The Green Beret community lost a legend this week as Sidney Shachnow, who survived a concentration camp for three years starting when he was just seven years old. He served in a variety of Special Forces units and a few conventional billets and eventually retired as a Major General. He retired in Southern Pines, NC and passed away this weekend at the age of 83.
Shachow was born on March 5, 1934, in Kaunas, Lithuania. After the Nazis invaded the former Soviet Union in 1941, Shachnow and his family were thrown into the Kovno concentration camp because they were Jews. He survived by doing heavy manual labor and was a witness to the brutal treatment the inmates were forced to endure. Only 5 percent of the inmates of Kovno would survive until the camp was liberated.
The Nazis in March of 1944 decided to liquidate all of the children at Kovno by shipping them to Auschwitz to be gassed. Shachnow escaped and hid the woods, narrowly missing being murdered. He lived mostly in seclusion and nearly starved to death on a couple of occasions. When the Soviets liberated Kovno and began to implement communism to the people, Shachnow fled on foot, heading west and would walk nearly 2000 miles before ending up in the care of the Americans at Nuremberg. While there he engaged in black-market activities just to survive.
Shachnow was deeply affected by his experiences in the camp and it would shape how he viewed people for many years. Although he was not one to talk about himself and was, for the most part, a deeply personal man, he opened up a bit at the time of his retirement. He told the Fayetteville Observer in 1994 how this time shaped his outlook.
“After I finished that experience, I was very cynical about people,″ he said. “I didn’t trust people. I thought that there is a dark side to people.”
Life in the US and the Military:
He made it to the United States from Nuremberg and he and his family settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where for the first time in his life, he was able to attend school.
He later joined the U.S. Army as a private in 1955 despite barely speaking any English. After rising thru the enlisted ranks to Sergeant First Class, he applied and graduated from Officer’s Candidate School in 1960. Shortly after joining the Army, he would marry his high school sweetheart Arlene. They remained together until his passing last week.
Two years later he joined Special Forces and his life’s work was laid out before him. He would serve most of the next 32 years in SF.
As a Captain, he would command the 5th Special Forces Group’s A-camp, Camp A-121 at An Long. There he would be awarded the first of his Silver Stars for valor as well as a Purple Heart. Shachnow applied a tourniquet to his own leg wound and continued to lead his men. He was also shot in the arm.
While recovering from his wounds in the United States, he received his bachelor degree from the University of Nebraska and went back to Vietnam again where he received another Silver Star and three Bronze Stars with “V” device.
Later in the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany, Shachnow would command the highly secretive Detachment-A, known to the SF men simply as “Det-A”, Berlin Brigade, a clandestine unit of Cold War Green Beret who remained on high alert 24-hours a day. This covert unit consisted of selectively trained and language qualified members of Special Forces, who brought vital culture, geographical and language skills to the assignment. Their missions were classified. They dressed in civilian clothing and carried appropriate non-American documentation and identification at terrific risk if they were caught by Soviet or East German security forces.
For a fascinating four-part look at what Det-A did read the story by Jack Murphy here: Amazing that as part of Det-A, Shachnow commanded several soldiers who were in the American Army due to the Lodge Act and several, who fought for the Nazis in World War II.
In 1990, Shachnow would be a two-star, and command all of the US troops in Berlin and was a witness to the Berlin Wall coming down. For Shachnow, it was coming full-circle. He told the Observer in his 1994 interview, that the experience was moving for a Lithuanian Jew who spent time in a concentration camp.
“Here it is the very capital of fascism and the Third Reich. The very buildings and streets where they were goose-stepping and heil-Hitlering and the very system that put me in the camp and killed many people,” he said. “Here we are 40 some-odd years later, and I come back to be commander of American forces in that city and a Jew on top of that… It sort of adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?″
He also served as the Commanding General, United States Army Special Forces Command, as well as the Commanding General, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
It was there that our paths crossed a couple of times, albeit very briefly. We spoke one time during a briefing and he did a double take at me and at the conclusion of which he asked, “Where are you from Chief?” I told him Boston, at which time he smiled and said, “that’s pretty obvious,” to the chuckles of those close by. When I told him I had attended college at Salem State, he smiled, and said, “I know that place really well.”
When it was over, he spoke to the SF guys in a manner that resonated with everyone. He had tremendous respect within the community. Several SF guys could speak with much more familiarity than myself, but the results would be no different. His bona fides and respect within the community were impeccable.
Later he wrote a book about his life in the concentration camps, moving to the U.S. and his military career. It is titled, “Hope and Honor” which he wrote with author Jan Robbins and is highly recommended. It can be found here:
Despite his terrible experiences in a concentration camp, he and his wife raised a loving and close family with four daughters. His family would grow to include fourteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He never took his adopted family for granted and knew full well the struggles and price for freedom.
Shachnow came to this country as a penniless immigrant who could barely speak the language. He rose up to become a commander of one of the most prestigious headquarters in the U.S. military. And he did so without ever tooting his own horn.
He said of life’s struggles, “Oppression was still an enemy. But I realized how important it was to keep hope, courage, and perseverance, and we would someday erase this scourge from society.”
A memorial service for MG Shachnow will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 13 at Boles Funeral Home in Southern Pines.
Photos: US Army