On this day in 1945, American and Soviet Union forces meet at Elbe River in Torgau, Germany. As the Americans advanced from the West and the Soviets from the East, Germany was divided in two by the two powers. It was a serendipitous meeting, however; a chance encounter which later had significant impact on the victory of the war.
At the time, American 2nd LT William Robertson was assigned to lead a group of men to look for prisoners of war. Not one to miss on adventure, however, Robertson directly disobeyed orders and crossed further than his allotted territory, all the way to the Elbe River.
Considering that the area he was not supposed to be patrolling was rifle with enemies, his risky escapade could have been potentially fatal. Indeed, the Russians, thinking Robertson’s men were Germans began to fire from across the river. Only when a Russian translator in the midst communicated to the Soviets that they were not Germans did they stop shooting. Stumbling over the ruins of the Elbe bridge, the two sides greeted one another in the middle on more amicable terms.
Although Elbe Day was not the end of the war, it was a significant victory in securing the detriment of the axis powers. Upon hearing the news, President Harry Truman said, “this is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.”
Three days after the historic event, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany soon surrendered. Although Elbe Day is not a federally recognized holiday, there is a “Spirit of Elbe” plaque at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the event.
Less than 15 years, however, the two countries would meet again, but this time in less than amicable terms. With tensions high during the Cold War, many Russian and Americans recalled fondly the Elbe Day when the two armies came together for a common interest.
The iconic images of the Soviets and Americans helping each other cross the broken bridge and embracing one another at Elbe symbolized the convivial past. Although relations between the two countries did not remain so friendly, perhaps another serendipitous meeting in the future will unite the former enemies once again.