Confronting Communism in Chechoslozakia
Colley, David, VFW Magazine
In a sense, the first "iron curtain" descended in Bohemia in the summer of 1945. There, Russians and GIs faced off for six tense months.
FOR STAFF SGT. FORD LITTLE, JR., the Cold War began the same week World War II in Europe ended. In early May 1945, the 16th Armored Division pushed into Czechoslovakia and Little's unit, the 64th Armored Infantry Battalion, battled diehard Nazis in the main square in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
"We had a pretty good little gunfight for about three hours," the former tank commander recalls. But for the most part the war was over and the Germans knew resistance was futile. Their main objective was to avoid capture by the Red Army. On May 7, some 5,500 men of the llth Panzer Division around Pilsen surrendered to the 16th AD.
After VE-Day, May 8, Little's orders were to take up a defensive position in the village of Cimelice, near Pilsen, and await the arrival of the Soviets. For several days, the elusive Communists failed to show. Only straggling Germans came out of the east. But on May 11, Little and the crew of his M-4 Sherman heard the rumble of a tank.
The Americans watched with curiosity as the Russian armored vehicle clanked into position directly across the street from Little's tank, no more than 40 feet away. "We had our guns pointing at them and they had all their guns pointing at us," he recalls.
Little stayed with his tank in the same spot until late July when he was rotated back to the U.S. The Russian tank also remained. But not once during those 2l/2 months did the crews exchange greetings. They studied each other's movements through binoculars as though they were enemies. In a sense, they were.
Russian-American Control Line
By war's end in 1945, it was becoming clear that the greatest threat to the Western democracies was Russian communism. The powerful Red Army, motivated by Stalin's zealous commissars, was conquering eastern Europe, including most of Czechoslovakia. American and British forces had defeated the Wehrmacht in the west, and in May 1945, elements of Patton's Third Army advanced into the eastern Czechoslovakian provinces of Bohemia and Sudetenland.
The British general staff wanted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to dispatch Third Army as far as Prague to preempt the Russians and protect the future of Czech democracy. So did Patton who proclaimed, "I felt that we should have gone on to the Moldau (River). If the Russians didn't like it, let them go to hell." Eisenhower, however, at the request of Red Army commanders, permitted only a limited advance of U.S. forces to a line running from Karlsbad at the northern edge of the U.S. sector, through Pilsen to Ceske Budejovice at the southern end.
U.S. and Soviet forces arranged themselves along this line until December 1945. But the demarcation bore little resemblance to the double and quadruple rows of wire fencing that separated East from West at the height of the Cold War.
The Czech line in 1945 was a series of outposts at the intersections of unimproved, gravel roads or checkpoints, manned by armed troops, where a road or railroad crossed from the U.S. to Soviet zones.
"The line ran unmarked through open country," says Joseph Biro, B Co., 376th Inf. Reg., 94th Div. Other GIs remember sections bisecting a dense pine forest that was crisscrossed by what appeared to be logging roads. In some places the line was patrolled on foot or by jeep.
The 94th and 16th ADs weren't the only U.S. units to advance into Czechoslovakia that spring. The 16th was eventually relieved by the 80th Division.
"The Blue Ridge Division remained until November 1945," pointed out James E. Morrison, a veteran of the 80th. The 1st Division moved into an area around Karlsbad in early May. The 4th Armored Division was slated to take Prague, but the order never came. The 2nd and 97th divisions also ended up in Czechoslovakia, stopping at Rokycany.
The 94th Division, along with the 774th Tank Destroyer Battalion, took up stations in the country in early June to relieve V Corps Artillery and the 328th Regiment of the 26th Infantry Division already there. …