World War II hero who drove tank through gate of Dachau concentration camp dies at 95
World War II hero Jim Feezel from Alabama, who drove a tank through the front gate of Dachau in Nazi Germany to liberate prisoners at the infamous concentration camp, has died.
James Martin Feezel died on Thursday, Oct. 15, according to Roselawn Funeral Home in Decatur. He was 95.
In a video interview project by Gary Cosby Jr. with The Decatur Daily in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Feezel recalled the moment his commanding officer told him to break through the gate at Dachau on April 29, 1945.
“We were facing the front gate at Dachau prison,” Feezel said. “He said, ‘Jim, put the tank through that gate.’ So, I have the dubious honor of doing that. And, immediately glancing over at the bodies stacked like cord wood, this young 19-year-old just about lost it.”
Feezel, a technical sergeant for the 23rd tank battalion of the 12th Armored Division, drove a Sherman tank during the war.
An emaciated inmate approached the tank after he drove into the camp, he said.
“Looked like a skeleton was walking towards me,” Feezel said. “He was finally too exhausted and he just sat down.”
Feezel emphasized that he was one of many soldiers who played a role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
“I often reckon with the very fact that I was such a small pebble in a large stream of thousands and thousands of men who went to fight this war,” he said.
Birmingham photographer Jeff Rease, who has been taking portraits of World War II veterans for his project “Portraits of Honor,” shared the news of Feezel’s passing on Facebook. He did a portrait of Feezel last year in Huntsville and shared it on his web site.
Earlier this year, WAAY ABC 31 in Huntsville brought together Feezel and one of the former prisoners at Dachau who was liberated that day.
Dachau survivor Bob Sawada was born in Poland and witnessed the death of his parents, killed by Nazi soldiers. He was sent to a series of work camps and eventually to Dachau, the oldest and longest-running Nazi concentration camp. He said his barracks was within a few hundred yards of the gate that Feezel crashed through.
“I think you were sent by God,” Sawada said to Feezel in the televised reunion. “God sent you.”
Feezel wondered if Sawada may have been the man who staggered towards his tank. “You know, I thought about the possibility that he could have been that man that tried to walk to my tank and didn’t have enough energy to get there,” Feezel said.
But there were thousands of prisoners freed that day, from among the more than 200,000 sent to Dachau during Hitler’s reign of terror, tens of thousands of whom died at Dachau. Dachau, about 10 miles from Munich, had a famous sign that said, “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work sets you free.”
Six million Jews and millions of other political prisoners were killed in concentration camps that were founded after Dachau.
“Thank God, I’m here talking to my liberator,” Sawada said in his meeting with Feezel.
“Well, I am proud of that fact, you know,” Feezel said. “Proud that I lived through it also to be able to come home and tell a few people what little bit we did.”