“It may seem a paradox to the uninitiated, but the soldier, by choice or the dictates of his draft board, is a confirmed pacifist. Only the psychopath, the incurable romanticist, and the criminally ambitious consider war as a desirable state.” So reads the foreword to The Story of the Century, an account of the U.S. Army 100th Infantry Division activated November 15, 1942.
Seventy-five years ago, the European Campaign of World War II came to an end with Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signing for Germany and the Axis powers the final, unconditional surrender terms in Berlin. The Allies had defeated the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The elation of crowds in New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus could not and would not be contained. Though the war in the Pacific would rage on for another four months, American soldiers and airmen serving in Europe would be coming home. Celebrations for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe, however, will be curtailed. Though the Allies achieved complete victory over the Axis, the win over the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic has been more elusive, and the planned V-E Day celebrations have been canceled or relegated to the world of virtual events. Nonetheless, those who brought about that victory all those years ago will not be forgotten.
When remembering World War II, most Americans today see the events through the imagination of Hollywood and movie camera lenses. Patton, Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, and Band of Brothers come to mind. These movies are just depictions, representations of memories of European and North African combat events. It’s hard to fathom that the whole world was at war.
World War II in Europe began for the United States not in Europe at all, but with Operation TORCH, the amphibious invasion of North Africa in November of 1942. The battle for North Africa would become the testing ground for U.S. forces that were new to the war and especially unfamiliar working in a combined battle arena with allies. The British had been in North Africa, engaging the Italians and Germans, since June of 1940 and were battle-hardened. The fits and starts for American soldiers were costly, with 2,715 killed, nearly 9,000 wounded, and 6,500 missing. The U.S. lost 2,000 tanks and 1,400 aircraft. Still, the fighting experience gained served the Americans well during the next phase, the invasion of Sicily, the steppingstone to Italy. The fighting in Italy was fierce. The Allies faced stalemate after stalemate from the landing at Salerno on September 9, 1943, to the capture of Rome on June 4, 1944, with 59,000 American casualties at Anzio. June 6, two days after Rome fell, Operation OVERLORD began with the invasion of France on the beaches at Normandy. Italy faded as a priority, and the Europe Theater of Operations (ETO) became France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. For the next 11 months, U.S. and Allied forces would be engaged in the main thrust of ETO, defeating the Third Reich completely. The combined air and ground assault would bring Germany to its knees. Significant combat operations like the “Battle of the Bulge” and “MARKET GARDEN” would go down in the history books, and the loss of more than 300,000 U.S. and British troops will forever be a testament to their courage and devotion.
Winning the war in Europe drove Americans at home to make sacrifices and rise to the occasion as well to enable the soldiers on the battlefield to be successful. In addition to giving their sons and husbands to the war effort, rationing of meats, canned goods, frozen fruits and vegetables, soups, baby food, and ketchup was the rule.
Commercial auto manufacturers stopped making cars for American consumers and started building tanks, all manner of aircraft, machine guns, ammunition, and war materials. As Arthur Herman points out in his book Freedom’s Forge, the United States provided two-thirds of all military equipment used by the Allies in World War II. The amount of gear was staggering. Coming off American assembly lines were 86,000 tanks, 2.5 million trucks, 286,000 fighter, bomber, and cargo aircraft, and out of American shipyards, American workers produced 8,800 Navy ships and 5,600 merchant vessels. The production engine of democracy had outdone itself.
And then it was over. Though at the time the news was stirring and gratefully received, as we look at it today, the announcement that hostilities would end seems bureaucratic, emotionless, and – after all the forces had been through – almost anticlimactic. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote,
“A REPUTABLE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE GERMAN HIGH COMMAND SIGNED THE UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER OF ALL GERMAN LAND, SEA, AND AIR FORCES IN EUROPE TO THE ALLIED EXPEDITIONARY FORCE AND SIMULTANEOUSLY TO THE SOVIET HIGH COMMAND AT 0141 HOURS CENTRAL EUROPEAN TIME, MAY 7 UNDER WHICH ALL FORCES WILL CEASE ACTIVE OPERATIONS AT OO1 HOURS, MAY 9.
EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY ALL OFFENSIVE OPERATIONS BY ALLIED EXPEDITIONARY FORCE WILL CEASE AND TROOPS WILL REMAIN IN PRESENT POSITIONS. MOVES INVOLVED IN OCCUPATIONAL DUTIES WILL CONTINUE. DUE TO DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATION THERE MAY BE SOME DELAY IN SIMILAR ORDERS REACHING ENEMY TROOPS SO FULL DEFENSIVE PRECAUTIONS WILL BE TAKEN.
ALL INFORMED DOWN TO AND INCLUDING DIVISIONS, TACTICAL AIR COMMANDS AND TROOPS, BASE SECTIONS, AND EQUIVALENT. NO RELEASE WILL BE MADE TO THE PRESS PENDING AN ANNOUNCEMENT BY THE HEADS OF THE THREE GOVERNMENTS.
To once again quote The Story of the Century, “But most of us, choked with happiness, merely shook a buddy’s hand, laughed like a boy again, or just sat quietly and gave thanksgiving to God in his own way.” That was 75 years ago.
For those who would like to check in on the virtual events in Europe, you will find them at https://europeremembers.com/.
If you are interested in additional reading, the Pulitzer Prize winning Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson is excellent and worth the time.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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About World War II
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Elementary School: 80 Years Since World War II
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Middle School: Attack on Pearl Harbor: Bringing America into World War II
Elementary School: Japan’s Sneak Attack on Pearl Harbor