Bob Harmon, 89, a retired Seattle University professor, had a front-row seat at a historic World War II moment when a German city peacefully surrendered.

Share story

Riding in an open Jeep with his Thompson submachine gun at the ready, a young Army private from Olympia watched the blur of passing windows as his small convoy made its way through the streets of Weimar, Germany, population 70,000.

Had there had been an enemy sniper behind any of those windows, there’s a chance the life and story of Bob Harmon might have ended right there.

But on April 12, 1945 — which happened to be Harmon’s 20th birthday — his small group of about 20 Americans was met not with bullets, but applause.

“We got to the town square, and there were about 2,000 people, and they were cheering us,” Harmon said. “They were more than happy to surrender.”

The peaceful surrender of the city known as “the Athens of Germany” for its centuries-old connections to art, music and learning was a welcome feel-good story from the battle zone, and made the front page of The New York Times.

The moment is still remembered in that east-central part of Germany, and will be observed again on April 12, its 70th anniversary.

And Harmon will be there, this time turning 90.

“This may be my last time. But I say that every time I go,” said Harmon, a retired Seattle University history professor who has been back to the area several times and who has been named an honorary citizen of a town near Weimar.

Harmon knows of no other surviving member of the unit that was sent to accompany Col. Normando Costello that April morning to accept the surrender of Weimar.

The Weimar milestone will be acknowledged in conjunction with the somber observance of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, a few miles away.

Buchenwald prisoners, emboldened by the Allied advance and the German retreat, had stormed watchtowers and taken control of the camp just before American forces arrived.

Harmon remembers seeing rail-thin, hollow-eyed former prisoners who left the camp on foot, their thin pajama-style garments no match for the German chill, “almost like walking dead,” Harmon said.

It would later be learned that more that 56,000 prisoners had been killed at the camp in its eight-year existence, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

By April 1945, Hitler’s war machine was crumbling. In the weeks leading up to the Weimar surrender, Harmon’s group had encountered German soldiers as young as 14, and men in their 50s in poor health, pressed into combat service by desperate German officials.

But even with Germany’s defeat inevitable, it was still considered treason for any German, military or civilian, to openly advocate surrender.

“They could be shot or hanged from the lampposts. We saw some of them,” Harmon said.

The surrender of Weimar was therefore hush-hush, and involved the assistance of other mayors in the area, as well as clergy, relaying word between the American forces and city leaders.

By the time of the surrender, German soldiers had left Weimar, recognizing that with the American strength outside town, resistance would be futile.

“We tossed in an artillery shell now and then, just to show we could,” Harmon said. The Allies also had superiority in the air, and responded quickly to any action German forces mounted.

In an attempt to limit further bloodshed and keep Weimar from being leveled, Col. Costello sent word to Weimar’s mayor saying the mayor could save his town by surrendering.

Word quickly returned: “We want to surrender.”

But even with that acceptance, Americans entering Weimar needed to be watchful for any sign of an ambush by a pocket of resistance, perhaps a rogue group of Hitler loyalists.

That’s why Harmon’s unit, which specialized in reconnaissance and intelligence missions, was chosen to accompany Costello, who opted to accept the surrender himself.

The joy with which the town received its invaders was a relief, Harmon said. Townspeople greeted Americans as liberators rather than conquerors.

Variations of this scene were developing across Germany.

Some entire villages, once the German army had retreated, hung white sheets out their windows, showing the advancing Allies they would willingly surrender.

Harmon said word had spread among Germans that they’d be much better off surrendering to Americans, who pledged humane treatment under the Geneva Convention, than to the advancing Russians, many of whom sought revenge for atrocities the German army had committed in Russia.

On April 30, with Berlin under attack by the Russian army, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. In the days to follow, German generals across the European battle zones surrendered.

Being part of a world-changing moment helped cement Harmon’s interest in history, particularly military history, which would form the basis for his long teaching career at Seattle University.

He came to the school in an administrative position in 1954 and transitioned into teaching in the 1960s. Although he formally retired in 1993, he continued carrying classes until 2000. He still meets with military-history students who come to the retirement home, The Hearthstone at Green Lake, where he lives with his wife of 64 years, Gina, also a Seattle U. career employee in the administration.

Veterans of World War II are a dwindling resource. Of the 16 million Americans who served during the war, fewer than 900,000 remain alive, and they are dying at the rate of nearly 500 a day, according to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Tom Taylor, chair of Seattle U.’s history department, said Harmon’s personal perspective is a valuable teaching asset.

“He understands the horrors and tragedies of war,” Taylor said. “It means a lot for students to hear from someone who has experienced it.”