First Yanks to Meet Soviets at Elbe are Reunited
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The four men rushed toward each other’s arms at the oaken bar, grabbed huge glasses of draft lager or soda water, and began reliving that day - April 25, 1945 - when they met the Russians on the sunlit banks of the Elbe at Tornau, a village about 75 miles south of Berlin.
The first American soldiers to link up with Soviet troops at the Elbe River, dooming Nazi Germany to final defeat, met for the first time in nearly 40 years on Wednesday - to laugh, compare waistlines and recall the day they made history with a bedsheet flag.
A British television crew brought the quartet of wartime buddies together at the Dubliner, an Irish pub at the foot of Capitol Hill, to film their reminiscences for a documentary on the end of World War II in Europe.
There was no script, and none was needed.
The guy in heavy horn-rim glasses was William D. Robertson, 61, a retired neurosurgeon from Culver City, Calif. Back then, he was a young Army second lieutenant leading a reconnaissance patrol 20 miles ahead of the 273rd Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division.
His companions were Cpl. James J. McDonnell, now 62 and the deputy fire chief of Peabody, Mass.; Pfc. Frank Huff, now a retired mechanic, aged 63, who lives in rural Flint Hill, Va., and Pfc. Paul Staub, who at 59 is a clothing store manager from Levittown, N.Y.
″We’re all more handsome, we’re all more mature, and we’re all smarter not to do it again,″ Robertson said. McDonnell slung an arm around Robertson’s shoulder and said, ″You’re still my lieutenant.″ Staub, squinting at a fading wartime photo of the group, told McDonnell: ″You were the only one who looked like a soldier. The rest of us looked like a bunch of deadbeats.″
As the comrades in arms entered Tornau that spring day in 1945, they came under intense Russian sniper fire from across the river. The Americans begged a bedsheet from an old German woman, machine-gunned the door off the village pharmacy and found some chemical dyes inside. They painted red stripes on the sheet for a makeshift Old Glory, but there was no blue dye for the field of stars.
With the sheet tied to a crooked tree branch, they climbed to the top of a church steeple, waved their homemade flag and yelled for a cease-fire. The shooting intensified. In a nearby prison camp, Huff found an English-speaking Russian who shouted across the Elbe that the flag wavers were American soldiers.
The shooting stopped, and the four crossed a bomb-damaged bridge to embrace their Russian comrades, the bloodied and bandaged vanguard of Gen. Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Army.
″Once they recognized us, we were all buddies,″ McDonnell said. ″We couldn’t speak Russian, and they couldn’t speak English, but the hugs and the handshakes said it all.″
Robertson posed for a picture that was published around the world. He was shaking hands with a grinning, bemedalled Lt. Alexander Sylvashko, now a 62- year-old high school principal in a small village in Byelorussia.
The schnapps flowed. ″Somebody got my wristwatch, and I got his,″ Robertson said. Insignias were torn off shirt collars. One Russian gave Robertson a gold wedding band, which he thought was symbolic of the occasion. ″There was a great sense of relief - this is it, the war is over,″ he recalled.
The Allied drive from the beaches of Normandy and the Soviet onslaught from the East ended at the Elbe, dividing the German armies and sealing the collapse of the Third Reich. Two weeks later, the Soviet erected roadblocks and barriers, Robertson said, and ″the spirit of free comradeship was over.″
″It’s too bad the spirit of that day doesn’t endure today,″ said McDonnell. ″If it did, we wouldn’t have to worry about the MX missile or anything else.″
Before Robertson and his platoon arrived in Paris to be toasted with champagne, they visited Allied headquarters at Rheims and met their supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who promoted each man on the spot.
They gave Ike their homemade American flag as a souvenir. They don’t know what happened to it. Archivists at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library at Abilene, Kan., say the flag apparently was lost in the tumult over the war’s end.