Through most of April 1945, they had been moving relentlessly forward, which in war is mostly a good thing.
But by the 8th of May, Bill Mueller’s platoon had slowed to a crawl. For Allied soldiers in Europe that day, that was even better.
“The Germans were surrendering so fast, our unit was forced to stop, because we were taking so many prisoners we had nobody to pass them along to,” Mueller, 92, recalled of that day in 1945.
Known since then as V-E Day, for Victory in Europe, May 8 this year marks the 73rd anniversary of the collapse of the Nazi empire. It was the beginning of the end of the deadliest war in human history.
“All of a sudden, one of the guys came up from company headquarters and said, ‘It’s over!’ ” said Mueller, a veteran of the Army’s 106th Infantry Division, who months earlier had operated mortars and heavy machine guns during the Battle of the Bulge.
The end of European fighting spread jubilation through the ranks of war-weary troops in Europe, as well as among loved ones in America’s cities and towns anxiously awaiting their return. In Manhattan, gleeful office workers threw shredded paper from high windows, which fluttered down upon the hundreds of thousands of revelers who packed the streets below.
Mueller said it was not long after learning of the Nazi surrender that several of his fellow soldiers had gathered around a German accordion player in the Rhine River town of Rudesheim and, lubricated with quantities of purloined local wine, were stumbling through the lyrics of World War II touchstone “Lili Marlene.”
“Everybody was happy as a lark,” said Mueller, a retired Grumman Aerospace worker who has lived in Levittown since 1951.
But for Simon Berger, now of Long Beach, a survivor of the Friedland concentration camp in eastern Germany, V-E Day came just days too late.
He and other prisoners of the camp had managed to escape the day before, running into the mountains nearby after realizing the camp’s Nazi guards had all suddenly vanished.
“We didn’t know the war was over until it got light the next morning, and seeing that the Russians were there,” said Berger, now 91, speaking from Tel Aviv, where he was celebrating the bar mitzvah of a young relative.
Berger had been separated from the rest of his family the summer before, when residents of Poland’s Lodz ghetto had been rounded up and sent to concentration camps in 1944. His father and two brothers were never heard from again.
He would not learn until after the war that his mother and two of his three sisters — another had been killed earlier — had been marched to the seashore from the Stutthof concentration camp east of Gdansk. There in late April, with salvation just days away, they and hundreds of other mostly Jewish prisoners were forced to wade into the Baltic, and were machine-gunned to death.
“What can I tell you, when just a few days before my mother and sisters were shot,” Berger said. His family said he had been reflecting on V-E Day all day Monday, the 73rd anniversary of his escape.
“But V-E Day means the world was saved,” said Berger, the only member of his family who survived the Nazi Holocaust. “Because until then, we were always in danger. We were always a minute away from death.”