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Prisoners liberated by 522nd Field Artillery Battalion

After a major military loss on the Eastern Front and the liberation of the first concentration camp in 1944, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that prisoners in all concentration camps and subcamps be forcibly evacuated toward the interior of the Reich. They did this because they wished to avoid further publicity of what had happened in the camps and to retain whatever slave labor possible. There was also a belief by some, including Himmler, that prisoners could be used as hostages to bargain for peace and guarantee the survival of the Nazi regime.

As the German military position deteriorated, many of these evacuations were conducted on foot; they became known as “Death Marches.” The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk or travel. Many also died of exhaustion, starvation, and exposure. To almost the last day of the war, German authorities marched prisoners to various locations in the Reich. 

This photograph is of prisoners who were liberated from a Dachau death march by soldiers with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion (FAB), a segregated all-Japanese-American unit. While the 522nd FAB covered 1,100 miles in their movement through Germany, their single most infamous engagement occurred when they stumbled upon roughly 5,000 prisoners marching through the countryside, followed by the discovery and assisted liberation of the Kaufering and Landsberg sub-camps of Dachau.

George Oiye was born in 1922 in Basin Creek, Montana to Japanese immigrants, Jengoro “Tom” Oiye and Taka Kimura. He was drafted into the infantry in May 1943. In the 522nd, he served as a section chief and forward observer. Though photography was technically not allowed, he and his close friend Susumu Ito had smuggled in cameras and took photographs documenting their experiences. In addition to a Kodak 620 folding camera, Oiye eventually acquired a 35mm Kodak Retina 1 from a dead German soldier, taking most of his photos with the latter camera. He was awarded a bronze star and honorably discharged in 1946. He eventually moved to California and had a distinguished career as an engineer. He died on February 28, 2006.