Americans, Germans Celebrate Bridge Capture That Shortened War
REMAGEN, Germany (AP) _ Rounding a hilly bend 50 years ago today, GIs of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion captured a bridge that was not supposed to exist and crossed a river they hadn’t expected to see.
That river was the Rhine, and the battle they kicked off at the Ludendorff Bridge hastened the demise of the Third Reich.
``It meant the end of the bomb attacks for us,″ recalled former Remagen Mayor Hans Peter Kuerten. ``It meant the collapse of the western front.″
The mayor is one of several hundred U.S. and German vets celebrating that American victory today in Remagen.
The bridge capture was unplanned. The 27th Armored battalion was part 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 Patten.
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.
Everything happened so fast that Lt. Col. George Ruhlen, commanding artillery a few miles south of Remagen, was taken by surprise.
``I heard guns firing on the other side of the hill and I radioed in to ask what was happening,″ said Ruhlen, 84, of San Antonio, Texas. ``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.
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.
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 Mayor Kuerten established in the stone towers by selling pieces of the bridge, mostly to U.S. vets.
For a lot of Rhinelanders, Remagen is less a synonym for the bridge than for the enormous German POW camp where some 300,000 inmates, captured in a huge pincer movement in March, languished in an open meadow in the rainy spring of 1945.
At least 1,600 Germans died in the camp of hunger and disease, said Stephen E. Ambrose, a historian at the University of New Orleans.
``It was an unusually wet and cold spring and there was no preparation for the prisoners the Allies had to deal with,″ Ambrose said. ``They had to screen everybody to find the SS so it took a long time to release them. It was just a horrible mess.″