Feature   Observances

Veterans Virtually Recall End of WWII in Europe

May 8, 2020 | BY Sean Kimmons, Army News Service

After being freed from a World War II prison camp by British forces, Harold Radish immediately sought the simple pleasures of freedom: a beer and a nice sleep. 

A reconnaissance sergeant with the 90th Infantry Division, Radish was captured by German soldiers in February 1945. Following months as a prisoner in Nazi Germany, the Jewish-American was rescued in late April, a week before the official victory in Europe. 

World War II veteran holding an American flag in one hand waves at the camera with the other. A black-and-white photo of him in World War II is part of the image.
Harold Radish
Harold Radish, a reconnaissance sergeant with the 90th Infantry Division during World War II, recalls the end of the war in Europe during an online V-E Day commemoration May 8, 2020.
Photo By: Army Screenshot
VIRIN: 200508-A-ZZ999-2222

"The war in Europe was over," he said in a video. "The desolation and the buildings that were bombed, the killings and the rough times that I and my buddies had — it was over."

Amid the current war on COVID-19, several veterans, public figures and family members of those killed in WWII shared a series of videos as part of an online commemoration to honor the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. 

In his video, Radish said that he and other prisoners were flown to Brussels. There, they were cleaned up, fed, clothed in British uniforms and given a couple of hours off in the city. 

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"We went into a bar, we drank some beer and then we went to sleep," he said. "And that was true liberation."

In a letter he mailed to his family after his release, Radish said he could not wait to return to them. 

"I don't think anyone can get me home fast enough, though they are using airplane and ship," he said, reciting the letter. "Freedom is worth any price. It took a long time, but I [finally] found out."

V-E Day

Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were thrust into an ongoing fight across Europe as both Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. 

Months of hard battles ensued, as Allied forces began to defeat enemy strongholds in Africa and Europe. In May 1943, Axis troops were defeated in northern Africa and by the fall of 1943, fascist Italy surrendered. 

In June 1944, the D-Day invasion of Normandy broke through Germany's Atlantic defensives and established a foothold for Allied forces that led to Paris being liberated later that summer. 

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg also became liberated by Allied forces.

In early 1945, Allies reached Germany's western border, then crossed the Rhine River in March, said Jane Droppa, vice chair of the Friends of the National WWII Memorial.

"The determined push into the heart of German fatherland was slow yet steady as the Allies encountered German forces not yet willing to give up the fight," she said. "As they pushed into Germany, Allied forces encountered scenes of unspeakable horror and human suffering in Nazi concentration camps, all of which gave new meaning to the war."

As American and Soviet soldiers moved into Germany from the west and east, both forces met in late April along the Elbe River, cutting the remaining German forces in two. 

Less than a week later, Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide a few days before the fall of Berlin. German leaders then signed an unconditional surrender of their entire forces, ending the war in Europe on May 8, 1945. 

A military man signs some papers while others look on.
German Surrender
Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signs the ratified surrender terms for the German army at Russian Headquarters in Berlin. Germany, May 7, 1945.
Photo By: National Archives photo
VIRIN: 200312-O-ZZ999-003

An estimated 15 to 20 million people died during the war in Europe. In total, WWII claimed some 60 million people worldwide, including 400,000 Americans.

Beginning of the End of Evil

For retired Col. Frank Cohn, that day was just like any other at that time.

As an intelligence agent who could speak German, he was assigned to a unit called T-Force that was in Magdeburg near Berlin. The unit's mission was to go into large German cities after they were captured to inspect building and personality targets. 

"Building targets were anything that was going to be of use to the force and in support of the criminal investigations and prosecution of war criminals," he said. "And the personality targets were people who were going to be tried."

Red roses hang from part of a statue on a memorial.
Victory Handshake
Red roses placed on the National World War II Memorial during the Victory in Europe Day observance at the memorial in Washington, May 8, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Jacob Holmes
VIRIN: 190508-A-GA562-001

When news came of the surrender, he said it didn't really mean much to him and others in his unit. To them, the war had already been over for a few weeks. 

"So we never really even celebrated it," he said of V-E Day. "We just took it as another day and we were in the occupation as far as we were concerned. It means so much more now than it did then."

"When I was drafted, I had absolutely no fear that we were going to lose the war," he added. "We were going to win. But certainly, in retrospect, it wasn't that obvious and I think we can celebrate it."

The son of 2nd Lt. Robert Meek also spoke of his father's sacrifice months earlier in the war.

Meek, a B-25 Mitchell bomber copilot, was killed during a raid on the Magenta Bridge near Milan, Italy, in October 1944. 

Man faces camera and speaks, with a black-and-white photo of his father from World War II as part of the image.
Retired Col. Robert Meek Jr.
Retired Col. Robert Meek Jr., left, speaks of his father's sacrifice during World War II as part of an online V-E Day commemoration May 8, 2020. Second Lt. Robert Meek was a B-25 Mitchell bomber copilot who was killed during a raid on the Magenta Bridge near Milan, Italy, in October 1944.
Photo By: Army Screenshot
VIRIN: 200508-A-ZZ999-3333

"The plane was hit by flak, killing my father instantly," said retired Col. Robert Meek Jr. "The pilot was able to return the plane and land it, even though he and two other members of the crew were wounded."

To him, V-E Day meant the beginning of the end of evil in the world, in regard to German fascism and Japanese imperialism. By remembering this day, he hopes it can serve as a stark reminder to not let certain history repeat itself. 

"If we are to allow evil to persist and exist, then we will go through the catastrophic conditions that we had in World War II," he said. "So, please remember that men and women were willing to sacrifice to save freedom and democracy."