Graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School in June 1943, Len Dricks was drafted into the US Army and reported for duty one week later. After basic training in the desert of Camp Roberts, CA, he was given special training to be an Occupation Specialist. Len was in Company B, 21st Armored Infantry Battalion of the 11th Armored Division, the famous General George C. Patton unit. When he shipped out, it was overseas to the Battle of the Bulge, which took place from December 1944 through January 1945. On record as being the largest and bloodiest WW II battle fought by the US, it was also a brutally cold winter in the Ardennes of Belgium. The German Panzer divisions had created just a dent in the American line and when it was over, the casualties were huge for both sides – 75,000 Americans and 80,000-100,000 Germans.
The teenager from New York had a near miss on the battlefield when he tripped over a high tension live wire. The electric shock flipped him over; when he came to his senses he found his rifle barrel had melted. Len recalled that he didn’t have to stir his coffee for two weeks, because he was shaking so badly. He refused to go to the field hospital to be checked out, not wanting his parents to worry about the injury. During that brutal battle, Len was made SSgt and later was awarded the Bronze Star.
After the Germans were driven out of Belgium, our soldiers were given a two-week rest period. Len and his men slept in the home of a male Belgian citizen, named Camille, who had been a POW of the Germans in WW I, and was especially grateful to his liberators. Len casually mentioned to Camille that the following day was his 20th birthday. Len was awakened on his birthday with a surprise; Camille’s wife had baked a cupcake for Len with sugar and eggs she had been hoarding and hiding from the Germans. (Len and Camille corresponded after the war ended for several years before losing touch with each other.)
On May 5 and 6, 1945, SSgt Len Dricks was one of the troops to liberate Mauthausen Con-centration Camp in Austria. Sights, sounds, and smells of this experience are fresh in Len’s 90-year-old mind and bring tears to his eyes as I interview him. When I asked if he wanted to stop speaking, he said, “Recalling what I saw overcomes me and I have no control as we talk and tears roll down my cheeks and I relive what I saw.” Len passionately believes that he has a duty to tell the story of the atrocities of what mankind does to each other, so we do not forget and repeat the evils of Hitler.
Mauthausen Camp was a work camp (mining a granite quarry) in Austria. However, many physically handicapped prisoners were held there as well, only to be exterminated because they could never labor in the quarry. Anyone, not just Jews, opposed to the German regime and/or not a candidate for the “master race” could be found at Mauthausen. The camps were segregated by nationality and sex. Some of the groups Hitler imprisoned were gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, and political enemies of Germany. Len personally saw the gas chambers and is quick to mention that a large pharmaceutical company (I.J. Farben) contracted with the German government to manufacture the gas. Farben (a later spinoff was Bayer) was never brought before the War Crimes Commission. Len would not elaborate on some of the “cruel torture devices” he saw there in the spring of 1945. For the last year of his duty, Len was out on patrol searching for guards and commanders of the camp who had escaped into the nearby woods.
Discharged to civilian life, Len went to college paid for by Uncle Sam. Most of his career was as a health and physical education teacher with his final working years as a guidance counselor till he retired in 1981. Len and his wife, Dee, have called Fairfield Harbour their home for 19 years and been active in many clubs and events.
Len is a man of great principle and strong beliefs. When I asked to take a picture of Len with his Bronze Star, he said he no longer had it. As a protest, he had sent it to President Ronald Reagan in 1985. When Reagan went to Bittburg, Germany, he laid a ceremonial wreath in a military cemetery that had 49 graves of Hitler’s Waffen SS men. For Len, that was unthinkable after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and liberating Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
Len has spoken at various high schools in New York City, had many interviews by major newspapers, and most recently spoke at a humanities class at East Carolina University.
In 1995, Good Morning America extended an all-expenses paid invitation for Len to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp in Austria. With emotions and memories getting the best of him, he declined the invitation. Len’s lesson to all of us is to never forget. We salute you Len, and thank you for your service to the oppressed of WW II; we will not forget.