Sixty-five years ago, the war in Europe came to an end. Germany capitulated early on the morning of May 7, 1945—five days after Berlin fell to the Soviet army—and representatives of what remained of Hitler’s regime signed the surrender in a small schoolhouse that served as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France. The surrender was formally accepted the next day in Berlin, making May 8 officially V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, and unleashing celebrations worldwide. But when 22-year-old William Lee Preston, a first lieutenant with the Third Army’s 65th Infantry Division, wrote a letter to his brother John two days later, his thoughts were more somber.
May 10, 1945
The war is over. The war in Europe is over. I can hardly believe it, for it seems only yesterday we were seeing our first action in the Siegfried line.
Two nights ago, John, I sat by an open window on the second story of the building my platoon occupies, and listened and watched for over an hour as German prisoners, thousands, passed below me on their way to a prisoner of war enclosure. I listened to the tromp, tromp, of Nazi boots, no longer in cadence, no longer marching proudly, a beaten, tired mob of German soldiers—surrendered.
I recalled the many pictures and newsreels I had seen of the German Wehr-macht on parade, while thousands of cheering civilians watched the spectacle before Adolf Hitler. The super race they were—the world’s best soldiers then. I looked at them now—hungry, shoulders stooped by the heavy equipment on their backs, uniforms dirty, and a haggard expression on their faces. Hitler’s soldiers on parade before the Yanks, and the G.I.s watched intently. Then I recalled the scene I had witnessed of those same soldiers—they had left a string of dead and dying from Cherbourg to the Siegfried line—from the Rhine to Austria, in retreat. I had seen them lying in roads, streets, ditches, fields, wherever we went—sometimes with G.I.s near them. And still they came on the street below me, marching four abreast.
Two afternoons ago I saw another group, a column of Hitler’s SS troops who had surrendered. I watched as M.P.s took them to a prison camp. They still wore their insignia, the skull and cross bones, but they were no longer arrogant, their pride had gone with surrender. Hitler’s crack troops with the insignia that had meant terror and torture to the people of Europe for years. And not only to Europeans, but terror and torture to American soldiers surrendered. And now I saw them stop for a rest, and was amazed to see them begging G.I.s for a smoke, a cigarette butt. We felt like spitting on them. The terror of Europe—begging for a smoke. How things change. The M.P.s moved them off again. They walked with shoulders stooped, heads bowed looking at the ground—beaten. I was glad to see them so we didn’t mock them as they passed, for our hatred was deeper than mocking.
Another column of German soldiers came by. I was amazed. Can you imagine Kent Lawrence, Jo, and men dad’s age fighting the war for America? Most of them were 14, 15, 16, years of age, with an old man here and there in the column. The youngsters were the Hitler youth (Jugend), fanatical boys fighting for der Fuhrer. In America, kids the same age are reading Superman and going to junior high school, I hope. Yet these German boys were old soldiers, prisoners of war. A shame, I agree, but indicative of the desperate measures the Nazi leaders took in a last ditch fight against us.
Yes, the war in Europe is over. I don’t know what the reaction was in the states on a whole. Over a patched up radio we heard that ticker tape and paper floated down from New York buildings. We heard that there were wild celebrations in the streets in London by civilians, English and American soldiers. But, John, the front line troops didn’t celebrate. Most of the men merely read the story of victory from the division bulletin sent to the troops, said something like “I’m glad,” and walked away. Perhaps it was a different story in their hearts, or perhaps they were too tired, or thinking of home too much, or thinking of their buddies who didn’t live to see the victory, to do much celebrating or merry making. But I’m sure of one thing—the troops were glad they wouldn’t have to fight anymore—I was.
What our future is we don’t know, but everyone is sweating out the South Pacific troop movement.
My love to Eleanor and Troy.
P.S. Some boys who left Camp Shelby with me didn’t get to see V-E day. Others are in hospitals in the U.S., England and France who used to be in my company. I’m thankful John, to be sitting here writing to you, and I’m still a very lucky fellow. Yes, I’m thankful.
Preston practiced law in Walton County, Georgia, for 44 years after the war; he passed away in 1995.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of World War II. To read more War Letters, click here.