Photo of American-Russian celebration has WWII veteran reliving role in ending European conflict
Last week, World War II veteran Eugene Pierron of Belgium saw a familiar World War II photo in the corner of an ad that instantly took him back 68 years.
The photo showed a U.S. Army lieutenant and his Russian counterpart smiling and shaking hands at the Elbe River near Targau, Germany, on April 25, 1945. It was an important step toward ending the war in Europe.
Pierron recognized the photo because he was there and has a copy of the picture.
Pierron was a Jeep driver with the 661st Tank Destroyer Battalion attached to the 69th Infantry Division when the American soldiers connected with Russian troops and celebrated their victory over Germany.
“I remember drinking vodka with the Soviet troops and kissing a Russian lady veteran because I knew this would end the war in Europe,” Pierron said.
He also remembers the Autobahn filled for as far as he could see with German soldiers surrendering.
“A lot of Germans didn’t want us to leave because they didn’t want to be under Soviet control. They wanted to come with us,” Pierron said.
The encounter with the Russians came after three days of intense fighting to liberate Leipzig, Germany. Pierron was hit by two pieces of shrapnel, one in each side of his buttocks, during the battle.
“We were supposed to find the enemy, but we did a poor job the day we got pinned down,” Pierron said. “I was lying next to my tank when I said, ‘My rear end hurts.’ The guy next me said, ‘No wonder. Your poncho is full of holes.’”
The shrapnel grazed him and drew some blood, but Pierron said he knew he wasn’t seriously hurt so he kept fighting.
His commanding officer was not around and the injury was never documented, so he was not recommended for a Purple Heart.
A few years ago, Pierron briefly pursued getting the honor that is awarded to those who are injured in combat, but he needed a witness and was unable to find any of the soldiers who were with him.
Pierron, who grew up on a Town of Belgium dairy farm, was 20 and working in a Grafton machine shop making boosters for bombs when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December 1942.
However, when the Army learned he could ride a motorcycle, he was sent to Camp Hood, Texas, where a tank destroyer battalion had just been formed.
“I needed a motorcycle because I was the getaway guy,” Pierron said. “If my unit would come under fire and was pinned down, I was to get away to get help.”
He rode a motorcycle while training at several bases in the U.S., but when his battalion arrived at LeHarve, France, on Jan. 9, 1945, he was assigned a Jeep.
His lieutenant saw the Jeep and decided to ride with Pierron rather than in a tank. That meant Pierron was now at the front of the battalion instead of the rear.
His battalion joined the fighting in Belgium and was attached to the 69th Division, dubbed the “Fighting 69th,” as it pushed through Germany, capturing more than 1,000 towns and freeing more than 26,500 Allied prisoners of war, including Joseph Demler of Port Washington and Pierron’s brother Bob.
Pierron later learned from his brother that he missed being a part of their liberation by five days.
Pierron remembers carrying four cases of champagne on the back rack of the Jeep and filling an extra water tank with wine to celebrate.
Pierron was given a 30-day furlough and went home to his parents’ farm. His furlough was extended another 14 days, but six days later he was ordered to report to Fort McKinley, Maine, where he spent a year on Great Diamond Island. He was discharged in March 1946, as a private first class.
Pierron, who will turn 89 in June, is a member of the 69th Division Association and served on its board of directors. He is also a life member of the Ozaukee County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5373 and a member of American Legion Memorial Post 412 in Belgium.
For 28 years, he drove disabled veterans to the Clement J. Zablocki Medical Center in Milwaukee and area hospitals. He was forced to quit when he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy.
Image Information: WORLD WAR II veteran Eugene Pierron, 88, looked over photographs and other memorabilia from when his tank destroyer battalion was attached to the 69th Infantry Division as it pushed through Germany, capturing towns and liberating prisoners of war before linking up with Russian troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945 (above photo). The inset photo taken at Liepzig, Germany, shows Pierron with the Jeep he drove during the war. Top photo by Bill Schanen IV