As a 20-year-old GI during World War II, Vernon Tott saw someone waving to him and thought he and his captain had stumbled upon American POWs. But what he saw on that April day in 1945 was a place he can only describe years later as "hell on Earth" _ a German slave labor camp.
Tott, 78, was honored Saturday by some of the survivors he helped free from the Ahlem labor camp near Hanover, Germany, nearly six decades ago.
The ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was a surprise for Tott. When he entered the museum, he was showered with hugs, kisses and pats on the back from the men he liberated.
"We owe him a lot," said Holocaust survivor Abraham Stern of Sumter, S.C.
Stern and three other survivors who were on hand for the tribute _ Moniek Milberger, Ben Sieradzki and Sol Bekermus _ watched with smiles and tears as the museum unveiled Tott's name etched in granite on a wall in the building's donor lounge.
The inscription reads: "In honor of Vernon W. Tott, my liberator & hero."
Tott was visibly moved. His wife, Betty, said it was the first time she had seen him cry.
"I really feel honored and proud that people have done this for me," said Tott, who lives in Sioux City, Iowa. Glancing over at Sieradzki, Tott said, "You know, they call me their angel."
The survivors remember Tott from that day of liberation because he was snapping photos of the camp. He wanted to show the folks back home the ghastly images unfolding before his eyes as he and other soldiers from the 84th Infantry Division witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Nazi regime.
"It's something we didn't realize was going on in the world," Tott said. "When we came across this, it was a total shock to us."
Years after the war was over, Milberger, who is 73 and lives in West Bloomfield, Mich., received some of the photos Tott had captured. He choked back tears as he talked about how much it meant to have a picture of him on his liberation day.
"I just couldn't believe that something like this could happen," Milberger said. "That 50 years later, you had somebody who was devoted enough, who is not Jewish and cares so much for Jewish people."
Tott has tracked down other survivors, too, and sent them the black-and-white pictures that he had kept in a shoebox in his basement.
Tott's inscription on the wall of the museum was a gift from another survivor he helped liberate, Jack Tramiel, who wasn't able to attend the ceremony.
The tribute was part of a weekend survivors' reunion that the Holocaust museum organized as part of its 10th anniversary celebration. About 7,000 people are expected to attend the reunion, including about 2,000 survivors.