In early April 1945 we had not yet met the Russians, but they frightened us. The battalion stopped at the Elbe River, some fifty miles northwest of Berlin. We dug in and waited.
The waters of the Elbe were cold. German soldiers and civilians came from the east, stripped off their clothes and swam to our side of the river to avoid the Soviets. Our orders were not to shoot the swimmers.
At first, just a trickle, and some drownings. The bodies floated down the river, towards the Baltic.
We found some motorized barges and used them to cross the river and pick up those who wanted to surrender. The German soldiers left their weapons behind or threw them into the river. I learned that the prize loot for the Russian soldiers was a watch. When the Germans embarked they handed their watches to the Army crew as carfare.
“Heir ist mein ühr!” Here’s my watch!
Whole German divisions surrendered. When our barges ran out of diesel fuel in our sector, the German vehicles supplied us. We ferried only German army personnel. The civilians were not permitted to cross. A hospital on barges floated from Berlin by canal and passed by our part of the Elbe waterfront. We did not fire.
The German panic was contagious; something powerful and dangerous was coming from the East. I felt the fear, for no reason except that I was surrounded by hundreds of the fearful. The menace was epidemic and contagious.
American cab-over-engine trucks picked up the prisoners and brought them to a railhead where they were put on trains and sent to prisoner of war compounds.
The deal was in. We’d sit on one side of the river, the Russians on the other. The two allies would not blunder into each other. The agreement was that the Americans and British would not cross the Elbe. That way the danger of two friendly armies firing at each other would be averted.
According to official accounts we did not cross the river. But we did.
I know we violated the agreement, because I was on the east side, the wrong side of the Elbe, unloading two jeeps that had been ferried across. They went off and left me on the bank. I missed the boat and had to wait.
Suddenly a German arrived on a horse. A beautiful, shiny, black horse, and a rider in a clean black uniform. A mounted enemy is a fearsome sight, particularly when his holster is open and his hand is on his pistol. I aimed my gun at him.
Either could have shot the other.
“Hände hoch,” I said. Hands up!
“Warum?” Why? (He was so much more elegant than I.)
“Das Krieg ist Ende.” Because the war is over.
“Nicht für mich. Noch nicht.” Not for me. Not quite yet.
I could have shot him with my grease gun. I couldn’t shoot. I knew I had killed others, but the war was over for me. I might also kill that beautiful black mount.
He turned the horse’s head with the reins. He could have shot me because I had hesitated. But he galloped away like a lancer without a spear.
I went back to the ferry, trembling.
I have never understood why neither used his weapon.
At 2100 14 April, two weeks after crossing the Rhine, the Regiment was deployed near the banks of the Elbe River. We had made our last advance in the European Theatre.
Generally, the Elbe front was quiet. The Germans attempted one counter-attack in the Third Battalion area but it was stamped down with artillery fire. We were dug in on the west side of the river. Our patrols showed that the Germans were along the levee on the east side of the river. We maintained outposts, laid trip flares and conducted all defensive measures. Behind us were few Allied troops. Our supply columns were attacked by a few German units which were later bottled in the Harz Mountains. A fully loaded mail truck was lost.
The Russian offense near Berlin, only 50 miles away, sent a backwash of refugees to the German side of the Elbe. A few civilians and soldiers came across the river to us, seared, they said, by the hot breath of the Russians. We knew it would not be long before we met the Soviet forces.
The prisoners came across in increasing numbers. A hospital on barges floated from Berlin by canal and tied at a wharf in the Third Battalion area. At first we took all who wanted to come across, but soon the far bank of the river was filled with frightened Germans. We could not permit civilians to cross, nor had we facilities for the wounded. Thousands of able-bodied German soldiers wanted to surrender. Whole German divisions marched to the river bank and obediently waited for boats to transport them. At times the Regimental PW cages held prisoners numbering three times the strength of the Regiment. When we ran short of diesel fuel for the barges, the Germans drained the vehicles with which they had driven to the bank. Hysterical men and women stripped to swim the Elbe. Nazi propaganda had invented a ridiculous rumor that the British and Americans had declared war on Russia. Many asked if they would have to continue fighting the Soviets.
Fortune Favored the Brave, A History of the 334th Infantry 84th Division, by Cpl. Perry S. Wolff, Mannheim Press, 1945:
Germans rowing the Elbe River to surrender to the the 335th Reg, 84th Division, twitter.com/84Railsplitters.