A photograph taken in the last days of the Second World War shows two soldiers, an American and a Russian, embracing. The two men posed for the shot on the night of April 25, in Wurzen, Germany, at the American headquarters on the east bank of the Mulde River. The soldier on the left is William Robertson, a second lieutenant in the d Infantry Regiment of the 69 th Infantry Division. On the right is Alexander Silvashko, an officer from a Soviet Army rifle unit.
In the photo, the 21 year-old Robertson is still wearing his M-1 helmet with the camouflage mesh and a rumpled, oversized Army field jacket. The slightly taller Russian, his short hair brushed back, wears a tunic with a medal on his chest. The two are smiling at each other like long-lost friends. In fact, they had known each other for just a few hours, but news of their momentous meeting was already on its way up the chain of command to the respective generals, and all the way to Stalin and President Truman.
Within two days people around the world would learn that after years of fighting across a theatre of war from Casablanca to Stalingrad, the allied armies—Americans moving east, Russians moving west—at long last had met. Nazi Germany was cut in half, and the end of the war was in sight.
Only days before, the confusion in the collapsing German nation made a final victory seem elusive to the exhausted Americans. The Fighting 69 th had reached Wurzen on the 23 rd and spent all that night dealing with the chaotic influx of refugees from the east.
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After getting little sleep the next night, Robertson met with his immediate superior, First Lieutenant Frank Hodson at 1 st Battalion headquarters on Wednesday morning. Seventy days of combat had taken a toll on Hodson. His battalion had been part of a task force that spearheaded the American offensive from the Remagen bridgehead while the rest of the division rested and refit. The task force then captured Fort Ehrenbreitstein on the eastern bank before moving eastward to the Mulde River.
It was there that Hodson had his closest call of the war: on a nighttime march his unit lost its way and he and a staff sergeant avoided capture by a German patrol by hiding in a haystack. After a bloody nighttime battle, the Germans finally surrendered the following afternoon. Since February, Hodson had seen German 88s and Tiger tanks wound and kill many men of the 1 st battalion.
He was ready to get back home to his wife in Detroit. But first, he had to deal with the complication of the refugees pouring into Wurzen. Hodson ordered Lieutenant Robertson to bring some order to the columns of people heading toward the American lines. While Robertson needed a head count so he could plan for their food, shelter, and medical care, Hodson needed a feasible plan to make ro to Wurzen passable. Hodson also wanted Robertson to reconnoiter for Russians.
Regiment HQ was concerned that an encounter of the two armies could result in accidental deaths. Major General Emil Reinhardt had set limits on how far to patrol. Hodson shared these concerns and ordered Robertson to go as far as the town of Torgau, on the Elbe River, where there were rumors of Russian units. On the ro in and around Wurzen, the Robertson patrol encountered a river of human flotsam such as can only be created by war. These men posed no threat, so they were allowed to proceed.
Two SS troopers, however, spooked the patrol. The troopers were still arrogant in the last days of the war and offering minor resistance, so Robertson told them they would be handed to the Russians if they did not surrender their weapons. They did so, and began marching towards Wurzen, tearing off their SS inias as they walked.
With refugee s roughly calculated, the patrol drove towards Torgau. As they carefully drove into the town center, German civilians told them that Russian units were on the far side of the Elbe River.
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Just then, the patrol came under Russian fire. Robertson and his men ducked into a destroyed apothecary. There, they found red and blue powders, mixed them with water, and made a makeshift American flag on a bed sheet.
In the confusion, a Russian POW from the nearby prison camp appeared. The Russian called across the river and the shooting stopped. Moments later, Robertson was crawling across a bridge girder towards the Russian uniforms approaching from the other side. The long-anticipated linkup had finally been made.
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Two other patrols from the Fighting 69 th encountered Soviet units that day, but Robertson was the only one to bring back proof. Silvashko and three other officers from the 58 th Guards followed the Jeep on the nearly twenty-mile drive back to Wurzen. Their arrival at headquarters launched plans for an impromptu celebration.
Regimental staff made arrangements to get the two sides together with their respective divisional commanders the next day. Major General Reinhardt would travel to Torgau to meet the Soviet commanders.
Hundreds of Russian troops, including women soldiers, would come to Wurzen to trade medals with the Americans and to exchange their vodka for American whiskey. The sunlit banks of the Elbe would be the site of a large banquet.
Then, arrangements made, Lieutenant Hodson went to bed. At age 27, he already felt like an old man. But the other men were not about to wait for the next day to celebrate.
Don Whitehead of the Associated Press, who was embedded with the division, reported the backslapping, language, and drinking between the Americans and the Russians. The men gulped German schnapps and French champagne from beer mugs.
Before the party was over, Robertson and Silvashko were ushered in front of a hastily painted announcing the linkup and a photographer snapped the famous photo. The events of the day were a surprise and a relief for men whose nerves had been worn thin by the long conflict.
The Russians knew the Americans were to their west, and the Americans knew the Russians were out in front of them somewhere. There had been worries at the higher levels that a terrible accident would cost lives. As he neared his Red Army counterpart, the young American reached out and extended his hand. Very insightful.
Chris Gorham- I am a big fan of your work and look forward to the next article by you. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam.
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