WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Polish president and other officials marked their nation’s Armed Forces Day holiday Monday alongside the U.S. army commander in Europe and regular American troops, a symbolic show of support for NATO members on the eastern front as Russia wages war nearby in Ukraine.
Gen. Darryl Williams, the new commanding general of United States Army Europe and Africa, attended the ceremony in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in downtown Warsaw.
Nearby Polish children climbed on top of a U.S. and other other NATO tanks, helped by smiling American, British and Romanian soldiers.
Despite the festive atmosphere, Williams told The Associated Press that the U.S. presence was meant to deliver a message of “strength and resilience”
“It is about deterrence, about being strong, NATO is strong, the Polish people are strong, and we are standing shoulder to shoulder with them,” he said.
The holiday commemorates Poland’s victory in 1920 over Soviet Russia in the Battle of Warsaw, which stopped the Bolshevik army’s westward advance.
President Andrzej Duda in a speech recalled how Soviet commanders at the time were sure of victory, drawing a obvious parallel to Russian assumptions when it launched it full-scale war on Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“For 74 years of its existence, Soviet Russia lost only one official war, and it was that war 102 years ago,” he said.
Duda accused Russia breaking a taboo in force since World War II which held that nations do not attack sovereign nations seeking to deprive them of their territory or independence.
Among those attending the ceremonies was 94-year-old Zbigniew Kruszewski, a veteran of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi German occupiers. At that time Soviet forces, stood by as the Germans slaughtered Poles.
“We didn’t get help, we were abandoned,” Kruszewski, who now lives in Texas, told the AP, saying he hopes the presence of U.S. troops means Poland would not be abandoned again.
Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak ahead of the ceremony told reporters: “Years pass, but one thing is constant — when Russia tries to rebuild its empire, it is always an evil empire. It always commits war crimes.”
Polish troops from the different branches of the armed forces paraded down a street lined with fluttering white-and-red national Polish flags, and Duda promoted new generals.
The military held picnics seeking to recruit volunteers into the armed forces amid a new sense of threat fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
American troops have taken part before in the Aug. 15 celebration before but it is the first one since President Joe Biden announced at a NATO summit in late June that Washington was establishing its first permanent U.S. military presence in Poland — something Poland has long sought.
The newly named Camp Kosciuszko in Poznan, western Poland, is a shared Polish-U.S. base that becomes the permanent headquarters in Poland for the U.S. Army’s V Corps, and the easternmost U.S. Army base in Europe. Many of the American troops there, however, still serve on a rotational basis.
The base is named after Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution who strengthened the fortifications of West Point, and who later returned to Poland to fight imperial Russian forces.
Maj. Kevin Andersen, a U.S. Army public affairs officer, said that troops are having trouble saying the name Kosciuszko (roughly pronounced koh-SHOOSH’-koh) and many have been calling it “Camp K” instead.
He said the army has created a video helping the soldiers to learn to say it as a gesture of respect to Poland as it welcomes the Americans.
“For now it’s a lot of Camp K., but we’re really trying to convince the soldiers to pronounce the full Camp Kosciuszko,” he said.