The city of Plzeň has this week been celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The West Bohemian industrial city was liberated by US units commanded by the legendary George S. Patton as well as Belgian soldiers attached to the US army.
The week of celebrations began on May 1 and will culminate on May 6, the anniversary of the city’s liberation. The centre of the city has been decked out with US and Czech flags and a host of cultural and other events have been staged for the ‘Festival of Liberty.’ Organisers reckon that around 100,000 people attended the first three days of the celebrations, which included a ‘liberty’ convoy with Second World War jeeps and tanks through the city.
After almost a decade of discussions and some false starts, a memorial has finally also been unveiled in the city centre to General Patton. The 9.5 metre high sculpture in steel outlines the profile of the dynamic, but controversial, general wearing his army helmet.
Perhaps one of the most moving events of the week took place on Tuesday when around 300 Czech teenagers from local schools gathered in a city cultural centre to hear veterans from Plzeň’s liberation. Altogether there were around a dozen veterans, now mostly in their nineties, both from the US and Belgium. Their broad message was simple: ‘We helped to liberate this county 70 years ago. Now it is up to you to make sure you safeguard the liberty you now enjoy.’ At the end of the session many of the veterans and audience had tears in their eyes.
For the veterans themselves, Plzeň marked the end of their war, although at the time they expected to be shipped out for the still continuing conflict in Asia. Karl Lindquist was an army scout, later a medic, in Patton’s Third Army. He described how only five out of around 180 men in his original contingent which landed in France made it all the way through to Plzeň. All the rest were killed or wounded or, for some other reason, transferred elsewhere.
Like the other veterans, Karl warned his audience of the horrors of war. He described how once he had to deal with a machinegun nest of Germans with a grenade. Later he looked at the bodies and saw that they were around the same age as he was. ‘You could not hate people who were the same age as you and had been caught up in the war whether they wanted it or not. I could only think what their families would go through when they learnt that their sons were dead,’ he said.
For Lindquist, May 6,1945, was a special day. It was both his 20th birthday and the day that he learnt in Plzeň that the war in Europe was over. He only knew that the war had ended when he saw troops up ahead of him throwing their helmets in the air. ‘I first of all wondered if they were mad or what,’ he recounted.
Of the Plzeň reception, Karl’s wife Carol said: ‘We have been really touched by our reception here. Hundreds of people have lined up in the street, even in the rain. American children of their age don’t think about what happened here and what it meant.’
Reuben Schaetzel was a tank driver who drove his Sherman tank across France and Germany before landing up near Plzeň. He did not see much of the city, spending most of his time in a large camp on the outskirts. Later, the German speaker, who was also drafted in for occasional interpretation duties, spent more time around the city trying to organise the return of the many thousands of workers and refugees from all corners of Europe to their homelands. Ironically, one of the main languages of communication was that of the defeated power, German.