Steel on Stone: the liberation of Asch

Twenty tons of American tank clattered across ancient cobblestone; steel treads clawing and scrawling on worn granite as this tank and a troop of American soldiers wound their way into the town of Asch. By day’s end the town would be free. But Charles Harris, Truman Perfect, Robert Hanchey, Artur Rentell, Clarance Shoupe, Charles Murray, William Feury, and Thomas Ward would trade their American lives for that freedom.

First blood had spilled minutes before as an American halftrack mounting a quad-50 machinegun mount cut down a German motorcycle crew just outside town. But now, for the moment, there was nothing but the clatter and roar of the tank, and the footsteps of the men beside it-scanning the houses lining the winding road; looking for the enemy they had come to kill.

They didn’t wait long–three Germans suddenly appeared some 80 yards ahead–nonchalantly walking with rifles slung; oblivious to the scene just down the road. Oblivious, until Lt. McCaleb hollered “Kommen sie hier,” inviting them to surrender. They didn’t; the tank’s cannon roared, and two are violently vaporized. The third scuttles away, dodging a fusillade as the tank and troops advance a few dozen more yards.

Enter, stage left, a German civilian emerging from his house and cursing the American troops. In no mood for such commentary, the good Lieutenant shoos him back inside with a revolver shot over his head…. That matter resolved, he strides forward a few more steps, then – overhead, fleeting, flickering shadow; he ducks as a Panzerfaust flies past him to hammer the tank a dozen feet away.

That tank, one moment a conqueror, is in the next horrific moment a rolling coffin. Four hundred grams of high explosive shaped-charge warhead rips through the side armor; pounds of molten metal spatter into the crew compartment; blast overpressure pulps lungs. The major firing the turret-top machinegun is blown off the tank; the troop commander beside the tank is mortally wounded; his command transfers that day to Lieutenant McCaleb. Crewed now only by three dead men, the tank ghosts across the road and slams to a stop against a home.

Before the day is done, Asch will fall. Hundreds of Nazis will surrender; roughly a hundred will die; four more Americans will join the first four in death.

And Asch will be free, the first city in Czechoslovakia to be liberated by the U.S. Army.

Of course there are thousands of stories like this–most now untold–that played out as the Allies crushed the six-year reign of the Thousand Year Reich. These tales didn’t make headlines or a newsreel. Just one more firefight, one more verse of death; one more small step to victory that made up the day-to-day reality of American soldiers through the ten long months from Normandy to V-E Day.

I know the story only because it was dad’s–he wrote the unit history chapter on the liberation of Asch; eventually he told me it himself. And throughout his life I was reminded of it, as he would remind me “that’s my bad ear, Gary…” the ear that was never the same after Asch and that Panzerfaust.Unit history Dad's Asch article

Nor will I be the same, when an odd confluence of events led to my invitation to attend the 71st anniversary of the war’s end in Asch. I thought, perhaps, that the town square might still exist, where this bloody drama had played out. Perhaps, I thought, I could imagine how it might have happened. I conceived this pending ceremony in a distant, foreign land, would be touching, a bit perfunctory, and a tad generic. This was scarcely the first such ceremony, after all.

Little did I know of the Czech people, and how 6 years of Nazi oppression followed by 45 years of brutal Communist domination had bred a passion for liberty and remembrance which shames us modern Americans. Perhaps, though, you don’t know what you have until it is lost….

And it was lost–not only under the Nazis, but while American troops seized a good part of western Czechoslovakia–all the way up to Pilsen–the Big Three superpowers had bargained away its freedom as they settled what post-war Europe would be. Just weeks after the war’s end American troops evacuated the nation and the Soviets moved in. For a smattering of months there was hope that Czechoslovakia would remain something of a free nation. But in 1948, the Iron Curtain slammed down–and any recognition of the American liberation in the western lands was violently suppressed. And absurdly suppressed, as the Communists taught children for the next 41 years that the black troops which liberated some towns were Soviet soldiers “in camouflage,” and that other Soviet soldiers had worn American uniforms to “confuse the enemy.”

So when freedom–true freedom–finally came to Czechoslovakia in 1989 in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, those in Western Czechoslovakia lost no time recognizing their liberators, immediately, and systematically through time. After four decades of lies, the Czechs wanted the truth to be told, and told well.

Gwenn and I were welcomed to Asch by Deputy Mayor Pavel Klepacek, and met the man who facilitated and blessed our visit a thousand times over–Bohuslav “Bob” Balcar, a publisher, historian, and relentless advocate of freedom.

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As Bob had promised, there were “festive speeches,” and we were made most welcome with official greetings and a medal and plaque commemorating the City of Asch. And to my delight, we were joined by Captain Michael Farenelli, Commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2d Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry. Remarkably, the very same unit dad had served in in World War II was still stationed in Vilseck, Germany, a short drive from Asch. And yes, they still wear spurs with their dress blues–the horse heritage continues….

Then Mayor of Asch, Dalibor Blazek, joined us to lay a wreath at the memorial to the men of the 2d Mechanized Cavalry–the liberators of Asch, 20 April 1945.

I guess, then, it began to hit me. I knew the story of Asch, but thinly. Now, some of the reality began to seep in–eight had made the supreme sacrifice on that April day…a sacrifice well-honored by the citizen of Asch today.

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We moved from the monument to the town square and the old town hall–I’d hoped to see this square, and imagine what might have happened.

I got more than I bargained for–the first surprise being that two young artists, concerned that the younger generation was not learning of the American liberation, took it upon themselves to author and distributed a comic book based on dad’s account of the battle.

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Amazingly, the comic book was incredibly accurate–so much so, that we were walked foot-by-foot and minute-by-minute through the engagement that played out over about a 500 meter stretch of road:

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Here, we’re looking from the German perspective–town behind us, Americans advancing towards us. The three oblivious Germans walked around the curve, and you can see the result–two dead Germans–on the right side of the comic book. Note that a few of the stone road shoulder markers remain from the war era. Many of the buildings extant during the fight were heavily damaged and later razed–trees have grown up–but the authors showed me where they had depicted the remaining buildings, and created the comic book art by relying on prewar photos. The only error I noticed was the figure discharging the rifle in the lower right corner–that is what dad did to scare the cussing German civilian back indoors–but he used a .38 revolver that he’d picked up, not his M1 Garand. Every other detail looked to be spot-on.

And so we walked down the same street where, 71 years before, dad had fought and four Americans died to liberate Asch. Here’s a panoramic view (note the distortion–the road is actually straight) taken at about the point that dad shot at the cursing German civilian, who emerged near the yellowish house.

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Looking from the American perspective below, the car is approaching right about where the Germans were killed. The tank would have been about midway between the car and where I’m standing when it was hit, and it ran forward into a house which was subsequently razed.

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And immediately to the right, a small tunnel where some civilians had taken cover including a local businessman who spoke English–he became the interpreter for the Americans once he was coaxed out of hiding.

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And so, when I’d hoped to perhaps see the town and imagine what might have happened, I found myself looking down at the very cobblestones dad had crossed, knowing that 71 years and two weeks before, my dad fought for this town’s freedom.

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A cacophony of emotions came over me–longing that dad could have made this trip himself; pride in his service; heart-rending gratitude to the men and women of Asch who remember with such passion and care.

And increasingly, a love for the Czech people who bore 45 years of Communist oppression without ever forgetting their American liberators. In the coming days I’d learn that Asch was scarcely unique in that regard–all over Western Bohemia, the region liberated by the Americans are dozens of memorials–many to the 2d Cav and to General Patton specifically–and this being May, the month of liberation, every one would be marked with red, white, and blue garlands and flowers….

Over the coming days I’d talk to numerous Czechs about the liberation, and every time mention would be made of how frustrated they had been to be silenced for 40+ years. Every monument I saw had been erected in 1989 or 1990–and when we visited Pilsen I learned from a local that when the city was finally free to celebrate the American liberation in 1989, that city of 180,000 residents hosted one million people at its celebration.

There are really no words to express the gratitude I felt for their gratitude–and the incredible desire to speak and live truth–a passion that carried across generations of Czechs who lived under the Soviet heel. As the days would pass, this burning love for freedom and phenomenal courage would be found again and again: village by village where the 2d Cav had operated. In Prague, where Jan Palach fell, burning in protest at Soviet oppression, and in an ancient church crypt where 7 Czech freedom-fighters died, trapped below ground, after successfully ambushing the Nazi architect of the “final solution,” Reinhard Heydrich. And at monument after monument throughout the streets of Prague, marking where the liberators of 1945 and the protestors of 1968 fell.

So it seems fitting to end at the Asch town square, to show what it once was, before the superpowers sold Czechoslovakia down the Nazi river under the disgraceful Munich Agreement:

Asch CZ 1930s no 2

And this is what the square looked like under the enlightened solicitude of the Soviet Union, circa 1960:

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And this is what it looks like today, given the blessings of freedom and the leadership of Mayor Blazek, his able Deputy Mayor Kelpachek, and the efforts of the great citizens of Asch….

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So I close with redoubled thanks to each who so blessed Gwenn and me on this most memorable visit–who so carefully guard the memory and celebrate the liberation–thank you, my new and beloved friends….

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And to quote my father’s prayer, inscribed a few days later on the town register of the small village of Myslív, “May God grant us a long and lasting peace.”

Robert McCaleb Mysliv Parish Register signature

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