By 1st. Lt. Dennis WhittMay 8, 2014
PILSEN, CZECH REPUBLIC -- Decades have passed since the 16th Armored Division of General Patton's 3rd Army rolled into Bohemia and liberated the citizens of Pilsen in modern day Czech Republic, from their Nazi occupiers.
The memory of that momentous event is kept alive through an annual Liberation Festival in which surviving U.S. Army Soldiers are recognized as heroes by the city's grateful citizens who value freedom and remember the past.
This year marked the 69th annual Pilsen Liberation Festival and one in which a 88 year old U.S. veteran became the face of the event for the citizens of Pilsen, his fellow Americans and Belgian comrades who took part in the liberation in 1945.
For James Duncan of Santa Fe, New Mexico, returning to Pilsen has been a lifelong dream which has now come full circle. With pictures of his smiling face and his memento adorned 'WWII Veteran' baseball cap on his head, Mr. Duncan came to represent this year's event for all the participants.
"It's great to have the opportunity to be back here after all these years, I can still remember much of this city despite the time that has passed," said the former Technical Sergeant, who joined up with the Fox company, 38th infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division mid-way through the Battle of the Bulge. He remembered harsh fighting brought on by Hitler's last ditch offensive to enable a Nazi breakout and perpetuate his war efforts.
"The people of Pilsen were amazing, they just treated us with such care and admiration," explained Duncan, recalling his arrival into the city.
However for the Czech people and their American liberators, the good times would be short-lived. The U.S. Soldiers were directed to halt assistance with the Czech rebuilding efforts and prepare for re-deployment.
"We were told that we had to pull out of Pilsen and prepare for the invasion of Japan. I made my peace and prepared for what was to come," reflected Duncan.
The Communist Russians seized power and in 1948 began a campaign to blot out the history of the 16th Armored Division and its role in the American liberation of Pilsen.
"I feel I speak on behalf of all my comrades when I say that we felt a great sense of guilt all these years for having to leave the Czech people behind to what we all knew awaited them under the Communists," explained Duncan, who was discharged in 1946 shortly after redeploying to America before the war came to a close after the surrender of the Japanese.
In light of these tumultuous times, the Pilsen Liberation Festival has not only become an expression of freedom and thanks, but a chance for U.S. veterans like Duncan to reunite with the people with whom he bonded with so closely during those short months the summer of 1945.
"In my opinion, the Czech and American people are the most closely related in their love of individuality and freedom," said Duncan who was able to reconnect with the people he held so dear all those years ago.
The Joint Multination Readiness Center is the U.S. Army's only overseas Combat Training Center. It is part of the Joint Multinational Training Command and trains more than 60,000 soldiers (U.S. and allied) annually.