Dr. Gilbert — Lt. Col. Gilbert, retired, United States Army — served in World War II before attaining his doctorate in sociology and accepting a teaching position in 1954 at what is now Mississippi University for Women. In early May, at the age of 97, he journeyed thousands of miles to the Czech Republic, to the towns of Pilsen and Domizlice, to a people he helped free from Nazi Germans 68 years ago.

That he, and other veterans who were able to go, returned to cheers from the masses there is testament to the gratitude Czech citizens hold for them.

The occasion was Pilsen’s annual Liberation Festival, a source of great pride for this city in the western Czech Republic. The multi-day event celebrates the liberation of western Czechoslovakia by U.S. forces on May 6, 1945. It includes a parade, military displays, wreath-layings, and other commemorations — and veterans in attendance are the stars of the event.

It wasn’t Dr. Gilbert’s first time to return. That was in 1990, soon after the Iron Curtain fell and the Czech people were freed yet again.

“As soon as (then Czechoslovakia) was liberated in 1945, when the Americans left, the Russians took over everything; from ’45 to ’90, they were under Russian control,” he explained. “That was the first time the Czech people were allowed to do what they wanted, and what they wanted was to thank Americans, and they asked if veterans could come for the celebration.”

That trip would turn out of several to the area of Pilsen for Gilbert. He was accompanied in 1990 by his son, Rob Gilbert, just as he was this year. Through those travels, the veteran soldier has renewed connections with men he served with and made a host of new Czech friends. And he’s been part of a passing on a history lesson to a new generation in the Czech Republic.

“Their attitude is amazing,” said Gilbert of the reception veterans receive. “They want to know. They will stop you on the street and say something like, ‘Sir, may I speak to you? I wasn’t here obviously, but my father always said if you see an American soldier, especially one with an Indian Head patch, stop him and thank him for what he did.” The proud Second Infantry Division’s shoulder insignia features an Indian head inside a white star.

A pilgrimage to Pilsen: A Columbus veteran makes emotional return to Czech towns he helped liberate in 1945