by Brian Johnson
Robert Hilliard, a Sanibel resident since 1998, performed one of the finest humanitarian acts of World War II. His letter urging action to care for displaced concentration camp survivors made it to the desk of President Harry Truman and led to a change in U.S. Military Government policy that saved thousands of lives. The story made the front page of the New York Times.
Hilliard was born in New York City in1925 and was drafted in February, 1944 as the Allies planned an amphibious invasion of the shores of France. He heard reports of D-Day during advanced radio training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“All of us said we were sorry we missed it, that we should have been there, but we were also relieved,” said Hilliard during a lunch interview at Thistle Lodge Restaurant on Sanibel. “When you are 18 you think you are tough, but at the same time you are scared to death.”
In November he and his buddies boarded the Queen Mary, a ship fast enough to outrace German U-Boats. The somber and seasick Atlantic crossing brightened when they landed in Scotland and took the train to Southampton. The soldiers gaily sang “Mairzy Doats” to the quizzical stares of the Brits as they marched to the pier. (The 1944 song by the Pied Pipers can be heard on Youtube.com). They embarked from their troop ship in La Havre, France, now secure in Allied hands.
He was assigned to the Second Infantry Division and became a forward observer in the Ninth Regiment, responsible for moving in advance of his unit to determine the whereabouts of the enemy. He had taken specialized radio training at Fort Benning, but the immediate needs of the war effort took precedence over all else and his expertise in morse code idled.
The ground was frozen and Hilliard was often out in the open, dodging mortars lobbed by the Germans. Within a month he was hit in the leg and sent back to an aid station. “All kinds of interesting things happened as we moved though France, Belgium and German,” he said.
He found himself in the Battle of the Bulge, known at first as The Breakthrough. Hitler launched his final major counterattack of the war through the forests of the Ardennes on December 16, blowing a hole in the Allied line. “Everything was quiet, and the experienced outfits had pulled back for R&R, when the Germans attacked,” said Hilliard.
The Americans bore the brunt of the surprise offensive, which led to the most U.S. causalities of any operation during the war. “No amount of training prepares you for the real thing, but you learn to survive,” he said.
The Americans fully halted the attack by January 25, 1945 and Hilliard and his unit resumed their pursuit of the German Army eastwards. The soldiers often took shelter in deserted barns during the frigid winter evenings.
“One morning I woke up and there was a dead German solider right next to me!”
During this time period he witnessed the V-1 and V-2 rockets in which Hitler made massive investments in hopes of turning the tide of the war. “We were not far from Peenemünde, and we could see the rockets go up and then turn toward England. Once one of them fizzled and headed straight for us. We all ducked for cover, I jumped under a truck.”
In the spring of 1945 flak from the German 88mm gun exploded near Hilliard, injuring his face and sending him back to a field hospital once more. A case of severe frostbite added to his troubles. The doctors ordered a break from combat, and he was assigned to the Air Corps’ Second Air Disarmament Wing
Asked what he wanted to do, Hilliard replied, “I want to start a newspaper.” This request to provide news for the Allied troops ended up having unexpected and far reaching significance.
Given a lead by his Army friends about a music concert put on by recently liberated Jews at St. Ottilien Monastery, he jumped into his jeep and sped off to the town in Southwest Bavaria. When he arrived he heard the music of Mendelson and saw Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camp survivors, still in striped prison uniforms, wandering around the hospital grounds, lying on stretchers, emaciated.
“I sat there and I cried, I couldn’t help it, I saw the plight they were in,” recalled Hilliard. “There were no plans to deal with the survivors. They died by the thousands.”
Hilliard, his close friend Edward Herman and others bought food on the black market and provided as much as they could for the camp survivors at St. Otillien. “The American people did not know what was going on — if they did, they would have done something.”
Hilliard used the printing press for the newspaper to create about 800 copies of a long letter beseeching Americans at home to send supplies. He risked a court-martial by this action. Here is an excerpt of the momentous letter:
“At the hospital of St. Ottilien there are today 750 people including a staff of doctors…Attempting to preserve the life they find it hard to believe they still have. Four months ago this same hospital was being used to care for German soldiers. At the same time there were thousands of Jews roaming Germany, sick, tortured, wounded, without food, clothing or help of any kind. One particular group was led by Dr. Zalman Grinberg. For months he has tried to obtain aid for these people. The Germans refused him. The local governments refused him… If they are to survive the coming winter they need shoes…they need sheets and blankets…medical supplies…the necessities of life…. and they are depending on you to get it for them. These surviving Jews of Europe want to live. The fact that five children have already been born at St. Ottilien is proof enough.”
Copies of the letter made it to the U.S. and stirred indignation and calls for action. “Not long afterwards a full Colonel came looking for me and Ed Herman,” said Hilliard. “He said General Eisenhower sent him to tell us not to send out any more letters or he would assign us to the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. That night we sent off more letters, realizing that a higher official must have criticized Eisenhower for allowing concentration camp survivors to die. The front page headline in the New York Times and other newspapers on September 30, 1945, proved us right. It read “President Orders Eisenhower to End New Abuse of Jews . . . Likens Our Treatment to that of the Nazis.”
Over the years, since his return from Europe, Hilliard toured all five continents giving talks on the subject. He wrote a memoir, available at Amazon, entitled “Surviving the Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation.” There is also a film about his heroic actions – “Displaced! A Miracle at St. Ottilien.”
Here in Southwest Florida he has given talks at BIG ARTS, Sydney Berne Davis Center, and Hodges University, among others. Sanibel artist Myra Roberts recreated the New York Times article in an original oil painting, and the two often give presentations about the Holocaust and its aftermath together.
“World War II was a very necessary war,” said Hilliard. “There ‘s no such thing as a good war, and few necessary wars…the key point from my experience was that when you see something wrong, or something evil…you can change the world if you are willing to try.”