World War II: Liberation of western Czechoslovakia
The following is another excerpt from my upcoming memoir, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE: AN IMMIGRANT’S PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM:
Like most veterans of World War II, my father seldom spoke of the horrors he had seen. Only occasionally, when feeling nostalgic or wishing to entertain us with an amusing anecdote, he would regale us with a war story. One such vignette became part of family lore.
On April 21, 1945, British Field Marshal “Monty” Montgomery selected 140 Czechoslovak soldiers and sent them through Germany toward Czechoslovakia, where they were to assist General George Patton’s US Third Army in liberating their homeland. My father was commander of one of the platoons.
On May 4, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave Patton permission to have his US troops drive into Czechoslovakia. Patton was to move out the next morning, but Ike commanded him not to advance east of a line drawn from Karlový Vary (Carlsbad) to Plzeň (Pilsen) to České Budějovice (Budweiss).
Patton was anxious to push on to Prague. He was receiving reports that an uprising was taking place in the capital and wanted to provide assistance to the Czech fighters. He bombarded his immediate superior, General Omar Bradley, with messages begging permission to push eastward. In order to strengthen his case, he dispatched a small group, consisting of one American and three Czechs—including my father—to ride the sixty miles to Prague on motorcycles. After passing through German lines undetected at night, the soldiers arrived in Prague in the middle of a violent revolution.
“There were barricades made up of overturned street cars, cobblestones, furniture, and trash cans,” Papa recalled. “Czechs were shooting at Germans with hunting rifles and pistols. Czechs were dying for nothing because there was no resistance between Plzeň and Prague, and we could have driven out the Germans in a day.”
When the scouts returned to Plzeň, they found the Americans at headquarters listening to a broadcast from a Prague radio station. In broken English, revolutionaries were begging the Americans to come to save them. Patton begged Eisenhower to let him drive eastward to Prague. But the Supreme Commander ordered him not to cross the demarcation line. Ike had promised the Russians that the Red Army would be the one to liberate the capital.
My father was distraught. For more than five years, he had fought on two continents with one objective driving him through times of horror, uncertainty, and boredom: the liberation of his country and his family. Now—after Tobruk, D-Day, and Dunkirk—he was a mere sixty miles from home and unable to finish the job. He decided to take matters into his own hands.
“We have to get to Prague and help our countrymen,” he announced to five Czech soldiers from his platoon.
“How are we going to do that?” asked one.
“Watch me,” Papa replied.
He stole a US Army truck. He and his colleagues loaded it with weapons and ammunition. With my father at the wheel, they sped east on the highway toward Prague. Czech citizens, seeing the white star painted on the green vehicle, cheered madly as they passed through town after town. Everything went smoothly until they reached the town of Beroun, less than twenty miles from Prague. There, they were stopped by a barricade across the road, manned by armed soldiers of the Red Army, apparently an advance unit of the Soviet division heading south from Berlin. Papa and his friends argued in Czech, and the Russians responded in their own language, each group understanding perhaps a third of the other’s words. But the Czechs did not have to comprehend the verbiage to realize that their so-called allies were serious. There was no way they would be permitted to continue.
After an hour of fruitless attempts to convince, and even bribe, the Russians, they turned back. Now, having accomplished nothing, they would have to face the Americans for not only having disobeyed orders by having crossed Ike’s demarcation line, but also for having stolen US Army property.
As soon as they arrived back in Plzeň, Papa sought out an American lieutenant colonel whom he had befriended. My father explained what had taken place, admitted that he had been the instigator, and apologized.
“Good try, Rudy, I would have done the same thing if I’d been in your shoes,” said the colonel. “I’m sorry you didn’t make it through. Just return the truck and the weapons where you found them. It never happened.”
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