Alvinite Kelli Thompson has collected numerous books on a little-known aspect of the Holocaust that affected her family greatly. On Wednesday, Thompson will join her sister, Karen Velupillai, and brother, Paul Coats, to give a presentation at Louisiana’s Old State Capitol about their father’s unique experience. Thompson will also be interviewed about the story by Jim Engster on Baton Rouge public radio station WRKF.
Growing up in Southeast Texas, Kelli and her siblings knew that their father was a World War II veteran, but it was not until they were adults that they learned the full story of what happened to their father during the war.
On June 5, 1944, Thompson’s father, Army Air Force Staff Sgt. Basil A. Coats, was shot down during a bombing mission over France. Thompson said her father was adept at picking up new languages and already knew rudimentary French. After first receiving help from a local French family, Coats established contact with the French Underground. Unfortunately, Coats encountered a husband and wife team of double agents within the French resistance that betrayed him and dozens of other Allied airmen to German authorities.
Coats was first sent to became one of 168 Allied airmen from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica to be held at Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. It’s unclear why some soldiers were chosen to be sent to these camps rather than traditional P.O.W. facilities.
“What singled them out, I’m not really sure,” Thompson said.
Buchenwald was the largest concentration within the then internationally recognized borders of Germany, holding religious, political and ethnic prisoners (including Jews, Romani, Poles and Slavs). Prisoners of war were not treated by standards of the Geneva Convention when held in concentration camps.
Their whereabouts were unknown to the military authorities of their respective governments and they did not receive the Red Cross packages distributed to inmates at P.O.W. camps.
“When they were in Buchenwald, no one knew where they were. They were missing in action,” Thompson said.
Buchenwald was a common destination for these types of prisoners. In 2009, it was revealed that another 350 Allied prisoners of war were sent to Buchenwald when German authorities suspected them of being Jewish (some were, some weren’t).
During his two months at the camp, Coats witnessed one of the most infamous and horrific aspects of World War II and the Third Reich. Though the 168 English-speaking airmen were separated in a special section of the camp, they were not given better treatment than the European Jews, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others in the rest of Buchenwald. They wore the same striped pajamas that the other prisoners wore, were deprived of shoes and were fed a diet of barley soup with worms floating in it and black, crusty bread stretched with sawdust, Thompson said. Thompson’s father, of medium build at 5’ 8” and approximately 170 pounds, weighed less than 90 pounds after two months at Buchenwald. Two of the 168 men died of disease in the camp. The rest were scheduled for extermination just days after the Allied advance required their transfer and Coats and his fellow men were evacuated to a P.O.W. camp.
After the war, Coats and his fellow American prisoners were instructed by the military to never talk about or publicize their experiences at Buchenwald.
“I think because they really didn’t understand about PTSD like they do now,” Thompson said.
Many of the 166 surviving airmen did not begin speaking about the topic until at least 50 years after the war. Some were never seen or heard from by the public after the ordeal.
The story of the airmens’ strife did not become widely known until exposure in Canada with the production of a 1994 documentary by the National Film Board that interviewed several Canadian, American, Australian, British and Kiwi survivors.
The 166 survivors of the ordeal formed the secret KLB Club (for Konzentrationslager Buchenwald) in 1944, but the club was inactive until the 1980s when the survivors began holding reunions.
“That was the point I think a lot of these men actually started talking about it. Not just to each other, as recollections and sharing, but also talking and kind of releasing that information to their family,” Thompson said.
Thompson said beginning to speak about his experience with his fellow airmen at Buchenwald “was probably the most healing for him.”
Later in life, Coats began speaking to school groups and others about his experiences during the war and his children convinced him to write his memoirs.
As for Thompson, she never thought she and her siblings would be asked to give speeches on their father’s experiences.
“It’s like bam, bam, bam. [The Alvin Sun], tomorrow on the radio and — and at least Wednesday I’ll be flanked by my brother and my sister,” Thompson said.