When young US Lt. Buck Kotzebue spotted Russian troops across the Elbe River in Germany, it ``was a sure signal this was the end of the war,'' he reminisces today. And the euphoria felt on both sides of the river that spring day 40 years ago seemed to supersede everything -- including orders forbidding an unofficial linkup of the Red and Allied armies.
Propelled by the sheer joy of the occasion, and by the rifle butts they used for paddles, the 21-year-old first lieutenant and his men rowed across the Elbe to establish the first contact between the two armies that had been inching toward each other through Hitler's Third Reich. It was the first of three unofficial meetings between patrols of the two armies that April 25 -- two days before the official linkup ceremonies between the top brass at the city of Torgau on the Elbe.
The retired lieutenant colonel does not discount the emotion of that day, or even the heroism that has been attached to his intrepid foray into the buffer zone between the two armies. But this tall, lean man, who quietly pets a cat on his lap during an interview, is a seasoned military officer who is more prone to blunt appraisals than to sentimentally tinged war stories.
For civilians back home, the eruption of headlines is probably the sweetest memory of victory. For men on the front, it was the revelry between two armies who didn't even speak the same language, he says.
It's a fond memory for Colonel Kotzebue, even though he did not receive the official credit and the promotions for making first contact. (The coordinates of his location, radioed back to his 69th Division command, were incorrect.)
The credit went to the next patrol to reach the Russians, north of Kotzebue -- even though all the patrols that met the Russians that day had ventured beyond a five-mile limit imposed by the Allied command. The command had wanted to orchestrate the meeting carefully and prevent accidental casualties.
``This was a tremendously emotional thing worldwide and probably a terrific relief for the Germans. The spirit of the Elbe gripped the [collective] imagination [of a world at war],'' Kotzebue explains today.
One of Kotzebue's men, the late Joe Polowski, described the occasion to author Studs Terkel for his 1985 book ``The Good War.'' Remembering the spring lilacs in bloom, the news of the birth of the United Nations on that day, the bodies of civilians apparently cut down by cross fire on the river's edge, Mr. Polowski told of the ``oath of the Elbe.'' A heartfelt promise never to forget, the oath was taken by the band of Russians and Kotzebue's Americans, who met near the town of Strehla, he said.
Kotzebue smiles at the mention of Polowski's memory of the occasion, but he revises the story -- just as all war stories get revised.
``None of us were looking to heaven and swearing an oath or anything. We were all wanting to have people not shooting at us anymore. And all of us said, `Hallelujah! I'm glad they aren't [shooting at us anymore].' It was just relief,'' he recounts simply.
``I recognized the significance of it. But also I didn't have any illusions about it,'' Kotzebue says. ``We had friendship between soldiers at the river. Why couldn't we keep this spirit alive? Maybe it was naive to think it's possible for any two peoples to be friends. . . . To think this would have an impact at a national level is not to understand what's at stake -- the national imperative to protect national interests,'' he declares flatly.
``That's one of the reasons they're focusing on this today [the 40th anniversary of the linkup],'' he explains. He says the 40th-anniversary commemoration of victory in Europe is a movement inspired by a national group, Veterans for Peace.
``I've always felt focusing on things of the past is negative. This is the first time I've sat down and thought in some detail [about the linkup and its relation to today's US-Soviet relations],'' Kotzebue says.
He has been pulling out his war memorabilia to show to newspaper and television reporters who have been streaming to his home, which is on the site of an 1860 Pony Express stop in the gold country of the Sierra foothills. There are the yellowed newspaper clippings his mother kept for him during the war, the Soviet war medal that entitles him to free transportation for life in the Soviet Union, and the US Army ration cards. Soviet television interviewed him under the oak tree out front, and ABC-TV is taking him back to East Germany to film a re-creation of his historic patrol.
Kotzebue, now a student at a nearby Sacramento law school, served 25 years in the Army and retired in 1967 to work for the US Agency for International Development in Vietnam until the country fell to North Vietnam in 1975. His philosophical views are often punctuated with a military sort of deference to authority, and he prefaces many of his comments with the observation that ``my personal opinions mean nothing'' because, he says, he's neither a government official nor a scholar.
But it seems appropriate that this man of German and Russian descent, who played such a key role in the US-Soviet linkup of World War II, has strong feelings about the relations between the two countries today.
Kotzebue has been a strident anticommunist ever since his father, an Army officer who taught at New York City College (NYCC) during the peak of communist activity in the early 1930s, was assaulted by anti-ROTC students.
``This is why when I met the Russians I didn't look at them as a benign force,'' he explains. ``I wasn't under any illusion that the alliance would continue.''
``The Russians have a long-range plan to dominate the world -- and this isn't a neurotic view of the bogyman out there,'' he counters quickly, lest anyone think he would spout unfounded conservative dogma.
``They want to eliminate capitalism from the face of the Earth. They said it. [Nikita] Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the desk and said, `We will bury you.' And he meant it. Hitler meant what he said in `Mein Kampf,' '' Kotzebue says.
He reasons that the peace movement, however well intended, ``is essentially saying, `Don't defend yourself.' ''
``Yes, peace is better than war, but we've got peace,'' Kotzebue continues, noting there are no planes bombing US cities and there are no US casualty lists to be read.
``What would we have [in someone else's idea of peace] that we don't have now? We wouldn't have frightening headlines of what might happen -- there'd be freedom from worry. [If that's how we measure peace], we're not at peace and never have been. We don't have freedom from worry, and if we ever do it's because we've changed our basic makeup . . . because we're satisfied with a cerebral existence.''
Kotzebue, though, is an optimist about the American spirit. He doesn't see a weakening of the American public fiber since World War II -- or in the nation's preparedness to defend itself.
He cites again the peace movement of his father's days at NYCC, and notes that, just six months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, a resolution to retain the draft passed Congress by only one vote.
``But,'' he says, ``to a man they [even the peace-movement supporters] were at the recruiting stations. They flocked there [after Pearl Harbor]. Let's just say that if the Russians decided [today] to take Alaska back or the Panama Canal, there'd be a total reversal,'' he observes confidently of the nation that inspires heroism in its citizens.