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The history of the Second World War is filled with many events of monumental importance. The meeting of the forces of the United States and the Soviet Union along the Elbe River on the 25th of April 1945 was such a moment. This emotional joining of a few battle-weary soldiers at this historic river in a direct way symbolized the massive and mutual efforts of all the Allied Powers to achieve victory and secure a peaceful world.
In this same spirit of shared hope for a peaceful world, we now briefly recount the circumstances of this event as reported in U.S. historical military records.
As American forces steadily advanced eastward after the capture of Leipzig, it was only a matter of time before leading U.S. units and the advancing Soviet Army would meet. As early as 23 April, tactical Soviet radio traffic began cutting in on American channels. A Russian-speaking Staff Sergeant in the 6th U.S. Armored Division reported that he had actually talked with Soviet soldiers on his radio.
Small reconnaissance patrols were sent out in advance of the main forces to search for Soviet units. Such a mission was given to the 35-man patrol of the 3rd Battalion, 273rd Infantry, 69th Infantry Division commanded by 1st Lieutenant Albert L. Kotzebue, a 21 year old infantry officer from Texas.
As Lt Kotzebue and his jeep-mounted patrol entered the farming village of Leckwitz at 1130 a.m. on the 25th of April; they spotted a lone cavalryman. At a glance his uniform seemed unusual. It was a Soviet soldier. Questioned by the U.S. patrol’s Russian-speaking medic, the Soviet soldier indicated that his unit’s headquarters was located to the East. Although Lt Kotzebue had been ordered to reconnoiter no further eastward than the other side of the Mulde River, he took the initiative and moved his patrol toward the Elbe River. Upon reaching the Elbe at the village of Strehla, he saw uniformed figures on the East bank. The rays of the sun reflecting off the medals of their tunics convinced him that these were Soviet soldiers.
The high commands of the Allied Armies had planned for this moment. Arrangements had been completed for recognition signals -- a red flare for Soviet Troops -- a green flare for the Allied Forces advancing from the West. For the soldiers in the field, however, such procedures had little significance. They had designed their own recognition signals. Lt Kotzebue’s patrol used as its signal a British flag obtained from a group of newly released British prisoners of war they had met as they moved toward the Elbe.
Another American patrol made its own U.S. flag from a white bed sheet and red and blue paint. Now at the West bank of the Elbe, shouts of “Americanski” echoed Eastward as Soviet soldiers waved back in friendship. But, there were no green and red flares as the respective higher headquarters had envisioned. Rather, it was hands held high with the universal “V” for victory sign that identified the soldiers of the two Armies as they came together.
Lt Kotzebue located a small sailboat chained to its dock, blew the chain away with a hand grenade, and then, together with five members of his patrol, began to cross to the East bank. Meanwhile, a Soviet major and two other soldiers moved to the edge of the bank to greet the approaching Americans. This simple soldier-to-soldier meeting represented the end of a long journey. For the men of the 69th U.S. Infantry Division, it had begun two years before at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Their path had taken them to England, then across France, over the Rhine River, across Germany, through Leipzig and finally, on the 25th of April 1945, to the East bank of the Elbe River. For the Soviet soldiers of the 1st Ukranian Front now joined with their American allies on the banks of the Elbe, it had also been a long and bitter journey -- one that began at Stalingrad.
Minutes after arriving, Lt Kotzebue was greeted by Lt Col Alexander T. Gardiev, Commander of the 175th Rifle Regiment of the 58th Guards Division, 34th Corps. It was his troops who shared the honor, along with those of his American guest, for making this long-awaited moment a reality.
Later that same afternoon, another patrol from Lt Kotzebue’s regiment also met Soviet troops in a dramatic encounter at Torgau. As the American patrol leader inched his way across the twisted girders of a collapsed highway bridge that had spanned the Elbe, a Soviet soldier carefully eased his way toward the West bank and the approaching American. The two met mid-stream and, above the Elbe amid the twisted girders of the destroyed bridge, the two joyfully embraced.
The meetings this day were followed by a series of visits between the senior commanders of the two armies. On the 26th of April, Major General Reinhardt, Commander of the U.S. 69th Infantry Division, met with his Soviet counterpart, Major General Rusakov, Commander of the 58th Guards Division. On the 27th of April, Major General Huebner, Commander of U.S. V Corps, met with Major General Balankov, Commander of the 34th Corps. General Balankov proudly presented General Huebner with the battle-stained red silk flag of the 34th Corps which had flown over Stalingrad during that bitter battle. General Balankov had commanded a Division at Stalingrad and wore on his tunic the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross which had been awarded to him by the American Government for his heroism there. Finally, on 30 April, General Hodges, Commander of the 1st U.S. Army, met with Colonel-General Zhadov, Commander of the 1st Ukranian Front.
Each of these subsequent meetings took place at Torgau. Each was progressively more formal and celebrated more elaborately. But perhaps the most impressive celebration was the very first one on the 25th of April as battle-weary soldiers, both American and Soviet, shared their meager combat rations -- biscuits, sardines, spam, and also perhaps a rescued bottle of wine -- and standing together on the banks of the Elbe could finally see the end to that terrible war and the possibility of a lasting peace.
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