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Harold O'Neill, of Patchogue, saw Hitler's house

Harold ONeill, now a retired college professor living

Harold ONeill, now a retired college professor living in Patchogue, at his home on March 12, 2015. O'Neill says his wartime service had also exposed him to the remnants of another long nightmare -- discrimination against blacks -- while he did military training in rural Mississippi. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Just weeks after the Nazi regime collapsed in Europe, a young soldier from an isolated Hudson Valley town found himself in the shambles of Adolf Hitler's private retreat.

The Bavarian redoubt where the Holocaust's planners once met stood plundered and in ruins around him.

Years later it would dawn on Harold O'Neill, now a retired college professor living in Patchogue, that his wartime service had also exposed him to the remnants of another long nightmare -- discrimination against blacks -- while he did military training in rural Mississippi.

In May 1945, an assignment with the Army's signal corps brought O'Neill to a road that wound along the Danube River in the Bavarian Alps.

Driving in a truck with several other American soldiers, O'Neill realized that Hitler's Bavarian retreat was only a few miles away, at the German village of Berchtesgaden.

Curiosity got the better of military discipline, and the GIs detoured up a mountain road. A short while later they arrived at Hitler's Berghof residence, where history's most infamous dictator had entertained Nazi elites.

Though he had witnessed hollow-eyed survivors of concentration camps and gaunt workers liberated from slave-labor factories as his military unit advanced into Germany only weeks earlier, he said, he did not fully fathom the uniqueness of his encounter with an epicenter of evil.

"I was just curious about where the Fuhrer lived because I'd seen it in the movies," said O'Neill, who turns 93 on April 27. "I'd remembered this huge window overlooking the alps where he would be photographed during meetings with world leaders like [Neville] Chamberlain and [Benito] Mussolini."

"But when I got there, the window had been smashed and the glass was gone," said O'Neill, who retired from the Army Reserve in 1975 with the rank of major, and who taught history, economics and government at local colleges for 30 years, before retiring from Suffolk Community College.

"People had trashed the place, and GIs who had gotten there before us had already looted and taken souvenirs" he continued. "There was no control, no military police, and people were just touristing the place."

During an interview in the dining room of the Patchogue frame house where he has lived since 1968, O'Neill said his military service also shaped his view of a vast injustice here in America -- racial oppression.

Born in a small town east of Peekskill, O'Neill said he had little familiarity with racial injustice before going off to boot camp in 1943, at Camp Van Dorn, in southern Mississippi.

Anti-black oppression was both local tradition and government policy in Mississippi, which had more lynchings than any other state dating back into the 1800s. Even publishing commentary favoring racial equality could be punished with six months in prison, according to a Mississippi law passed two decades before O'Neill arrived.

O'Neill said he was awed by what he saw. Most of the area's black population lived in crude shacks near the cotton fields where they toiled, often with children as young as 6. In town, blacks were expected to step off the sidewalk as white people passed. O'Neill said blacks would slip away at night to flee north to Chicago, enraging white employers who often tried to block their departure.

"I had heard or read a bit about it," O'Neill said of the racial oppression he saw during boot camp. "But it had never been in front of me until I got there."

Social scientists say southern boot camps often exposed white soldiers to extremes of racial injustice they had never before witnessed. That exposure helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights progress of the 1950s and 1960s, as some white soldiers returned home with more sympathetic attitudes toward the plight of black Americans.

White World War II veterans often say as much as they visit the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, said Barbara Andrews, the museum's educational director.

"They would say from being around black people for the first time that a lot of the biases and the advantages they grew up with really were unfair, and that it really opened up their eyes," she said. "We hear that quite often."

O'Neill said his boot camp experience may have made him more disposed to politicians who favored racial progress in later years. He said he voted for the re-election of Harry S. Truman in 1948, just months after Truman ordered the end of racial segregation in the U.S. military.

"I didn't come back home and become a civil rights activist, but I do think it changed a lot of attitudes," O'Neill said. "I did support politicians who wanted to give more rights to black people."

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