The world needed to know the symptoms of the sickness, the story behind American soldiers fighting and dying in Europe.
“I saw all these things with my own eyes,” Mona Lucille Hamberger wrote in an April 27, 1945, letter. “This is why [Nazi] Germany must be destroyed.”
The Enola woman was an Army nurse, a lieutenant with the 126th Evacuation Hospital. Hers was one of the first medical units to arrive after U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald.
“We came to this huge camp situated on one of the highest hills and surrounded with barbed electric wire,” she wrote in her letter to an aunt living in York. “Guard towers were placed at close intervals so the prisoners could be watched and shot down without the slightest chance of escape.”
Scenes of horror
Moving through a gate and into a courtyard, Hamberger saw a makeshift memorial to the 51,000 people who had died in the concentration camp. She came upon a place where nude corpses were stacked like cord wood with a heap of bones and ashes piled in one corner.
“There was a room where they tortured the prisoners,” Hamberger wrote. “On one side were hooks where they hung people against the wall. This way death was not instant, but came by slow strangulation in about two to three hours.”
Nearby she saw the bloodstained club the guards used to hasten the process. There were cases where inmates clinging to life had been burned alive in the furnaces. The worst kind of horror waited elsewhere in the compound: lamp shades and other ornaments made from tattooed human flesh.
She was there for the living, the few who had survived. How they managed was a miracle. “There were tiers of stalls four and five feet high in which 20 or 30 people slept,” Hamberger wrote. “Most of them had dysentery and were too weak to move.” As a consequence, they could not make it to latrines.
The stench was overwhelming even after days of steady cleanup. Hamberger could only imagine what it was like when the first U.S. soldiers had arrived at the camp. She let her anger spill out upon the page as she urged her family stateside to pass along her eyewitness account. The home front needed to realize the mission overseas was justified and worth the sacrifice.
“All I can say is war is Hell on earth and nothing is horrible enough for the people who are responsible for such suffering,” her letter reads. “This is why our red-blooded Americans are fighting and destroying Germany.” Her story was published in local newspapers including the Gazette and Daily of York.
Much of her life has been documented in detail by her namesake and only child, Mona Lucille Kreitzer of Hampden Township. Kreitzer volunteers on Saturday at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, which maintains a collection of photographs from her mother’s service with the Army.
Life in review
Mona Lucille Hamberger was born in York on Dec. 15, 1911, the daughter of Edith Marie and Roy Samuel Hamberger. When Mona was eight, her family moved to Enola where she attended the local high school. Her nickname was “Celie” and she was voted the “Most Dignified” on the yearbook Who’s Who list.
As a student, Hamberger received a Major E letter for playing basketball and had a part in “Charm School,” the high school play. She graduated in the spring of 1931 and started that September as a student of the Protestant Episcopal Hospital Training School for Nurses in Philadelphia.
She graduated and worked as a private duty nurse from 1934 to 1936 when she landed the job of nurse at Enola High School. In July 1937, Hamberger married Frederick W. Adams of Marysville, but the couple divorced on June 2, 1942. By then, the US had entered World War II and there was fighting in the Pacific.
Hamberger was still a school nurse in Enola in June 1943 when she enlisted in the Army as a second lieutenant in the Nurses Corps. She was assigned to Woodrow Wilson General Hospital in Virginia where she served until mid-October 1944 in neuro-psychiatric care helping to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In late October 1944, Hamberger arrived at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi for overseas training. She was assigned as a general duty nurse in the medical ward section and deployed with the 126th Evacuation Hospital. She sailed to Scotland on the Queen Elizabeth, arriving there on Dec. 22, 1944.
Her unit stayed in England until late March 1945 when it arrived in France. Records kept at the Army Heritage and Education Center show the unit moved through Belgium and into Germany from late March to mid-April. The 126th was stationed in Weimar, Germany, from April 24 to April 28. It was during this time that Hamberger had visited Buchenwald, which was near Weimar.
In compiling her mother’s story, Kreitzer visited a nursing home in Tremont, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 24, 2004, where she interviewed Jane Chester Polm, a former nurse who also served in the 126th Evacuation Hospital.
Polm told her the unit’s nurses helped to clean up and wash the survivors of Buchenwald. “They would cut their hair into a paper bag and throw the bag on the fire to kill the lice,” Kreitzer wrote in her notes.
Her mother rarely spoke of her experiences in World War II and, when she mentioned Buchenwald, Kreitzer didn’t want to listen to the gory details. She used the opportunity to talk to Polm to confirm some of the stories.
“I told Jane my mother would talk about buzz bombs,” Kreitzer said. “That you could hear them coming and only had to worry when you couldn’t hear them.”
“Buzz bomb” was GI slang for a V-1, a forerunner of the modern cruise missile. The weapon had a pulse jet engine that made a distinctive sound in flight. When the engine cut out, it meant the missile was about to strike a target.
Polm said the 126th Hospital staff would operate on German children who accidentally stepped on land mines. “One boy had to have his leg amputated,” Kreitzer wrote in her notes. “He cried and cried, but it had to be amputated or he would have died.”
Mona Lucille Hamberger was discharged from the Army on Dec. 8, 1945. She returned to Enola and her old job as nurse at the high school in late January 1946. She continued to serve the East Pennsboro Area School District until 1974 when she retired.
Meanwhile, Hamberger married her second husband, Lloyd Haldeman Horst, on Jan. 19, 1949. More than three years later, her daughter Mona Lucille was born on Sept. 5, 1952. The marriage lasted almost 20 years until Oct. 2, 1972, when Mona and Lloyd divorced. They had no other children.
During her time at Enola High School, Hamberger changed her name to Horst and she served as the adviser of the Future Nurses of America club. She died of a heart attack on June 3, 1983, and is buried with her parents in Prospect Hill Cemetery in York.