V-E Day Remembered: Joy, Grief and Ike's Tribute to G.I. Joe

 Army Sgt. Charles R. Remsburg Jr., of "D" Company, 405th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division, was sent to retrieve the body of his friend hours before World War II officially ended in Europe. Veterans History Project photo
Army Sgt. Charles R. Remsburg Jr., of "D" Company, 405th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division, was sent to retrieve the body of his friend hours before World War II officially ended in Europe. Veterans History Project photo

Army Sgt. Charles R. Remsburg Jr., of "D" Company, 405th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division, was sent to retrieve the body of his 19-year-old friend hours before World War II officially ended in the European Theater of Operations.

In Aix-en-Provence, France, on May 8, 1945, 1st Lt. Isabelle Cook and other Army nurses marched in a victory parade under the bodies of French collaborators who had been strung up over the route.

In Reims, France, where the Germans had signed the surrender documents, General of the Army and Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces Dwight D. Eisenhower stolidly went before the newsreel cameras at his headquarters and announced who the hero of the war against Hitler would always be: "He is G.I. Joe."

From Moscow, to London, to Los Angeles, jubilant crowds swarmed the streets for what would become known as "V-E Day" -- Victory in Europe. At Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined King George VI in the cheers from the balcony.

Nineteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, in her uniform as a subaltern mechanic in the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, and her 15-year-old sister, Princess Margaret, were allowed to leave the balcony escorted by Royal Guards and mingle with the crowd. Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, and her sister went unrecognized in the celebration.

In New York City, ships in the harbor set off a cacophony with their horns and the fireboats sent geysers skyward. In Times Square, strangers kissed. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had warned the crowds against "Getting stinko." He was ignored.

In France, the victory parade through the streets of Aix-en-Provence, about 30 miles north of the port of Marseille, troubled Cook.

She had just graduated from the Mount Sinai Hospital School of Nursing in New York City when the war started. "They asked for volunteers and since I was a young, unattached young lady, I felt that it was my duty to join the Army and to go to help soldiers overseas when they needed care," Cook said years later in an interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.

She served in North Africa and Italy, caring for the American wounded before being sent to France.

In contrast to the harsh earlier living conditions, the nurses were now quartered in a hotel that had maintained the French staff, including the French chef, much to the nurses' delight.

"And it would be amazing -- it was amazing to know what they could do with dried powdered eggs and different Army food," Cook said.

The atmosphere changed at the parade. "They invited all of the troops, foreign troops, American, British, French troops, to march in the V-E Day parade," she said.

"Of course, we were in our full uniform marching down the street and all of a sudden I looked up at one of the lamp posts and hanging from the lamp post was a man with a big sign across his chest saying 'Collaborator.' "

"They had hung the collaborators. And, of course, it was a horrifying sight to see him swinging from the lamp post. There were several of them."

"At the end of the parade, they had all the women who had consorted with the Germans, heads shaved, and made them march at the end of the parade -- people watching the parade throwing rocks and stones at them. It was quite an experience to be in that parade," Cook said.

Across France in Reims, about 100 miles north of Paris near the German border; Eisenhower prepared to make a statement. He was stonefaced, and his eyes looked to the left away from the camera, possibly reading from a text held up for him.

After tributes to other war leaders, Eisenhower spoke of the "truly heroic figure of this war. He is G.I. Joe, and his counterparts in the air, Navy and Merchant Marine. He has endured cold, hunger, fatigue. His companion has been danger, death has dogged his footsteps."

Last Casualty

Hours earlier on May 7, a call came down to Army Sgt. Charles R. Remsburg's unit on the Elbe River in Germany. "Someone thought we might want to watch the last battle of the European war, which was about to begin," Remsburg wrote in letters home that were collected by the Library of Congress.

Soviet troops had arrived on the east bank of the river and were preparing to seal off a bridgehead against the remnants of German forces.

"Not only would it be a hell of a battle but this would be our only opportunity to see the Russians in action. There would be no danger. Our men could observe the action from the safety of rooftops on villas on the American side," Remsburg wrote.

"Port [Pvt. Foster L. Porter] wanted to go. I hesitated, then decided that I didn't need to experience any more war, even vicariously. So he went alone, saying he'd probably join some of his friends from 'B' Company."

Later that afternoon, a soldier named Conrad came to Remsburg. "He stood there, ill at ease, looking at me as if he had something to say but didn't quite know how to begin. Strange -- Conrad never fumbled for words."

Finally, Conrad said, "They just called from 'B' Company. Porter was killed about a half hour ago. They want us to go over to Tangermunde and pick up his body."

Remsburg wrote that "All of a sudden I got very cold, almost numb. I couldn't seem to think or even move. Conrad waited for a few moments, then came over and put his arm around my shoulder -- 'Come on, let's go.' "

They took a jeep with a trailer and went where they were told. The "B" Company commander met them and said that a stray artillery round from the Russians was to blame.

"Really can't understand how it happened," the commander said. "Just one of those things -- five or six of our men watching the action across the river through binoculars. Russian artillery shell exploded almost on top of them. Only round that landed on our side of the river. Killed Porter, wounded Franklin and a couple of other men. Really sorry. Know how you feel."

The company commander led them into another room.

"They had wrapped Porter in a shelter half, securing the loose ends with rope. A couple of men picked up his body and carried him out to our trailer. They gently placed him in the bottom."

They drove to Graves Registration about 20 miles away in silence. "I kept wiping the tears away with the sleeve of my jacket. Maybe Conrad wouldn't notice. This was how it ended. No parade, no flags, not even Taps," Remsburg wrote. "At the time of his death, he was just 19."

Later, Conrad would tell him that he simply had to accept things which were unfathomable. "Maybe he was right," Remsburg wrote. "I just don't know. I had never hurt this much before. Why Porter? He was one of the best. Why just hours before the war ended?"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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