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Obama fumbles death camp reference

Political opponents of Sen. Barack Obama thought they finally had the goods to pin him as a serial fabricator.

In a Memorial Day speech in Las Cruces, N.M., Obama claimed his uncle "was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps" in World War II.

The next day, the Republicans pounced. RNC secretary Alex Conant correctly noted that it was Soviet, not American, troops that had opened the gates of Auschwitz in 1945. Obama's story of his uncle was dubious, Conant said, while concluding that the latest of Obama's "frequent exaggerations" raised questions about his readiness to lead as commander in chief.

The Obama campaign quickly responded. Yes, Obama had misidentified the concentration camp, but campaign officials insisted the story of an uncle shutting down a Nazi camp was true.

No matter, the gaffe became the issue du jour among cable news and radio talk show political commentators. Some smelled a Bosnia-sized blunder (remember Hillary Rodham Clinton's "I landed under sniper fire" bungle?), but few took the time to find out whether the substance of the claim — that Obama's uncle helped to liberate a concentration camp — was actually true.

The Obama campaign said Obama's great-uncle (his grandmother's brother) was part of the 89th Infantry Division that liberated a concentration camp in Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald in Germany.

"Sen. Obama's family is proud of the service of his grandfather and uncles in World War II — especially the fact that his great-uncle was a part of liberating one of the concentration camps at Buchenwald," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "Yesterday he mistakenly referred to Auschwitz instead of Buchenwald in telling of his personal experience of a soldier in his family who served heroically."

In order to judge the veracity of Obama's statement, PolitiFact needed to answer two questions: First, what military unit liberated the camp at Ohrdruf? And most important, was Obama's great-uncle in that unit at that time?

According to an article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the 89th Infantry Division on April 4, 1945, overran Ohrdruf, about 40 miles southeast of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

"Ohrdruf was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by U.S. troops in Germany," the article states. "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."

According to a Web site dedicated to the 89th Infantry Division, "Ohrdruf was a work camp, not an extermination camp, but the difference is difficult to discern. Prisoners were literally worked to death and disposed of by burning in incinerators, which was the most 'cost-effective method.' "

There's little question, then, that the 89th Infantry Division liberated Ohrdruf, a Nazi work camp that may not have been a facility on the scale of Auschwitz but shared many of that camp's notorious characteristics.

That leaves the matter of whether Obama's great-uncle served in that Army unit at that time.

Obama campaign officials did not provide any documentation to confirm that Charles T. Payne, 83, served in the 89th Infantry Division in April 1945. And we wanted more than their word.

Although we were unable to reach Payne directly, Payne's son, Richard Payne, said his father "definitely served in the 89th Infantry Division" and confirmed that Obama's account was substantially accurate.

Mark Kitchell, who maintains a Web site dedicated to the 89th Infantry Division, said he was able to locate a list of servicemen that includes a Pfc. C.T. Payne who served in K Company of the 355th Infantry Regiment of the 89th Infantry Division. The list included only the initials for first names.

The 355th Infantry Regiment was the one that liberated Ohrdruf, Kitchell said. Kitchell, the son of 89th veteran Raymond E. Kitchell, obtained the list from the official Division History book, written after the war.

Our last piece of evidence comes from the National Personnel Records Center, an operation of the federal government's National Archives and Records Administration, and it puts this question to rest.

Researchers confirmed to PolitiFact that Army personnel records for Payne would have been destroyed in a 1973 fire that consumed many such archives, but they dug up a "Morning Report" dated April 11, 1945, showing Pfc. Charles T. Payne was assigned to the 355th Infantry Regiment, Company K. The Records Center provided a copy of the report to PolitiFact.

There's no question Obama misspoke when he said his uncle helped to liberate the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

But even with this error in location, Obama's statement was substantially correct in that he had an uncle — albeit a great-uncle — who served with troops who helped to liberate the Ohrdruf concentration/work camp and saw, firsthand, the horrors of the Holocaust.

Robert Farley may be reached at
farley@sptimes.com.

The statement

"I had an uncle … who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps."

Barack Obama, Monday in Las Cruces, N.M.

The ruling

Obama names the wrong concentration camp, but the rest of his statement is correct.

For more rulings on the candidates' statements, go to Politifact.com.

Obama fumbles death camp reference 05/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 7:29am]
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