Just over a week ago around 300 schoolchildren from the West Bohemian city of Plzeň crowded into its art nouveau masterpiece, now serving as its main cultural centre, to hear from around a dozen men around 75 years older. The former US and Belgian soldiers were among those who 70 years earlier had fought their way through Europe and landed up, sometimes fleetingly, in Plzeň at the end of World War II.
Most of the old men wore their medals with pride, but most also insisted that they were not heroes. They had been given a job to do and they had done it and in many cases they counted themselves lucky to have survived. But they did have a message to pass on to those in the hall: they would soon grow up and take their place in society and should be vigilant that the acts of dictators and inaction of democracies that helped cause WWII should not be allowed to be repeated.
This was a deeply moving event in Plzeň’s near week long commemoration of the end of WWII. It has a place in history as the only major Czech city to have been mainly liberated by US forces and was also the place where many of the soldiers learnt the fighting in Europe was over. At the end of the event, many of the teenagers queued up to shake hands with the veterans and ask for their autographs.
Radio Prague spoke to some of the veterans. Among them was Karl Lindquist, a US army scout who originally came from the Atlantic seaport of Nantucket. I asked him first of all what the meeting with the Plzeň teenagers had meant to him: “Well it just shows me how the Czech people really got it, really understood what we went through and were very thankful for the liberation. It really makes me feel very good. As I said, thinking about all my friends that were killed, they would never get to know that and that saddens me. We did not do it to be heroes or anything. We did not expect the kind of reception that we got here and it has been overwhelming really. I just can’t believe it. We have a very strong affinity now with the Czech people, I do anyway, and most of us who were lucky enough to have made it here are just overwhelmed with the welcome that we get.”
Lindquist was a scout in a battalion which made up George Patton’s Third Army. He landed in France in 1944, was directed south towards Saint Lo and then eastwards as the Germans began to rapidly retreat. He remembers the toughest fighting being at the start of 1945 when he was part of the forces directed to rescue US forces surrounded in southern Belgium during the last ditch Nazi offensive which later become known at the Battle of the Bulge. He recounts the episode: “Eisenhower asked his generals who could get up to Belgium, or up the Bulge, soon. And Patton had told them ‘We will be up there tomorrow.’ Everybody, all the other generals laughed at him. But we were up there the next day.”
“We did not do it to be heroes or anything. We did not expect the kind of reception that we got here and it has been overwhelming really.”
Lindquist was part the contingent that took part in the relief of the surrounded US force at Bastogne. The expected resistance once the Allied offensive in the West resumed did not often materialise when it was most expected.
“We crossed the Rhine, I think it was the Rhine, it might have been the Main, I’m not sure, it was at night. And there was not a shot fired from either side it was absolutely quiet. I had expected there would be something, with planes or something, coming there. But not at all, nothing. From then on it was just moving. And they were moving as fast as they could away from us.”
The eventual arrival in Plzeň was memorable on two counts as the young army scout, who later transferred to be a medic, recounts. “Before we got to Plzeň we had no idea that this would be the day – it happened to be my 20th birthday - and we had no idea that the war was ending on this day. So there was a long line of trucks and there is no resistance at all. I was riding at the back of the truck with the top off on it, and I could see all up along the line of trucks. And there, the first truck up the line the soldiers are throwing their helmets up in the air. And I’m thinking what’s going on, are they going crazy up there? And the word got down from truck to truck that the war, the fighting, was over. Of course, the war was not over till the signing, but the fighting was over. And it was very interesting to find it out that way. And that was when I learnt from my first sergeant that on this day there were only five of us, out of the original 180 who landed, still with the company."
All the others had been killed, wounded, or transferred out for some reason or other. In fact, Karl Lindquist regards it as something of a miracle that he was among the survivors given that being a scout, being up ahead of the company detecting where the enemy was, was one of the most dangerous jobs around.
Reuben Schaetzel drove a Sherman tank across France and Germany before landing up in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. He did not see much of the city as the US forces were camped on the outskirts. Thanks to his roots and the fact that he could speak German, he was also recruited for some interpreting duties or missions where his language skills could come in useful.
While war was, in the famous words, ‘hell,’ there were the occasional moments of dark humour and this is one that Schaetzel likes to recount from the end of the war. He had been asked by US military intelligence to accompany a group of German officers who were being taken on a transport plane to England for interrogation. One of the officers had picked up a small pet money during the campaign in North Africa and it had accompanied him everywhere since as a pet: “About an hour into the trip there was a disturbance in the corner and this little Rhesus monkey crawls out of his fatigue pockets. He had big military fatigue pockets and he had smuggled that monkey out of Africa and brought it that far.
“And this monkey got air sick. And of course, you know what happens when you get air sick – you throw up and it comes out the other end too, you know. And it did. This little monkey was jumping around and screeching and bouncing off one guy to the next. And I caught him and opened a port on the side of the cargo plane, about a 10 inch opening. I figured that I would give that monkey a little fresh air. But I knew that air created a suction. Well he was just sucked right out of my hands and gone…he’s gone. And this old German, he says ‘Oh my monkey, my monkey.’ He was sobbing and the other guys were laughing at him. And I just wonder if there was not some French farmer working out there in his field when a monkey dropped down on him, you know.”
“And I just wonder if there was not some French farmer working out there in his field when a monkey dropped down on him, you know.”
Reuben Schaetzel’s German skills were called on again following the end of the war when he was called on in the Plzeň area to help the many displaced persons who had been forced to work in factories for the Nazi war effort and other refugees find their way home or to a new life.
Ironically, German was often the language of communication with the misplaced persons though the US soldier’s mastery was not always that flexible: “I had a lady come up to my table and she was speaking low German. There are two types of German, low German and high German. I spoke high German, like most of the German people spoke high German. Low German is a very guttural type of German. I talked to her and she started talking to me. And I told her she had to speak high German because I don’t get along too well with low German. And she said she couldn’t speak high German. So I said ‘That’s okay, I will have the Russians interrogate you.’ And all of a sudden she could speak good high German.”
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