Former resident Norm Smith Sr. was among 120 World War II veterans honored recently during a Washington, D.C. ceremony for soldiers who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps 65 years ago.

Smith, 84, is one of the youngest “liberators,” and by his account, lucky to be among them.

As an 18-year-old paratrooper in Southhampton, England in 1944, Smith was about to board a ship to join Allied forces on Europe’s mainland. At the last minute, he was quarantined with 40 men who’d been exposed to measles.

The paratroopers who sailed that day made a daring jump over the Rhine River and invaded Germany. Almost all of them died.

“The story would have been very different,” Smith said in an interview from his home in Albion, Neb. It wouldn’t have included freeing prisoners from German camps or standing guard at Hitler’s house at the end of the war.

Instead, after the quarantine, Smith shipped to a small town outside of Paris where he joined the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles.” They went into combat in April 1944 and helped end the war.

Smith and surviving compatriots were honored during the National Days of Remembrance, an annual commemoration of the Holocaust established by the U.S. Congress. Ceremonies for the men ranging in age from mid-80s to 90s took place April 14 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and April 15 at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

General David Petraeus was the event’s keynote speaker, and a highlight of Smith’s trip. Petraeus, who recently oversaw coalition forces in Iraq, also was commander of the 101st Airborne Division during Operation Desert Storm. Noticing Smith’s hat, the general paid special honor to the fellow “Screaming Eagle.”

“Curahee,” Petraeus called to Smith, who repeated it back. “It’s our call, an Indian name that means ‘We stand alone,’” Smith said.

But Smith was anything but alone.

Besides former comrades, he was in the care of a family friend who got him there. When John Mortenson of Kansas City learned Smith and wife Donna couldn’t attend the event without assistance, he stepped in.

It was quite the journey from Nebraska to Washington with Smith, wheelchair bound from polio, and Donna, who is legally blind and uses two canes. But Mortenson said he was “happy to join them on an opportunity that Norm shouldn’t miss… This was like society’s thank you.”

Smith was born in Iowa and moved around in his youth, eventually graduating from high school in Seattle in 1943. At 17, he took a job as cook and deckhand on a freighter headed for Southeast Alaska. When he returned to Seattle, the “draft board was waiting at the dock,” he said. “I became 18 in July and was in the Army by October.”

In 17 weeks of basic training he became an infantryman, but “got tired of it” and “jumped at the opportunity to become a paratrooper.” In late 1944, he traveled from New York to Scotland by ocean liner, and on to England by train. After joining the 101st Airborne in France, the final phases of the war were in swing.

“Around the first of April we crossed the Rhine River,” Smith recalled. “In the process of the battle we went into southern Germany and headed toward Munich. All of a sudden we came upon a concentration camp. That was just stunning. None of us had ever heard about them. The German soldiers had tried to cover up there was any such thing.”

Smith said he was unprepared to see what he called were “walking skeletons.”

“People weighed only about 60 or 70 pounds. Some of them had gone as far as they could without eating and just dropped dead. If you took the Haines gym and filled it with bodies, you’d have an idea of how many dead people I saw in those camps. It’s incredible, indescribable. You just can’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it, and I saw it with my own eyes.”

He vowed to keep telling about it, and has spoken in schools and synagogues. Stanford University, the state capital and schools across Nebraska and Alaska are included on the long list of places he’s shared his account.

He wrote an eyewitness report for the National Holocaust Museum, which he visited for the first time last month. Former prisoners were in attendance at last month’s observance, making the experience there even more powerful.

“You expect to go into the museum to learn history, but you learn humanity,” Mortenson said.

“All the artifacts in the museum actually came from the concentration camps,” Smith said. “Clothing, all kinds of photographs, an actual railroad car you walk right through to feel what it was like to be shipped like cattle from one part of Germany to another… We went through one room with nothing but shoes worn by the people who were gassed and burned to death. A whole room, and a pile of shoes, a very strong statement.”

“It’s very moving,” Mortenson added. “Being there with the liberators and survivors before they had all passed on really took it home. It’s beyond words.”

The media presence at such a gathering was “intense,” Mortenson said. “There were people there with audio equipment, video cameras, pens and paper, trying to get as much history recorded, knowing very well this was the last time a gathering like this would ever happen,” he said.

Smith gave his share of interviews, ending up on ABC News’ Good Morning America, NPR, in the Washington Post, and a handful of other news outlets. Mortenson compiled a list of links to the media coverage to send to family and friends.

Nearly six million people are documented as dying in German concentration camps during the war, but Smith argues the number must be much larger in actuality. “No one counted bodies, really. The only thing we could do was bulldoze, make a big hole and bury all those bodies.”

Smith and his company were the aggressors in the final chase of the Germans, many of whom surrendered and were forced to handle the massive piles of bodies. His unit spent days combing the woods for stray German soldiers near Landsberg, a concentration camp nearby a city of the same name. Hitler had a home there.

“I was sent up to Hitler’s house, the Berghof, and my job was to guard a safe in his study,” Smith said.

The war in Europe ended May 7, 1945 and Smith returned to the United States, joined a military band, and marched in a famous victory parade. Six years later, he was paralyzed from the waist down by polio.

He became a teacher, moved to Haines in 1961, and taught fifth grade, high school American government, and special education until 1968. He and Donna returned from 1971-73. Before he moved away, Smith donated military regalia from Hitler’s house and items from concentration camps to the Sheldon Museum.