The Story of the Elbe River Linkage You May Not Have Heard About

"This is what we must do today: try to make contact between the US and Russia, even when the bridge between us is down"

Sun, Apr 24, 2016
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Brigadier General Kevin Ryan (US Army retired) is Director, Defense and Intelligence Projects Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He will participate in the opening of a memorial dedicated to the meeting of American and Soviet Armies at the river Elbe in 1945 to be held in Moscow on Monday, April 25, 2016, 11.30 AM Address: 11 Sivtsev Vrazhek (Old Arbat area)
This article was written especially for RI

On Monday, 25 April 2016, a memorial will be dedicated to the meeting of American and Soviet Armies at the river Elbe in 1945.  The memorial is based on an iconic photo of the Elbe meeting.  American and Soviet soldiers stepping toward each other on the bridge over the river.  This photo was taken on April 26th, the day after the first meeting of American and Soviet forces.  It became a symbol of the meeting and was the basis for a similar monument in Washington DC.  But there is another photo of this meeting.

This other photo was taken by US Army Private Paul Staub at the moment of the meeting on April 25th.  In Private Staub’s photo we see that when the American and Soviet patrols got to Torgau they found the bridge over the Elbe destroyed by the German troops.  The bridge was a twisted mass of steel and wood, half submerged in the Elbe River, which was swollen with spring rains.  Staub took the picture as LT Bill Robertson and Sergeant Frank Huff climbed out on the broken bridge to meet Sergeant Nikolai Andreev over the middle of the river.  It was a risky thing for all of them to do.  They could have easily slipped and fallen into the river below.  They likely would have drowned among the twisted steel and water.

LT Robertson and his three soldiers were not even supposed to be in Torgau that day.  They had been assigned to go look for prisoners of war and make sure they got back to safety.  In fact, Robertson had been ordered not to go the Elbe River.  He was supposed to go no further than a few kilometers from his headquarters – no where near Torgau.  But Robertson was what we in the US Army call a “cowboy:” someone who wanted to be where the action was.  There were two other patrols that day who also met with Russian soldiers along the Elbe.  But Robertson’s patrol got its report back to headquarters first.  

When Robertson’s Division Commander, General Rheinhardt, heard that Robertson had gone to the Elbe River, he decided to court martial him.   But the Army Commander, General Bradley, was pleased with the link up and General Rheinhardt changed his mind. Making the link up with the Soviet forces was very risky for Robertson and his men.  First, LT Silvashko and his men thought the Americans might be Germans, so they fired at them from across the river.  Robertson was almost shot.  Eventually Robertson found a Russian-speaking prisoner in the town who helped signal to Silvashko that they were Americans.  Then they had to climb out on the damaged bridge.  But those brave men, Americans and Russians, made the effort and linked up.

For the next 70 years, the US-Russian relationship has been like that day in Torgau:  sometimes shooting at each other, sometimes taking the risk to climb out on a broken bridge and link up.  

This is what we must do today: try to make contact between the US and Russia, even when the bridge between us is down.

Seventy years ago, our fathers and grandfathers fought together against a common enemy.  That war killed millions and destroyed nations.  Russia knows the cost better than most having lost over 27 million people, more than any other nation.  In the wartime poem, Vasiliy Terkin, the hero, Terkin, tried to explain to his comrades how terrible war can be.   

Today we not only need brave lads like Terkin who are ready to defend our nations, but we also need brave leaders who will climb out on broken bridges in order to avoid shooting at each other.  I know that the lads exist.  I hope that the leaders do too.  

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