Remembering Victory over Europe (VE) Day 70 years ago

Today is Victory over Europe (VE) Day, signifying the Allied success in bringing the Axis powers under control. One local Bothell resident remembers it well because he was in Europe when it happened.

Today is Victory over Europe (VE) Day, signifying the Allied success in bringing the Axis powers under control. One local Bothell resident remembers it well because he was in Europe when it happened.

John Robert “Bob” LaRiviere, a local Bothell resident and author of the book called V-Mail Letters Home from World War, was a 81mm mortar gunner in the Army’s 94th Division of the 301st Regiment during WWII and wrote home the day of VE Day.

“Naturally, all are celebrating today – Winston Churchill announced the end this afternoon,” LaRiviere’s said in his letter home dated from May 8, 1945. “Better catchup on letters while I can.”

However, LaRiviere’s story didn’t start there, it started in boot camp; just like many others in WWII.

LaRiviere enlisted in October 1942, but wasn’t called up to active duty until June of 1943. He was sent to training exercises in Texas and in Florida before making his way across the Atlantic Ocean to join the troops fighting in France and Germany.

His voyage to England was aboard the cruise ship the RMS Queen Elizabeth, from New York Harbor to the “Land of Green Golf Courses” called Scotland. From Glasgow he went to England to train and stage for the final crossing into Europe.

Ninety-four days after the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, LaRiviere’s boots hit the landing site known as Utah Beach.

“We come in on landing ships and all that,” LaRiviere said. “But at least we didn’t have to face a firestorm coming in from the cliffs there.”

From there he went to Saint Nazaire, also known as Operation Chariot, where he and other Allied forces kept the 1,000 or so German troops and dozen or-so U-Boats inside the base.

“We had them blockaded from the sea so they couldn’t get out anymore,” LaRiviere said. “All their pens were completely full with submarines. The concrete was so thick the bombs had no effect on them at all; they were terrific fortifications, you know.”

According to LaRiviere, going to storm the fortress would be futile, so the Allied forces kept a holding patter with routine patrolling to ensure the German forces stayed inside the underground submarine base.

“Right away on our first patrol, we got shot at,” LaRiviere said. “I hadn’t been there very long when a friend and I were out towards the front lines.”

They were out exploring a Chateau near the base and the holding pattern of the Allied forces.

“We saw the biggest apples I’d ever saw in my life on this tree,” LaRiviere said. “We started putting apples into our blouse… and filled up our pockets when we got spotted by the Germans and their 88-weapons. We had to hit the ground with all these apples around our stomach and our pockets.”

LaRiviere and his fellow soldier had to get out of their vision and around a corner of the chateau, they had to run and drop to the ground every time a mortar shell was fired at them.

“We didn’t have time to think other than ‘let’s get out of here and try to take care of ourselves,” LaRiviere said. “We finally got the apples back and they were still edible.”

There was a long wait in the holding pattern of Saint Nazaire until he and his fellow troops were called up to join General Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.

“There was lots of snow on the ground and it was still snowing, and we were maintaining a road block,” LaRiviere said. “We could hear German tanks in the distance approaching and we had to stay on that road block come hell or high water.”

Fortunately for them, the tanks stopped short of the road block and stayed about a quarter of a mile away.

“We never did find out why they didn’t come further; talk about some worried kids; that was us,” LaRiviere said.

It was so cold for the troops at the Bulge, even though they had huge heavy overcoats on, that there wasn’t much willingness for talk. Instead there was a lot of hugging themselves and worrying. What little talk there was, he said, they spent worrying.

“That’s one of the thing during wartime, we were far enough down in the troops that we weren’t kept informed,” LaRiviere said. “We were given assignment and we had to stick by it with what limited knowledge we had.”

Though part of this was because any troops captured would be interrogated and tortured, so not much information was passed between officers to enlisted and the troops had to take all the division and regiment patches off their uniforms.

During the Bulge, they moved around a bit through different parts of the battlefield. Sometimes on road blocks and others in trenches.

In one such trench moment, Patton visited to inspect the troops for socks; an item paramount to survival in the bitter French winter of 1945.

Though socks saved LaRiviere’s feet when he forgot his boots outside his sleeping bag one night. The leather had frozen stiff and he had to spend his two-hour watch, during the dead of night and winter, all in his socks.

However that wasn’t the most difficult aspect of the Battle of the Bulge, it was confidence.

“We didn’t really always know where we were or what the whole picture was. We mainly had to have extreme confidence in our commanders that they were making the right decisions,” LaRiviere said. “We had to work to keep that confidence up and, essentially, do as we were told.”

They also battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) just like soldiers from more recent wars, though back then they called it “battle fatigue.”

To combat this, they reminded each other of days gone past and days to come.

“Basically, we’d probably talk about the good ole times back home, talk sports and maybe about training camp; yeah, we probably talked about the girls too and our school days,” LaRiviere said. “Men didn’t get into serious talk… no deep details of anything, it was a cover.”

“As time went on, some of the fellas got more and more worried about things, we called it Battle Fatigue in those days,” LaRiviere said. “When we would see this coming on somebody we’d try and keep them occupied by talking a lot, keep his mind off things.”

The war wasn’t over for LaRiviere once the Battle of the Bulge was over, from the winter-filled forests of Brittany, France, he and the 94th Division headed on to the Siegfried Switch, a defensive line where German troops were attacking all the time.

German “pillboxes” concrete defensive fortifications usually containing turrets or other heavy weapons, were littered around the area. Times were tough.

“Undoubtably, it was getting through the heavily fortified Siegfried Switch,” LaRiviere said. “That was so deadly.”

One night I was on guard duty, he had to keep a low profile during a very clear night and was looking for something to lean against for cover.

“It dawned on me what I was leaning up against, we’d piled up German soldiers about 10-feet high, a stack of them, and I was leaning up against them,” LaRiviere said. “They’d all come out of the fortified position we were occupying at that time. And we had to take those one at a time.”

“To see that kind of carnage day after day after day, it does become a bit trying,” LaRiviere said.

When they eventually entered German lands, it wasn’t easy. The first day, his fellow soldier on duty was shot with shrapnel, a ‘Welcome to Germany’ from the Axis forces.

“As I recall when I first entered Germany on the very first night, I was standing guard duty at a house… we were sleeping on the floor,” LaRiviere said. “I sat on the floor and started taking off my shoes…when we heard a loud explosions. The guy who had just replaced me had been shot. He died the next morning.”

According to LaRiviere, you couldn’t take a step without stepping on shrapnel. But it was this metal-filled path that led to VE Day.

Only around 10-percent of the men he had crossed the Atlantic with made it to the Rhine River, most were either killed or sent to hospice.

“Patton’s tanks started taking off at the Rhine… we went into a military police operation,” LaRiviere said. “Our particular division was sent to Mettmenn Germany, near Duisdorf.”

According to LaRiviere, they spent much of their time clearing houses and checking for contraband.

“That went on for us, there, until the end of the War,” LaRiviere said. “After the war, we were shipped out to Czechoslovakia.”

In Czechoslovakia, he and his regiment continued clearing houses and buildings of illegal items, such as ammunition, German forces and more.

LaRiviere didn’t have enough points to head back to the States, though when he did. He spent New Years of 1945 on the SS Vasser Victory as it crossed the Atlantic to take soldiers back home.

“We were looking forward to seeing the Lady in New York Harbor and that was quite a sight to see when we got to the harbor,” LaRiviere said.

He got his first airplane ride from New York back to Detroit, Minneapolis, Billings (Montana), and Wenatchee before landing in Seattle. They had to stop so often because the C-3 planes had to refuel, they spent the night in Wenatchee before heading over the mountains for Seattle.

However, his journey home still wasn’t complete. His family had moved while he had been overseas.

“I took my duffle bag and hopped a ride up to Seattle. The folks knew I was heading home, but I didn’t give them an exact time,” LaRiviere said. “The family had moved from 52nd to 58th when I was gone and I’d walked in the wrong door! The lady said, ‘Oh, your mother’s waiting for you three doors down.'”

Just like many others, it took a long time to talk about what had happened.

“He never talked, I couldn’t even get you to talk when I wrote the book; it all came from the letters,” said Laura LaRiviere, his wife. “Its amazing how you’ve opened up, I’ve heard things in the last hour that I’ve never heard before.”

For his actions in the war, John LaRiviere was knighted into the French Legion of Honor as a Chevalier. He and five other WWII veterans were nighted at the French Consulate for their bravery in freeing the people of France from German occupation.

Now, John and Laura LaRiviere live along E. Riverside Drive in Bothell. They are active in their church community and with their children and grandchildren.

However, the memory of war will live on and the legacy of Victory over Europe Day will never be forgotten. A copy of his book is available for $23, but is only available by mail. To request a copy please contact Laura LaRiviere at the Vineyard Park community in Bothell.