A North Olympic Peninsula man enters Memorial Day today a hero to hundreds of Austrians and former concentration camp prisoners he helped free 60 years ago this month.
Former Sgt. Harry Saunders, now 83 and living in Port Angeles, led the U.S. Army platoon that liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria on May 5, 1945.
The Nazis surrendered three days later, on May 8 — now known as VE day — ending more than five years of full-scale war in Europe.
Saunders traveled to Austria four weeks ago at the Austrian government’s expense to receive that nation’s Medal of Freedom for liberating the camp.
All the speeches were in German and all the magazine articles, newspaper clippings and even the commemorative plaque Saunders received were written in the language.
So he couldn’t understand them.
But needing no translation was the gratitude shown to Saunders during three days of ceremonies held May 6-8 — especially from former camp prisoners who are alive because of him and his platoon.
“Watching the reactions of the survivors . . . we were regarded as heroes. They kept saying, ‘I owe you,”‘ Saunders said.
He tried to tell them he wasn’t a hero, just a soldier doing his job.
But they wouldn’t listen, Saunders said.
He was treated “like royalty” at his hotel, and one survivor insisted on pushing Saunders in his wheelchair during his entire visit.
Saunders is the only one of 24 in his platoon still alive, so the gratitude of three days of ceremonies at Mauthausen, an Austrian village on the Danube River at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp, was heaped on him.
The Austrian government’s minister of the interior, Liese Prokop, presented the Medal of Freedom — that country’s highest honor — to Saunders and two others.The others were a medic who saved the life of a baby shortly after entering the camp, and the American colonel who ran the camp after Saunders’ platoon liberated it.