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History tells us World War II in Europe ended on May 7, 1945. That’s history. For the Joes fighting the war, it ended when they were free from it, no longer putting their lives on the line and able to really think about going home.
Following are memories of two veterans from that war — a groundpounder and a flyboy — with different views on when the world’s greatest war came to an end.
One more mission left to complete
While the world celebrated, Donald Burgett had one more mission.
The soldier with Company A, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was told of a group of Nazis holding out in the mountains of Austria.
“Go tell them the war is over,” Burgett’s captain told him.
Burgett, an enlisted man, had survived nearly every main battle of the war in Europe, gathering medals and wounds as he went. He’d jumped into Normandy ahead of the beach landings of D-Day. He jumped, too, into Holland and spent 73 straight days in combat. He nearly froze in the Battle of the Bulge and crossed the Rhine River under fire.
As soldiers moved across Germany, Burgett said, it dawned on them that the war was nearly over. In weeks, maybe, the fighting would stop.
“Now there’s no reason for me to go out and get my head blown off,” Burgett recalled in a recent telephone interview.
“Suddenly, you realize you’re alive. Suddenly, you realize you could get killed. There’s no sense being the last name on the list.”
That thought, he said, was a new one for guys who’d risked their lives countless times to take one more house, one more road, one more hedgerow.
And when Burgett reached Bavaria, the war did end. And he had survived. At one celebration, he recalled, a lieutenant fired up on alcohol fired a shot from his pistol through the ceiling of a German house where the party was going strong.
“Upstairs we heard a thud,” said Burgett, 80, and now living in Howell, Mich.
A soldier writing a letter home to tell his family he’d survived the war without a scratch had been shot through the thigh.
A couple days later, Burgett went on his last patrol. He took four others and headed into the mountains of Austria to confront the last Nazi stronghold.
When he found them, the enemy was lounging in the Alpine sun, drinking beer. One was playing guitar.
Burgett told his companions to sling their weapons over their shoulders to appear less threatening. They approached the Germans, who, he said, seemed surprised to see them.
“I said, ‘The Krieg is kaput,’ ” Burgett recalled, trying to tell them the war was finished.
One German spoke English, so Burgett repeated his news.
“He didn’t believe me. I said, ‘I’m here,’ ” he recalled. “I told him the American Army was down below. If we didn’t come back, they’d come looking for us.”
The Germans agreed to ditch their weapons and make their way to Munich to surrender. Burgett and his soldiers spent the night on the mountain and went back the next day.
“To me, that was the end of the war in Europe,” said Burgett, who has written four books about his time in the war.
The veteran made it home in January 1946, still too young, he likes to recall, to drink a beer to celebrate his survival.
Making it to the ‘magic number’
For Allen Ostrom, the war ended a couple of months earlier. He was a B-17 tail gunner with the 398th Bomb Group flying from Nuthampstead, England.
As their missions carried them deeper and deeper into Germany, they realized that the war would not continue much longer.
But, said Ostrom, 83, and living in Seattle, it didn’t pay to relax as the German fighters grew fewer and the anti-aircraft fire became sparse.
Once you had those thoughts, he said, “somebody on your wing gets blown up.”
“We lost airplanes to the very last days of the war,” said Ostrom, who entered the war as an enlisted man. “I always felt the missions I was on at the tail end of the war were as bad as the ones at the first of the war.
“It didn’t make one iota of difference. They were just as long. They were just as high. They were just as cold.”
They were also just as dangerous. He told of hitting a target in eastern Germany 10 times, losing 10 aircraft in the process.
But the U.S. Army Air Force had an out for its members that was unavailable to soldiers on the ground: When an airman reached a certain number of missions, he was shipped home.
Ostrom said the initial number was 25. But that was raised to 30 and then, around D-Day, to 35.
A couple of months before the war ended, Ostrom reached that magic number.
“When you finish your 35, you have this feeling of euphoria,” he said. “You don’t really sit down and analyze what’s going on. You’re just so happy.”
When the war ended for everybody else, Ostrom was at a base in California, learning how to process film used to assess the accuracy of bombing missions. He guessed the news came to him by the radio or by word of mouth, but he’s not sure. For him, the war was already over.
“I just feel real lucky that I got to 35,” he said, “because a lot of our guys didn’t.”
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