Friday, May 16, 2014

Thank you America

Just two days before Germany surrendered to Allied troops on May 8, 1945 the U.S. 16 Armored Division and Second Infantry Division rolled into Plzen in the Czech Republic, at the time Czechoslovakia. While Patton's Third Army was liberating most of Western Bohemia the Red Army was busy kicking Nazis out of the eastern part of the country. After 1948, when the communists took over in Czechoslovakia, all mention of the American liberation of Plzen stopped.

Evidently elements of the Third Army hung around in Plzen helping people rebuild the town until about November. It turns out the Czechs have a long memory because in 1989 when the communists were removed from power the people of Plzen organized a festival to celebrate what the U.S. Army did for them. They also erected monuments thanking the U.S.

The appreciation hasn't waned, even in the 25 years since the good people of Plzen started celebrating. The event has grown bigger and has even had to move parts of it to a city park a few hundred meters from the square in the city center. I thought it sounded like a good time, me liking military history and all, so I went.

It had a little bit of a Fourth of July parade type feel. Every light pole on Klatovska Trida (the main drag through town) sported Czech and American flags, there was a parade with soldiers and lots of people wandering around carrying little American flags. There were even lots of WWII era military vehicles. It was really nice, almost like home.

I took the train down from Prague. It's easy and cheap at 100CZK each way. I strolled over to Namesti Republiky for the end of the parade. Along the square the vehicles and soldiers stopped for a while so spectators could inspect them. Then after a short while they rolled out to the nearby city park for a more permanent display. The square was better because the vehicles were roped off in the park, which also doubled as a reenacted military camp -- for several armies.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

As you can see some of these guys worked pretty hard to make things authentic. What I thought was the most interesting thing about the whole situation was that there were people participating in what I can only describe as cosplay for several generations of soldiers. I even saw a unit of Czechs dressed up in VERY accurate modern U.S. Army class B uniforms, so that was a little strange. There were some people who just took "playing army" to a whole other level and I don't know if it freaked me out or made me feel good that someone, or a lot of someones, in a place so far from where I used to see this stuff for real every day would appreciate and love it so much to work so hard to emulate it. Shoot, there were so many "2ID soldiers" in ACUs that in certain areas I could have sworn I was in the Killeen, Texas Rosa's Cafe on a Tuesday at lunchtime -- or a DEFAC whatever. 

At one point while I was walking across the square to check things out I saw a squad of MARSOC Marines posing for photos with children. It was really, really, really surreal. I stepped away from the hubub around the square after taking a few photos and wandered around the town for a short while. I was a bit hungry and maybe a little hungover and I needed some food (read beer) before wrapping my confused brain around things like a reconstruction of an ISAF FOB gate sitting in a park in the Czech Republic. 

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

This dude was totally in character, so I took a few photos of him. He is the right age for the part and fortunately in one of the few places in the world where you can still smoke and not have people vilify you. I even gave this kid an artistic desaturation to make the photo look more "authentic" plus, he looked like he spent a lot of time working on his "thousand yard stare" so I figured some creative editing was in order. It was really cool to look at the scene and imagine that it looked almost exactly like this at some point nearly 70 years ago.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Army Jeep

As I was leaving the square on my quest for "lunch," just before this jeep, I passed a Corvette Z06. This is a pretty rare car to see in Europe, not as rare as the 1969 Dodge Coronet R/T I saw a little later in the day, and didn't photograph, but still pretty rare. While I was walking past the Vette to this Jeep an American family was going the other direction on the sidewalk. They couldn't figure out what the Corvette was and were all quite impressed by its beauty. "What kind of car is that?" One said. "Oh that thing is cool," said another. Finally, "I think it's a Corvette." I just laughed. Then took pictures of this Jeep. You can see the Corvette down the street a ways, it's yellow. These army Jeeps have a special place in my heart because the first car I ever "drove" was my Uncle Bob's 1945 Navy Jeep. It's still around.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Czech soldiers, Czechoslovak soldiers, Czechoslovak army

After lunch I wandered to the park to see what the mock encampment had to offer. There were a few things to see, like the dapper-as-hell Czechoslovak paratrooper trying to rock a Mae West like it was comfortable. That is where I saw a few other generations of soldiers represented and something I really don't think I will ever see again.

U.S. Cavalry, German Soldiers, WWII, World War II

Yes -- That is a U.S. Cavalry trooper photographing a Nazi SS officer on a horse. I really don't have words for this. In America, people don't cosplay Nazis. Well, people do, but they aren't seen in public often. I suppose there is some variety of excuse for dressing like a Nazi at certain events in Europe, or North Africa. What gives this guy even bigger balls is that I'm pretty sure he was German. But he wasn't alone, which either made it better or worse, I'm not really sure.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, German army

This was a little more palatable for me. There were a few German vehicles and a couple of guys dressed as normal Wehrmacht soldiers, which I also didn't find anywhere near as disturbing as the SS dude. I suppose there is a bit of a stigma surrounding the SS and considering that about 2,000 Jews from Plzen were sent to a nearby concentration camp it wouldn't have been my first choice of costumes.To his credit though, it is a really good costume.

So all this reenacting was just a bit surreal to me and I'd love to tell you that I haven't ever seen anything like it, but that would be a lie. I've been to Civil War reenactments where people actually act out battles. I suppose compared to that, this is fairly tame. This is more like a living museum. To me though this time period isn't far enough in the past. I know people who lived this. By all accounts I met at least one man who I know was in Plzen on May 6, 1945. He got blowed up pretty good during the war and his mind was a patchwork quilt of clarity, but he knows he was Patton's driver during the whole war. All of these things makes it a little more real for me and in some way it bothered me.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

So I left the camp and went to look at the memorials. You may remember this monument from and earlier post about Plzen. If not, go look. With the sun up and some flags flying it is much more impressive. The theme is still the same, "Diky America" or "Thank you America."

Honestly, that isn't something I hear very often at all anymore. If I do it's with sarcasm. My social media feeds are crammed with posts about how this politician is an idiot or that action was stupid. I have friends on both sides of the aisle saying the same thing about different people.

Czechs don't usually bother me too much about U.S. politics. It does happen from time to time, but I've had people from many European nations ask me what I'd consider to be rather rude questions about my country's policies. To their credit, I've had people from many European countries say something like, "yeah, it works in my country but such and such policy would never work in yours."

It was really nice to see a message of thanks on such a huge scale in a place so far away. It made me realize that at least in some corners of the world some people still appreciate it when a nation sends people to die for them. It's also nice to hear the words "U.S." and "military" without any mention of oil. So many people think America has only ever wanted to invade countries to take oil, and rape and kill innocent people. That is only about 40 years of our military history and a lot of it has been spend fixing what England screwed up -- and maybe a little trying to be like daddy in that respect. Look at all the oil we got out of Europe -- twice. Okay, my political rant is over. Like I said, the message and atmosphere were excellent. I would even encourage other Americans who are going to be in Europe around May 6 next year to plan on making a stop in Plzen. Honestly, you'll never see anything like it at home, Corvettes aside.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia

Down the street from the Thank you America memorial is this more modest memeorial to European soldiers, I think. My Czech still isn't that good. It's a memorial and it's for soldiers. Then just a bit further is a memorial to the 2nd Infantry Division.

WWII, Plzen, World War II, U.S. WWII soldiers, 16 Armored Division, Liberation of Plzen, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, 2nd Infantry Division

I'm not sure how I missed this last time I was in Plzen. I doubt the flags are flying all year long. The nice, and maybe not so nice, thing is that there was a strong police presence at each memorial where there were flags. While it made me think that maybe the "Thank you" message isn't shared by everyone it also impressed me that the city would bother to post at least one officer, sometimes, two at each station to keep things from being messed with. 

After a long, but quick, day of wandering around Plzen I had to make my way back to Hlavni Nadrazi to catch the last train home. The awesome thing about Plzen is once you have visited the first time you never need a map. It's that small and easy to get around. Sure it's no American grid-based town, but I was able to get to the train station with no trouble. As I was crossing the mighty Vlatava for the last time I saw a man fishing. I realized I see a man fishing here every time I go to Plzen, which I realize is exactly twice but anyway I took a photo.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't eat anything I caught out of the Vlatava.

When I got to the train station I realized how much I like it. I think it is beautiful. In fact I haven't seen too many train stations in Europe that aren't just epic. They are the beautiful impressive structures designed to do be the first great thing travelers see -- Vienna excluded. Plzen's station is one of my favorites.

I had enough time to grab a beer before I left, from the platform on the left side of the photo up there, to take the hour and a half ride back home. Of course everyone wanted to leave Plzen and I had to sit on the floor in steerage but it was a nice German train so I didn't mind.

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