“We live in a free world today because in 1945 the forces of imperfect goodness defeated the forces of near-perfect evil.” These words have stayed with me since I first read them while researching a book about Lt. Colonel Felix Sparks, The Liberator. They belong to Michael DiPaulo who in 2001, as a French Consulate staff member, was addressing US veterans.
As the anniversary of V-E Day approaches on 8 May, I can’t help but think how DiPaulo’s words still ring true. We do indeed – those of us lucky enough to live in democracies such as the US and the countries of Western Europe – live in freedom because of the sacrifices and courage of the forces of imperfect goodness. So very few of those men and women who defeated near-perfect evil remain with us. I’ll be thinking about them this month, not only on V-E Day, but as I travel through Europe, retracing the route of Allied liberation.
I’ll be in Normandy on Omaha Beach where some 900 Americans lost their lives on 6 June 1944. From there I’ll head via Paris, liberated on 25 August that bloody summer, to Bastogne where the 101st Airborne made its legendary stand in December 1944. My next stop will be where American troops crossed the Rhine near Remagen in March 1945. Then I’ll travel to Dachau, Hitler’s first concentration camp, set free on 29 April 1945 by men like Guy Prestia, who celebrated his 101st birthday this past April.
As the war entered its last days, men like Prestia were in no mood to celebrate. “People were damaged” he once told me. His harrowing road toward victory spanned over 500 days and had begun in Sicily in July 1943 when Americans had first fought and died to liberate Europe. “It was like we’d been in a car crash,” remembered Prestia. “There was trauma. It takes a while to get over that.”
During my journey, I’ll also visit Reims, famous for its champagne bars and – at least to us WWII historians - the Ecole Professionelle et Technique de Garcons, a red-brick three-story school. It was into this school, very early on 7 May 1945, that two Germans walked and then were guided along a corridor to a classroom on the ground floor. General Alfred Jodl and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg stopped and squinted, momentarily blinded by arc lights set up for a bank of film cameras in the crowded classroom.
The school has been preserved as a museum. Today, you can stand in the classroom, its walls covered with original maps preserved under glass, where Jodl was told that the surrender documents on the table before him were ready for his signature. It was 2.41 A.M as he signed. Not far from the classroom, Dwight Eisenhower paced back and forth in an office. Jodl and Friedeburg soon entered and walked to the middle of the room, clicked their heels, and saluted the Allied Supreme Commander.
Eisenhower stood stiffly. He had sworn he would never shake hands with a Nazi and saw no reason to start doing so now.
“Do you understand the terms of the document of surrender you have just signed?”
“Ja, ja,” said Jodl.
“You will get details and instructions at a later date. And you will be expected to carry them out faithfully.”
Jodl bowed, saluted, and then marched out of the office. He would later be hanged for war crimes.
The museum in Reims explains through exhibits how, later that morning, Eisenhower sent a message to his bosses in Washington, the Combined Chiefs of Staff: “THE MISSION OF THIS ALIED FORCE WAS FULFILLED AT 0241, LOCAL TIME, MAY 7, 1945, EISENHOWER.”
Also on display in the museum are photographs showing the reaction around the world on May 8, 1945, when people learned of the German final surrender. There were intense and prolonged celebrations to mark the end of the most destructive war in European history. “The men of evil,” Churchill told the British nation, “are now prostrate before us.”
Later that afternoon of 8 May, Churchill was driven to Whitehall. When he stepped onto a balcony at the Ministry of Health, he could barely hear himself speak, so loud were the cheers of the crowds.
“This is your victory,” he shouted. “It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land.”
While in Europe, I’ll also visit the “Land of Castles”, the region of jagged mountains and lakes in southern Bavaria. It was there, after the death of 135, 576 Americans, that V-E Day was celebrated by the remarkable American reporter, Marguerite Higgins, who was with the Third Division at the very end. The Third Division had fought longer and lost more men than any other U.S. Division in the European Theatre. “We all went out on a balcony to see artillery guns of the division flash in celebration into the sky,” she recalled.
The first woman to win a Pulitzer for foreign reporting, Higgins would later recount how during WWII in Europe she had seen the “human closeness and magnificence of character that danger sometimes provokes…I have witnessed the awesomeness of man tried beyond endurance.”
I’ll place wreaths along my journey and remember, as best I can, all the men of imperfect goodness I’ve been so blessed to know over the years. I’ll count myself incredibly lucky that I grew up in a Western Europe that has, since V-E Day, 78 years ago, been at peace. And I’ll vow to dedicate what remains of my life to honoring those men of imperfect goodness who gave us everything.