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As virus forces 75th anniversary V-E Day tributes online, World War II vets’ stories ‘transcend time’

"The first big raid by the 8th Air Force was on a Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg. Coming back, the Germans were up in full force and we lost at least 80 ships - 800 men, many of them pals." (Army Air Forces/Good Free Photos)

Harry F. Miller recalls exactly where he was on May 8, 1945.

Miller and the rest of the 740th Tank Battalion of the U.S. Army had just helped secure a dominant victory in the Ruhr Pocket Battle that decimated the Wehrmacht. After a two-week rest in Dusseldorf, they crossed the Elbe River and then raced north to the town of Schwerin, a strategic outpost tucked in the northeastern corner of Germany.

Though at the time they couldn’t figure out why, they had been sent to help British forces. Their presence, Miller learned years later, effectively clamped the Soviet Army from invading Denmark.

Within days, word reached camp that Adolf Hitler died by suicide. World War II would soon be over.

Miller served as a tank crewman in the Assault Gun Platoon. He remembered standing next to the castle that guards the western shores of Lake Schwerin, gazing out across the water. On the eastern shore were Soviet forces, awaiting orders, idling by as the war waned. Some American soldiers rowed boats across and traded wristwatches for vodka.

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Miller said he just stood there and scanned the other shore.

“That’s how we spent the last day of the war,” Miller told USA TODAY.

Seventy-five years later, Miller and other vets would have been saluted Friday in public festivities in what could be one of the last benchmark anniversaries of V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. But the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the U.S. has sidelined those plans.

Commemorations, including one scheduled at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., have either been postponed or adapted into virtual events.

For the humble veterans, well-rooted in sacrifice, celebrations aren’t what matters. It is their stories they want preserved, lessons that resonate during this extraordinary time.

“I still get watery eyes whenever I think of these young guys that are still 19 years old,” Miller, 91, said as he fought back tears. “There are cemeteries all over this country full of them, and in Europe. That to me is what the remembrance of World War II is. It’s not the parades and things like that here. It’s the cemeteries.

“I hope they don’t get too complacent with the country being pushed to get back to normal again that they forget about the 75th year. In the 76th year, will they still remember us? In the 77th year? Will people forget this?”

Miller’s story is just one.

‘That was a really close call’

Frank Cohn was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1925.

Now 94 years old, Cohn recalled when a business partner of his father’s was taken to Gestapo headquarters and questioned. Cohn said they found his father’s friend dead on the sidewalk after he either jumped or was pushed from a fourth-floor window.

Cohn’s father then left for the U.S., seeking to start legal immigration processes. His father wasn’t successful, but Cohn said it was for the best; it would’ve taken around five years. His father remained in America, looking for alternatives. Then, later, the Gestapo knocked on his childhood home’s door in Breslau, looking for his father.

“Immediately, the vision in my head was of my father’s business friend having been killed by the Gestapo when they took him to the headquarters,” Cohn told USA TODAY. “It made you feel inferior because people looked down on you just because you had the label ‘Jew.’ That was the kind of thing that crept on you very slowly, even at a young age.”

Cohn’s mother wrote his father and told him not to return. Eventually, she obtained a visitor’s visa. They escaped in 1938, when Cohn was 13.

“That was a really close call,” Cohn said. “Because if my mother hadn’t done what she did – we walked out of the house leaving everything behind – by 1941, I would’ve been dead.”

One month after he turned 18, in September 1943, Cohn was drafted. Even though he wasn’t a citizen, the Allied Forces needed all the troops they could find. But since he was a foreigner, Cohn could’ve declined service.

“That never entered my mind,” he said. “It was my obligation, no question about that.”

He was sworn in as a citizen and enlisted. He took part in the Battle of the Bulge and Rhineland campaigns. He was assigned to an intelligence unit called T-Force, 12th Army Group, and fought against a people that – just years before – had been his countrymen.

“That was never a problem because I had absolutely no loyalty to Germany,” Cohn said. “None. They made me stateless. But even before that, I regarded myself as American. Because America had that one substance of taking care of immigrants and integrating them into society as Americans. I really didn’t feel strange at all. As a kid I felt much stranger in Germany because I was earmarked as a Jew and I was not allowed to do many things. We were in segregation. While here, I was immediately accepted.”

‘One minute at a time, believe me’

Ewing H. Miller was a B-24 heavy bomber pilot, assigned to the 15th Air Force, 449th Bomb Group of the 719 Squadron, otherwise known as “The Flying Horsemen.”

He flew out of a base at Grottaglie, Italy. Miller went by “Wing” and flew more than 20 missions as either a pilot or co-pilot.

In February 1945, gliding over Vienna, his plane – Sleepy Time Gal – took fire that struck the aircraft’s bomb bay. Miller was the only survivor. After his parachute deployed and as he drifted down the sky, the Luftwaffe was waiting.

“I landed on frozen soil in my chute,” Miller said. “I had a hurt left leg. I looked up and I saw this soldier with a rifle on me, yelling at me. I knew then that that .45 of mine was no match for that rifle. That was the first decision. Put your hands up and get rid of your gun. They were many like that.”

Miller was locked away in solitary confinement. To pass the time, he said he exercised and tried to recite books he had read. Eventually, he was transferred to a Luftwaffe camp, where he joined other prisoners of war.

“It was different there,” he said. “It was more about maintaining yourself, keeping as clean as possible. That was hard to do when you’re flicking fleas all day long.”

He spent the remainder of the war in captivity until Gen. George S. Patton rode through in a Jeep and personally liberated the camp where Miller was detained.

“It was dealing with things over which you had no control and accepting it,” Miller said. “Thinking about the long discussions with others about the food you were going to have when you got out. Mundane things to keep your mind occupied because you had nothing else that you could count on.”

After the war, Miller, who is now 96, earned degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and was eventually enlisted by the U.S. Air Force to redesign 20 air bases in England.

Lessons from the war ring true today

Each of the three veterans compared the isolation and contracting economy of the coronavirus to their childhood experiences during the Great Depression.

And though they all acknowledged that World War II was unique in its global devastation, they thought lessons about pulling together as a collective whole during the war could be applied today in efforts to stem the virus.

“It was a time when all America was involved,” Ewing Miller said. “My navigator was from the East Coast, Princeton. My bombardier was Greek Orthodox. The top gunner was Jewish. The chief engineer was Polish from Wisconsin, I believe. The waist gunners were Hispanic.

“It didn’t matter where you came from, how long you’d been here – we were Americans. We had a compatibility with one another. We’ve lost that, and I hope we regain it. This schism of our nation is really regrettable. It couldn’t happen at a worse time for us.”

Cohn said he “never really thought of it as a sacrifice,” reflecting back to when he was drafted.

“It was an obligation, but you wanted to have that obligation,” Cohn said. “It was a part of the way we looked at life in the United States, in our country, and we had to defend it. There was really no alternative. It had to be defended.”

Despite the circumstances, the vets were still recognized Friday.

The Friends of the National World War II Memorial, a nonprofit dedicated to honor and preserve the memory of World War II, had been planning for four years to commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. Now, the group hosted an all-day online commemoration through its Facebook page Friday at 9 a.m.

“Obviously it was disappointing not to be at the (World War II Memorial), and it presented great challenges. But it actually presented greater opportunities because we are able to tell the story in a more comprehensive way and share it with a greater and potentially younger audience,” said Holly Rotondi, executive director of Friends.

“I just think these stories offer some really powerful lessons that transcend time.”

The experience wasn’t quite the same, but all three veterans said they would be watching. Harry Miller tuned in from his iPad; Cohn also watched. Ewing Miller said he’d supplement the experience with a Zoom party and would pour himself a Scotch.

“We were just happier than the devil when it was over,” Harry Miller said. “It’s not something that I will forget for a long time.”

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© 2020 USA Today