Members of the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, known as the Thunderbolt Division, served together in Europe during World War II and were involved in some of the heaviest fighting at the end of the war.
They landed at Normandy 12 days after D-Day and fought in the war’s final campaign. When they arrived at Langenstein, they found and liberated a German Concentration Camp. The camp was a work camp, and when inmates arrived there, their life expectancy was just six weeks.
When the soldiers arrived, the emaciated inmates greeted them as heroes. Somehow, they managed to create an American flag to present to their liberators, and when the Thunderbolt Division left, Sgt. Donald Hall kept the flag.
The bonds among the members of the company remain strong, and they and their families gather annually for a reunion. This year, as the world marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the 83rd Infantry Division met at Ft. Knox.
This year’s group added a trip to Louisville’s Crowne Plaza to their itinerary. Sgt. Hall has passed away, and while going through his things, his family found the Langenstein Concentration Camp flag. This American flag was created by the liberated prisoners of the Langenstein camp, made out of a burlap sack, the only spare material they had. Knowing the flag’s history, his daughter, Mary Kay Flege, contacted the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and made arrangements to donate the flag to its collection.
Before taking it to Washington, Flege and other members of Hall’s family arranged a special presentation of the flag to its Thunderbolt family.
Lt. Col. Retired Kathleen Powers, president of the 83rd Infantry Division Association, emceed the formal program and recounted the division’s history of service. Flege, speaking on behalf of the 10 Hall siblings, shared an article from Stars and Stripes that was written about Langenstein in 1945. It described the condition of the camp and its inmates at the time of liberation.
“Sgt. Donald J. Hall rarely spoke to us of the war,” Flege said, except to recount amusing anecdotes or the “creamed chipped beef on toast.” He had mentioned the flag briefly to his sons, but not is daughters.
“It is no wonder that this piece of history had a precarious time of it,” she continued. “It made its way with the family from Michigan to Kentucky, being shifted from closet to cupboard, finally growing dusty in the attic and nearly being thrown out when we moved mom from the family home.
“But after researching its origin and pooling what little we could find,” Flege went on, “we siblings – and there are 10 of us – came to understand that the flag must have been a painful reminder for dad of things he had seen at Langenstein and elsewhere in Europe – things that must have been unbelievably tragic and cruel and heartbreaking, certainly not the kind of thing that he could or ever would share with his young children, much less other adults in civilian life.”
She explained that the family decided the flag needs to be shared, and after discussion, they decided the best way to do that, they determined, was to give it to the USHMM. She also expressed gratitude to the 83rd Division for the reception and promised, “We will carry you in our hearts as we give the flag to all citizens when we present it in Washington next week.”
Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) recognized the World War II veterans of the 83rd Division and expressed appreciation and gratitude for the service and sacrifice members of the division and all members of the military make for their country.
“There’s a special sense of courage in your stories,” the congressman said. “This was the division that marched across Europe in the name of keeping our world free. Men from all walks of life – different heritages and religions – united in the name of democracy.
“At that very same time,” Yarmuth continued, “there was a similar courage held deep in the hearts of those imprisoned or those led to their deaths in camps like Langenstein. Despite the atrocities that surrounded them – the death, starvation, physical suffering – they had the courage to remain hopeful. And somehow, they found the strength to make a flag for the liberators whom they prayed would arrive soon.
“Remarkably, American flags were made by prisoners in several other concentration camps,” he added. “A survivor from one of those camps described his feelings as the American flag they had made was raised over their now liberated camp. He said, ‘I barely weighed 90 pounds that day, and like so many others I was too weak to walk, but seeing the American flag rekindled something in each of us. Every star on the American flag stood for something precious we had lost. One for hope, one for freedom, one for justice.’”
Jewish Community Relations Director Matt Goldberg talked about the importance of remembering to the Jewish people. He recalled, the sacrifices of everyday people who hid Jews, took in Jewish children at great personal risk as well as those to fought the Nazis. “The liberators of the concentration camps have a special place in our collective hearts and souls,” he said, “I really cannot think of a more perfect example in history of good triumphing over evil than the United States Army freeing the survivors of the concentration camps.”
“For the prisoners of these camps, the sight of their liberators freeing them must have been an unimaginable shock for people who have suffered so much. Tokens like this flag represent immense gratitude, relief and, of course, hope for a brighter future.”
The event was followed by a reception.