By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
When Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich finally collapsed, the western Allies and their Soviet Union partners were in no mood to be lenient with the defeated Germans. Western and Russian soldiers alike had reasons to want revenge for the costly war, but one American veteran recently recalled how he and a fellow soldier kept some Soviets from unleashing that vengeance on unarmed German civilians.
Now 87, Claude Cruise of Bluefield, Va., was 19 years old when he was sent to Europe. He trained with the 16th Armored Division before he became a replacement with the 30th Infantry in northern France. He served in four of five campaigns in Europe. While he missed — and he was glad of it — the Normandy Invasion, he found himself in what became Germany’s last offense in the West, a major attack best known as The Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans pursued their offensive ruthlessly. Cruise was among the first Americans to see the results of that ruthlessness — the bodies of American soldiers murdered during the Malmedy Massacre in Belgium. About 70 surrendered soldiers had been killed. Cruise can still remember seeing their bodies covered with snow. The terrible sight steeled the Americans’ resolve to stop the German advance.
“It made you hate like you never hated before,” he declared.
“They were still lying there,” Cruise said during a 2009 interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. “So we moved into the town. We were surrounded one time on three sides, but we held them back.”
When Germany finally surrendered, Cruise and his fellow soldiers were temporarily assigned to occupation duty. By that time, the Russians and Western Allies had linked up at the Elbe River, a waterway that later became a boundary between West Germany and East Germany. Cruise still has the white armband that states both in English and in German that he was with the police. He did, however, find time to explore a little bit and even had an opportunity to be photographed with some German fighter planes.
He soon found himself conversing with Russian troops. He couldn’t speak Russian and the Russians couldn’t speak English, but he soon learned that they both could speak some German. Cruise said he cannot read or write in German, but he can still speak the language.
“I was a messenger to the Russian CP (command post) when we linked up with the Russians on the Elbe River at Magdeburg,” Cruise said. “We were in a jeep and there was a Russian tank sitting on the upside of the road. We stopped and gave them a cigarette.”
The Americans and Russians chatted a little in German about the end of the war; in fact, it had ended only two days earlier. As the men talked, about a dozen people — elderly individuals, younger women and some children — appeared about 100 yards away.
“And while we were talking, all of a sudden this guy I was talking to jumped up on the tank and started firing the machine gun. And I looked over and there was a line of civilians coming down the other side of the road there,” Cruise said. “I found myself running in front of the machine gun yelling ‘Nyet! Nyet!’ (No! No! in Russian). They stopped firing and I went down and pretended I was checking their papers.”
Cruise and fellow soldier Bob Klingensmith kept checking credentials and told the German civilians to move along. The Russians did not like this, but they held their fire.
“Those two Russians were staring at me,” Cruise recalled.
Today, he wonders if any of those numbed, shocked German civilians remember that day when two Americans kept them from dying mere days after Germany surrendered. Some of them were children back in 1945.
His son Jerry Cruise found a possible way to find some of those civilians when he became acquainted with Boris Jaeggi of Switzerland, a publisher of several European magazines who believes he can get Claude Cruise’s account into some Magdeburg newspapers.
The plan now is to have the Cruise’s recollections about the incident translated into German. With luck, the story may stir a childhood memory of the moment when two Americans saved them from a sudden death.