A pilgrimage to Pilsen: A Columbus veteran makes emotional return to Czech towns he helped liberate in 1945

May 25, 2013 3:40:51 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Dr. Bob Gilbert eased back in an upholstered chair in his spacious, pastel living room Tuesday. One hand rested on his leg, the other on top of a walking cane.  


He was surrounded by lovely things, in this home on a quiet, wooded lot not far from downtown Columbus. He is an educated man, described by close friends as compassionate and selfless. He enjoys music, the arts and the pursuit of knowledge. 


His thoughts, however, were elsewhere.  


"I remember being shot at. If you see the flash of a rifle, you know it's mighty close," he said, with the telling expression of someone who has seen more than he wanted. 


Dr. Gilbert -- Lt. Col. Gilbert, retired, United States Army -- served in World War II before attaining his doctorate in sociology and accepting a teaching position in 1954 at what is now Mississippi University for Women. In early May, at the age of 97, he journeyed thousands of miles to the Czech Republic, to the towns of Pilsen and Domizlice, to a people he helped free from Nazi Germans 68 years ago.  


That he, and other veterans who were able to go, returned to cheers from the masses there is testament to the gratitude Czech citizens hold for them. 


The occasion was Pilsen's annual Liberation Festival, a source of great pride for this city in the western Czech Republic. The multi-day event celebrates the liberation of western Czechoslovakia by U.S. forces on May 6, 1945. It includes a parade, military displays, wreath-layings, and other commemorations -- and veterans in attendance are the stars of the event. 


It wasn't Dr. Gilbert's first time to return. That was in 1990, soon after the Iron Curtain fell and the Czech people were freed yet again. 


"As soon as (then Czechoslovakia) was liberated in 1945, when the Americans left, the Russians took over everything; from '45 to '90, they were under Russian control," he explained. "That was the first time the Czech people were allowed to do what they wanted, and what they wanted was to thank Americans, and they asked if veterans could come for the celebration." 


That trip would turn out of several to the area of Pilsen for Gilbert. He was accompanied in 1990 by his son, Rob Gilbert, just as he was this year. Through those travels, the veteran soldier has renewed connections with men he served with and made a host of new Czech friends. And he's been part of a passing on a history lesson to a new generation in the Czech Republic. 


"Their attitude is amazing," said Gilbert of the reception veterans receive. "They want to know. They will stop you on the street and say something like, 'Sir, may I speak to you? I wasn't here obviously, but my father always said if you see an American soldier, especially one with an Indian Head patch, stop him and thank him for what he did." The proud Second Infantry Division's shoulder insignia features an Indian head inside a white star. 






Before Gilbert's F Company made it into Pilsen almost seven decades ago, it first led the offensive into the nearby centuries-old town of Domizlice. So it was a moving experience to return decades later, especially when Domizlice's mayor wanted to show Gilbert something special. From a heavy volume of the city's recorded history, the mayor turned to an entry that conveyed, "On this day, May 3, 1945, the city of Domizlice was liberated by American forces commanded by Capt. Fred Hirres and Lt. Robert Gilbert." 


It was a surprising -- and pleasing -- moment for the retired educator. 






Rob Gilbert, who now lives in Memphis, Tenn., will never forget the first Pilsen Liberation Festival he attended, riding with his dad in a parade convoy of meticulously restored jeeps, troop carriers and tanks gathered from throughout Europe for the occasion. As their vehicle topped a rise, the pair looked down to see thousands of people lining the route, waving American flags. 


"It was both heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring. I was just standing there, crying on the back of this truck, thinking, 'My God, what would this have been like 60 years ago?'" he shared. "It was an incredibly emotional thing, an unbelievable moment."  


When the public had access to the veterans, "everywhere people were hauling some little scrap of a photograph of a GI; they would come up to the truck saying 'Do you know, have you seen him?'" added Dr. Gilbert's son, who was born while his father was at war. They didn't come face to face until Rob was 11 months old. 


"I was shaving by my fox hole one day when this fellow came by saying, 'Lieutenant, you have a letter,'" Dr. Gilbert reminisced. About then, enemy fire rang out. Gilbert quickly stuck the letter in his knapsack and dropped in the fox hole. He was safe, but shrapnel hit the knapsack, uncannily taking out the face of the new baby his wife had sent a photo of. Nevertheless, it was a priceless picture to that soldier far from home. 




Thank you, America 


Monuments and plaques in Pilsen and Domizlice proclaim the region's gratitude to the combat-weary soldiers who arrived that May, 68 years ago.  


It's been said that Pilsen is a town every American should visit, because they love Americans and American soldiers. It's a journey Gilbert hopes to make again. The liberation celebration is, he said, "a beautiful story for the Czech people; they've suffered so much." 


Reflecting on Memorial Day, the decorated veteran added, "I think it's very important to remember the sacrifices made. When we were coming up, we were made conscious of that sacrifice, of those who gave their lives for the rest of us. ... If you forget your history then you've lost your reason for being."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.