At Remagen, a bridge to certain victory

March 06, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

When American GIs captured the bridge at Remagen 50 years ago tomorrow to allow the first Rhine River crossing into the Nazi heartland, the old railroad span became an instant symbol of inevitable victory in the face of stubborn resistance.

Momentous as the event was, however, to battle-weary soldiers like former Pfc. Frank Bressler, 71, of Pikesville, it seemed then just another in the endless days of combat.

"I was there shortly after the capture of the bridge, and the first troops didn't recognize the significance of it," West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler, author of "The Bridge at Remagen," said in a recent telephone interview. "In the long view, however, it was one of the most significant chapters in American military history."

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander, said the capture of the bridge -- despite frantic German efforts to destroy it with demolition charges, artillery fire and air attacks -- shortened the war in Europe by several months and saved countless lives.

The battering by the Germans continued for 10 days until the 1,200-foot bridge, named for World War I Gen. Erich Ludendorff, collapsed into the swift current March 17, killing 28 men and injuring 63. But by then the bridgehead was secure; men and materiel were streaming across on two parallel pontoon bridges -- and sending back thousands of German soldiers captured on the other side.

"We had 128 consecutive days of combat," said Mr. Bressler, a combat medic whose 307th Medical Detachment was part of an artillery unit attached to the 78th "Lightning" Infantry Division just north of the bridge. Before Remagen, those days had included the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, where his unit was stationed on the northern flank of the American position and men were dying in the bitter cold, he said.

"It was the coldest winter in a hundred years," Mr. Bressler recalled, telling how he helped to bail water from an abandoned German pillbox -- a concrete gun emplacement -- and then burned grass and twigs to dry it out "to relieve guys who were living in holes in the frozen ground. They couldn't have fires because the Germans would zero in.

"When we first went into combat in the Bulge, most of the men we evacuated had frozen feet; they were poorly equipped. I had galoshes, and I put straw in them and that saved my feet. I figured we lost about 25 percent of our casualties with frozen feet."

The Wehrmacht resisted fiercely all the way, said Mr. Bressler, who late last year finally received the campaign medals and decorations, including the Bronze Star and the coveted Combat Medic Badge with its caduceus and stretcher -- the corpsman's equivalent of the equally coveted Combat Infantry Badge.

To infantrymen, the medics with their Red Cross armbands are the most important people around.

"The medics are there when you need them; they were right on our heels," said former Pfc. Elvin P. Martin, 72, of Charleston, W.Va. Mr. Martin, who is organizing a Remagen tour for April, fought with the 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division.

He said his unit drove all night to reach Remagen March 8 to reinforce the troops already there. The crossing was crucial because the Americans had brought bridging equipment, expecting German destruction of all the Rhine bridges. "But they would have taken terrible casualties building those bridges," he said.

Remagen is about 12 miles south of Bonn. The Germans cratered the bridge approaches before the Americans arrived but were unable to set off all of their demolition charges in time, Mr. Bressler said.

As German reinforcements arrived, their artillery pounded away at the U.S. troops "and we fired close to 3,000 shells at the Germans across the river as they brought up reinforcements," he said.

On March 8, with Americans streaming across the bridge, eight Stuka dive bombers tried to destroy it. The attacks continued and a week later, 16 Luftwaffe planes in one 21-bomber flight were shot down.

Meanwhile, the Americans had thrown up the two pontoon bridges across the Rhine, one on each side of the railroad bridge.

German frogmen tried to blow up the pontoon bridges but were intercepted with the aid of then-secret high-intensity searchlights, Mr. Bressler said. The Germans pounded the area with a railroad cannon and then launched V-2 rockets from a base in the Netherlands.

Finally, the bridge gave up and collapsed into the swift river. It has not been rebuilt, and a Peace Museum has been established in one of the remaining towers.

At one point in the fighting, a V-2 exploded 1,000 yards from his unit's position, Mr. Bressler said. "We went out to see and it had destroyed everything; trees were stacked up liked firewood," he said. "Then we heard another one coming and I waited to die, but it went over us, over the hill.

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