June 9, 2012 2:10:51 PM
May 5, 1945, was a typically beautiful spring day in Plzen, Czechoslovakia. The sun shone; flowers bloomed everywhere. But two hostile armies occupied the city. The Second Infantry Division of the U.S. Army were coming in on the southern flank for Allied forces in World War II. Germany held the city, but their resistance was fading.
Col. (then Lt.) Robert I. Gilbert of Columbus was executive officer for the company, which had already won a presidential citation for holding a critical highway at the Battle of the Bulge. He remembers the day well.
"Our company was not the lead company, but we held back the resistance left there," he says. Theirs was not a tank battle, but they secured depth in the city so the southern unit could pass through."
Their mission put them in a peculiar situation. Residents of Plzen swarmed out to welcome them, while German snipers still shot at them. They could hardly fight for people hailing them as liberators. They did, however, require a tank to bring down a building from where one persistent sniper kept firing at them.
The city of Plzen rejoiced when the Americans occupied it. Soldiers were quartered in residences and treated as honored guests. American units remained in Plzen about six months; then the Russians took over, according to terms at the treaty of Yalta, by which the Soviets provided an eastern front to protect the Allies' landing in the west of Europe.
According to this prior agreement, Plzen fell in Communist territory, so their freedom was short-lived. They remained under political repression from 1945 to 1990, when they finally achieved their freedom.
The first thing they did then was to ask for the U. S. troops of that Second Division to come there and help them celebrate on the May 5 anniversary of that World War II liberation. When the invitation went out, Bob Gilbert called Fred Herres, their company commander, saying, "We need to do this."
Herres demurred. The ensuing 45 years had brought some health problems, and he just did not feel like it. Bob insisted, "Man, I'll be with you all the way. Whenever you need to stop, we'll stop. I'll do whatever you need to make it easy for you."
The two officers were among the approximately 20 soldiers who went to Plzen May 5, 1990, for the first celebration.
"I've never seen an expression like the one we met," says Bob. "People stopped us on the street to thank us, to ask for our autographs, even if they had to be written on the back of shirts."
Accolades were not limited to the war survivors. They came also from the second or third generations, with people saying things like, "My daddy told me about you. I want to thank you, too."
Thank them they did. They still do. They have built a big city square, Friendship Square. In the center of the square is a raised platform, a monument, with two columns, one on each side. One column recognizes the United States; the other, the Czech Republic. (Czechoslovakia has now had an amicable split, becoming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They are still so friendly that soldiers have remained in each other's armies.)
Plzen celebrates its liberation every year on May 5 with a parade and other festivities honoring their American friends. Bob went to the first occasion, and to a total of five or six. He rides in the parade, and, along with about 10 other veterans who also attend, has received several medallions, awards and certificates. He went again this year, rode in the parade, attended dinner parties, and at age 97 represented his company by laying a wreath in Friendship Square to commemorate the soldiers.
This year Plzen celebrates its 700th anniversary. Its citizens have a long history and long memories. One wonders what makes people steadfastly pass their gratitude through successive generations. Is it that, after receiving freedom, they lost it again for so many years? Who knows? One thing is certain. Gratitude can work two ways. We in the U. S. can be grateful for loyal friends like those in the Czech Republic.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up, and still lives, in Columbus.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.