East Meets West Day: The Handshake That Made History

May 1, 2023
East Meets West Day: The Handshake That Made History

USSR and American soldiers shake hands for the unofficial end to WWII.

Today’s National East Meets West Day – often referred to as Elbe Day – does not come to mind as a day to remember.

But it should.  The meeting of American and Russian soldiers on the Elbe River on Wednesday, April 25, 1945 not only signaled the end of World War II in Europe but also shaped some of what our nation is today.

First Contact

On patrol near the village of Strehla on Wednesday morning, April 25, 1945, 1st Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue and 35 soldiers crossed from the west to the east side of the Elbe.    

At 11:30 am, they unexpectedly encountered Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gardiev and several Russian soldiers.

The short meeting between the Americans and Russians went well.  Kotzebue later recalled that Gardiev “was quiet, reserved, aloof, not enthusiastic.”

Five Hours Later

The second encounter between American and Russian forces was more jubilant.

North of Kotzebue’s position and on the west side of the Elbe, 2nd Lieutenant William Robertson and three soldiers were patrolling near the village of Torgau.  The four Americans were aware that Russian forces were nearby but did not know their exact location.

Just prior to Robertson’s patrol, both armies had agreed that the first meeting between the armies would be accomplished through the use of flares – the Russians would use red; the Americans green.

To make communications clearer, Robertson’s men had used a white sheet and some red and blue paint to fashion and hang an American flag from a church steeple.  When the Russians spotted it, they fired a red flare.

Unfortunately, the Americans had no green flare with which to answer. Suspecting a German trick, the Russians opened fire from the east side of the Elbe.

Robertson then recalled liberating a Russian soldier from a German prisoner of war camp outside of Torgau.  He had the soldier brought forward and told him to tell the Russians that the Americans were friendly.

The firing ceased, and at 4:00 pm, Robertson and his men crawled across the wreckage of the Torgau Elbe River Bridge to meet the Russians.

“Put it there,” Robertson reportedly said when he held his hand out to Sergeant Nickolay Andreyev.

The iconic image of the time.

The Excitement

That handshake foretold the end of the war in Europe.

“This is not the hour of final victory in Europe,” said President Harry Truman, “but the hour draws near….”

But sometimes overlooked in all the excitement of that day is a third American patrol which also made contact with the Russians.

Near the time of Robertson’s contact with Russian forces, Major Fred Craig was leading a patrol of 50 soldiers along the Elbe in search of Kotzebue’s patrol.

Forty-five minutes after Robertson had shaken hands with Andreyev, Craig’s patrol met horse mounted Russian soldiers near the village of Clanzschwitz.

No written record exists of their encounter, but a photograph shows Craig reaching up with his left hand to a Russian soldier.

The Importance of East Meets West Day

In a small but significant way, these three meetings between American and Russian soldiers at three different times on the Elbe River made history 74 years ago today.

The war in Europe soon ended, and the warm relations made along the banks of the Elbe River soon faded away as the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in the Cold War.

This 45-year war between the two nuclear armed superpowers and their allies changed history, a technological and social alteration that has led this country – and much of the world – to where it is today.

Today’s National East-West Day began on a wrecked bridge between two soldiers as one war ended and another began.

This is worth remembering.

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