Barack Obama’s great-uncle, Charles Thomas Payne, was born in 1925 and had a typical early life, growing up in Peru, Kansas, with his parents, two sisters and a brother.
In an interview 2009 with Der Spiegel, a German magazine, Payne said, “From the time I was in about the 7th grade, I knew there was going to be a war. There were these threatening headlines in the newspapers and more and more extra editions were coming out. Actually, in high school I never really worried much about going to college because I grew up expecting I would be in the Army and fight in a war.”
After graduating high school, he went to the draft office to enlist and serve in World War II. The Selective Service officer told him, "Don't you worry about it, honey. You're on the list [to be drafted]." He was placed as a private in the U.S. Army's 89th Infantry Division.
He landed in Le Havre, France, and marched through Europe with his division, not knowing where he has because “low-ranking people in the Army were not allowed to have maps, guide books, cameras or anything that, if captured, would provide any information to the enemy. So I never had a map when I was in Europe, and I never knew where I was.” His job was to guard the telephone communications group.
Payne’s division marched into Germany, eventually coming to Ohrdurf, a sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, on April 4, 1945. His division was the first to arrive and Ohrdurf was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by U.S. troops in Germany. A week later, on April 12, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley visited Ohrdruf to see, firsthand, evidence of Nazi atrocities against concentration camp prisoners.
Payne said, “The whole area was overrun by people from the camp dressed in the most pitiful rags, and most of them were in a bad state of starvation. The first thing I saw was a dead body lying square in the middle of the front gate. It turns out that it was a Polish or Russian camp inmate, who had gone over and become a guard for the Nazis. So he was guarding and helping starve the other people.” He tried to blend in when the Americans came but they found him out and killed him.
Payne said that they found the bodies of a group of inmates inside the gate. Apparently they had come out with their tin cups to get food but were shot with machine guns instead. His division also found sheds filled with stripped bodies, stacked one on another, nearly filling the rooms. He thought most had died of starvation.
Payne said, in an interview with the Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project
Oral History Program of the University of South Florida, that he and a prisoner were able to communicate. “[O]n guard duty, one day there was this person, I believe he was Polish and probably Jewish, but I don’t know either of those for sure. We did not have a common language; we both knew a little bit of pidgin German, but that was all. And I was on guard duty, and he came and wanted to talk. So, we talked and just stood there and talked. And what he wanted to tell me, if I understood it, was that the Germans had killed like a million Jews and nobody knew about it. And he just thought it was important to get the word out, so he was talking to anybody he could talk to tell them about this.”
Payne said he was horrified by the lengths to which men will go to mistreat other men. He added, “I am puzzled by intelligent people who stand by and allow their country to be taken over and run by extreme radical types. I'm still somewhat puzzled by that. And I am fully aware that it could happen and has almost happened in this country. You know, I lived through the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when it was getting dangerously close to that sort of thing.”
President Obama, said, “My own great-uncle returned from his service in World War II in a state of shock, saying little, alone with painful memories that would not leave his head. He went up into the attic, according to the stories that I’ve heard, and wouldn’t come down for six months.”
“He was very, very shaken” by what he saw, said his wife, Melanie. “Nobody knew anything about this. Now, we know so much.”
"I have no heroic story to tell," Payne said. "I was just there."
After the war, Payne received a degree in engineering from Kansas State University, and then continued his studies at the University of Chicago Graduate Library School. He served as the assistant director of the University of Chicago’s Library, where he was a pioneer in library information technology, until his retirement in 1995.
In 2009, Payne accompanied Obama to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary. He died in 2014.
The 89th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the U.S. Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1988.
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