as well. When we forget to learn from history, we'll repeat it sure enough.

Thanks as well to your dad and all the men and women who served. As Scott said above, we are free because of them.

Merry Christmas.
The Banker

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed these posts every year, and they seem to read differently as I've aged these last 13 years. War rarely solves anything, even when the battles are decisive. Few win or lose gracefully and the final battles of the last conflict often set the stage for the next. Thanks for sharing these. Very cool.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this personal account. Many WWII veterans never speak of their experiences. My father was changed forever and never spoke of it. God bless all who fought for our country and those today who still keep us safe and serve. I too wish this history and perspective would never fade but it already has. Thank you to all for their service

Anonymous said...

Amen. Tx for sharing. My dad too was a WWII vet. He never spoke of it. He was shipped out on Christmas Eve and white Christmas song just brought him pain. But he did what he could to make Christmas special even though his childhood was during the depression where he may have received a sweater to keep warm. If only we all could see how blessed we are due to all those who fought for our freedoms. So many have forgotten. I heard some don't want us to say I'm proud to be an American anymore. Well I for one am proud to be an American and proud of all those soldiers who made today possible for us all.

Anonymous said...

War. War never changes.
In the year 1945, my great grandfather, serving in the army, wondered when he’d get to go home to his wife and the son he’d never seen. He got his wish when the US ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The World awaited Armageddon; instead, something miraculous happened. We began to use atomic energy not as a weapon, but as a nearly limitless source of power.

People enjoy luxuries once thought the realm of science fiction. Home Automation, electric-powered cars, portable computers. But now, in the 21st century, people are awaking from the American dream.

Years of consumption have lead to shortages of every major resource. The entire world is unraveling. Peace has become a distant memory. It is now the year 2022. We stand on the brink of war, and I am afraid. For myself, for my wife, for my infant son – because if my time in the army taught me one thing: it’s that war, war never changes