99th Infantry Division: Crossing the Rhine II

Ludendorff Bridge after it collapsed. Note the wooden planking placed on the bridge for motorized traffic.

Rhine bridgehead, March 12–15, 1945

395TH REGIMENT

Stuart Kline, a military policeman, was riding in a jeep, part of a long, bumper-to-bumper procession headed for the bridge, when German fighter planes appeared and began strafing the road. Kline and others jumped out and ran for the woods. Thinking the danger had passed, Booker Brown, another MP, stood up and instantly caught a bullet. Kline and the driver rushed Brown to an aid station but he died en route. Informed they would have to take the body away, Kline and Lt. Bowers laid Brown’s body on the hood of the jeep, drove across the Rhine, found their unit, and bedded down for the night with the dead soldier still on the jeep. When Kline awoke in the morning, the body was gone.

The 395th was the last regiment to arrive. Two soldiers from Able Company bedded down in a field with large draft horses. Agitated by incessant artillery, the horses bolted excitedly around, tearing themselves on barbed wire fences. John Scaglione became leery of them, fearing one might fall into his foxhole, which “would be a hell of a way to become a casualty—being trampled on by a crazy German horse.” So Scaglione and his foxhole buddy left the field and spent the rest of the night in a barn.

The next morning on March 11, the 395th Regiment began marching along roads and through muddy, plowed fields toward Remagen. (The 3rd Battalion left Heimersheim, south and west of Remagen, at 10:30 A.M. but did not reach their final destination on the east side until 4:30 P.M., six hours later.) A mile before the city, several trucks heading to the rear, each nearly full with dead Americans, passed Woodrow Hickey as he walked along—”a sight you never get used to” or forget. When George Company departed from Bölingen, eight miles from the bridge, the men were ordered to carry only the bare essentials, namely, rifle, ammo, K rations, D bars, and grenades. A replacement was to remain behind with instructions to bring up the packs later. William Galegar left his pack, including war booty (gold rings, watches, and an antique necklace set with rubies) on the ground. When the replacement subsequently caught up with the company empty-handed, “it almost cost him his life.” The long trek into Remagen produced a general weariness, but as the 395th entered the town, Carter Strong recalled, anticipation over seeing the Rhine “kept us in a state of excitement.”

When William Galegar (nicknamed “Chief” because of partial Cherokee ancestry) reached the top of the hill, he noticed a single line of trucks stopped on the road west of the bridge and concluded they were simply waiting to cross. Descending the hill, he approached the trucks and discovered why they hadn’t moved; the occupants were dead. To keep the approaches clear, two Sherman tanks equipped with bulldozer blades were at the ready. As 1st Lt. Harold Hill ascended the dirt ramp, he came upon a 6 × 6 truck that had taken a direct hit. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel, but Hill could not ascertain whether he was alive or dead. Nonetheless, one of the bulldozer tanks simply pushed the truck off the ramp.

Joseph Thimm watched the chaos of trucks, tanks, and vehicles crawling toward the bridge while troops poured out of the hills above Remagen. U.S. Army vehicles jammed the main road from the west and headed toward the river, while helmetless German prisoners on foot or packed into trucks went the other way to holding pens. As he approached the “cold and battered steel structure,” Thimm recalled voices screaming, medics carrying the wounded, and engineers repairing shell hits. Thimm’s great grandparents had emigrated from Remagen to Detroit in the middle of the nineteenth century; after the war, when Joe returned home and mentioned being in Remagen, his grandmother asked if he had taken time to visit any of their relatives.

William Galegar and two squads briefly ducked into a house before a sprint to the bridge, when another squad leader began talking incoherently about being killed, declaring “he wasn’t going any farther even if they put him in jail forever.” Seeing the men adversely affected by this fearful talk, Galegar threatened “to shoot his ass off” if he didn’t shut up. The sergeant quieted down, and when the order came they departed for the tower, even though, Galegar confessed, “no one wanted to make that run across the bridge.”

After Bernard Brody discovered dead GIs piled up behind a building he began wetting his pants. Not understanding why he couldn’t stop, he walked over to an ambulance and asked a doctor about his problem. The doctor replied, “I am scared too.” Before they reached the river, Richard Gorby spotted an abandoned truck sitting by a curb with its tarpaulin tied down. Thinking it might contain “something good to eat,” he untied the ropes. But inside “there was a load of American dead,” and he quickly retied the ropes. John Scaglione arrived at the top of the ramp, only to watch a truck being manhandled back down. The hood and cab were riddled with shell fragments, and he noticed a large pool of blood sloshing on the driver’s seat.

As Francis Chesnik approached the bridge on foot, he looked up at a sign that read, “Cross the Rhine with Dry Feet—Courtesy of the 9th Armored Division.” Although Chesnick and others in Able Company 395 preferred walking over the river rather than fighting its swift current in a boat (especially because Chesnick didn’t know how to swim), the danger from artillery shells remained. Driven by fright (according to Byron Whitmarsh “the worst place I ever was at”), they moved on, passing a smashed American truck where a dead driver, or what was left of him, remained inside. Along the route Carter Strong couldn’t avoid seeing men “slumped over and lying in all position[s], some of them unrecognizable and others looking as though they were only asleep. It was not good for our morale.” They entered the north tower, climbed the winding cement stairway that led to the bridge, then bolted out the door onto the pedestrian walkway for the nerve-wracking scramble to the far bank. Halfway across Forbes Williams accidentally dropped his .30-caliber machine gun into the Rhine; he not only worried whether he would arrive on the other side, but also whether he would have to pay the army $783 for losing the weapon. Lambert Shultz walked port high toward the other side (he was told not to run, though others did), but all he could think about was the bridge collapsing under him and the possibility that German soldiers waited for them in the tunnel and above on the imposing cliff.

The engineers quickly completed the first pontoon bridge some 650 yards downstream (to the north) from the Ludendorff Bridge; a second pontoon was finished at midnight two miles upstream opposite Linz. Parallel to the river the army assembled a huge concentration of antiaircraft guns and trucks with four .50-caliber machine guns on a single mount to blast incoming German fighters and jet planes. As German aircraft approached from the north, antiaircraft fire escalated to a thunderous crescendo. GIs avidly observed the exciting spectacle unfolding above them. “Watching tracers making their paths through the sky,” Galegar wondered “how any plane could get through such a dense firestorm of steel and smoke.” Many did not. Of the 367 German aircraft that attacked the bridge, 109 were shot down either by antiaircraft guns or American fighters, and no bombs hit the railroad or pontoon bridges.

Scores of tanks, tank destroyers, and howitzers fired steadily at targets in the hills, producing a deafening roar. Countless black telephone wires hung over trees, strung on hastily set posts, or lay in ditches connecting artillery batteries to forward observers and fire-control centers. On the Ludendorff Bridge mobile cranes, generators, truck-mounted welding machines, air compressors, and bulldozers operated at full tilt. All was racket and congestion. Homer Kissinger and Jim Crewdson drove to the pontoon bridge in a jeep pulling a trailer. The bridge could only support three vehicles at a time, and when it was their turn an MP signaled them forward with instructions not to exceed ten miles per hour. They rolled onto the first pontoons and inched toward the other side just above the water. Jim Crewdson confessed, “morning’s nervous tension steadily progressed through apprehension, ordinary fear, outright fright, and well into tight-gut resignation.” As they reached the middle of the river, the jeep ahead of them on the pontoon bridge took a near hit, killing two of the occupants and badly wounding a third. Arriving safely on the east bank they observed Graves Registration men collecting bodies of 78th Division GIs and loading them into jeep trailers. It offended Kissinger’s sensibilities to see the dead treated with so little reverence—“it didn’t seem right to stack them in a trailer that way!”

#

For a few days the 395th was in reserve, bivouacked in the steep, wooded hills above Erpel or quartered in Rheinbreitbach, another village three miles north of the bridge. On Sunday Paul Weesner attended a Protestant service in a heavily damaged church in Erpel. During the service Chaplain Stephens paused several times until German planes made their fast runs at the bridge and the noise of antiaircraft guns stopped. Outside GIs hunkered down in their foxholes to keep from being hit by the spent antiaircraft shells falling among them. Shells struck Cannon Company’s position, and, according to Ken Stanger, “one man lost an arm.” Despite the danger, however, many watched the exciting air war unfold above the bridge. GIs contributed to the earsplitting barrage by firing rifles at passing planes, including speedy jets seen for the first time. Oakley Honey watched a two-man German fighter-bomber come in low when it was hit by ground fire. The pilot and co-pilot bailed out, but not in time to pull their parachute ripcords, and their bodies slammed into the hill with such force that Honey heard the deadly thud.

394TH REGIMENT

On March 11, the 394th pushed south of Linz, capturing small villages situated on the narrow strip of flat land along the east bank of the Rhine; a day later the 393rd began its eastward attack in the hills above the river. The troops faced a series of steep, forested ridges running parallel to the river, where small groups of German infantry would fight largely unseen, hidden by brush and trees, and then retreat to the next hill. This defensive tactic fatigued and frustrated the advancing Americans. Progress was measured in yards not miles. Lack of roads and rugged terrain prevented tanks from taking part in the fight to enlarge the bridgehead. So it fell to the infantry to eliminate German resistance.

On March 13 and 14, the Germans launched three separate counterattacks to stop the American advance. All were repulsed with substantial losses on both sides. Machine gunner Robert Fickett remembered being surprised that German soldiers running toward him kept going for a few steps even after bullets and tracers slammed through their bodies. The battles resulted in one of the worst weeks for the 99th Division—185 GIs fell. Warren Thomas recalled, “We went through fields that were carpeted with dead Germans and GIs. I saw more dead [than] anytime during the war.”

On the morning of March 12, the 2nd Battalion 394 moved east and southeast into the hills. The rifle companies faced only sporadic firing but progress was slow on the steep terrain. Around noon on March 15, Maltie Anderson and his squad were struggling up a hill when a German machine gun began firing. Then, without warning, an artillery shell crashed near them. Several GIs were hit, including a replacement who was decapitated, while hot metal tore into Anderson’s legs—one shell fragment completely severed the two bones above his right ankle and a second steel shard tore into his left thigh cutting the sciatic nerve. Anderson lay there unable to move or apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. He heard moans from other wounded GIs throughout the night, and then only silence; he assumed the others had died. In the morning medics called out from below, asking if anyone was still alive. Anderson yelled back and the medics finally came to his rescue. He was carted across the Rhine on a jeep, flown to Paris, and then on to England for several operations. Anderson was amazed the army actually took the trouble to transport him by plane: “up to that point I thought I didn’t have any significance.”

At 6:00 A.M. on March 11, Item Company 394 left Linz headed south toward Leubsdorf and the hills above Bad Hönningen, a small industrial city six miles south of Erpel on the Rhine. Fred Kampmier’s pulse raced when he almost stepped on an object in the middle of the road; it was a human, though barely recognizable because it had been flattened “like a pancake.” The company then came to a steep valley surrounded by hills covered with grapevines. Tension mounted as they climbed up and then down a hill. All the while Kampmier expected a burp gun or machine gun to cut loose at any moment: “We were a perfect target. It would have been just like knocking down ten pins.” But the Germans were not there to bowl them over.

The platoon entered a tiny village and the inhabitants rushed out into the street waving white flags shouting, “nicht [not] Nazis,” a cry American soldiers would hear repeatedly in Germany—few civilians wanted to be linked to the collapsing dictatorship, fearing repercussions if they admitted support for the Führer. The GIs left the village and climbed a steep hill, knowing that sooner or later they would bump into “some Krauts,” but “where and when was what was worrying us.” They ascended another hill and then another while taking a couple of casualties from American artillery firing from the west bank of the Rhine. After reaching the top of a pine-covered ridge they asked the squad leader if they could take a break and eat their dinner K rations. That delay saved them: another platoon entered the draw and was hit by automatic rifle fire resulting in casualties. Kampmier was “really out to get a shot at a Kraut” that day, but no potential targets presented themselves. Pinned down until dark, the platoon slipped away holding on to one another so no one would become separated from the group and lose his way.

At 5:00 A.M. the next morning Kampmier’s platoon groped its way back to the top of the ridge, where they ran into German fire from unknown locations. After a bullet struck one GI in the arm, they were told to retreat in an orderly manner, but the squad “all ran like hell” back some distance and dug foxholes—one soldier digging while the other stood guard. Kampmier was paired with an eighteen-year-old replacement from Missouri who “was nervous and scared of the least little thing.” He did not enjoy the kid’s company: “I had a hard enough job keeping myself brave, and when someone else is with you who is scared, it only makes you all the worse.” They took turns catnapping and standing guard. Around midnight, Kampmier walked to the command post, where Lt. Norman Michelson explained their objective was the hill above Bad Hönningen, where the Germans had an artillery observation tower directing fire on the Ludendorff Bridge. As Mickelson briefed the men, Kampmier recalled, “I don’t think I’ve ever smoked so many cigarettes in such a short time.”

At 3:00 A.M. on March 13, the platoon started out, noisily stumbling over dead branches as they clung to one another. At one point a German soldier fired two shots at them, whereupon they retreated back down the trail and waited until daybreak. When they moved out again they came upon a stand of large trees on top of a hill. Suddenly a burp gun opened up off to their left, and everyone ran to find a tree for protection. As Kampmier looked around, he noticed each man lighting a cigarette and puffs of smoke rising behind each tree. “It was a bad thing to do, but we hadn’t been able to smoke for quite awhile and everyone’s nerves needed a cigarette.” Then a few German snipers tried to find some victims. Because of thick cover, the enemy couldn’t be spotted. One sniper took a shot at Kampmier, which caused “me to cuss up and down because I couldn’t see him.”

When the Germans began to launch shells into their area, everyone started digging while prone on the ground, which proved a difficult task. After an hour Kampmier had scooped out a hole big enough only for his head and chest with his feet and legs dangling outside. When he heard a shell coming his way he was positive it was going to land right on top of him: “I’d bury my head in the hole with my hands on my head and every muscle in my body would tighten and I’d pray that it wouldn’t hit me in any vital spot of my body.” But a shell of unknown origin hit near where he had previously sprawled, and the nervous replacement from Missouri was killed.

 

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