Dunwoody resident Hilbert “Hibby” Margol, 98, has seen a lot in his life, but nothing more life-changing than what he witnessed on April 29,1945 in Germany.
Margol and his twin brother, Howard, 19-year-old American soldiers during World War II, were Howitzers gunners traveling with their battery on the way to Munich, Germany. The war was all but over, with Allied forces liberating concentration camps in Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau and Flossenburg and the world reeling from the photographic images of death and depravity wrought by the Nazis.
On that fateful day, the Margols were driving their Howitzers along a two-lane country road about eight miles from Munich when they received orders to halt the four-vehicle battery temporarily.
The pair detected a pungent odor that they first attributed to a chemical plant, but Howard, according to Hibby, then said it reminded him of his mother holding a newly slaughtered chicken over a gas stove to burn off any remaining feathers. Their commander gave the Margols permission to investigate the area.
“We walked about 10 to 15 minutes in the woods, and then came up to a long line of railroad box cars that was loaded with dead bodies,” Hibby Margol said. “We had no idea of the significance of what we were witnessing.”
The pair then entered the gates of the concentration camp, known as Dachau, under a sign in German that said, “Work makes you free,” and saw piles of bodies stacked everywhere throughout the camp.
“We never saw any lives people during our brief time there, just dead people,” he said. “We didn’t know at the time, but the prisoners who were still alive were hiding in the barracks.”
The Margols’ battery resumed its trek to Munich, which fell to the Allied forces the next day. The war came to an official end on May 8,1945 and Howard and Hibby worked for the next nine months during the era Hibby called an “army of occupation.”
The fact that the brothers were in the same division was a miracle of sorts. Both Hibby and Howard, who died six years ago right before his 93rd birthday, had been drafted while college students, but in 1944, Howard was sent to the 104th Infantry Division in the Mohave Desert, and his brother assigned to the 42nd Rainbow Division at Camp Gruber, OK.
“We were not happy about it at all,” Hibby said. “Our mother wrote a letter to President (Franklin) Roosevelt asking that we be put back together, and within two weeks, she received a letter on White House stationary granting her request. We didn’t know who was going where, but then found out that Howard would come to the 42nd.”
Hibby said he never discussed war experiences until recently.
“Like most World War II veterans, we came home and never really talked about it,” he said. “I just think that everyone in the world was a part of the war, at home and abroad, and so they had their own stories to tell. It wasn’t until about 13 years ago that I started speaking to groups about my experience.”
His next speaking engagement will be in Dunwoody on Oct. 18 at 10:30 a.m. at the Dunwoody Newcomers’ Club meeting to be held at the Dunwoody Annex, 4470 North Shallowford Road. The meeting is open to the public. Those attending should be fully vaccinated (masks optional) and must make a reservation by Oct. 7 by emailing Judy Cone at email@example.com.
Hibby said his presentation will include photos that he and Howard took on April 29, 1945. He will also discuss trips he made to Dachau to commemorate the 50th and 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
“There was nothing heroic about what we did that day at the prison, but when I went to the celebration, a woman who had been in Dachau told me that when the camp was liberated, she was very ill with typhus. She then kissed me on both cheeks, and said, ‘If you had been two days later, I wouldn’t be here today,’” he recalled. “That was an emotional moment for me.”