Sgt. Robert F. Coyne, 4th Calvary Group, WWII, Liberator of Nordhausen

Note:  This story was written by Colonel Ronald Albers for Motts Military Museum, and is reprinted here with permission.

Robert Coyne, born and raised in Newark, Ohio, suffered a childhood ailment that kept him out of school during the beginning of first grade. He missed so much class, it was decided to hold him back a year and have him start first grade the following year. As a result, Bob was 18 years old when he began his senior year at Newark High School in September of 1944. Of course, the U.S. was fully involved with WW II in both Europe and the Pacific at the time. As a result, Bob was drafted and inducted into the Army the same month he started his senior year.

After a brief stop at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for induction, Bob was sent to Ft. Campbell KY for basic training. Probably because of his small stature, at 5’5” and 110 pounds, he was sent to nearby Ft. Knox for 13 weeks of training as a gunner in the M5 Stuart light tank and the heavier Sherman tank. Even at his small size, the interior of the M5 was cramped with four other men – commander, driver, assistant driver, & loader. If it weren’t crowded enough in the M5, they shared the limited space with supplies, ammunition, and other items. 

In January 1945 Bob’s battalion was transferred to Ft. Meade, Maryland, for special training in mine recovery, booby traps, and familiarization with phosphorus bombs. After a brief out-processing stay at Camp Shanks (located at the juncture of the Hudson River & Erie Railroad,) Bob was ready for departure to Europe. .Along with about 15,000 other troops and a crew of nearly 1000, Bob was aboard the Queen Mary as she departed New York harbor on 24 Jan 45 and made the five-and-one-half-day trip to Gorock, Scotland, arriving on 30 Jan 45. From there they were taken by train to Southhampton, England, then via a Greek ship to La Havre, France. They marched up the steep hill to nearby Camp Lucky Strike where they spent only five hours before being loaded aboard trucks driven by the Red Ball Express to a military center at Stolberg, Germany, just southwest of Achen.

The reason that there was only about a five-month period between Bob’s induction and arrival in the combat zone was that troops were vitally needed to replace all the casualties following the D Day invasion and peaking during the Battle of the Bulge and other battles with heavy losses that winter of 1944-45.

Coyne was assigned to the 4th Cavalry Group, a reconnaissance squadron composed of the 4th Cav, the 24th Cav, 759th Light Tank Battalion, and a tank destroyer battalion. This group was in turn assigned to the 7th Corps, which at the time was part of the 1st Army. They crossed the Roer River near Duran on 23 Feb 45 and battled their way to the Rhine River at Cologne, arriving on 8 March - the same day that the 9th Armor Division captured Remagan Bridge from the other side of the Rhine.

The bridge is notable for its capture because it allowed the Allies to finally establish a bridgehead across the Rhine. This feat was an important strategic event of WWII because it was the only remaining bridge over the Rhine into Germany's heartland and was also strong enough that the Allies could cross immediately with tanks and trucks full of supplies. Once it was captured, the German troops began desperate efforts to damage it or slow the Allies' use of it. They even sent frogmen with explosives, but they were discovered by use of strong floodlights.

At the same time, the 4th Cavalry Group and other Allied forces worked to defend it, expand their bridgehead into a lodgment sufficiently large that the Germans could no longer attack the bridge with artillery, and kept the bridge in repair despite the ongoing battle damage.

The ensuing engagement continued for more than a week, including a huge artillery duel, a desperate air battle, and scrambled troop dispositions for both sides along the entire defensive front along the River Rhine as both sides reacted to the capture. One effect of those redeployments was that the Allies were able, within a week or so, to establish other lodgments using pontoon bridges in several other sectors of the front, again complicating the defense for the Germans and hastening the end of German resistance on their western front.

Bob’s unit patrolled the west banks of the Rhine between Cologne and Remagan before finally crossing the Rhine on 21 March. It immediately took part in the encirclement of an entire German Army group in the Ruhr region, Germany’s industrial heartland. This epic battle was called the Ruhr Pocket.

Fighting was intense, with casualties high; and Coyne quickly realized that inside a tank is not where he wanted to be, for a number of reasons. He volunteered for anything to get out of it, including laying communications cable and scouting ahead of the tanks by jeep. It certainly was no safer, but Bob felt better being in the “open air.” The enemy troops could be anywhere, and Bob & his partner never knew what was around the next bend in the road. 

Soldiers from the 104th Timberwolf Army Infantry Division discovered Mittelbau Dora on 10 April 1945, and broke into the camp before sunrise on 11 April. They then radioed the 3rd Armored Division and various 104th Division attachments, giving them directions to the camp. The U.S. 3rd Armor Division reported that they had discovered Nordhausen Camp on the way to Camp Dora (Dora and Nordhausen are two separate camps within the same complex). Lying in both camps were about 5,000 corpses. Over 1,200 patients were evacuated, with 15 dying en route to the hospital area and 300 subsequently dying of malnutrition

Nordhausen was liberated by the 104th US Infantry Division on April 11th, 1945. When the first American GI's (Bob Coyne and his fellow scout among them) arrived in the camp, they discovered a gruesome scene. More than 3,000 corpses were scattered, helter-skelter on the grounds. In several hangars there were no survivors; and, in others, they found only 2 or 3 living inmates lying amongst dozens of corpses. The situation was so calamitous that troops from the 104th Infantry Division had to request urgent medical reinforcements and supplies.

More than 400 German civilians living in the direct vicinity of the camp were forced by the GI's to evacuate the corpses and bury them. While these civilians claimed that they had no knowledge of what was happening right next to them, there is no doubt that they must have had a very good idea from the sounds and constant rancid odors being emanated from the camps. Some of these civilians showed up to perform this gruesome task in their Sunday best clothing, but the GI’s felt no mercy for them for allowing such horrific atrocities to occur in their very back yards.

The medic units of the 104th Division did the best they could to save as many prisoners as possible; but, even with the excellent care they received, numerous inmates died in the hours and days following the liberation of the camps.

Nordhausen was part of Dora-Mittelbau, a sub-camp of the concentration camp Buchenwald nearly in the very center of Nazi Germany. During an 18-month period, about 60,000 prisoners from 21 nations passed through Dora. An estimated 20,000 inmates died; 9000 died from exhaustion and collapse, 350 hanged (including 200 for sabotage,) and the remainder died mainly from disease and starvation. The Nordhausen complex itself was created by the SS to hold mainly Russian, Czech, Polish, and French prisoners of war too weak or too ill to work in the tunnels of Dora on the fabrication of the German V1 and V2 rockets. Following the Nazi terminology, Nordhausen was a "Vernichtungslager", an extermination camp for ill prisoners. The extermination methods used by the SS here, however, were not the same as the ones used in the other massive Nazi extermination camps: there was no gas chamber, but in Nordhausen the prisoners died by starvation and total lack of medical care. The conditions of life in Nordhausen were so terrible that the few survivors often said that "If Dora was the hell of Buchenwald, Nordhausen was the hell of Dora"...

The camp of Nordhausen was a huge complex of installations and hangers made of concrete. There were no sanitary facilities whatsoever. The POWs were simply tossed into a hanger and left to die. They got no food, no water, no attention whatsoever. Even if a person were healthy when thrown into this hell, he would quickly become extremely weak. For prisoners who were already exhausted and ill, these cruel conditions of life meant a quick, although miserable, death.

When I first interviewed Bob Coyne for this story, he told me right up front that he would tell me anything at all about his life but not to expect him to tell what he witnessed when he occupied Nordhausen as a young 18-year-old. Later, in a phone interview, I told Bob that it was a story that needed to be told. After a long pause, he stated that his vocabulary didn’t have words to describe what he experienced. They were two or three miles away when he and his fellow GIs first could smell the rancid stench emitted from the death camp. It’s an odor that he will never forget, yet he cannot describe it either. He said it was worse than the most rotten dead animal one ever smelled, and there was no escape from it.

Bob and some other lead party troops from his unit spent that night just outside the complex. The next morning they entered to find the horrific results of Nazi cruelty. “They didn’t even look like human beings,” Bob said. Among piles of supposedly dead bodies, he could occasionally see movement. Someone under that pile was still alive. There were dead bodies lying on giant shelves. It seemed that, if one person was still alive, it’s because he perhaps had eaten the flesh of the bodies on either side of him as some sort of nourishment. Bob could not wait to get back to his Jeep and leave the area. He was only there a couple of hours, but he was photographed with several other troops walking through the carnage – a photo that would appear three weeks later in Life Magazine. When he finally did get to his Jeep to depart that morning it had been blocked in by all the officers’, photographers’, and press vehicles who had rushed to the scene. He finally managed to extricate his Jeep and leave this gruesome scene.

Bob & his buddies were actually glad to return to combat and help end this horrible war by eliminating the enemy who had started it and were so cruel to those they had captured. They had seen far too much already. He and the 104th soon fought bitter battles to take the Harz Mountains from the Nazis entrenched there and then continued to battle eastward towards Halle, an important town on the banks of the Saale River (which was navigable from there to the Elbe River.)  Halle, with a population of over 210,000, was the tenth largest city in Germany and the largest Nazi city spared from allied bombing. It took four days of fierce combat and thousands of Allied troops to finally capture the area and the town of Halle. Shortly thereafter, the Germans surrendered; and the European theater of WW II was ended.

Following the surrender, Bob was assigned to the 4th Constabulary Regiment. Such American and Allied military units were required to monitor the Germans and their activities after the war. Duties included guarding borders, important landmarks, transportation, and medical facilities, as well as the activities of local governments. Various assignments had Bob stationed at a number of places in Germany & Austria, in some of the most picturesque parts of Bavaria.

In late May of 1946, Sgt Coyne had earned enough points to qualify for discharge, and he traveled by truck to Heidelberg. A train then took him to Bremerhaven, where he departed by Liberty Ship for the U.S.

He was discharged in June of 1946 at Camp Meade, Maryland, after 22 months of service. After a brief visit to New York City, a train took him back to Newark and his parents’ home.

Bob finished high school and attended Ohio State University. He met Alice in 1947, and they were married in April of 1951. He had several sales jobs before deciding to learn the printing trade. He served as a printers apprentice for four years, worked 17 years at the Advocate Printing Company in Newark (the local newspaper,) and at two other printers before deciding to open his own business in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. He & Alice were partners and successfully grew their company to become one of the largest graphic finishing companies in the region. Bob started using Motts photography many years ago, He states, “Whenever we needed a quality photographer for our advertising needs, I contacted Warren Motts. He was simply the best!”

Bob & Alice have raised three children. Kevin, the oldest, now runs their graphic finishing business. Another son, Kelly who is a physician’s assistant, lives in Oregon; and daughter, Kara, lives in Newark. The Coynes have five grandchildren. Alice and Bob are now totally retired. They have traveled extensively and continue to do so, having visited Europe, Australia, New Zealand and numerous sites in the U.S. Bob is an avid fly fisherman, and he ties his own flies and makes his own rods. He’s active in a local fly fishing club and has served on the board of Licking County’s Goodwill Industries for many years. He has belonged to several other service organizations and continues to assist in the print shop at The Works Museum in Newark (The Ohio Center for History, Art, & Technology.)

The Coynes have been personal friends of Warren & Daisy Motts for many years and are very proud to be among the museum’s first family life members. They’re often at museum functions and continue to support the museum in many ways. We are honored to know such a living part of our nation’s military history and are pleased that Bob remains active with our museum and its programs.

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