Just as the war was ending – I believe we had just taken Falkenstein, Germany – I was told (but did not personally witness) that an American-made Piper Cub with Russian markings had flown over the front and landed. A Russian Major got out – spoke English – and asked to be taken to our “leader.” Apparently contact was made back to the Russians and arrangements were made for a meeting. General Culin did not use our radio to make the contact! I do not know how it was done or who did it! But, suddenly I was told to make sure that the “team” had their uniforms clean and pressed and be prepared to go and meet the Russians. Two days later we left early in the morning – a convoy of three vehicles, two jeeps and the M-20. There were 7 officers and 5 enlisted men – yours truly being the one of the five!
News of our attended arrival must have been circulated through the Russian forces, for we passed through Russian checkpoints without stopping, the Russian soldiers on either side of the road standing at attention. When we arrived at the Russian CP – a hotel in Marienberg, Germany, a Russian band was awaiting us and rendered the most God-awful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner you have ever heard.
After handshakes that seemed to go on for ever I was ordered to take the M-20 to a hilltop – contact Headquarters back in Germany and remain on that hilltop as a radio link, should they need us! This then a PFC followed orders and we began to set things up as directed about one mile out of town.
PFC Feeney, my co-operator suddenly said, “Frank, what good is it to stay here, miss all the fun, when the radio doesn’t work?”
“What? The radio doesn’t work? ” I said.
“Look,” he continued, “it doesn’t work at all!” He was holding one of the tubes in his hand!
We hid same under a blanket – drove back down to the Hotel and reported to General Culin’s aide, that the radio was “kaput” – we thought a tube probably was bad and had carried no replacements with us. Incidentally, for the first time in all these years, I have realized that I do not remember if General McKee was one of those officers! Our alibi was accepted and we became part of the party.
I remember that the facade of the Hotel had three giant posters placed high on the building. One was of Stalin, another of Marshall Zukov and, as I write this, I do not remember who the third Russian Officer was.
The main ballroom in the Hotel had been outfitted for a celebration. Apparently they had heard about “equality” of everyone in the United States – the table had been set for all of us – Officers and Enlisted men together! General Culin quickly put that idea to rest! We waited – and I took pictures – until a separate table was set for we five enlisted men on the balcony overlooking the main ballroom. The meal was food and more food much of which I had never seen or tasted before – and much of which I do not remember – but I do remember the toasting that went on and on, first in Russian and then translated into English – and then the opposite. The translator was a Russian enlisted man. After each toast we were to empty a little glass of Vodka in one gulp. Before long it seemed that every one of the Americans (at least we enlisted-men) was drunk, blotto, you name it!
After the meal, we went downstairs for entertainment they had arranged for us: a male Russian chorus (all army men) and an orchestra consisting of mainly balalaikas. Very good. They then cleared the floor where the tables had been and the band began to play music for dancing. Oh, yes: Everyone of us had a Russian WAC as a partner. You know who I had as mine. Cute, eh?
Then someone suggested American music – the Russian band did not, could not, or would not play anything else but Russian music. I was a pretty good pianist, and there was an upright piano in the corner of the ballroom. So they pushed it and me together and I have distinct memory of the American soldiers trying to teach their Russian “dates” the “Lindy-Hop” – we were all so blotto it made no difference what it looked like.
We were housed in that hotel. Huge four-poster beds with fluffy pillows, etc. all in a spacious suite. What a change from sleeping on the ground, in a foxhole, or the floor of some burnt-out building We were supposed to return back to Division Headquarters that same evening but no one was in a condition able to drive. So we stayed overnight!
We had wanted to see something of the city, so three of us, accompanied by one of our non-com hosts began walking away from the hotel. Some four or five blocks away immediately on our left, we came upon a large rectangular park-like area of green grass, the smaller side of the rectangle paralleling the sidewalk we were on. There was a perimeter of trees completely around the grass area. Within this perimeter, a 6-8 foot fenced enclosure topped with barbed-wire had been constructed which now “housed” about 100 to 150 German prisoners.
Realize that we had driven from Germany through the northwest corner of Czechoslovakia and now were back in Germany. The prisoners were having a wonderful time. The war was over. With the gates into the enclosure pulled back wide open, the civilians of the town had joined their countrymen, brought them food, etc. There was much revelry, laughing, singing, etc. I remember one prisoner playing the accordion! With many of us in the 87th Infantry Division having been into Buchenwald scarcely 4 weeks before. This did not sit well!
As we walked around the compound, a voice with a British accent called to us, “Say, Yanks – come on in and join the party!” A young man, probably little more than my age, was pointing to the opening in the fence! I am certain he did not expect our reaction. We turned to our host. One of us, who spoke fluent Polish which the Russian noncom seemed to understand, told him that this was not the way we Americans treated our prisoners! The response was immediate. Our host ran to the group of Russian soldiers guarding the enclosure. One of them pulled a pistol and fired one shot into the air! The reaction was immediate! Dead silence! Less than three minutes later, the area had been completely cleared of all civilians. Our host came back to us and with a smile asked, “All OK?” He seemed pleased that we approved.
Looking back, knowing what I know now, that of the approximate 52 million lives lost around the world during WWII, Russian loses totaled somewhere between 21-23 million (with a very large percentage of that being civilian), and given that German forces had completely erased towns and their population in their initial drive in Russia, it does seem incredulous that Russian troops would have been as magnanimous as they were. Did they know about the atrocities in their own homeland? I still do not understand it!
- They did not trust us. We did not trust them! In fact: after the first meeting of the Russians by the 69th Infantry Division on that bridge over the Elbe (?), both forces were pulled back some ten to twenty miles – effectively making a no-mans land!
- I believe that our host was a unit from the First Ukrainian Army – a tank Battalion! We could see the antennas of their tanks rising over a high brick wall that surrounded what looked like a factory building, but we could not see the tanks themselves. We had heard about the Russian tanks and really wanted to inspect same. We went to the gate several times – the guards stopped us, actually pointed their rifles at us! We were told “It will be arranged later.” Incidentally, I think it was Baker who spoke some Polish and was sort of an interpreter for us. I speak a little French. My escort – she spoke a little French! Would you believe she never left me except to use the lavatory! So, we had a wonderful time! It was an unbelievable adventure for a naive 19-year old! We kept asking to see the tanks. We were assured it would “be arranged.” – never did occur!
- On the other hand they were interested in our M-20! We were more obliging – drove their non-coms out of town and fired the 50-Caliber – in fact let them fire it! Still we were not permitted to see their tanks!
- During that first afternoon – our enlisted men hosts drove us to their bivouac area – a farm just out of town! They had made their home there and, as us, each one of them had a female-partner! Easy life in the Russian army, when you are not fighting eh? Dinner was there. Again some music from soldiers who played the balalaika. And more and more Vodka. Believe me: my memories of exactly what occurred are blurred at best.
- Do remember one interesting occurrence: about 4 am that next morning. I was awakened by some singing. Went to the window of the hotel and suddenly the area in front of the hotel was lit by searchlights. Then approaching from our right, marching in formation, were some 40-50 young men (were they soldiers?) – not in uniform at all – but in peasant garb carrying farm implements over their shoulders. They were singing a marshal-type song – they continued past the hotel and then turned the corner. The lights then went out! Later that morning we were told that these were “happy workers” on their way to the fields to bring in the crops!” In May? Even at my tender age, it did not make sense! Such was Soviet propaganda even then!
One final incident at the final closure of our Russian adventure: We convoyed back to our lines – driving through Czechoslovakia, then back again in Germany to where we had left. The town was empty. There was no 87th Infantry Division to be found! “Where in Hell is my Division?” screamed General C. There were blank looks all around. Somehow our formerly defective radio sprang to life. We had the codes and frequencies for that day – called Net Control (at General Headquarters) using “plain English” – no encipherment this time – and asked where they were! We had been relocated to that delightful mountain town of Saalberg (a former R&R retreat for Nazi Officers). We checked the maps and drove home. It was somewhat embarrassing, but no one really cared! The war was officially over!
The photos in this article were taken by Robert using an Argus-A1. The film was “liberated” from a store, probably in Belgium, which was on fire.