BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) — Photographs will fade over time, but Richard Pieper’s memories of his service are crystal clear.
For the World War II soldier, bullets, bombs and bodies are impossible to forget.
At the tender age of 19, Pieper was shipped off to Europe. He was attached to the 97th infantry, tasked with guarding captured German soldiers in Czechoslovakia.
That’s where he developed a close and deep attachment to the Czech people.
Explains the 95-year-old Pieper: “It just always feels good to be with those people – I can’t describe how I feel about them.”
But there’s no question how the people of Pilsen, in the Czech Republic, feel about American GI’s.
It’s on clear and prominent display in each Liberation Day in early May. The annual event pays commemoration to the Allies’ victory in Europe, on May 8, 1945.
People crowd along the streets of Pilsen to watch a reenactment of the American soldiers convoy of liberty, moving through the city.
But sadly, the reality is that America’s WWII vets are disappearing at a rapid rate. Where there once were hundreds of GI’s attending VE Day parades, like that in Pilsen, this year’s festivities will see just a handful.
Pieper will be one of two from Minnesota attending, out of a group of seven from the U.S.
“They’re like rock stars – literally rock stars,” exclaims Pieper’s daughter, Christina Bigelow who will accompany her father.
While the numbers of GIs in attendance continues to dwindle, the medals, honors and constant attention are no match for the pure gratitude of Pilsen’s citizens.
“To see the people that were there when these young men liberated them, to now come back and thank them personally, is one of the most moving pieces of this,” Bigelow said.
The days of events marking the 74th anniversary will include not only the parade, but dances, dinners and educational programs for the local schoolchildren. Each one is designed to thank aging American soldiers for their sacrifices from so long ago.
When asked if he feels the gratitude, Pieper explained: “One time a guy hug me for so long I thought he was a pick pocket.”
With a chuckle and a smile, Pieper understands the Czech citizen’s gratitude beyond any words.
He simply adds, “they just won’t forget what happened.”
None of us should.