By Michael Haltzel
May 7, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day, in which Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on the Western front. As demanded by Stalin, the Germans also surrendered one day later in Berlin to the Soviet forces.
VE Day occurred in a little, red schoolhouse in Reims, France. Colonel-General (Generaloberst) Alfred Jodl, the recently appointed Chief of Staff of the German Army, signed for Germany. General Walter Beddel Smith, Chief of Staff for Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, signed for the U.S., and representatives of the U.K., the U.S.S.R., and France added their signatures.
This momentous event has a direct family connection for our family in the person of my oldest cousin Larry Heller. Larry was a family hero, and in truth he had the whole package: handsome, charming, athletic, and brilliant. A Pennsylvanian, he won a scholarship to Harvard, from which he graduated in the spring of 1941. Larry immediately volunteered for the U.S. Army. After completing basic training, he was accepted for Officers Candidate School. Pearl Harbor came shortly thereafter, followed four days later by Germany’s declaration of war against the United States and Congress’s reciprocal declaration a few hours later.
Larry wrote to his mother (my Aunt Minnie) that he was being assigned and would be back in touch as soon as he was allowed. Family lore has it that he got close to a perfect score on his OCS final exam. I can’t verify that, but he must have done remarkably well because several months later his mother received a letter from him from General Eisenhower’s headquarters in London, where he was serving as an aide to Ike. As one of his assignments Larry was trained as a cartographer.
After 1943 Larry’s periodic letters home were written on the famous stationery embossed with the flaming sword, the insignia of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force). I vaguely remember as a very little boy – probably in late 1945 or early 1946 – receiving a SHAEF shoulder patch as a gift from Larry. Alas, it has vanished, a victim of our many moves.
But back to Reims on May 7, 1945. Eisenhower purposely did not receive the unconditional surrender himself, delegating the job to Bedell Smith, whose rank corresponded to Jodl’s. After the signing, however, Ike did meet with Jodl in a small ante-room. Having already visited a former Nazi death camp near Gotha in Thuringia, Eisenhower was in no mood to be cordial. In fact he was curt, almost rude, to Jodl. My cousin Larry later told me that Jodl “looked like a beaten puppy” when he emerged from the ante-room after a very short meeting during which Eisenhower demanded that Jodl state that he clearly understood the unconditional surrender terms.
After Jodl departed (the following year he was hanged as a war criminal), Ike invited his closest aides into the little ante-room. There on a table was a map of the Western front with pins stuck in it, showing the disposition of forces. The map had been drawn by a British Colonel and my cousin Larry.
I’m not even sure what rank Larry was; I think he was a lieutenant. I do know, however, that while we demobilized nearly 12 million men and women after the end of World War II, he stayed on with Ike until late in 1946. He then returned to his wife in Massachusetts, where they started a family. On June 25, 1950 North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The U.S. was woefully unprepared for war, so all experienced specialists were called up. Larry reentered the U.S. Army and served more than two years in Korea. So, all-in-all this non-career officer spent nearly eight years in service.
When I was growing up and reading histories of World War II, I would occasionally see Larry and ask him questions about it. I remember two things. First, he remained fiercely loyal to Eisenhower. Second, he was unfailingly modest, even humble, about his own role in two wars.
Larry died several years ago in his mid-80s. He was a patriotic American and a wonderful guy, and I’m thinking of him on this 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Michael Haltzel is Chairman of the Transatlantic Leadership Network.