Six months. For six long months they faced off against the Russians, guns trained on each other across the demarcation line at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia as if waiting to see who would blink first.
It was May 11, 1945, and not even one of the soldiers involved in this battle saga knew that this would be his life for the next six long months. And, if any American soldier strayed across the line his waiting game changed promptly—and not for the better. Seized by the Russians, the American serviceman became a POW of the Russians, left to whatever mercies they might or might not give.
Over the course of the months, like other soldiers, Corporal Henry Jaske suffered no shortage of tension-filled moments. Time to reflect, even agonize, over the events unfolding around them. Surely the nerve-racking time that Henry and a buddy crossed the line and were hidden by locals as the Russian patrol passed them by weighed on the young corporal’s mind, adding yet more tension to the uncertain waiting game.
Henry Jaske had more than ample time to reminisce about his trek to Pilsen as he waited. And waited. And waited.
.The 16th Armored Division’s first assignment, his unit, had been to disarm mines along the Normandy coast. Gradually his Division worked its way across France and Germany before entering Czechoslovakia in early May 1945. Then finally on May 7, they liberated Pilsen in a three-hour battle with the 11th Panzer Division of the German Army.
For the most part, the war appeared to be drawing to an excruciating close. It seemed the main objective of the Germans had become to avoid capture by the Red Army. The surrender of some 5,500 German soldiers to the 16th Armored Division on VE day on May 7 undoubtedly led credence to the belief that the defeated Germans would do all they could to flee the Russians and that they had sound reason to flee this reputedly brutal enemy.
Which left the Americans to wait for the dreaded arrival of the one-time Russian allies. So it was on May 11, the Soviet army moved into Pilsen, and a Russian tank rumbled into position directly across the street, a mere 40 feet away from an American tank. There they sat, guns pointed at each other, suddenly enemies rather than allies, signaling the beginning of the six very long months for our soldiers.
In retrospect young Henry, like so many looking back at the events, most likely remembered this scenario as the start of a frightening new type of face-off; the Cold War had begun. . . .
When the once Corporal Henry Jaske passed in December 2012, I was one of his heirs. Therefore in honor of his service, I decided to use a large portion of that inheritance to establish a memorial fund in honor of Henry F. Jaske as part of the NACE Foundation’s Workforce Development program for veterans. I doubt I could ever truly do justice to the service that these courageous American soldiers gave to our country and to the world nor understand what they endured to give that service. But in my own way I would like to do my part to “pay it forward,” to spark that circle of circumstances that can build and grow. As the flight of a single butterfly can affect events across the world, perhaps this fund can help current veterans to get jobs, and then they might pay it forward again to help hundreds more future veterans.
I thank my uncle and those who served in that long ago war. I thank those who served in the wars and conflicts in the decades afterward. I also thank today’s veterans who will get training as corrosion technologists and who will be helped to get good paying jobs as a result of my decision. There is no doubt in my mind that some of these deserving veterans receiving scholarships from the NACE Foundation will become successful enough so that they can then pay it forward to help future veterans. The circle of life and love and giving. That is how it should be. Will you consider also joining this circle of giving?
Originally published in Materials Performance, February 2014