WASHINGTON -- After being freed from a World War II prison camp by British forces, Harold Radish immediately sought the simple pleasures of freedom: a beer and a nice sleep.
A reconnaissance sergeant with the 90th Infantry Division, Radish was captured by German soldiers in February 1945. Following months as a prisoner in Nazi Germany, the Jewish-American was rescued in late April, a week before the official victory in Europe.
“The war in Europe was over,” he said in a video. “The desolation and the buildings that were bombed, the killings and the rough times that I and my buddies had -- it was over.”
Amid the current war on COVID-19, several veterans, public figures and family members of those killed in WWII shared a series of videos released Friday, as part of an online commemoration to honor the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.
In his video, Radish said that he and other prisoners were flown to Brussels. There, they were cleaned up, fed, clothed in British uniforms and given a couple of hours off in the city.
“We went into a bar, we drank some beer and then we went to sleep,” he said. “And that was true liberation.”
In a letter he mailed to his family after his release, Radish said he could not wait to return to them.
“I don’t think anyone can get me home fast enough, though they are using airplane and ship,” he said, reciting the letter. “Freedom is worth any price. It took a long time, but I [finally] found out.”
Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were thrust into an ongoing fight across Europe as both Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Months of hard battles ensued, as Allied forces began to defeat enemy strongholds in Africa and Europe. In May 1943, Axis troops were defeated in northern Africa and by the fall of 1943, fascist Italy surrendered.
In June 1944, the D-Day invasion of Normandy broke through Germany’s Atlantic defensives and established a foothold for Allied forces that led to Paris being liberated later that summer.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg also became liberated by Allied forces.
In early 1945, Allies reached Germany’s western border, then crossed the Rhine River in March, said Jane Droppa, vice chair of the Friends of the National WWII Memorial.
“The determined push into the heart of German fatherland was slow yet steady as the Allies encountered German forces not yet willing to give up the fight,” she said. “As they pushed into Germany, Allied forces encountered scenes of unspeakable horror and human suffering in Nazi concentration camps, all of which gave new meaning to the war.”
As American and Soviet soldiers moved into Germany from the west and east, both forces met in late April along the Elbe River, cutting the remaining German forces in two.
Less than a week later, Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide a few days before the fall of Berlin. German leaders then signed an unconditional surrender of their entire forces, ending the war in Europe on May 8, 1945.
An estimated 15 to 20 million people died during the war in Europe. In total, WWII claimed some 60 million people worldwide, including 400,000 Americans.
Beginning of the end of evil
For retired Col. Frank Cohn, that day was just like any other at that time.
As an intelligence agent who could speak German, he was assigned to a unit called T-Force that was in Magdeburg near Berlin. The unit’s mission was to go into large German cities after they were captured to inspect building and personality targets.
“Building targets were anything that was going to be of use to the force and in support of the criminal investigations and prosecution of war criminals,” he said. “And the personality targets were people who were going to be tried.”
When news came of the surrender, he said it didn’t really mean much to him and others in his unit. To them, the war had already been over for a few weeks.
“So we never really even celebrated it,” he said of V-E Day. “We just took it as another day and we were in the occupation as far as we were concerned. It means so much more now than it did then.
“When I was drafted, I had absolutely no fear that we were going to lose the war,” he added. “We were going to win. But certainly, in retrospect, it wasn’t that obvious and I think we can celebrate it.”
The son of 2nd Lt. Robert Meek also spoke of his father’s sacrifice months earlier in the war.
Meek, a B-25 Mitchell bomber copilot, was killed during a raid on the Magenta Bridge near Milan, Italy, in October 1944.
“The plane was hit by flak, killing my father instantly,” said retired Col. Robert Meek Jr. “The pilot was able to return the plane and land it, even though he and two other members of the crew were wounded.”
To him, V-E Day meant the beginning of the end of evil in the world, in regard to German fascism and Japanese imperialism. By remembering this day, he hopes it can serve as a stark reminder to not let certain history repeat itself.
“If we are to allow evil to persist and exist, then we will go through the catastrophic conditions that we had in World War II,” he said. “So, please remember that men and women were willing to sacrifice to save freedom and democracy.”