By Lavendrick Smith, The Charlotte Observer
Mason Hardin Dorsey wasn’t the type of person who’d let a day go to waste.
In his 92 years of life, he was a pilot, a Charlotte business owner, an avid skier and a father figure to many who encountered him.
And in World War II, he liberated a Nazi concentration camp.
“He didn’t watch the world go by,” said his son, Dale Dorsey.
The decorated military veteran was part of a military unit that freed 15,000 Jewish prisoners in 1945 from a concentration camp in Austria.
He died in November following congestive heart failure, after living a life that impacted thousands of people.
A war hero
Mason Dorsey — nicknamed “Mickey” by his mother — was born in 1925 in Chester, S.C. He was a member of what has been coined “the greatest generation” — young men raised during the Great Depression, who later enlisted to fight in the second World War.
He was born with three fingers missing from his left hand but that didn’t stop him from wanting to be a pilot. He didn’t behave like he had a disability, his daughter said.
“I never even realized it as a child. It just never came up,” Debra Politano said about Dorsey’s missing fingers. “Daddy could do anything with his hands, and it was never a consideration.”
His confidence in himself wasn’t shared by everyone, however. After two years at Clemson, he decided to fight in the war but was rejected from the Navy and the Air Force because of his hand, his children said.
He was accepted into the Army, but even then, he had to impress officials before he was allowed to fight in combat. Dorsey had some of the highest marksmanship and physical training scores, his son said, and an official eventually let him fight.
“He told (Mickey) well ‘regulations be damned, I’m making you active,’ ” Dale remembers his dad saying.
Dorsey was assigned to the 71st Infantry Division of the 3rd Army. On May 5, 1945, the unit reached the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp in Austria, where thousands of Jewish prisoners were brought to die.
The scene they encountered was imprinted in the minds of several of the veterans for life.
Thousands of bodies were lying at the site, unburied. Many more prisoners who were alive were on the ground, pretending to be dead.
The captives had been deprived of food and looked like living skeletons to the soldiers, none of whom were aware the camp existed.
When the gates were opened, the prisoners pulled bark from trees and roots from the ground to eat, family members recall Dorsey saying. Some of the soldiers, including Dorsey, offered the prisoners cigarettes, and they ate those as well.
Many of the Jewish prisoners died after they were offered food, and more than 1,000 would later die because of their imprisonment. The thousands who lived would later leave an impression on Dorsey.
In the years following the war, Mickey Dorsey returned to Clemson and earned a degree in industrial engineering. He married a few years later, and moved to Charlotte where he started a business from his 800-square-foot home. He had five children.
Many of the prisoners he helped free went on to live successful lives as well. They were doctors, filmmakers, photographers and even a multimillionaire.
Eventually, letters began to flow in from survivors and their children, thanking him for his service. Many had found him after researching the unit that liberated the camp.
“In a way, I felt like either he adopted me as his new son, or I adopted him as my new father,” said David Fisher, a filmmaker from Israel.
Fisher’s father, Joseph, was one of the prisoners brought to Gunskirchen.
When his dad died, Fisher unearthed a memoir his dad had been writing about his experiences in the camp. They had never discussed the war, but the memoir provided Fisher with a guide for how to retrace his steps.
Fisher went on a trip to Austria and later made the film “Six Million and One,” which documented his experience going to the camp with his siblings. In the film, Dorsey makes a cameo to discuss the moments when his unit first encountered the gates of Gunskirchen.
Dorsey was still holding onto several artifacts he had from the war when he met Fisher, including weapons he nabbed from German soldiers.
“He was so willing to share everything that I felt like he was waiting for a day that someone would come and ask him to share his stories, his memories and his experience,” Fisher said.
The two formed a bond and stayed in touch the rest of Dorsey’s life. It was common for him to become friends with survivors of Gunskirchen or their family.
Gershon Ron, who was imprisoned in Gunskrichen when he was 16, considers the military hero to be a brother.
Ron escaped the camp the night before Dorsey’s unit arrived. Years later, as a photographer in New York, he came across an article Dorsey wrote and felt the urge to look for him.
“I said to him, ‘I think I owe you a thank you because, actually, you saved my life,’ ” Ron said.
The two eventually met on a trip they took with college students to Germany, and immediately connected.
Ron, like Fisher’s father, wrote about his Holocaust experiences in a memoir. Whether through books, films like Fisher’s, or artifacts like Mickey’s, those affected by the Holocaust see an importance in keeping firsthand accounts of the war alive.
“His group, his generation, they’re dying every day,” Politano said. “We’re not going to have those personal experiences that people know about, and I think now’s the time to get it. Fortunately, we have daddy on tape. We need other people who have their fathers and grandfathers. They need to be getting those stories down now.”
Dorsey’s children continue to hold onto the letters and interviews their dad left behind.
“Our dad had such an amazing life,” Politano said. “It’s sad that he’s not here right now but he was 92, and there is nobody that I know, that I’ve ever known of, that I felt used every moment of his life the way he did.”
LaVendrick Smith: 704-358-5101; @LaVendrickS