Former prisoner of war Ernest Marano often relives the chaotic end of World War II in Europe.
Now retired and living in Rockville Centre, Marano, 92, was a captive at a German prison camp in southeast Germany as the Nazi empire was collapsing around him.
Marano and other prisoners were waiting in a reception hall at the prison when the camp's commandant strode into the room, removed his gun belt and handed it to the highest-ranking American among them, a rawboned sergeant from Texas.
"At that moment, we learned that the war was over, and we would be going home," said Marano as he recalled the late April incident, just days before the war's official end in Europe on May 8, 1945.
"The sergeant told me to round up the rifles the German soldiers had stacked in a corner, take them outside and bend the gun barrels so they couldn't shoot anymore," he said. "We didn't have any food to celebrate with, but that night we built a big bonfire and sat up late singing American songs. It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted off of our shoulders."
Combat that convulsed Europe for nearly six years, claimed the lives of more than 30 million men, women and children, thrust America into the role of the Earth's most powerful nation and forever reshaped the world's economies and political boundaries, ended with Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender 70 years ago Friday.
The European war began when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the Sept. 1, 1939, invasion of Poland. The United States became a combatant in Europe after Germany declared war on America on Dec. 11, 1941, four days after Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor.
War in Europe officially ended when Germany's Grand Adm. Karl Donitz agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, effective at 11:01 p.m. European time on May 8, 1945. German armies had begun surrendering in parts of Europe as early as April 25. Germany's Berlin defenses surrendered on May 2, two days after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath the Chancellery.
War at an end
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the cessation of hostilities during a radio address that riveted a war-weary world, and spawned joyous pandemonium along London's bomb-devastated streets.
"The German war is therefore at an end," Churchill said. "We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Today is Victory in Europe Day."
As word spread to the United States, hundreds of thousands of screaming revelers packed New York City's Times Square, some holding aloft newspapers emblazoned with headlines that read "Germany Surrenders." Thousands more filed into St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan to offer prayers of thanksgiving.
But reaction to the end of fighting in Europe was more muted in America, which was still fighting a Pacific war against Japan.
Americans who fought in Europe remember combat there as a long and bloody struggle, one in which some soldiers remained on the battlefield for years at a time. There, they encountered weapons vastly more deadly than had ever been deployed in war, including modern tanks, improved machine guns and warplanes capable of dropping tons of explosives at a time.
David Marshall of Baldwin Harbor, who served in a mortar crew as American forces drove into Germany in 1945, recalled an infantry assault against German troops who fired machine guns from concrete bunkers of the Siegfried defense line.
"The ground for over 100 yards in front is flat, so the field of fire that the gunners had was just perfect, absolutely perfect," Marshall said. "So losses were high. It was just impossible not to have losses like that. It's hard really to put into words how difficult."
In all, some 16 million Americans fought in Europe and Asia during World War II. Among them, 407,316 were killed, according to the National World War II Museum. Another 671,000 were wounded.
Three of every 100 people living on Earth were killed. The Soviet Union's 26 million war deaths, including more than a million civilians who perished during the siege of Leningrad alone, amounted to one in eight of the country's population, according a 1994 article published in Europe-Asia Studies. Almost 1 in 5 Poles perished during the war. America's war losses totaled 420,000.
Jews were virtually eliminated across large swaths of Europe, mostly under the active hand of Hitler's "Final Solution."
About 90 percent of the Jewish populations of Germany, Poland and the Baltic states were killed, according to the Anti-Defamation League, as Hitler ordered Jews to be rounded up from every territory under Germany's domination. Millions were worked to death in forced labor camps, or murdered outright in industrial-scale killing machines.
The European war altered the continent's geography. The Soviet Union gobbled up the Baltic states and much of eastern Poland. In turn, Poland was allowed to annex Germany's crescent-shaped eastern frontier. Some 7 million Germans living in these areas were forcibly expelled, or fled anti-German hostility.
American troops have remained in Europe continuously since the war, initially to pacify Germany, and later as a Cold War bulwark against former World War II ally the Soviet Union. Today, some 67,000 troops are stationed in Europe, the bulk of them on bases in Germany.
Roland Basini, 96, learned of Germany's surrender while he was recuperating from battlefield wounds at Tilton General Hospital in Fort Dix, New Jersey. A platoon sergeant, he had been shot during the Battle of the Bulge, which had broken Germany's resolve three months earlier.
"Naturally, we were elated, but it was something we expected because of the news reports," Basini, of Patchogue, said of Germany's surrender. "When we heard that Hitler was dead, we knew it was a matter of time."
"We wanted to get rid of the Nazis because they had done such horrible things to people who didn't deserve it," said Basini, who retired from Grumman in 1979. "That gave us the drive to keep going and defeat that animal."