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West Bohemians celebrate liberation by American GIs

By PETER S. GREEN

PILSEN, Czechoslovakia -- A sea of American flags floated above Pilsen's Republic Square and a U.S. Air Force band struck up 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in an emotion-packed tribute by West Bohemians for the American GIs who liberated the region at the end of World War II.

On May 6, 1945, Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army rolled into Pilsen in tanks, jeeps and half-tracks to mop up the last resistance of the disintegrating German army.

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During 42 years of communist rule, Pilseners were forbidden to commemorate their American liberators, and schoolchildren were sometimes taught the region had been liberated by Soviet troops in American uniforms.

But now, after last November's Velvet Revolution threw out the communists, Pilsen opened its heart to America as about 50 World War II veterans returned Sunday to see the town they freed.

U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black thanked the people of Pilsen for the welcome they gave the GIs.

'Forty-five years ago, the citizens of Pilsen welcomed the U.S. soldiers with kisses from pretty girls, and, I'm sure a few glasses of Pilsen beer,' Black told the flag-waving crowd in the town square.

But for the scores of thousands of Pilseners who filled the square, the weekend's ceremonies have allowed them to rewrite their own history with the ink of truth.

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'It is not true that Czechoslovakia was liberated only by the Red Army. The southwestern part of our country was liberated by the American Army,' President Vaclav Havel told the crowd.

'We'd like to remember this fact after years of silence,' he added as the crowd cheered.

Many Americans appeared stunned and overwhelmed by the passionate outpouring of pro-U.S. feelings.

'The patriotic feeling is incredible. We have never been greeted with such hospitality and warmth in any place we've traveled,' said Sgt. Susan Plummer, of Nashville, Tenn., a fife player in the U.S. Air Force-Europe Band.

Marie Zapotocna arrived at the ceremonies in the town square with three tiny photos of American GIs from the Second Infantry Division.

'These three soldiers lived at my parents' house at the end of the war, and I came to see if these veterans know them,' she said.

Zapotocna said that under the communists, she was unable to ask about the three GIs. Instead, she said, across Czechoslovakia young children in the Communist Pioneer scouts spent hours dredging up the slightest details on the Soviet soldiers who, under the Yalta agreements, liberated and then occupied most of Czechoslovakia from the East.

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After the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, many monuments to the American GIs were removed.

For the past week, American and Czechoslovak officials have been dedicating or re-dedicating monuments to the American troops who fell liberating Western Bohemia.

In Pilsen Sunday, Black and Havel laid a wreath at a new monument to the Second Infantry Division and laid the cornerstone for a general monument to all who fell in World War II for Czechoslovakia.

And in Pilsen's Town Hall, Havel and Black dedicated a new plaque to honor the 16th Armored, replacing a plaque that had been removed by the communists in 1951.

Walking through Pilsen, the casual observer might easily think himself back in 1945. American and Czechoslovak flags hung from nearly every window and lamppost and the local residents eagerly embraced the returning American veterans, mobbing them for autographs.

Hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks have filled the town during the two days of festivities, many carrying American flags and buttons while others wore pieces of American military uniforms.

Dozens of vintage American military vehicles, meticulously restored since the war by ordinary Czechoslovaks in a form of protest against communism, paraded through the center of Pilsen early Sunday.

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'The Beer Barrel Polka,' and 1940s songs poured from loudspeakers in the town square as Pilseners cooled off in the town's favorite way -- drinking cold beer from early morning. The local Prazdroj brewery helped the celebration by giving away 800 gallons of beer.

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