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American and Russian recall Elbe meeting

Lt. William Robertson was acting beyond his orders that April day in 1945, he explained. He was only supposed to go five miles ahead of the advancing American line. Instead his Jeep of four drove 25 miles toward the advancing Soviet Army. It was spring. The war was almost over. The four got to Torgau, Germany, and to the swollen Elbe River. They knew the weapons were on the other side, and they didn't want to be mistaken for Germans and shot at. So they broke into a drug store, found some red and blue dye, smeared it on a bedsheet to make crude bars and stripes. Robertson then went up into the tower of the castle to wave his impromptu banner at the Russians.

His reward was a volley of small arms fire, then a few antitank rounds. He descended, located the local jail, and in it a Russian prisoner of war who spoke German. The POW shouted across the river, to uncertain effect, and Robertson began crawling warily across the still standing bridge.

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On the other side of the Elbe, Red Army Lt. Alexander Silvashko and his men waited in the trees. Lieutenant Silvashko picked up in relating the tale. The Russians had the satisfaction of knowing they had beaten the Americans to the Elbe, but they still faced sniper fire from die-hard Germans. It was foggy and they could hardly make out the town or even the bridge until it began to clear about 11 a.m.

At 2 p.m. a Jeep drew up on the east bank of the river and Lieutenant Robertson beckoned to Silvashko with his fingers. Silvashko feared a German trick. (No mention here of any red, white, and blue bedsheet in the castle tower.)

Both men then crawled toward each other along the bridge. (The two accounts converge here.) When they got within hailing distance, Robertson shouted, ``America!'' The men embraced, and a photo of the pair, arm in arm, beams out today from the official poster on the 40th anniversary of the historic meeting on the Elbe.

Robertson and Silvashko again stand together in Torgau on this April 25, 1985, as a Soviet delegation, American veterans from the ``Fighting 69th'' infantry division, and German hosts all proclaim their devotion to peace. There is no official American presence; this ceremony was boycotted by the US government after a Soviet sentry last month shot an American liaison officier in East Germany, then prevented any medical assistance from being administered until he had bled to death.

Robertson regrets the official US action but he understands the reason for this. When reporters try to wrest a political comment out of him, he remarks mechanically, ``Governments can talk, but people can do better.''

Robertson is now a neurosurgeon in Los Angeles. He has visited Silvashko twice in the Soviet Union, first in 1975, then again earlier this year. Silvashko, the principal of a school outside Minsk, has never visited Robertson in the US.

``I am in a peaceful profession, and Robertson is also in a peaceful profession,'' said Silvashko with approval. 3 Wreaths are laid out at the monument giving ``glory to the victorious Red Army and the heroic forces of our allies who won the victory over Fascist Germany.'' Messages are read aloud from Soviet General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and ex-President Jimmy Carter. a children's choir sings. Doves are released to fly off into the raining sky.

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At the reception after the ceremony, the soldiers who met here 40 years ago reminisced. Bob McMahon a pilot who was shot down and captured, then was freed by the advancing Russians, recalled that he ``liberated'' a bicycle from an Italian officer and rode the 44 miles West to the Elbe, crossed to American lines on a concrete bridge, and got to eat his first Spam in six months. Albert Hornyak remembers dancing with one buxom Russian woman solider who left her machine gun strapped on even while dancing.

Alexei Gorlianski, recently retired from the Army, remembers that he almost shot the unknown approaching Americans but decided against it when one of them yelled, ``Muscovi-Washington. Hitler caput. Harrah!'' Col. Grigory Ivanitsky, a military historian, produces from his pocket the Bulova watch given to him by a First Lieutenant John and recalls that he presented his military pouch to ``John'' in return.

For Ted Tolowski, young American computer repairman and lay preacher -- and for some others as well -- the most affecting moment is the final wreath laying at the site where his father was buried two years ago. Joseph Tolowski was actually in the first American patrol to meet the Russians at the Elbe a few hours before Robertson and Silvashko linked up.

The euphoria of that meeting and its hopes for a better world gave meaning to Tolowski's life, and he campaigned for 38 years thereafter against nuclear weapons.

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