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Front to Front : Soviet-American Book Retells Elbe Meeting That Spelled End for Nazis

May 19, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A Russian-history scholar living in Ventura and a counterpart in the Soviet Union are jointly publishing the reminiscences of U.S. and Soviet soldiers who met at the Elbe River in 1945, effectively marking the end of World War II in Europe.

The effort is one of the first U.S.-Soviet publishing ventures and was spurred by agreements struck in the last meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The Russian-language edition of the book, "Yanks Meet Reds," is to be unveiled at a Moscow ceremony next week that Gorbachev may attend, said the editor, Mark C. Scott.

Scott describes the anthology as the first complete account of the event that signaled the fall of Nazi Germany and the end of the European phase of the war.

The book recounts the events of April 25, 1945, when American GIs marching east defied the orders of their superiors and sought out westbound Russian troops at the Elbe River in what today is East Germany. The encounter was proof that the Nazi forces had been squeezed into submission by two fronts of advancing Allies.

On the foggy spring day when lilacs bloomed outside the Soviet-liberated town of Torgau, men whose nations would spend the next four decades estranged by a Cold War dropped their arms and embraced in victory.

Russian Red Cross nurses danced with U.S. soldiers and decorated them with lilacs. Over cognac, vodka and grain alcohol, the Allies toasted to peace. In New York, a newspaper headline blared "Yanks Meet Reds." In a coincidence that struck a note of optimism around the world, charter papers for the United Nations were signed in San Francisco.

"It was a day when military protocol became one big party," said Scott, who edited 25 U.S. entries and translated 21 Russian entries assembled by the Soviet War Veterans Committee.

A Russian version has been published by Moscow's Novosti Press in anticipation of Reagan's Moscow visit from May 29 to June 2, Scott said. The English version is to be released in August by Santa Barbara-based Capra Press, which plans an initial release of 5,000 books.

Capra owner Noel Young said the book reflects the spirit of glasnost , the new policy of Soviet openness. "Everyone is throwing their arms around each other again," he said.

An advance copy even inspired a Boston folk singer to write a ballad, "At the Elbe," which will be released on an album this fall.

"For my entire life," songwriter Fred Small said, "the Soviets have been the devil. To read about this moment in the sun was such a wonderful contradiction to this mistrust."

That's how the story struck Scott, a former professor of Russian at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He became interested in the historic event while organizing a track meet between Soviet and Kansas runners in 1983.

Since then, Scott struck up friendships with numerous U.S. veterans of the Elbe crossing, and even organized a reunion of U.S. and Soviet Elbe veterans at Disneyland last month. He was and continues to be impressed by the "enormous reserves of good will" that the celebration at the Elbe symbolized.

Yet the meeting at the river could have ended differently. The Soviets and the Americans had been uneasy Allies at best, and U.S. officers were not at all convinced that they wouldn't end up clashing.

"Once the troops got to the river, they were supposed to stop, and the generals would arrange a meeting among themselves," Scott said. "But the Americans said, 'to hell with this,' and went straight across the river. It was like something from Huckleberry Finn."

Some of those recounting the time for Scott were journalists such as Studs Terkel and Andy Rooney--who covered the Elbe crossing for the military newspaper "Stars and Stripes"--and Ann Stringer, the United Press correspondent who first reported the story.

But most were ordinary folks--an insurance salesman, a retired physician, a homemaker, a liquor distributor. Many entries were scrawled in pencil, Scott said. Most required heavy editing. In fact, one history passed eight times between the editor and its author. But for the contributors, some of whom chronicled many other wartime experiences, the work was a labor of love.

"No one asked for money," said Scott, who received support from several patrons. "I couldn't have afforded to do it that way. They all understood."

For some, such as Bill Shank, remuneration came in the form of overdue attention.

Now a 78-year-old retired insurance agent living in Portland, Ore., Shank attempted to link up with the Russians on that April 25 but failed when he and a corporal fell into the hands of the SS. In the end, they said they persuaded their captors and 350 Germans to surrender peaceably. But at home, Shank's tale fell on deaf ears.

"I never did get through a war story. I never did get clear through one," Shank lamented. "You'd get five minutes into it, and someone would say, 'Oh, by the way, did you know that while you were gone, Harriet had a baby, or Mary and Joe got married?' "

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