Veterans gather to remember Patton’s “greatest, but most terrible sport”

George Thompson (rechts)

This week marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Plzeň and West Bohemia by General Patton's Third Army. In a special programme to mark the anniversary, Rob Cameron travelled to the spa town of Konstantinovy Lázně, former headquarters of the US Army's 16th Armoured Division, where he spoke to George Thompson - a veteran of the fighting in West Bohemia, Charles Noble - son of the commander of the 16th Armoured Division’s Combat Command B, and George Patton Waters, grandson of the legendary General George S. Patton.

General Patton’s 3rd Army rolled into the spa town of Konstantinovy Lázně this week – or at least a few dozen jeeps and half-tracks belonging to Czech military enthusiasts. The sleepy town played a significant role in the liberation of Czechoslovakia – the Americans gradually established command posts for two divisions here, and set up camps for 50,000 German prisoners of war, who were desperate to avoid falling into the hands of the Red Army advancing from the east. Among the U.S. soldiers guarding the POWs was George Thompson. Now in his 80s, he shared his recollections of the liberation over goulash and dumplings at a lunch held in the veterans’ honour.

George Thompson (right), foto: Martina Schneibergová
“I’m George Thompson, from Salem, Oregon at this time. We left from Fürth, Germany. We charged right in, all the way to Nýřany, Czech Republic. That’s where we had our first battle – and last battle, by the way. Anyway, we captured a lot of Germans, and we took their rifles and weapons, put them in the middle of the street and set them on fire. After that, we stayed that night, then moved out, through Plzeň and what’s called Bory Airport now, and we repaired German vehicles. The field was full of German vehicles. The Germans had disabled them all, they had reached under the dash and pulled all the wires off, so our job was to hotwire them, start them, and give them to the city government.”

The 65th anniversary of the liberation in Konstantinovy Lázně, photo: author
At that point, was there very much a sense that the war was over and it was just a question of mopping up and trying to maintain an orderly capitulation from the Germans?

“No. You can ask every soldier here, and they’ll say – all we wanted to do was go home. Don’t care about anything else, just get us home. I guess we were fortunate that there were enough stationed here to get the POWs home and also the displaced persons. We went to Marienbad for a short time after that, and there was a huge displaced persons camp there at the airport. I can’t estimate how many were there, probably several thousand. And all we were doing there was guarding them so they wouldn’t walk away, but they didn’t want to go because they were getting food and bathing facilities and I guess getting a paper so they could leave.”

What was the reception like from the Czech people as you gradually liberated the villages from the German border towards Plzeň?

Konstantinovy Lázně, 1945
“Well, I personally did not get any accolades from the little town we went into. As we were marching the prisoners through the town to the POW enclosure, the Czech civilians in that town would take bats, rakes, shovels – anything they could get their hands on – and whack those poor guys. Our medics took care of many more Germans than they did us guys.”

So it was your job to protect the German POWs.

“Right. I protected them the best I could, but there were too many of them. The sidewalk was lined with people you know. I knew how the Czechs felt, but still I couldn’t allow ‘em to beat up on prisoners.”

What’s it like coming back now to Plzeň? How many times have you been back?

“Six times I believe.”

Six times – so this is really something that you feel strongly about.

“Very much. The marvellous thing is I make new friends every time, so I’ve got many friends here now and they’re all anxious to take care of us. It’s amazing.”

George was among a handful of U.S. veterans who came to Konstantinovy Lázně for the unveiling of a new memorial in a tranquil patch of grass in the town centre. Also present at the ceremony was Charles Noble, a veteran of the Korean war, and the son of Colonel Charles Noble, who was in charge of the 16th Armoured Division’s Combat Command B. Charles Noble junior spoke of his father’s frustration at not being allowed to continue eastwards and help liberate Prague from the Nazis.

“That was one of my father’s greatest disappointments in his life. Some of his troops got to within eleven miles of Prague, and it’s reported that some even got into Prague, some of the scouts, but not the main forces. Of course General Patton wanted to free all of Czechoslovakia if he could, but command at the higher level made them stop and return to the demarcation line. That’s when the politicians – as usual – messed up the war.”

General Patton
President Truman and General Eisenhower were both keen to avoid conflict with Stalin, who saw eastern Europe as the spoils of war after sacrificing millions of Soviet lives to defeat Hitler. So General Patton was ordered to halt his advance west of Prague. In the end, most of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Red Army, sealing its fate as a Soviet satellite, something that was accepted by Patton with ill-concealed fury. His grandson, George Patton Waters, regularly attends the veterans’ trips to the Czech Republic.

“Well, he was a warrior, not a politician. General Eisenhower was a politician. You have to remember that the Russians lost 23 million people to do what they did. We lost in the hundreds of thousands. I think that General Patton was given an order and he carried it out. Whether some Americans went on to Prague, I don’t know. They weren’t supposed to. But sometimes we don’t see everything that goes on, and I think General Patton was a very understanding man. But yes he was frustrated. Very, very frustrated.”

We’ve heard that this may be the last major anniversary that’s attended by large numbers of U.S. veterans, as the march of time takes its toll.

The 65th anniversary of the liberation in Konstantinovy Lázně, photo: author
“Looking at the age, it may be. But I think the point is – this is the best for them this year, last year was the best for those last year, and next year, those that can come back I’m sure will. It’s a sad thing but it does take its toll. But you haven’t forgotten, and the children of these people will continue to come back, because this is something we can’t forget. As General Patton said, war is the greatest sport you can endure. But the outcome is also the worst you can endure. And as General Patton was a very sporting man, I think he passed on to his men, and they passed on to their children, that war is intolerable, and we don’t want to do it again.”

The veterans are old men now; some needed a helping hand past the rows of seats lined up in front of the monument. But when the Czech anthem played, they all stood to attention and saluted, a touching moment and a reminder of the unique bond that exists between this part of the country and the United States of America.