99th Infantry Division: Crossing the Rhine I

Ludendorff Railroad Bridge as seen from a quarried tunnel in the side of Erpeler Lay. Note the two earthen ramps leading up to the embankment. The 99ers first spotted the bridge from a forested ridge in the distance.

Crossing the Rhine at Remagen, March 10–11, 1945.

During World War I the German high command decided to build a double-track steel railroad bridge with two pedestrian walkways over the Rhine River to move troops and supplies from the industrial Ruhr area to the Western Front. The spot chosen was due east of Remagen, a small resort town of four thousand inhabitants. Construction began in 1916 on the Ludendorff Bridge (named after the quartermaster general of the German Army) but was not completed until 1918. The bridge stretched nearly eleven hundred feet from Remagen on the west bank to Erpel, a hamlet on the east side, where a huge tunnel 420 yards long was carved into a steep, black basalt cliff (called Erpeler Ley), rising four hundred vertical feet to a barren, flat top. (Because of the bend in the river, geographically the bridge actually pointed north and south.) At each end of the span stood two neo-medieval stone towers with gun ports to defend the bridge in case of attack.

In early March 1945 disorganized German forces began retreating toward the standing Rhine River bridges. Once troops and equipment had safely reached the east side, the bridges were to be demolished by explosives, thereby preventing the Allies from exploiting a passage into the heart of Germany; more troops and equipment could have been saved, but Hitler demanded they stay and fight to the last man. During the previous winter U.S. aircraft had repeatedly bombed bridges up and down the Rhine to prevent the movement of German troops and supplies to the front. By early spring only a few bridges stood intact. After disorganized and war-weary German troops evacuated over the river, the remaining bridges were destroyed, save one, the Ludendorff.

American bombers had attacked the bridge on October 9, December 26, December 29, 1944, and January 2, 1945, the last raid killing twenty-eight civilians and eight soldiers. These raids inflicted considerable damage on the town and the span, but German workers made repairs and kept the bridge in service. During the first days in March, however, train travel was suspended. German engineers laid wooden planks between the railroad rails and used two long dirt ramps up to the embankment so vehicles and troops could escape across the river.

German soldiers fastened explosives around the support structures with the intention of blowing up the bridge at the last moment. On March 7, as troops and tanks of the U.S. 9th Armored Division approached the span’s southern end, an explosive charge was detonated that shattered some beams and destroyed the upstream walkway, but the sturdy bridge remained upright on its stone piers. The Germans also exploded a huge charge at the approach to the bridge, slicing away part of the railroad embankment to prevent all vehicular and tank traffic from using it. Seeing the bridge still standing, troops of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion cautiously advanced across the span, overcame light resistance, and moved into the Erpeler tunnel, capturing terrified civilians and Volkssturm [home guard] troops who sought shelter there. News of the bridge’s seizure moved up the U.S. chain of command, and General Omar Bradley, Commander of the 12th Army Group, ordered all available divisions to assemble and move rapidly to Remagen. In the first twenty-four hours after its seizure, the 27th Armored, elements of the 9th Infantry Division, and two regiments of the 78th Infantry Division proceeded across the Ludendorff to secure the bridgehead.

Initial resistance by the Germans proved spotty because Field Marshal Walter Model, thinking the Americans would attempt a forced crossing downriver, amassed his depleted forces near Bonn, fifteen miles to the north. He finally ordered a counterattack to push the Americans into the Rhine, but German troops, arriving piecemeal on the eastern side, could not prevent an American buildup.

The Germans employed fighter-bombers, howitzers, mortars, V-2 rockets, jet planes, and even a huge railroad gun in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to destroy the bridge. Located behind the steep hills, the artillery could not hit the northern half of the span; consequently, German gunners aimed for the other side and its approaches. Although many shells splashed harmlessly into the river, intermittent fire scored hits on the bridge, its approaches, and the southern part of the city. Nevertheless, the damaged bridge stood until March 17 when it finally collapsed, killing twenty-eight and injuring sixty-three engineers trying to repair it.

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Ninety-Ninth Division troops assumed they would be granted a rest after overrunning the Cologne Plain. If the railroad bridge at Remagen hadn’t fortuitously fallen into American hands, that wish might have been fulfilled. Instead, on March 9, 1945, they were ordered into trucks for a bumpy sixty-mile ride south to assembly areas west of Remagen. The 2nd platoon George Company 394 had a confiscated duck boiling in a pot at 10:00 A.M. when they were ordered to jump in the back of a 6 × 6 truck. Medic John Slubowski grabbed the half-cooked duck, climbed aboard, and the men consumed the slightly cooked fowl en route.

Many GIs had no idea where they were headed or the urgency of the mission, but Maltie Anderson was happy to be riding instead of walking. John Hendricks remembered being crammed into a troop carrier with some men forced to stand. Only when a soldier going the opposite way handed Hendricks’s group a copy of the Stars and Stripes did they learn about a captured bridge. No emergency was considered important enough to halt the southward movement of Hendricks’s truck, not even nature’s call, so a couple of men defecated out the back as it was rolling along. B. C. Henderson recalled their “Negro driver” drove so recklessly that “we bounced all over that truck.” As William McMurdie’s truck moved along, Sherwood Henry told the group he had a recurring dream they “would soon be coming to a hilly part of Germany and make an attack down a valley into a city and all [would] get shot up and all killed.” McMurdie tried to convince Henry it was only natural for a combat soldier to harbor such scary forebodings, and it didn’t mean anything. Henry’s premonitions, however, would prove sadly prophetic.

Carter Strong remembered his unit traveled more than eight hours in 2 1/2-ton troop carriers. To fight the miserably damp weather, they put up the bench seats and crouched on the steel floor to avoid the wind. Movement alternated between swift dashes and long pauses along roads jammed with hundreds of trucks, tanks, ambulances, and jeeps. Charlie Swann recalled passing knocked-out American tanks and trucks with bloated bodies lying everywhere. While it bothered him to see dead GIs, the rest of his squad appeared “unmoved by these horrors,” and his lieutenant thought “it was wonderful that the men had become hardened to this.” Using only night beams (narrow slits called “cat’s eyes”) to light the way after dark, the convoys crawled along both sides of the highway as they moved south. On their way, those who looked off to the east could see a “big wall of flame” in the distance; it was Cologne burning.

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The 99th offloaded in villages near Remagen and were told they would soon cross the Rhine. After spending the night in barns, houses, and foxholes while 155mm “Long Tom” guns boomed away, a snake-line column of 394th Regiment troops began a five-mile hike into Remagen. As James Langford and a scouting party emerged from the evergreen forest and reached the ridgeline above the town near dusk, he observed a railroad bridge being struck by artillery shells: “Most of the time in combat you don’t see what’s ahead, but in this instance we could see where we were going.” And the objective looked grim. During the two days of the crossing on March 10th and 11th, thirty-two 99ers would die.

The third and second battalions 394 (the order of their crossing) approached the ridge after dark, which intensified the apprehension. The men could sometimes hear the scream of incoming shells followed by loud cracks or crashes, but usually, because of the noise, the deadly missiles exploded without warning. For Plt. Sgt. Harold Schaefer it was the most “harrowing combat ordeal” he would endure; “we had come to it and had to go through it.” The gauntlet they had to walk presented a terrifying prospect, both for veterans and replacement GIs experiencing their first serious artillery shelling.

Upon reaching Remagen the men of the 394th Regiment advanced in a southeasterly direction along narrow cobblestone streets lit by the flames of burning vehicles and buildings. Forming lines on either side of the streets, they clung to walls for protection and nervously trod along. With so many troops and vehicles vying for a single spot, movement was slow and irregular, adding to the terror and turmoil. As Guy Duren rolled through Remagen in a jeep, he spotted a sign that warned, “This street subject to enemy shell fire.” Dead Americans along the way offered proof of the warning.

When his platoon stopped, William McMurdie squatted on his helmet, pulled a poncho over his helmet-liner, and tried to sleep sitting up. Some platoons were shepherded into cellars until they received orders to move forward. Richard Jacksha and Cliff Selwood ducked into a basement just before a shell collapsed the building next door—one they had unsuccessfully tried to enter. After Byron Reburn stepped behind a large pillar to answer nature’s call, a huge blast knocked him momentarily unconscious and killed the man who had taken his position in line. B. C. Henderson hunkered down beside a jeep hitched to a trailer when a shell detonated, sending a fist-sized fragment “completely through the trailer above my back.” One infantryman watched a large chunk of hot metal skidding along the street, clanging and throwing off sparks. He thought to himself, if that shell fragment “didn’t immediately cut you in half, they’d have to use a mattress as a wound dressing.” But nothing stopped the movement. Trucks hit by artillery shells were pushed aside, and columns of men and vehicles kept going. They advanced along Alte Strasse and then Goethe Strasse with orders not to stop for anyone, not even the wounded, which seemed “cold and inhumane” to Henderson. Although artillery shelling was intermittent (salvos roughly every thirty seconds), it was, according to executive officer Boyd McCune, who directed bridge traffic through most of the night, “the most intense” he had seen.

394TH REGIMENT

A little more than two hundred yards from the west bank, infantrymen and jeeps approached a long, earthen ramp leading to the steep railroad embankment. As the troops came to the ramp, they turned left and headed up a rutted pathway to the bridge. Movement was spasmodic for each shell blast stopped everyone temporarily. Largely devoid of buildings (except for the Becher furniture factory) and protection, the area became known as “dead man’s corner” for the many MPs, engineers, and combat soldiers cut down on this exposed stretch. B. C. Henderson saw dead and wounded GIs; some called out, “Help, I’m dying, please help me!” Harold Schaefer heard similar, desperate cries from those who had been blown off the embankment and lay on the ground below. As Charles Katlic and Fox Company reached the embankment, “three shells produced a number of casualties and sent the rest hurrying away in different directions.”

Guided by imperiled MPs of the 9th Infantry Division, who yelled at them to keep moving but maintain their spacing, foot soldiers and jeeps dashed for the bridge between salvos while dodging helmets, packs, weapons and other equipment that had been discarded. It was, according to Katlic, “hard to walk without tripping over the wounded and dead.” Medic Saul Brechner sought shelter in a small building near the furniture factory where the wounded were placed. He offered his help, but when he attempted to use a rifle as a splint on a badly wounded GI, the soldier’s leg came off.

Shell bursts on the bridge’s superstructure punched large holes in the steel crossbeams and temporary wood flooring, prompting both vehicles and men to move cautiously out of fear they might tumble into the rushing water below. Engineers and soldiers carried wood planks and steel plates out onto the bridge to cover the gaps. “Not only did you have to watch for the holes,” James Larkey recalled, “but we didn’t know what awaited us on the other side. We were scared.” As Capt. Charles Roland stepped onto the bridge at midnight, he recalled that two thousand years earlier, Julius Caesar had crossed the Rhine at almost the same spot to fight the same enemy.

When attacking, a combat soldier would seek some form of cover. But walking along the embankment or riding in a jeep out onto the bridge offered the GI no opportunity to protect himself. He felt vulnerable and could only hope fate was on his side, and the shells would land elsewhere. Robert Mitsch reached the middle of the bridge when the column came to a halt. He looked at the dark river and thought “that’s a long way down.” Feeling “terribly vulnerable” standing there, he quickly made a “plea to God that we’d make it across.” Whether through divine intervention or not, Mitsch arrived on the other side safely and his “breathing became easier.” But deadly harm could come even within the shadow of Erpeler Ley. Stanley Lambert saw an American jeep with a captain seemingly sitting at attention in the passenger seat while his dead driver lay on the ground. The captain didn’t have a mark on him, but he was dead too. Lambert admitted, “I had a little feeling of happiness that it wasn’t me lying there.”

Men became separated from their units, and disorganization added to the confusion. Uncertainty loomed over this dangerous enterprise. Rumors spread among the troops that German reinforcements aimed to drive them into the river, a point brought home by enemy leaflets dropped from a plane, warning the 99th they lacked reserves and therefore should surrender before all were killed. While only three GIs of the regiment died that night, the 394th would suffer another ninety-three fatalities the following week.

On the far bank Fred Kampmier slipped on shell casings and other debris, for modern battlefields produce instant junkyards. Ninety-niners waited for stragglers to arrive, reorganized, and then marched two miles south to the river city of Linz, which had been liberated by the 9th Armored Division. The late-arriving 1st Battalion was consigned to defensive foxholes, while the 2nd and 3rd Battalions billeted in houses and other buildings. J. C. Jones and his men found shelter in a tavern where liquid spirits flowed freely. David Reagler’s platoon bedded down in a jewelry store full of broken glass. Everyone looked forward to seizing what he could when daylight arrived, but “as usual, we weren’t the ones who would get to look for the goodies, as we moved out before light.”

Leroy Wagner and his platoon went into a home and discovered an older gentleman and his cache of wine. Fearful the wine might be poisoned, they made the owner take a drink from each bottle. Wagner recalled, “We got a chance to have what the officers got regularly with their liquor rations, but by the time we left, the old German was pretty tipsy.” James Larkey entered a deserted house and found a nice bed with “fine quality bedding.” Looking at his dirty uniform and muddy boots, he asked himself, “How can I do this?” He hesitated only for a moment, and then climbed into the bed, putting his filthy boots between the “rich, clean sheets.” He felt guilty but enjoyed “a good night’s sleep.”

The next morning they moved out on the attack. Robert Mitsch saw a dead American soldier “whose skull seemed to be crushed on both sides and his complexion was an ashen-green,” a sight that would haunt him for the rest of his life. As Harold Schaefer came to a bend in the road, he saw the torso of a GI crushed by a tank track. His legs and left hip had been ground into the blacktop but there were no visible wounds on the rest of him. A frightening question entered Schaefer’s mind: “Was that poor bastard alive when that tank ate him?” He did not know, but he would always remember the dead man’s “blue eyes staring up at me.”

Cliff McDaniel, captured during an ill-fated patrol off Elsenborn Ridge on January 15, had spent six weeks in a German hospital west of the Rhine. On February 28, as U.S. forces moved closer, their captors hurriedly transported McDaniel and other patients across the Rhine to Linz. McDaniel was lying in his bed when a GI lieutenant entered the room, came over to him and asked, “How are you doing?” McDaniel replied, “Better now.” Then McDaniel turned his head toward the wall and “cried like a baby.” When McDaniel departed several days later he was overjoyed to see the streets of Linz “lined with fellows wearing the Checkerboard.” (McDaniel may have seen rear echelon personnel wearing insignia, for veteran combat soldiers removed their badges.) He would be going home, but without his left leg and without his best friend, Arnold “Akie” Owens, who had been killed on that winter patrol.

393RD REGIMENT

The 393rd Regiment arrived at the village of Werthofen before dawn on March 10, but had to wait until the following day before entering Remagen. Robert Hawn was amazed at the sight of antiaircraft guns, tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery units assembled along the ridgeline giving supporting fire to the bridgehead. When Harry Arnold topped the high ground overlooking the Rhine River, he saw the bridge and for a moment “all seemed deceptively calm and peaceful below. Even in war the view was breathtaking.” They proceeded down the hillside into the town, as the sound of “enemy incoming” grew ever louder, and, according to Hawn, “we became more tense.” Gathering “strength and comfort from being one with my platoon, I was resigned to the job ahead and to my fate, whatever it was.”

On the road through the city, veteran squad leader Robert Waldrep snatched up K rations from dead soldiers, knowing from experience his men would need them in the coming hours. Lieutenant Frank Peck noticed one of his men down on his knees pointing a bazooka. Peck couldn’t understand why the fellow didn’t move along. He went over to the soldier and discovered he was dead: “I left him as he was in perfect balance—unbelievable.” Upon reaching the embankment, the men saw the effects of earlier shelling: dead Americans beside the road. Ken Juhl caught sight of a GI who “had nothing below his belly button, as his legs had been blown away.” Radford Carroll glanced at a corpse on top of the embankment. “The top of his head was gone, so I could see through his open mouth and empty skull into the river.” As Daulton Swanner approached the bridge he saw bodies stacked head high between two posts and thought, “it could have been me.” Normally medics quickly removed bodies so as not to upset the living, but in this instance there was no time to gather up the dead because they had to tend to the wounded.

As George Company neared the bridge under shellfire, Robert Hawn looked at the twin, black towers guarding the approach and wondered, “What the hell are we doing here?” Hurrying along the bridge deck as fast as traffic would allow, “a considerable pucker factor occurred and our hearts came up in our throats.” James Revell ran up the stone tower steps crowded with men too hesitant to budge and proceeded past them at a measured but tiring pace over the river. Guy Duren rode across in a jeep but “felt unsafe sitting so high up in the air with no protection.” One GI, “spooked by all the shelling,” dropped down, grabbed a beam and refused to move. Steve Kallas threatened to kick him off the bridge if he didn’t get up and go. The terrified GI released his grip and moved on. Halfway across they spotted the tunnel entrance on the other side, a safe haven that seemed to beckon to them. As Hawn’s platoon members entered the dark tunnel and collected themselves, no one said anything but all quietly experienced a feeling of exhilaration, for they had arrived safely. They then headed south until they reached a huge winery. Robert Hawn grabbed five bottles of champagne and tasted it for the first time, a bubbly reward he certainly deserved.

After reassembling, the 393rd walked southward two miles upstream along the eastern shore toward Linz, which possessed huge commercial wine cellars. Guy Duren and his buddy loaded their jeep with all the wine and brandy it could hold. John McCoy ventured into one cellar where he watched 99ers shoot holes in casks and fill canteens, bottles, gasoline cans, and even buckets with white Rhine wine. The intoxicating liquid quickly flooded the floor, producing a sweet aroma that filled the air and attracted every passing GI. After occupying a fancy apartment with thick carpeting on the floor, McCoy fired up a portable gas stove and put a quart-size can of bacon on the burner. Soon great quantities of bacon fat boiled over the edge of the can and down onto the beautiful carpet. His action generated “no regretful feelings at all.”

After Harry Arnold’s squad occupied a large house, they found a basement stocked with alcoholic beverages, which they happily consumed, while encouraging the homeowner, an elderly man and an accomplished pianist, to play some music. But his repertoire turned out to be classical pieces, not popular American tunes the GIs wanted to hear. Either out of a macabre sense of humor or a deep-seated foreboding, Harry Arnold asked the German to play Chopin’s mournful “Funeral March.”

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