On the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, COVID-19 kept Fort Riley officials from holding a large celebration, but it didn’t keep them from remembering.
Supervisory Curator and Director of the Fort Riley Museum Complex Bob Smith speaks enthusiastically about the museum’s many artifacts and the events of May 8, 1945, which signified the end of World War II in Europe.
There are many WWII artifacts in Fort Riley’s historical museum.
There is a door in the museum that now leads to nothing more than a blank white wall, but which was once part of the jail cell of some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals to be tried at Nuremberg.
“We don’t know who was behind this door, but we do know that it’s one of two doors that are here in the United States,” Smith said. “The other door is at the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois.”
The prisoners, according to Smith, were kept on 24/7 suicide watch through an eye-level opening in the doors to their cells.
The door, he said, serves as a “fitting tribute” to the end of WWII in Europe. It’s the closest thing the museum has to an artifact representing the war’s end.
“Those Nazi war criminals that were responsible for the Holocaust and this most destructive war in Europe were actually held to account,” Smith said. “So this kind of is like the closure to that time period.”
The door was acquired, he said, after the German government offered the United States Army to select artifacts from Nuremberg.
Smith spoke of a local Battle of the Bulge veteran, Jim Sharp of Manhattan, who also served as Sergeant of the Guard during the Nuremberg trials. Sharp, he said, the door — remembers keeping watch over Nazi criminals alongside fellow American soldiers.
“Sharp said they watched them eat their meals, they watched them go to the toilet, they watched them sleep,” Smith said.
Artifacts belonging to Maj. Gen. Terry Allen also reside at the museum.
Allen commanded the 1st Infantry Division in North Africa and Sicily during WWII, before being relived of command in 1943 after which he returned to the United States to train other soldiers to be sent to France.
His dog tag, his helmet, his holster and his belt — among other things — reside in a glass case in the museum on Fort Riley.
The 1st Infantry Division played an integral role in WWII, Smith said.
According to Smith, it was the first division to head overseas in 1942 during the United States’ part of the conflict and played an integral role in winning the war.
“During the war, 43,743 American GIs served with the 1st Infantry Division and of those 43,743, it incurred 4,325 KIAs and had 15,467 soldiers wounded,” Smith said. “Saying that, there were 17 recipients of the congressional medal of honor during the war in Europe with the 1st Infantry Division, 161 distinguished service crosses, and (more than) 21,000 purple hearts.”
During WWII — between 1939 and 1945 — 55 million people died.
This August, Fort Riley plans to honor the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, provided the COVID-19 pandemic has calmed enough to allow for events at that time.
Today, soldiers in the United States Army has a much different role in Europe than it did during the WWII era.
Now, the countries that went to war against the rest of Europe and the United States in WWII are allies.
Capt. Jeremy Martini and Capt. Jeff Lee both served in Operation Atlantic Resolve.
They worked with German and British soldiers, with Polish and Israeli companies, they said.
“You don’t think about it in the moment, but when you take a step back and you realize the historical context of what we’re doing over there, it’s humbling and it’s definitely an honor when you go over there are you train with those countries,” Lee said. “They chose the path of freedom, when given the choice. So that’s why we continue to build those relationships. I felt the same way when I was stationed in Korea a couple years ago, specifically being a descendant of Korean immigrants. The U.S. and Korea continue to have a strong military relationship, but that was the result of the efforts of the United States military over there.”
Lee said he felt the same pride during his deployment to Europe.
“When people are given a choice, they tend to choose freedom,” he said.
Martini recalls standing on Normandy Beach, which United States soldiers and their allies stormed June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
Martini said he was present in Europe during the 75th anniversary celebration of that historic battle and the soldiers lives lost, where he and other soldiers supported a congressional delegation and other important figures during the ceremonies.
“It was very neat to be on Omaha Beach for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, ” he said.
Martini said he flew over the beaches where soldiers such as himself fought and lost their lives.
“That was just an incredible experience,” he said. “It was great to be there with our French allies and just be able to remember that time and appreciate what those men did.”