Idaho soldier who witnessed Nazi horrors shares his photos and memories

Robert Tullis, as a young Idaho soldier in World War II, took snapshots of Ohrdruf-Nord, a German satellite camp of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943.

Robert Tullis saw bodies, sprinkled with lime, stacked like cord wood.

He smelled the stench of Nazi death camps. He saw starving camp victims die from just trying to eat.

Sixty-nine years later, Tullis remembers smaller, quieter moments as well, such as the children who were thrilled to get the candy he gave them. Born in wartime, they’d never seen candy.

At 88, he’s speaking about his experiences now because he doesn’t want anyone to forget what happened. He wants to preserve the memory so that younger people know they should be on guard to not let the unparalleled horrors of history happen again.

From Nampa to France

Tullis was a 19-year-old football star from Nampa, attending Colorado College, when he became an Army infantry man in 1943. He trained at Fort Shelby, Miss., and shortly after New Year’s Day 1945, landed in Le Havre, France.

Months later, he and his fellow soldiers became “liberators.” They were among the first allies to reach Nazi concentration camps in Germany.

On an April day in 1945, Tullis and his fellow troops arrived at Ohrdruf-Nord, a satellite camp of the infamous Buchenwald camp 32 miles away.

“By the time we got there, everyone was already dead,” Tullis said.

A couple days earlier, the Germans evacuated thousands of prisoners in a forced march back to the main camp. They shot anyone who remained behind.

‘No one believed’

Soviet troops had arrived at the Auschwitz camp three months before. Word of the horrors they’d found had filtered through the military ranks. “But no one believed the stories,” Tullis said.

Among his World War II memorabilia are his well-worn photo albums. They contain snapshots — proof carefully taped to heavy black pages — of what he saw at Ohrdruf and other camps, including Dachau outside of Munich.

Prisoners, newly freed from camps and walking along the roadside, were a common sight. They were trying to get back to their homes. They didn’t want to wait for aid from the allies. They were like skeletons, Tullis said.

Soldiers gave freed prisoners food. They had the best intentions. But no one realized that the prisoners were so malnourished that eating food quickly — as they did — would kill them.

Of kindness and candy

Tullis plans to soon record his World War II recollections at the Warhawk Museum in Nampa. His video interview will become part of a Library of Congress chronicle.

The stories Tullis shares for the Library of Congress will include stories of the camps, as well as heartening stories — those of a young man barely into his twenties who tried to be kind in the ways he was able.

In Europe, Tullis drove a jeep. That came with a lot of freedom. He recalls driving through the French countryside when he spotted a girl about the age of his youngest sister back home. He stopped to give her a piece of candy.

She turned and gave the candy away to another child. That child passed the candy to another child. The process repeated itself, with Tullis scrambling to find more candy and other small items. He kept giving things away until the first girl was satisfied. Her friends were taken care of. She finally kept something for herself.

Shortly before coming back home in 1946, Tullis decided to take up running to stay in shape, hoping to one day return to football. He was running with a friend when he heard cheering. He looked over and realized they were running past a hospital for children injured in the war. The children had spotted them through the window and thought Tullis and his fellow soldier were racing.

Tullis went back to camp and told his fellow soldiers about the children. He gathered as much candy as he could and returned to the hospital. He tried to give it to a nurse to give to the kids, but she made Tullis hand it out himself.

“The looks on those kids’ faces,” Tullis said. “One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn’t have enough candy for everyone. I think about those children all the time.”

Setting a friend straight

World War II was different from more recent wars, including the conflicts with only a small percentage of Americans in service. World War II affected every household.

“Everyone had been in the service,” Tullis said, “so everyone had had similar experiences.”

Still, after he got home, he ran into an old friend who insisted the extermination camps were a myth.

“Boy, I told him,” Tullis said. “In seeing the camps, I found out how miserable people can be. I found out what horrors humans are capable of.”

A life changed

Tullis’ daughter, Elizabeth Tullis, said her father came home from the war and always treated people with respect, with kindness. Because in the war, he’d seen the opposite.

“My dad has re-lived that time in his life every day since. It affected him and, by extension, the rest of us,” she said. “It made him empathetic and generous. I think he took that view of the world at its most terrible and made the best world he could.”

Another of Tullis’ daughters, Diane Pierce, said his talk of the war has become more personal of late.

“I think that’s because he feels so strongly that people shouldn’t forget,” Pierce said. “Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren should all know what happened.”

A quiet humility

Like many of his generation, Tullis is modest about his contributions.

“I didn’t go over there to get honored,” he said.

After returning home from the war, Tullis transferred to the University of Idaho. He married his wife, Alice Bastida Tullis, and raised a large family in South Boise.

Tullis has returned to Europe several times, including for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion in 1994.

“If I hadn’t gone to war, the war wouldn’t have ended one minute sooner or lasted one minute longer,” he said. “I got there late. I did nothing compared to what some other guys did.”