Bridge That Didn’t Fall Got GIs Across Rhine
REMAGEN, Germany (AP) _ After a career that owed much to American friends, Heinz Schwarz recalls with pleasure the morning he eavesdropped on the urgent message to the commander of the Remagen bridge 50 years ago.
``The Amis have broken through!″ the caller said. ``Prepare to blow the bridge! Heil Hitler!″
Schwarz, then 16, fled his post at the telephone exchange atop the bridge tower on the east side of the Rhine.
Within an hour, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Chinchar had captured that tower, leading an American column that swarmed across the bridge into military history.
The events of March 7, 1945, were quickly dubbed the ``Miracle of Remagen.″
The miracle was that the methodical German army had failed to destroy a bridge over the Rhine, the most important natural obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed 25,000 soldiers across the railroad bridge from its capture until it collapsed 10 days later. By then, Army engineers had put two pontoon bridges across the river. An enraged Hitler ordered a kangaroo court to execute four officers in charge of the bridge.
The Remagen bridgehead ``was psychologically devastating″ to Germany and probably shortened the war by anywhere from a week to a month, thus saving thousands of lives, said Kurt Kleemann, Remagen’s historian and an organizer of 50th anniversary observances.
In the intervening years, Germans who came to see World War II as a disastrous sacrifice for an evil Fuehrer began to view the loss of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen as their victory, too.
``Imagine how many more towns would have been reduced to rubble if the Americans had been stuck on the western side of the Rhine and had to bomb and shell their way across,″ said Schwarz. ``And meanwhile, the Russians would have advanced farther in the east.″
The plan for the Rhineland offensive of February 1945 called for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group to storm across the Rhine north of the Ruhr Valley, while the U.S. 12th Army Group, to the south, pushed up to the river, without crossing it.
But when the soldiers of the U.S. 9th Armored Division, after fighting their way through the valleys of the Eifel, reached a plateau above Remagen on March 7, the Ludendorff Bridge rose from the Rhine mist below them. German troops and civilians were pouring across it in retreat.
Violating his instructions to proceed down the Rhine, Gen. William M. Hoge ordered his men to take the bridge.
``What if the bridge blows up in my face?″ asked Lt. Karl Timmermann, whose company got the nod to lead the charge. No one answered him.
Chinchar, having led his men into Remagen town on the west end of the bridge, was busy chasing down a prisoner as Timmerman got the order to cross the bridge.
``I came back to my post and Timmermann says, `Where the hell you been? Get across that bridge,‴ Chinchar recalled in a phone conversation from his home in Saddle Brook, N.J. ``I told him, `I’m going to sit here and catch my breath.‴
Timmermann threatened to court-martial him, and Chinchar said, ``OK, here’s my rifle.″
It was a fortuitous bit of insubordination. As Chinchar sat and smoked, with Timmermann pacing and fuming, the men heard a ``whoosh″ as 660 pounds of dynamite lifted the bridge from its stone piers.
But when the dust settled, the bridge was intact. No one knows why, but not all the charges exploded.
Many of the German soldiers fled into the railroad tunnel on the east end of the bridge. Others deserted. Schwarz walked to his family home, four miles south.
Chinchar saddled up. ``I said, `OK, let’s go,′ and (Pvt. Artis) Massie says, `I don’t wanna, but I will.‴
Over the years, in a retelling heightened by the 1968 movie ``The Bridge at Remagen,″ legend has Chinchar crossing the 1,050-foot bridge in a hail of bullets.
But he describes the bridge capture as practically a cakewalk.
``As far as I know of, I didn’t get shot at,″ said Chinchar, 77. ``I wasn’t running through anything but air.″
Still, there was shooting, particularly when the soldiers fought their way up the big cliff looming over the eastern end of the bridge. Twenty-four Americans died on or around the bridge.
Six hundred men were involved in taking the bridge, including 200 engineers who cut wires to the unexploded dynamite and did quick repairs. Chinchar, Timmermann and 11 others were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Timmermann died of cancer in 1951. His widow, La Vera Hansen, who has since remarried, will attend the 50th anniversary commemmoration this year with Chinchar.
``What Karl did made a place in history,″ she said in a telephone interview from Mesa, Ariz. ``But he didn’t feel he was somebody special. All the boys coming home at that time felt they did what they had to do.″
For Heinz Schwarz, the loss of the bridge meant the war was over.
Arriving at his home in the town of Leubsdorf, he hid his uniform in a crate, and waited. The first Americans arrived four days later, and Schwarz had the chance to try out his trade school English.
``How is Shirley Temple?″ he asked them.
Schwarz became a leader of the young Christian Democratic party after the war and visited the United States at President Eisenhower’s invitation in 1958.
He worked closely with the FBI as interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate state in the early 1970s. Helmut Kohl, now chancellor, was then governor of the state, which includes Remagen.
The Ludendorff Bridge, built during World War I to move troops and supplies to the Western Front, was never rebuilt. In 1980, Remagen Mayor Hans-Peter Kuerten sold bits of the bridge to finance a ``peace museum″ in the bridge towers facing the basalt cliffs across the river.
``The bridge was built for war, and when it was destroyed, we were happy to see it gone,″ said Kuerten, now retired. ``It was the start of a true democracy in Germany, and the building of bridges of another kind to America.″