White House Ceremony Honors U.S., Russian Veterans of WW II

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The German U-boat took deadly aim and torpedoed the American transport ship Crockett into oblivion just three days out of Arkhangelsk in the frigid Russian Far North.

U.S. Merchant Marine radio operator Thomas Sofranko, now of Chula Vista, 50 years ago this week found himself in a rescue boat tossed on the heavy swells of the northern seas, having nearly lost his life to deliver a huge load of armaments and supplies to the Soviet war effort.

And on Tuesday, at long last, the Kremlin and the White House formally honored fighters like Sofranko and Alexander Olshansky, a Soviet infantryman who took part in the victorious 1945 meeting of Soviet and American troops on the Elbe River in Germany.

With the last ideological barriers long gone, President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin took an hour out of their lofty summit discussions to reflect on what good partners Russia and America made in the fight against fascism--and what a pity it was that the partnership was lost for almost 50 years.

"We gather to guarantee that the opportunity we lost to build a better world five decades ago will not be lost again," Clinton told a solemn gathering in the sun-drenched White House Rose Garden. "We vow, finally, to realize the promise of that embrace at the Elbe."

Official celebrations of the Elbe meeting--the link-up of allied forces that meant Adolf Hitler was truly finished in Europe--will come next April at its 50th anniversary.

But the White House apparently chose to preempt the main ceremonies by awarding medals at this week's summit because other World War II commemorative events recently--in Berlin and at the D-day celebrations in Normandy--left out the Russians, evoking deep indignation in the nation that suffered the greatest numerical losses to Nazi Germany. More than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II.

The Rose Garden ceremony for 20 Russian and 20 American veterans was meant to smooth over those snubs. And what rancor remained seemed far outweighed by the goodwill of old comradeship.

"You don't need to divide victory--who did more, who did less," said Olshansky, now a Russian major general, who received a special medal of honor from Clinton on behalf of Russian veterans. "We all sacrificed tremendously, and that's why we won."

Olshansky--a tall, spare engineering specialist who was drafted out of ninth grade--began his Red Army career on the outskirts of Stalingrad. He went on to help take Berlin and Prague, was wounded three times and finished the 10th grade as a seasoned lieutenant six years later. His sister was a machine-gunner, his father helped take Prague just a few streets over--although neither knew it at the time.

Of his original division of 11,000, only eight men were left by the time he got to the Elbe, Olshansky said.

It remains a miracle to him that he survived, and he is convinced that it was the hideous experiences of World War II veterans that kept nuclear conflict from breaking out later.

Equally astounding was the story of Sofranko, now 69, a retired computer specialist for the Amoco Oil Co.

The Crockett had sailed in a convoy from Arkhangelsk on Sept. 26, 1944, after delivering a giant load of locomotives, tanks, airplanes, food and other materials to the Soviet forces. At 4:30 p.m., Sofranko recalled, when they were "at a point farther north than the north coast of Alaska," the torpedo hit.

He described vividly the terrifying moment when the lifeboat, already rocking in the waves, almost went over, which would have doomed the seamen to near-instant death.

"The seamen were holding on to the chocks that you lower the lifeboat with," he said, "when the swell brought the boat up and the chock caught under the bow of the lifeboat and the lifeboat upended and could have dumped the entire lifeboat into the ocean.

"Luckily, the seaman at the bow had his life jacket and knife with him--which he kept razor sharp--which turned out to be well worth it because he slashed those ropes with one sweep."

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