Harry J. Collins, Honorary Salzburger

Things to Do — By Lorraine Seal on October 1, 2011 at 11:57 am

The grave of Major General Harry J. Collins and his wife, Irene, in Salzburg.

Photo: Lorraine Seal

A visit to the peaceful Petersfriedhof cemetery, next to the Benedictine Abbey Church of  St Peter, will reward you with beauty and calm. The oldest Christian cemetery in Salzburg, it is crowded with graceful scrollwork iron markers and overflowing with flowers. There’s a memorial to the Austrians who died in the World Wars. Among the many centuries-old grave markers, you’ll find names long associated with the history of the region. But one headstone in particular may be of interest to Americans, that of Major General Harry J. Collins.

A graduate of Western Military Academy and the University of Chicago, Collins assumed command of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division in April of 1943.  This, the famed ‘Rainbow Division’, arrived in France in December 1944 and, led by Collins, played a major role in the Battle of the Bulge. Then, at end of the war the following spring, Collins commanded the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

Much moved by the evidence of atrocities he witnessed at the camp, Collins made extraordinary efforts to aid the survivors. In a remarkable, even controversial, decision for the time, he named Rabbi Eli Bohnen as Division Chaplain. This provided Bohnen with the influence to conduct a successful appeal to United States civilians for assistance for the survivors, beyond what the military could provide.

Following the war, the 42nd Division assumed occupation duty in Western Austria, an area comprising the provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria as well as parts of Vienna. Collins became military governor. Despite the tensions inherent in the relationship between the Austrians and the Americans – were the Americans liberators or occupiers? – Collins himself seems to have been viewed with respect, even warmth.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the French Legion of Honor (Order of Chevalier), French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and the Order of the Crown of Italy.

Collins grew to love Austria in general and Salzburg in particular. He married an Austrian woman, Irene Gehmacher, and returned to live in Salzburg after he retired in 1954. He was made an honorary citizen of both Linz and Salzburg. By his wish, he is buried with Irene in Salzburg.

It is easy to find the low-lying stone marker on their grave. It lies right next to the path that winds from the back of St Peter’s church and then turns left. It is usually covered with flowers. Passing it, pause a moment to consider the life of this American and his remarkable relationship to the Austrian people.

Tags: ‘42nd Infantry Division’, ‘American Occupation of Austria’, ‘Battle of the Bulge’, ‘Dachau Liberation’, ‘Harry J. Collins’, ‘Rainbow Division’, ‘World War II’, Petersfriedhof Cemetery’