With everything going on in the world right now it is easy to forget about history. But it is imperative that we always remember. Seventy-five years ago today Hitler died. A week later Germany officially surrendered and the war in Europe was finally over. Here is an excerpt from my book American Horse:
A week later Frank’s unit had reached the Elbe River. By this time, the 29th Division had captured numerous German cities and towns and captured thousands of prisoners of war. Word had spread that the Soviets had reached Berlin. Rather than join the fight for Berlin, Frank’s division was ordered to stay at the Elbe. More than ever, the men could sense that the war was in its last weeks, if not days.
On May 1st a brigadier general gathered his troops along the Elbe River. Frank, like many of the other men, figured it was to hear their new orders.
“Men,” the general spoke in a loud, stern voice, “I have learned that the Soviets have taken Berlin and stormed the Chancellery.” The crowd started to cheer, but the general motioned them to silence. “And there are reports, though still unconfirmed, that Hitler is dead.”
Now nothing could stop his audience from erupting in a nearly five-minute-long cheer.
“Sometime tomorrow,” the general finally went on, “a division of Soviet forces will be meeting us at our position to represent the joining of the Western and Eastern Allies. This is an important, historic event. I want each and every one of you to be shaved and looking and acting your best. It looks like this war is finally going to be over.”
The men cheered once again.
The next day, as announced, Soviet troops met the 29th Division on the banks of the Elbe. It seemed more of a photo-op than anything else. Some men were chosen to personally greet their Russian allies, shake their hands and pose with them in front of the camera. Frank did not get to mingle with any of his eastern counterparts, but had great respect for the Soviet troops. Though he did not know the details, he knew how hard they had fought the same enemy and that many more Soviet soldiers had died than Americans. He also was well aware that unlike America, the Soviets fought to expel the Third Reich from their own homeland and that scores of Russian civilians had been killed. At that time Frank, as did many of his fellow Americans, saw the Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin, in a great light. But like most of his fellow citizens, Frank had no idea that during his reign Stalin caused the deaths of more people than did Hitler. And the warm sentiments towards the Soviet Union would quickly turn to bitter cold.
On May 7th, the same brigadier general gave yet another speech. “Men, this afternoon, in General Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France, the German High Command signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies. The war in Europe is officially over.”
Every single man in the audience hollered and applauded with all of their might. The writing may have been on the wall, but the official finality of it was something that many of them feared they would never live to see.
That evening the camp was abuzz with electricity. The outpouring of happiness was more than any of the men had ever felt before. But even more than joy, there was a great, collective sense of relief that they were not going to die. The men knew now that they would make it home alive.
That night, Frank was by a campfire with Roy and about six other men when a captain joined them. As always, they all snapped to attention. “At ease men,” the captain said, with a never-before-seen smile. “You deserve it.” He then sat on a rock and huddled with his soldiers. “I just want you to know, each and every one of you, that it’s been an honor and a privilege to serve with you.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Yes, thank you, Skipper.”
“It’s been a privilege to serve with you too, sir.”
The captain continued: “You boys…boys, God knows none of you are boys anymore. You men made America, made the whole free world proud. We’ve been through a lot of shit!”
The men laughed and agreed.
“And we lost a lot of good men.”
Now they just bowed their heads.
“But the Twenty-Ninth persevered against all odds.”
“To the Twenty-Ninth!” a soldier cheered. Everyone followed suit.
The captain sat with the group for another half hour or so minutes. Inevitably the conversation turned to Hitler and his still unconfirmed death.
“I don’t think we’ll know for some time, the true extent of the Third Reich’s tyranny,” the Captain said in a strong, but somber voice. “A few weeks ago the Third Army liberated two prison camps. Last week, the Seventh Army came across another one called Dachau. They said there were thousands of bodies just stacked up in piles. And the survivors that they did find, many of them were naked and were so skinny their skin was hanging off their bones.”
The men shook their heads. There had been rumors of death camps for some time and stories about Nazi murder squads rounding up and executing Jews for years, but there never seemed to be any concrete evidence or details.
“I know that you’re all glad that you’ll be going home soon,” the Captain added. “And you can’t wait to finally find out again what a piece of ass feels like…”
The men cheered.
“Except you Roy. I still think you’re a virgin,” he said jokingly.
Roy just laughed.
“But don’t ever forget that you played a part in putting an end to the greatest tyranny this world has ever seen. Who knows how many people have died at the hands of the Nazi regime? But only God knows how many people have been saved because of your and our allies’ efforts. And we saw to it that our friends that are no longer with us did not die in vain. And don’t you ever forget that.”
After a moment of silence, Frank raised his canteen. “To freedom!”
“To freedom!” The men cheered in unison.
A few days later, Frank’s unit was on the move again, this time to the German port of Bremerhaven. It was there, in early June, that Frank boarded a transport ship back to the United States. Frank was on his way home.