Left: Former President Bill Clinton with World War II veteran and camp liberator Scottie Eldon Ooten, who still fits into his World War II uniform. Right: Ooten, back in the day.
Scottie Eldon Ooten landed at Omaha Beach with the 84th Infantry Division—the “Railsplitters”—in November 1944, when the end of the war against Nazism was less than than six brutal months away. The division spent that winter pushing across France and Belgium into Germany. Together they faced the Battle of the Bulge, which left more than 89,500 US soldiers dead, wounded, or missing. Their next obstacle was the Siegfried Line, a series of enemy strongholds on the western border of Germany. US divisions, including the 84th, fought along the unforgiving terrain unaided for weeks at a time.
Yet the 84th prevailed, entered Germany, and on April 10, 1945, liberated the camp Hannover-Ahlem. On April 14, they liberated Salzwedel. Both were satellite camps of Neuengamme, a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen. Ooten and the 84th liberated about 3,000 women from throughout Europe who were imprisoned at Salzwedel. Most were Jews; about 300 were political prisoners of the Reich.
Ooten describes his numbness at the time of the encounter: “You’re in war … . You don’t have anything running through your mind.”
But emotions ran high for the decorated veteran at the Museum’s 20th anniversary Tribute Ceremony, where he was honored as a representative of all liberators on a stage with Museum Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel and former President Bill Clinton, who presented Ooten with a commemorative pin.
Later at the event, which he attended with his twin daughters and two of his grandsons, Ooten struck up a conversation with a woman lingering near a table designated for survivors from Salzwedel to meet. The woman, too young to have been in the camp herself, asked Ooten about his connection to the camp. When he revealed that he helped liberate it, she burst into tears.
“You are the reason I’m here,” she told him. “My mother was a prisoner at Salzwedel. You helped save her.” Ooten describes the moment as one of the most overwhelming of his time at the Museum’s event.
Later, in recalling his encounter with the prisoners at Salzwedel, the decorated veteran—Ooten has been awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Combat Infantryman’s badge—became emotional. “They were just … tickled to see us,” he remembers.
Ooten’s bravery and empathy in the face of such brutality characterized the tough but gentle attitudes of so many liberators. “The more stories I hear from veterans the more I realize how difficult the scenes at the camps must have been for young men who, as accustomed as they were to the death and destructions of war, simply could not acclimate themselves to the horrors they discovered in the concentration camps,” noted Steve Goodell, who heads veterans outreach efforts at the Museum.