Americans, Germans Celebrate Bridge Capture That Shortened War
REMAGEN, Germany (AP) _ German and American veterans who fought each other 50 years ago came together today to remember the Americans’ capture of a bridge that wasn’t supposed to exist over a river they weren’t supposed to cross.
The river was the Rhine, and the battle they kicked off at the Ludendorff Bridge hastened the demise of the Third Reich.
Skies were clear and the air chilly as 600 veterans and their relatives shivered through the 50th anniversary ceremony, listening to speeches under the stone towers that are all that remain of the bridge.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. George Ruhlen, 84, said that while no one could be sure how much the capture of the bridge shortened the war, ``in small or large measure it hearkened the end of the war.″
From the German side, there was praise for a bold American action that ended the bombing of Remagen.
``Townspeople came up to me today and said, `We’re glad you won the war,‴ said Otto Meyer, 69, a private who crossed the bridge a few days after its capture.
Ruhlen, of San Antonio, Texas, was an artillery commander a few miles south of Remagen when American troops of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion took the bridge.
The bridge capture was unplanned. The battalion was part of the 9th Armored Dvision of the First Army Group, whose role in the Rhineland offensive of February was to reach the river, then proceed south to join with the 3rd Army Group of Gen. George Patton.
The GIs had been told that Hitler had destroyed all bridges over the Rhine. Yet there it was in front of them: a gray railroad trestle spanning the river into the German heartland.
As the Americans prepared to cross, German soldiers on the other side set off a dynamite charge that rocked the structure, but didn’t destroy it.
``I heard guns firing on the other side of the hill and I radioed in to ask what was happening,″ said Ruhlen. ``They said they had an observer on the other side of the river and I said, `What river?′ I didn’t believe it could be the Rhine.″
A hundred and twenty troops swarmed over the bridge and secured a foothold under the basalt cliffs on the other side. Within a week, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had poured 25,000 more men, tanks, artillery and trucks across the bridge.
Michael Chinchar, 77, of Saddle River, N.J., captured a tower on the east side of the bridge and was one of 13 soldiers to get the Distinguished Service Cross.
Gazing at the basalt cliffs across the river today, Chinchar recalled leading his men across and throwing themselves into an abandoned German trench.
``It’s like a dream, but one you can’t forget,″ he said.
News of the bridge’s capture sent defense industry stocks plunging on Wall Street. Hitler fired Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of the Western front, and a drumhead martial court executed four German officers, including Hans Scheller.
Scheller’s son, Gerd, was at today’s ceremony. ``In the name of two postwar generations, I want to thank the Americans for acting as resolutely as they did on March 7, 1945,″ he said.
Hitler threw everything he could at the Ludendorff Bridge _ 367 warplanes, V-2 rockets, howitzers, frogmen and even an experimental jet fighter _ the ME-262. Hundreds of GIs died.
The bridge finally collapsed March 17, taking 28 Army Engineers down with it. By then the Americans had built two pontoon bridges over the Rhine.
The bridge, built during World War I to supply the Western front, was never rebuilt. Each year 25,000 people visit the Peace Museum that former Remagen Mayor Hans Peter Kuerten established in the stone towers by selling pieces of the bridge, mostly to U.S. veterans.
``It meant the end of the bomb attacks for us,″ recalled Kuerten. ``It meant the collapse of the western front.″
Walter Schaefer-Kehnert, a university professor who was a commander of the Wehrmacht’s 11th Armored Division, said Germans should always be grateful for the American help that enabled the rebirth of postwar Germany.
``In the name of all who fulfilled their damned duty and risked their lives absurdly when the war was lost, we must recognize that a long and lasting friendship started at this place.″
After today’s speeches, American veterans presented Remagen Mayor Lorenz Denn with a plaque, and a contingent from New Orleans gave him a set of Mardi Gras T-shirts.
A second memorial ceremony was held across the river in the village of Erpel, in the railroad tunnel where German troops holed up in their final defense of the bridge.