Victory in Europe remembered: lilacs, hot dogs, and a `little red schoolhouse'

If the history books are any guide, wars used to end dramatically with flags flying and trumpets blowing. Not any more. Certainly World II did not. Any surprise the Allies' victory in Europe might have had was dissipated in a tangle of endless rumors, false starts, and the surrender of German general after German general -- against Hitler's expressed command to fight to the last man.

Finally, finally, the treaty was signed (as anybody knows who has switched on their radio or television this week), 40 years ago in the early hours of May 7, 1945.

The ceremony took place at what some of the more romantic members of the US press liked to call a ``little red schoolhouse'' in Reims, France. Those of us who were serving there with SHAEF (Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters) considered its correct title far more appropriate: L''Ecole Professionelle et Technique de Garons.

Red it certainly was, small it definitely was not. I remember it as a handsome modern building that seemed palatial after our cramped quarters in Versailles -- especially since it had indoor plumbing.

That spring, Reims was a city of lilacs. Even when you couldn't see them, you could smell them. To sharp-nosed GIs there was another, even more enticing smell in the air: a promise of home. Thanks to the Red Cross, hamburgers and hot dogs had come to Reims a few days ahead of the peace treaty.

The day the canteen opened, I stood in line with GI friends eager for my first taste of those uniquely American gourmet treats (``You're going to love them, Spam.'') Suddenly a group of wildly excited young men swooped into the canteen and surrounded me. Their uniforms were American, their accents unmistakably English.

``We are British, we are British,'' they kept shouting and then explained that the camp where they had been held as prisoners of war had just been overrun by the United States Army. GIs had released them and lent them uniforms and now they were free and how was Britain and had it changed since Dunkirk, and no don't let's talk about the prison.

One of them pushed a Polish medal into my hand, explaining, ``I promised a fellow prisoner, a Pole, to give it to the first English girl I met and that's you.''

This tiny foretaste of peace was followed by the sight of trains full of DPs (displaced persons), former slave laborers, making their way home. The outside of the trains was hung not only with the green branches of rejoicing but also with human beings who couldn't find even standing room inside.

We had grown used to the sight of POWs in Reims -- but German prisoners not British. They used to march through the streets in splendidly proud and ordered ranks. Only once did we see discipline break down. That was on May 6 when a car drew up outside the famous schoolhouse and a handful of high-ranking officers climbed out. The prisoners took one look and -- just for an instant -- broke ranks. They had recognized the German grand admiral, Karl D"onitz, and realized the significance of his visit to General Eisenhower's headquarters.

When the treaty was finally signed and Eisenhower made his dramatically stark announcement to the combined chiefs of staff: ``The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241 local time May 7, 1945,'' the whole of Reims turned out to celebrate.

My May 9, 1945, letter home (it still needs a censor's OK) records ``people dancing in the streets, jeeps hung with passengers. Flares and rockets. Strangely little drunkenness but a terrific feeling of relief. . . .

``A good-tempered crowd of French soldiers insisted, `Tonight the English and American girls are for the French.' '' They lifted my friend Peggy shoulder high and carried her off, but she was rescued ``by a sensible American who took charge and led us home.''

But what made the deepest impression on me were the French civilians, mostly women and children, of course. They were out in their crowds, but unlike the cheering soldiers they were silent, walking slowly, oh so slowly, along the sidewalks, many of them pushing baby carriages, or sitting in the town squares talking in low voices: an eerie demonstration.

It wasn't until we reached Berlin that we really understood the meaning of that silence.

Pale, drab German civilians were wending their way between giant piles of stinking rubble in that same slow, silent mood. The mood that had puzzled us in Reims had nothing to do with victory or defeat. Victims, most of them innocent victims, it seems, know only too well that win or lose, military victory is always bitter.

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