He is misled who thinks that on May 8 forty years ago the war in Europe came to an end and Johnny came marching home. At least such was not the case with my division, the 101st Airborne.
Following the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge and the disaster to Hitler's forces there, my division was moved south into Bavaria under the command of the 7th Army. There we joined in the pursuit of such German forces as had not already surrendered.
On May 4 with two other divisions, we were ordered to move to the mountainous Berchtesgaden region as rapidly as traffic would permit, there to explore current rumors that German units were assembling in the area and take on any enemy found. Despite the large number of Germans fleeing west to avoid capture by the Russians, our leading regiment reached the outskirts of Berchtesgaden on the evening of the 4th and closed in on the town the following day. En route, in the mountains, we received a few rounds of timid machine-gun fire that proved to be the last of World War II for us.
We found that Berchtesgaden, the beautiful resort of Hitler and his leaders during peace and war, was a shambles, largely the result of recent British bombing of the principal buildings of the Nazi high command, destructive fires intentionally left by the SS garrison when it fled, and a few French tanks that preceded us into town. These latter appeared to enjoy firing their small weapons into all attractive targets in this Nazi holy of holies. By May 6, essentially all of the division was assembled, and I had received orders from the 7th Army to assume authority for everybody and everything of importance in Berchtesgaden and a zone of about 50 square miles around it. It proved a job of months.
We were hardly settled before we learned that a delegation of German generals in Reims had agreed to a total surrender that would bring an end to the war in Europe. This report was confirmed on May 8, a date that became the V-E Day that we are now celebrating.
A great handicap to the division's task was a growing population. This resulted from an ever increasing flood of Germans of all ranks, species and reputations, a sudden arrival of representatives of the American, British and French press, and a surge of rear-area American soldiers allowed tourist passes to come to this interesting spot.
Among the prominent Germans we soon had on our hands were senior generals whom we knew something about and Nazi officials of whom we knew little. Among the first group was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Hitler's commander-in-chief in Italy and the Mediterranean. Then there was Gen. Heinz Guderian, the famous Panzer leader who spent most of the war on the Russian front. Finally there were the numerous less famous commanders of the army group on our front.
Among the civilians were Robert Ley, leader of the Nazi Labor Front, Julius Streicher, the notorious Jew-baiter, and Franz Schwarz, treasurer of the Nazi Party. Also there was Hitler's chauffeur, Eric Kempke, who, having escaped Hitler's bunker in Berlin, provided the best available information regarding the last days of the Fuehrer.
We were concerned with guarding not only valuable people but also valuable things. A few days after arriving in Berchtesgaden we acquired a responsibility for one of the most valuable art collections in Europe -- the one that Goering had painstakingly assembled in Berlin. To remove it from danger, Goering had its pictures, statuary and miscellaneous bijoux d'art moved by rail to Berchtesgaden in two loads. The first to arrive we found buried in an air-raid shelter; the second was still in boxcars on a rail siding. It is no exaggeration that the protection of this collection until it could be moved to Munich was my greatest worry in this period.
Things of value were not limited to Berchtesgaden itself. Driving one day with my aide along a mountain road several miles from Berchtesgaden, I noted the tower of a modest Schloss rising above the trees of a hill. Driving there, we found a single guard who reluctantly admitted us to the building. His reluctance was justified -- inside was the Salzburg Musical Museum with an impressive collection of Mozart and his works.
It took most of May and June to complete these tasks and establish reasonable order and tranquillity in and around Berchtesgaden. This state of affairs did not last. Toward the end of June, I received information from Washington that the 101st Airborne Division should prepare for movement to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's command in the Far East. The warning created a host of problems, the most difficult being how best to adjust the morale of the troops to this possibility. So I made the rounds of all my units, outlining likely future events and explaining why we should take pride in being chosen for the Far East.
Trying to stir up some enthusiasm, I ended my appeal to one regiment with the peroration: "Thus far, we've licked Hitler's best troops in France, Holland and Germany; now where do we want to go?" Instead of "Japan," as I had foolishly hoped, they replied with a roar, "Home" -- then laughed at their discomfited commander, who should have known better.
Although we prepared for Japan as best we could, we never got there. I received some insight into the future from a surprising event. On June 27, I received word from none less than Gen. George Marshall that, having attended the Potsdam "Big Three" Conference, he wanted to spend a quiet day and night in Berchtesgaden before returning to Washington. His message indicated that, during his stay, he would like to see Gen. George Patton, whose headquarters were not far away.
All went well on the occasion, with a simple lunch for three at my headquarters and a stroll to a nearby GI track meet. In the course of the conversation, without warning, Gen. Marshall raised the subject of a recent atom bomb test at Alamagordo, the destructiveness it had demonstrated and the plan of our leaders to use such a bomb on a Japanese city "on the first moonlight night in August." He added his opinion that about two such bombs would end the war. As we were soon to learn, Marshall was correct in his estimate, and on Sept. 2 Japan surrendered.
The final activities of my division were soon at an end. My soldiers and all others responsible for V-E Day could go home courtesy of V-J Day. Both days were necessary to bring peace and an end to World War II.