Photo on left: Leo H., 1944. Photo on right: Leo H. speaking to students in 2008.
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Born in Sharon, Idaho in 1927, Leo Hymas came of age in a safe, innocent world, but at age 19, he liberated Buchenwald.
In 1938, Leo's family moved to a dairy farm in Cache Valley, Utah. Leo was 12. His days were so busy, his life so full, that when war broke out in Europe, it make little difference to him. Though he listened to the radio and knew the Nazis were no good, they seemed very far away.
Leo's world didn't extend much beyond the valley and his family chores on the farm.
In fact, he hadn't traveled any further than Salt Lake City when suddenly, in June 1944, he was drafted into the United States Army. He soon found himslef sailing to Le Havre with the 97th Infantry.
IIn 1945, Leo landed in France; his division was assigned to General Patton's Third Army, which advanced into Germany and Czechoslovakia. Leo tells his audiences that he tried to be the best soldier he could be, finding strength in his Mormon faith as he found himself in combat situations.
Once in France, he boarded a troop train for the front. Leo tells how he looked out the train door near Cologne, Germany:
"II noticed a small young girl shivering on the platform, her face sunken, and her feet wrapped in rags, the little girl was starving. I handed her a chocolate bar, and suddenly, I understood that the most vulnerable, the most innocent, pay the highest price in wartime."
Leo's unit was assigned to Patton's Third Army; they fought their way east across Germany until on April 9, 1945, they reached the town of Weimar. This was the day that changed Leo’s life forever. Not far from the city, in thick woods, a fence stood half-hidden in the trees. Suspecting a prisoner-of-war camp, Leo’s Commanding Officer ordered him to investigate. Leo, thus became a part of the American military team that became liberators the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, near the German town of Weimer. He advanced until he reached a towering, electrified fence--and beyond it, silence./p>
After using explosives to enter the camp, Leo and his group actually confronted SS Guards. There he saw some of the 18,000 emaciated prisoners, including children, in unspeakably filthy conditions, crematoria, cramped barracks, and piles of bodies.
Leo tells his audiences, “What I saw that morning, in Buchenwald, has never faded. “
Six decades later, the memories go wherever he goes. Into classrooms, houses of worship, and community centers, Leo carries the weight of the past so that those who were not there will glimpse what he saw, and understand that we must prevent such horror from happening again.
That is why he speaks so tirelessly, and will continue to speak as long as he is able. “War is a heart-wrenching, sobering, and serious business,” he testifies with the quiet authority born of experience. And, he warns, “We defeated the Nazis, but evil still exists. Be good warriors,” he challenges the young. “Fight for what is right.”
Leo married his childhood sweetheart Amy and together they raised four children on Whidbey Island. Leo retired from the Boeing Corporation in 1998 and was an active member of the Holocaust Center’s Speakers Bureau. Leo passed away in 2016.