Washington author chronicles father's time in WWII

Holly Richrath
Lt. Col. Hugh Macdonald

What started as a man hoping to learn a little more about his father’s time in World War II has turned into much more.

In June 2010, Dr. Richard Macdonald’s book “Inside the Gates” was published. The book gives Lt. Col. Hugh Macdonald’s unit in WWII credit for liberating Konzentrationslager Ebensee in Ebensee, Austria. The concentration camp was constructed on the orders of Adolf Hitler and housed thousands of prisoners who worked on furthering the research of SS Officer Wernher von Braun’s V-2 missile program. 

Since the publication of “Inside the Gates,” the retired podiatrist-turned-author has been in touch with many who also have some sort of attachment to KZ Ebensee.

“It’s just a continuous flow of total strangers who somehow or another find out about the book and contacted me,” said Macdonald, who has lived in Washington since 1965. 

One of the book’s characters, Wanda Nordlie, has been in touch with Macdonald. 

Nordlie personally stood up to Gen. George Patton, who did not want the women to go into the concentration camp.

“They told him if they could survive nurse’s training, they could survive treating patients in a concentration camp,” Macdonald said. “Gen. Patton backed off.” 

Macdonald learned about Nordlie while searching the Minnesota WWII archives and added her story to the book.  

“Her husband bought it,” he said. “It blew her away when she found out she had a whole chapter in the book.”  

Macdonald also received an email from a woman in Munich, who was searching for her biological father. 

“This woman contacted me and said that when my father’s unit went through Munich on their way to Ebensee on the train, they stayed about three days or so,” he said. “Her mother had a one-night stand and got pregnant.”

Macdonald was able to find her father, who was then 92. The two have been in contact ever since.

Macdonald has also been in contact with tank commander Bob Persinger, who broke down the gates at Ebensee and Fred Kubli, who served as Lt. Col. Macdonald’s personnel clerk. 

Kubli provided Macdonald with information for the book and nearly 100 pictures. This was a great help, Macdonald said, because his father never really talked about his time as the commanding officer of the U.S. Army 139th Evacuation Hospital in Ebensee.

History books and national archives in Austria and in the states also neglected to tell his story.

“Nobody knew anything about his unit,” Macdonald said. “I went to the Holocaust museum in Austria and in D.C. and they’d never heard of my dad’s unit.” 

This is what set Macdonald on his path to gather information nearly 50 years after a heart attack took his father’s life in 1957. Eventually, the younger Macdonald had enough information to fill a book. 

Macdonald said the book is not a war story centered around the survivors, which Macdonald said makes his book unique. 

“This book talks about the unsung heros who were the liberators of almost 17,000 survivors who were in the camp at the time in 1945,” he said. 

Although his father remained tight-lipped about his experiences, a young Macdonald often looked through the 200 photos his father brought back from Ebensee.  

The elder Macdonald burned the photos a few years after returning home because he was disgusted with the inhumanity they depicted. The horrific images, however, were already embedded in his young son’s mind.

“Seeing all these stacks of bodies desensitized me,” he said. “Even going to the Holocaust museum in D.C. didn’t really affect me. Everybody’s affected by it.”

Macdonald has visited Ebensee multiple times. During his first trip, he found that the camp is no longer there. 

“As a matter of fact, five years after they tore the camp down they built a subdivision there,” he said. “In the middle of the subdivision, there’s a memorial.”

In May 2011, Macdonald was the only American invited to speak at the celebration of the liberation of the camp in Ebensee. His speech was translated to German, Italian and French. 

“It was a very impressive ceremony,” he said. “Buses of people come in. A lot of kids come in. They have a parade and then everybody goes off to the respective monuments, where the Italians are buried, where the Russians are buried and so on. This all takes place in the memorial cemetery right in the middle of the subdivision.”

Macdonald said it was a “lack of knowledge and information” which led him to write “Inside the Gates.” His next project also stems from a lack of knowledge involving his father. 

“My dad helped perfect the whooping cough vaccine,” Macdonald said. “He used my brothers as guinea pigs to test it. I though I’d just write an article about it, so I called Evanston Hospital, where dad worked with Dr. (Louis W.) Sauer to perfect the whooping cough vaccine. And they had never heard of him. 

“Here we go again.”

“Inside the Gates” is available at barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com or rgmacdonald.com.