Research

Matthews, Alice J.

U.S. Service Person/Witness

Buchenwald

Alice Matthews was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1918. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Alice always dreamed of becoming a nurse. After graduating from high school, Alice attended a three-year nursing school in Westchester, Pennsylvania, from which she received her R.N. license in 1939. For the next two years, Alice worked privately in Pennsylvania. By mid-1941, Alice, having a strong commitment to her country and anticipating the need for U.S. army nurses in an impending war in Europe, decided to join the army. Only a few months later in December, the attack on Pearl Harbor compelled the United States government to enter the war in both the Pacific and mainland Europe.

Alice was in the service nearly two years, before being shipped overseas to England. Alice received the greater part of her army training in Tullahoma, Tennessee, before being sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and finally to Augusta, Georgia, where the army formed her overseas medical unit. Alice’s unit departed the United States from Fort Dix, New Jersey in November 1943, arriving in England on Thanksgiving Day. Alice’s medical unit received seven months of additional training in the town of Wotton-under-Edge, near Bristol. While staying in England, Alice witnessed several air raids, as she recalls seeing Bristol being bombed from a distance, which resulted in massive black outs in that region of England.


On the night of June 6, 1944, Alice was awoken in her sleep to the sound of thousands of airplanes flying overhead; she knew then that her medical unit would soon be crossing the English Channel. On June 16, ten days after the initial invasion of Normandy, Alice’s medical unit landed at Omaha Beach, France, where her unit spent the night in an empty foxhole. A few days later, after receiving all their medical supplies from a large army convoy, Alice’s unit set up their first army-tent hospital. Being an evacuation hospital, the medical unit’s job was to follow the 1st Army and receive casualties from the frontline. In the medical tents, the army’s medical staff performed emergency surgery on soldiers, before evacuating survivors to hospitals back in England. Patients never stayed for longer than five days. For the first time, Alice witnessed the atrocities of war; she received many young men who had lost limbs or who had gotten their faces disfigured in battle.

As the frontline advanced, Alice’s unit was forced to move twenty, and sometimes, one-hundred miles at a time to keep up with the army’s movement. Initially, Alice’s unit followed the army deep into Belgium and France, moving as far Paris. However, during the Battle of the Bulge, Alice’s unit retreated back to Liege, Belgium, because the medical team’s safety could not be guaranteed. After the Allied troops won decisive victories in France, Alice’s medical unit crossed into Germany in 1945. While stopping in the town of Upen, Alice’s unit was nearly destroyed. Bombings were so close and heavy, that her unit was forced to hide in the basement shelter of a school overnight. The next morning, her team discovered that all the windows of the school were blown out, all the plaster had come off the walls and the school was encircled by massive bomb craters. Luckily, the Germans had honored Red Cross sign by not attacking them.

By April 1945, Alice’s medical unit was stationed in Weimar. It was here that the medical team first heard reports of a concentration camp. Just outside the city of Weimar was the camp known as Buchenwald. Part of Alice’s medical unit (not including her) was taken into the camp one day by the head medical officer and chief nurse.  Upon returning, Alice’s fellow nurses told her of the grisly scenes they had witnessed in the camp. One story which Alice heard was that the wife of the commandant of Buchenwald possessed of collection of bookmarks and lamp shades made out of the skin of the Jewish inmates. A few days later, Alice, along with some other nurses, was allowed to enter the camp to witness the horror firsthand. Alice could not believe seeing the massive piles of hundreds of human bodies lying outside the barracks. She also went through the camp’s crematorium, where she saw the ovens filled with partially burned bodies and large piles of ashes. The Jewish prisoners whom she saw who were still alive looked like skin and bones, so much so that she says that one could see their backbones sticking out from their abdomens. Shortly afterwards in 1945, Alice’s medical unit was sent back to the United States. Alice quit the army upon her return.

Alice’s walk through the camp remains vivid in her mind even today. To ensure that the Holocaust is always remembered, she keeps a large collection of photographs and letters, which she wrote to her family about the experience.

Interview Information:
Date: May 1, 1995
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 1 hour 11 minutes
Format: Video Recording