WWII vet earned Silver Star, but witnessing concentration camp horrors angered him - The Buffalo News

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WWII vet earned Silver Star, but witnessing concentration camp horrors angered him

Charles J. Palmeri was deeply angered by what he saw at Dachau – newly liberated prisoners who looked no more than skeletons. And then there were the dead prisoners. Corpses were stacked in piles. How could people be so vicious?

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Palmeri visited the infamous World War II concentration camp to see firsthand the horror.

"It was terrible. I'm talking about bodies that were piled up and prisoners that looked like skeletons," he said and paused, overcome by the memories 72 years later. "I hate what the enemy did. I couldn't believe man could be so inhumane to other humans."

Yet, Palmeri recalls a moment when his faith in humanity was restored.

"I was standing guard duty on a major intersection in Munich, and some MPs came by with a group of German soldiers who were now our prisoners. Behind them were two former Dachau prisoners dressed in their pajama prison garb.

"I asked one of the MPs what was going on, and he told me that these Germans were guards at Dachau and had risked their lives to sneak food, medicine, clothing and blankets into the camp for the prisoners.

"The two former prisoners were staying with them to make sure they were taken care of. Now how about that? You'll never see that written anywhere in World War II history."

Charles Palmeri in an undated photo from his service during World War II. (Provided photo)

Palmeri's observations came at the close of the war after the battle-hardened 18-year-old soldier from the West Side had proven himself a hero in the face of death. He arrived in Europe in January 1945 to fight with the 232nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division, also known as the Rainbow Division.

"I came in as a replacement for L Company, which had lost over 50 percent in casualties at a battle in Alsace-Lorraine," Palmeri said. "What's interesting is that, after we were built back up to full company size of about 145, we again lost 50 percent while I was serving."

Those losses on German ground came in battles at Wurzburg and Schweinfurt and in a number of smaller skirmishes, which included a firefight at Buchold on April 8, 1945.

"We were going from house to house looking for enemy soldiers, and in the process of going from one house to another we were going across an open field and that is when the enemy opened fire.

"One of the soldiers I was next to was wounded, and I picked him up and carried him back behind a building. The enemy was firing at us all the time. We had no idea how many German soldiers there were on the other end of the field. So we called in a couple of tank destroyers.

"We started following them, and when the tank destroyer operators realized there were more enemy soldiers than we had anticipated both drivers decided to withdraw. You have to understand that these vehicles, unlike regular tanks, were open on top and the enemy could have thrown a grenade in at them," Palmeri explained.

In such a rush to get to safety, one of the two tank destroyer drivers turned around and drove off leaving the infantrymen unprotected in the middle of the field.

"The guys who had been behind that tank destroyer were all killed," Palmeri said.

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Charles J. Palmeri, 91
Hometown: Buffalo
Residence: Formerly Orchard Park; Sarasota, Fla.
Branch: Army
Rank: Technical sergeant
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: Drafted June 1944 – June 1946
Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, European Theater Medal
Specialty: Rifleman

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Lucky for him and his squad, the driver of the second destroyer was not so careless in fleeing.

But another soldier was wounded and Palmeri, moving out from his cover, rescued him. Hours later, the Germans surrendered Buchold.

Palmeri said he did not consider his actions anything special and was surprised when he was told he was being awarded the Silver Star for saving the two soldiers.

"You don't even think about. You just do it," he said. "I have to say that on that same day a lot of other fellows did what I did and were just as heroic. An officer must have seen what I had done. But the truth is many other acts of heroism go unnoticed."

In part, the citation awarding him the Silver Star stated: "By his outstanding courage and disregard for his own safety, Palmeri saved two fellow soldiers from possible death or capture."

When Palmeri returned home to Buffalo, he enrolled at Canisius College on the GI Bill and graduated in 1950. After stints with car rental agencies, he started selling building supplies in an industry that was changing.

"I introduced ready-hung doors to this area. Before that, doors were all done by carpenters," he said.

In time, he again advanced and went to work in sales with Caldwell Development Co. Among the different projects Palmeri helped develop were Ransom Oaks in Amherst and Craneridge chalets across from Kissing Bridge ski resort.

At 91, Palmeri still works as a part-time commercial realtor in Sarasota, Fla., where he moved in 1976. He is married to the former Carol Rodak and they return to Buffalo about three times a year to visit their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As for his military service, Palmeri offered this reflection: "I'll tell you something, after the war I never discussed it. My grandchildren didn't even know I'd been in the war. But starting about seven or eight years ago, I was asked to speak at high school about World War II.

"I started looking up the history and all the letters that I had sent to my parents. I still had them. I also met a bunch of other veterans who served and since then we started talking about it.

"Everybody is different. One of my friends was on a Flying Fortress bomber and he talks about seeing a plane next to him go down. Another friend was in the infantry, and when he talks about the guys who were killed, he starts to cry. When I talk, I'm mad more than anything else."

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