By Noel Doyle
During the final months of World War II, the leaders of the three great Allied powers involved in the conflict—U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin—met at Yalta in the Crimea to discuss postwar developments following the defeat of Nazi Germany. At this conference the Allies agreed to the establishment of four zones of occupation. This decision later enabled the Soviet Union to create several satellite states in the region and install Communist dictatorships, one of which was Czechoslovakia.
Prior to the end of hostilities, however, a situation arose over the advance east of U.S. forces into territory designated as a future part of the Soviet zone. Because such an advance could also involve potential combat engagement with the Soviet army moving west, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, decided to limit the push of American forces into Czechoslovakia. Despite this edict, the U.S. Army did liberate several towns in Western Bohemia. Moreover, in the overall push to end the war, American military aircraft continued to fly over Moravia and Slovakia. During this process, the U.S. Air Force lost several bombers, fighters, and combat air crews. Subsequently, Czechoslovak citizens in several small towns erected small monuments to commemorate either their actual liberation by the U.S. Army or the loss of American aircraft over their territory. It was to these sites that Embassy Prague personnel, led by the U.S. ambassador, would travel in the spring and fall of each year to place wreaths to keep the memory alive. These ceremonies happened despite Communist propaganda to the contrary of this country’s contribution to the liberation of the Czechoslovak nation in 1945.
The embassy wreath laying ceremonies were held twice each year. The spring rendition was usually held in May and visited towns in Western Bohemia that were liberated by the U.S. Army. The fall activities were normally conducted in October at locations in Moravia and Slovakia where monuments had been erected. Additionally, the embassy visited Polomka, where a monument is dedicated to honor the Anglo-American Office of Strategic Services Green Mission team, most of whom were captured and executed by the Germans.
“We conducted this ceremony three times during my tenure, once in the rain,” said Noel Doyle, who from 1984-1987 was responsible for planning and executing the ceremonies on behalf of Embassy Prague. “After our descent we also would place a wreath at a plaque in the village honoring the Slovak National Uprising.”
Preparations for both trips always began with a route reconnaissance approximately two weeks before the actual departure. These were precautionary treks to ensure no major obstacles existed to impede the movement of the ambassador and his entourage. This also included a visit into the town itself to check the location and condition of the monuments. Upon ensuring there were no existing impediments, embassy personnel would confirm a weekend that would accommodate the ambassador’s absence from Prague. Details concerning the embassy intent to conduct these wreath laying ceremonies were conveyed to local authorities and also back to the Department of State for broadcast on Voice of America. The purpose of the latter was to make the Czechoslovak people aware of the dates and times that the ambassador would be visiting their area.
On the appointed weekend, the ambassador and accompanying staff would depart the embassy compound in caravan. Defense Attaché Office (DAO) personnel in full military uniform would occupy the lead vehicle followed by a large Oldsmobile with two American flags attached to the corners of the front bumper, carrying the ambassador and his wife. Behind the ambassadorial sedan was a DAO van carrying all of the wreaths. Individual passenger cars completed the entourage. On a couple of occasions, embassy staff also welcomed special guests on their journey.
“In May 1985, the embassy was privileged to have a World War II veteran from Wisconsin accompany us on our wreath laying trip,” said Doyle. “His unit had been almost wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge.”
Upon reaching one of the designated towns, the ambassador, or chargé d’affaires in the ambassador’s absence, would be led to the monument site where he would deliver a short speech thanking the attendees and commemorating the occasion. After opening remarks, the embassy team would mingle with the locals before moving on to the next location. This procedure would continue until the end of the scheduled day when the embassy team would converge at a local restaurant and hotel to dine and spend the night.
In the conduct of the embassy’s wreath laying ventures, embassy personnel encountered several examples of the westward leaning orientation of the Czechoslovak people, despite the Communist regime’s efforts to downplay the role that the U.S. played in the WWII liberation of their country. One of the most demonstrable indicators of this western influence was the people’s attendance and enthusiasm for the ceremonies themselves despite the presence of state security personnel (STB), some with video capability.
“I recall one instance in particular at Palacov when police closed off the access road at both ends to prevent the locals from attending,” said Doyle. “Despite this inconvenience, they came through open fields to greet our group and hear the remarks from the American ambassador.”
Crowds at the events ranged in numbers from 60 to more than 1,000 people, even though authorities attempted to discourage the visits. In May 1987, at Klatovy and Rokycany, the authorities played music and broadcast propaganda over a loudspeaker to distract from the event, even though the people continued to support the embassy’s presence.
“During a ceremony at Troubky, a local man who owned a 1942 World War II Jeep allowed Ambassador Julian Niemczyk, a former Air Force officer, to be photographed in his vehicle,” said Doyle. “At Zlobice, a man held up a small banner which said ‘We are grateful to the USA’ which was immediately photographed by the STB.”.
The wreath laying activities of Embassy Prague were unique in themselves, especially because the conduct of such postwar commemorative observances in other Communist-dominated areas were likely rare. In the late 1980s, Czechoslovakia was one of several East European countries in satellite status under the yoke of the Soviet Union. The subsequent subjugation of their individual freedoms and the threat of retribution for violation thereof were strong potential deterrents to the people’s attendance at the embassy’s semi-annual wreath laying ceremonies. The Communist regime attempted to downplay the contribution, even teaching in schools that it was the Soviet army that was responsible for the liberation of the nation. In turning out to support U.S. embassy wreath layings, the Czechoslovak people demonstrated enormous courage in helping to maintain the actual truth.
Noel Doyle is a retired U.S. Army Attachè who served at Embassy Prague from 1984-1987.
Embassy Prague continues to commemorate the U.S. liberation of region during WWII
By Edward Findlay
Each April and May, Embassy Prague officials fan out across the region to attend dozens of local festivals and ceremonies commemorating the U.S. liberation of Western Bohemia. The tradition began in 1947, when U.S. Ambassador Lawrence Steinhardt and the Czech Foreign Minister unveiled a U.S. Army liberation memorial in the town of Cheb, the first Czechoslovak town liberated by American troops. U.S. diplomats and military personnel have visited Cheb to lay a wreath at the memorial every year since then, including during the difficult decades of Communist Party rule when such events were banned outright or closely controlled by the secret police. As the 1989 Velvet Revolution brought democracy back to Czechoslovakia, then-U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black inaugurated a new era of enthusiastic, public celebrations of the American liberation when she joined Czech President Vaclav Havel in laying the cornerstone of a “Thank You, America!” memorial in the town of Pilsen. Since 1990, embassy officers and local staff have joined many thousands of appreciative, U.S. flag-waving Czechs from Western Bohemia at festivals and respectful wreath laying ceremonies in an annual outpouring of appreciation for America’s role in ending World War II.
In 2020, Prague’s public affairs section (PAS) prepared an ambitious public outreach campaign for the 75th anniversary of the liberation until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all public events. The team responded with a plan for a virtual recognition of the Czech commemorations that would allow them to reach the Czech people with a message supporting the U.S.-Czech friendship and security relationship. For the campaign, PAS filmed and distributed more than 30 separate short and individually tailored videos featuring embassy officials offering congratulations and thanks to each municipality that had planned a liberation event. It was a considerable effort for PAS staff, but well worth it. Their videos drew broad, positive media attention, as local mayors posted them on their websites and both regional and national media cited them in broadcasts.
Ambassador Stephen B. King recorded several video messages for this campaign, and also laid a wreath at a small ceremony in Pilsen in honor of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives during the liberation. View one of his virtual messages here.
“Honoring the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers in Czechoslovakia during World War II and meeting the living veterans of General Patton’s Army who visit each year for Pilsen’s Liberation Festival is one of the great privileges of being Ambassador to the Czech Republic,” said King. “My predecessors’ attendance at wreath-laying ceremonies during the tough years of communism kept the truth alive about U.S. support for the Czech people during that time. I am deeply grateful for and proud of their efforts.”
Edward F. Findlay is an information officer at Embassy Prague.