The Bridge Worth its Weight in Gold

I had heard about the battle for Remagen Bridge from several World War II veterans during interviews, but it was entirely different being there in person.

Our tour group left the Belgium Ardennes area and continued east through the Eifel Mountains. We followed the advance of the US 1st Army through to the Remagen Bridge that once spanned the River Rhine.

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Note: Our guide pronounced it ‘RAY-ma-gen’, rather than the way my veterans who served there pronounced it with accent on the second syllable. No matter.

Having listened to my veterans and watched the 1969 movie, The Bridge at Remagen, I knew a little about what had gone on there between the Allies and Germans.

In March 1945, the American forces had just ended a victorious, but ferocious fight in the Ardennes region that had raged since mid-December.

In December 1944 the Nazis had assertively pushed into the territory of the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. The intense conflict which occurred during one of the worst winters on record became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Like most Allied soldiers, Max Whiteleather (below) fought at the Bulge while living in fox holes filled with snow. When clouds finally cleared around Christmas, help arrived in the form of the Army Air Corps which dropped much-needed supplies.

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As the Allies proceeded to advance into the heart of Germany, they were ordered to advance on Remagen. The bridge was crucial to gain a toehold into enemy territory. It had to be taken intact.

German armed forces tried unsuccessfully to defend the town and the nearby bridge across the Rhine.

Aware that the Rhine River posed the last major geographic obstacle to Allied troops, Hitler had ordered that the bridge over the river be destroyed rather than lost to the Allies.

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Thankfully, members of the 9th US Armored Division disengaged explosives set to destroy the bridge and the plans were foiled. Allied troops reached the bridge and captured it intact on March 7, 1945, enabling 8,000 Allied troops to cross it.

George Buhler (below), a veteran whose story is recorded in my first book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans, fought at Remagen. He recalled how the fighting was fierce. “The Germans shot 18-inch shells at us from railroad cars,” he said.

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Max Whiteleather had fought at D-Day on the beach of Normandy in June 1944. When his unit — 820th Engineer Aviation Battalion, Co A – was sent to Remagen, they were ordered to build an additional bridge– pontoon — across the Rhine following the Allies’ conquest.

As dozens of Allied vehicles lined up, waiting to cross, Max Whiteleather’s outfit set to work. The additional crossing helped the Allies gain the advantage needed to overcome the German Army.

Unfortunately, although the Army Corps of Engineers worked to reinforce the original bridge, which had been damaged during the conflict, on March 17 the bridge collapsed, killing 28 American soldiers.

Today, not much is left of the bridge, except its original basalt foundations and a museum about the bridge. Basalt is black stone native to Germany.

The quote in the title is by General Dwight D. Eisenhower upon learning that the Remagen Bridge had been taken intact.

For a relatively small bridge — you can see the distance in the photo — it’s amazing to think how much fighting occurred there. But as we learned on our tour of European World War II battlefields, bridges were a common place of conflict.

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Max’s story is included in my second book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans. It contains 34 stories of men/women of every branch- Army, Navy, Army Air Corps, Marines, Merchant Marines, Coast Guard.

I’m excited to say it will be available in August 2017! Stay tuned here for more information!

Thank a veteran today for his/her service!

 

 

 

 

 

Bucket List: Take WWII Tour of Europe– Done!

My husband and I just returned from a 2-week World War II tour of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany! The photo of my husband and me is on the patio of the ‘Eagle’s Nest’, Hitler’s retreat center, above the village of Berchtesgaden, Germany.

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We went with a group of 29 Americans and 3 Australians and one Chinese woman as part of World War II Tours of Europe. This photo is at the Mardasson Memorial at Bastogne, Belgium.

Talk about a whirlwind trip! Our guide, Dennis Ross, was experienced and so organized which made the trip enjoyable. We covered 2,000 km and five countries via a luxurious motor coach with a great driver named Gundolph.

It was exhausting, but so informational and fascinating. My husband has been interested in World War II for decades. I’ve only become interested since I started interviewing veterans in 2012. Put us together and we can usually spout some piece of knowledge about events in Europe and even the Pacific.

BUT…

This trip showed us how much we didn’t know. We soaked it all in, despite minds/bodies that were recovering from a six-hour time difference and 12-hour days on the road.

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This photo was taken on June 6, 2017, at La Fiere Bridge in Normandy (France) region as a tribute from French people to the efforts of American troops 70+ years ago. These and other memorials showed us how much the European Allied countries continue to demonstrate their appreciation for our efforts on their behalf during their occupation by Nazis.

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Photo: Museum at Compiegne Forest (France) where armistice was signed 1918, ending WWI with Germany’s defeat.

We visited the usual tourist sites like museums and had guided tours of Paris, Dachau, Nuremberg, Luxembourg, all of which was just up our alley (I was usually near the front to be sure to hear every word!)

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We stood in an actual foxhole in a woods in Bastogne where troops would have sought shelter from freezing weather and enemy troops.

We stood in the war room of Bastogne where in December 1944 General Anthony McAuliffe declared “Nuts!” to the Nazis’ demands that he surrender the 101st Airborne and its attached troops. Gen. McAuliffe and his troops held off the siege until reinforcements arrived from Allied troops.

Many of these and other examples of courage and determination during that mighty war that raged from 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland until 1945 when Axis forces surrendered were new to me. It was a pleasure to learn more about them in person!

 

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One of my favorite events was thanking British World War II veterans for their service. This photo was shot during an event honoring these vets on June 5 at Pegasus Bridge. I’ll save details for a later post.

It was great to get home and realize yet again what a great country we have – not perfect but pretty close in terms of helping oppressed countries in so many ways for decades.

I’ll be sharing more information about the trip here in future posts with photos (I shot 800+ and my husband took 350+).

I plan to give PowerPoint presentations on what we saw and learned, implementing quotes from veterans I’ve interviewed where appropriate. Many stories about these sites can be found in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans.

If you know of a group that would be interested in having me speak on this topic, please contact me via this site’s Contact form.

And if you’ve not already done so, please subscribe to this blog to continue to receive my posts that cover WWII and other stories about American military vets.

Remember to thank a veteran today for his/her service. They deserve our appreciation!

WWII Soldier Pens Memories of Ohrdruf’s Liberation

I regret missing the opportunity to post on Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed around the world on April 24, 2017. Hopefully, this special essay written by a soldier who was one of the first to liberate Ohrdruf, one of the first death camps discovered in Germany, will make up for the lateness.

I met Edward Thomas Bradley a few years ago. It was a privilege to talk with him, although the story was sorrowful. I wrote the story of his military career at the beginning but his essay at the end is worth reading in its entirety. Mr. Bradley is now deceased.

Please pass on his story in this post to teachers, parents, students who need to be aware of what can happen when a government is out of control. God bless America!

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“The camp smelled like death,” said Ed Bradley of Fort Wayne.

He was part General Patton’s Third Army marching with the 89th Infantry division during World War II. In April 1945 he was part of a combat group that was the first to drive Sherman tanks through the locked gates of a concentration camp at Ohrdruf, Germany.

Unfortunately, Bradley’s group was too late to save thousands of slave laborers, civilians and most German women whom the Germans had starved ill-used. “We were dismayed to see heaps of emaciated dead bodies, some shot and others just charred remains,” he said. “We was told most of the surviving women had some type of venereal disease.”

The Allied medical personnel helped the sick as much as they could.

Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1925, Bradley graduated from Altoona Catholic High School in 1943 and was drafted into the United States Army in February 1944.

Bradley completed 17 weeks of basic training at Camp Wheeler, GA, before being assigned to the 89th division stationed at Camp Butner in NC.

In December 1944 Private first class Bradley and other soldiers debarked from Camp Miles Standish in Boston across the Atlantic. “We were never told where we were going,” he said. “We assumed the   destination was England.”

Bradley’s ship landed at Le Havre, France, in January 1945. A fierce battle that became known as the Battle of the Bulge had begun there on December 16, 1944. It acquired that name because when Hitler ordered a massive attack against American forces, it created a bulge in the Allied front line.

A foot of snow lay on the beach. “We held rifles over our heads to keep them dry,” said Bradley.

The Americans GI’s (‘government issue’) stayed at Camp Lucky Strike, a military tent city named after a cigarette company.

They then discovered to their horror the camp at Ohrdruf.

After liberating Ohrdruf, Bradley’s unit was involved in a battle with the Germans in Luxembourg at the Moselle River. Though often scared, Bradley refused to give in to his fear. The end of the war was in sight.

“The Germans’ Tiger 88-millimeter cannons were superior to that of any other nations’ artillery,” he said. “But their tanks needed much fuel and they were running low. Plus we had more tanks in number.”

The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Not all of the five million American troops could return home right away. Bradley was assigned as a military policeman guarding WAC nurses dormitory in England.

Bradley was discharged May 19, 1946. He returned to Altoona, where he earned a degree in economics at Pennsylvania State University. He lived with his Wife Pauline and three sons in Bedford, OH, for 32 years, while working at Ford Motor Company for 32 years. He is now deceased.

Fifty years after the gruesome discovery of Ohrdruf, Bradley wrote an essay about his perception of that day and how it affected his life.

Note: The details listed here can be upsetting. Please read with caution.

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“Throughout each person’s life there may be an experience or incident that is so overwhelming, so momentous, that it is forever indelibly impressed in our memory.

Such was an experience for me during World War II while serving as an infantry soldier in General Patton’s Third Army marching and fighting through Central Germany with the 89th infantry division.

Ohrdruf was the name of a small town approximately 15 miles south of the ancient city of Gotha. We found out later that five months prior to our arrival it had been a Germany OCS training camp.

Then it was closed and it became a camp for slave laborers mostly from Eastern Europe.

As our tanks and infantry approached this camp, we had no idea what to expect.

We were prepared for fighting enemy soldiers. But German soldiers had abandoned the camp because they heard we Americans were near and fast approaching.

I was among the first American soldiers to enter this camp, being part of a combat team approaching this unknown objective in super readiness prepared for the worst.

After a brief search of the area, it was determined there were no German soldiers in the area but still we had to make an in-depth search.

After moving along a short distance, I found myself in sort of a courtyard. To my right was a heap of riddled bodies, the mortal remains of perhaps 30 inmates who apparently had been machine-gunned shortly before our arrival by the German army after they knew the American army was closely approaching.

All of the inmates were lying there just as they fell, emaciated, starved, barely skin and bones. Among them was an American Air Force Lieutenant who had been wounded but had been callously shot while lying on a stretcher.

I moved forward past some loathsome buildings down a path to an open shed. Inside was a heap of 40 bodies, stripped of all clothing, piled up like logs—all dead having been massacred and then covered with chlorinated lime with a terrible stench emanating from the pile.

These deaths were reportedly the result of beatings with a shovel- 115 strokes on the naked body which was standard punishment for minor infractions of the rules. Naturally nobody ever survived these beatings.

I entered a building that turned out to be a crematory– huge steel doors at each end with neat little tracks entering from each direction so the victims could be rolled in and out.

I moved out of the crematory building and up the roadway some distance where I approached a ditch probably 10 x 20 feet with charred logs.

As I got closer, I realized human remains were mixed in with the charred logs.

Visible were victims’ heads, backbones, ribs, legs, etc, all blackened and charred.

Further down the road, I encountered a huge pit where reportedly 1000s of bodies were buried. Later, estimates numbered around 9,000 bodies were buried in this common pit. These were not soldiers but non-combatant civilian slave laborers.

At this point my company was recalled to the front gate area where we assembled and exited this ghastly horrible place to continue our drive through Germany. All of us were stunned in disbelief as to the horror we had just witnessed. We left the sorting out to near echelon troops.

The next day it was reported that General Eisenhower, General Bradley, General Patton and all of their staffs visited this camp and viewed these atrocities. General Patton’s reaction to what he viewed was reportedly to run behind one of the buildings and violently throw up.

Eisenhower was to have said that it was the first time in his life that he was actually ashamed that his ancestry was Germany.

Army photographers took photos as evidence to the world of the horrors that took place behind these fences. Copies of these photos were promptly forwarded to both the US and Britain’s top government officials.

This camp at Ohrdruf — this death, or killing, camp –was the first camp to be liberated that provided indisputable factual evidence of what was actually happening in these German so-called labor camps.

It proved to be just the tip of the iceberg as shortly many other and larger death camps would be liberated, including Dachau, Auschwitz.

Before this experience, I thought this type of barbarism happened only in history under the likes of Attila the Hun. Maybe because I have some German blood in my ancestry I thought we were fighting an enemy with some resemblance to Roman civilization which might remotely be compared to ours.

Those feelings were destroyed completely that day.

Probably a relative minority of the German people knew about it or had any connection with this monstrosity. However, the people as a whole must bear the blame for allowing such fiends to rule their nation.

Before the experiences of this day I had some personal reservations and questions about what we were really fighting for in that war.

That day I received the answer.

It gave me increased motivation to get that horrible war over with.

I also lost any compassion I might have had for the German soldiers.

It has now been 50 years since these events occurred. In some people’s minds the German Holocaust never took place. Some others are working to distort the facts by downplaying its magnitude.

I want my children, grandchildren and any other person who reads this narrative to know that it actually did occur in all its horror as I was a firsthand witness to this hideous, barbaric experience in this ugly page of human history.

This was Germany in 1945. Welcome to Hell.”

Edward Bradley

February 1995

**

Please remember to thank a veteran today for his/her military service. We have no idea what they go through, but we need to assure them we appreciate it.

Soldier Fought with Patton’s Third in Battle of the Bulge

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For seven days in December 1944 Allied forces fought with German forces at Bastogne, as part of the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans wanted to control the crossroads and the battle was hard fought. By December 27, Patton’s Third Army arrived and the besieged American forces were relieved.

Beresford Clarke of Fort Wayne, Indiana, spent his 21st birthday fighting the battle. “It was a tough fight,” he said. When Patton’s 3rd Army was relieved by another division, it returned to the town of Wadgassen on the Saar River.

Eight inches of snow didn’t lessen the fighting. For a week Allies hid in buildings, shooting at the enemy stationed behind fortified structures called pillboxes.

Each morning someone from Clarke’s unit drove a jeep back to the rear where Head Quarters was stationed. There the driver picked up food, ammunition, and orders of the day. Enemy snipers hid out in elevated locales, such as church steeples, so it was a risky venture. Clarke was often the jeep driver. “If I drove fast, I had a better chance of escaping!” he said.

Sleeping in foxholes under several inches of snow was the norm. Clarke saw many casualties. “It was difficult seeing people go down,” he said.

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Clarke was born in 1923 in Evansville, IN. He graduated from Reitz High School in 1941 and completed two years as a mechanical engineering student at Purdue University when he enlisted in the US Army in 1943. “Every male who was my age would be drafted if not enlisted,” he said. “I could not swim so I didn’t want to go into the Navy.”

Clarke completed basic training at Fort Eustis, VA. “We trained on 120-mm antiaircraft guns, which were large cannons,” he said. “We also worked with rifles.”

After basic training, Clarke was sent to Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in Burlington, Vermont, for two months. It was a short-lived program based on the premise that the war might outlast the available number of college trained men needed to provide technical information. High school graduates who had tested at a certain level of intelligence were set aside for this program. By early 1944, the program was disbanded and the men re-assigned.

Clarke was assigned to the 26th Division, 328th Infantry anti-tank unit of Patton’s 3rd Army. After training in Columbus, SC, Clarke boarded a ship in New York City for Europe.

By now, it was early July 1944. The infamous invasion on Utah Beach at Normandy had occurred a few weeks earlier so Clarke and other troops went over the side of their LCI at Normandy with no opposition, though there was some trepidation. “The beach supposedly had routes cleared for mines which the Germans had put there,” said Clarke. “We hoped they got them all.”

Clarke’s unit camped in the fields of Normandy where cattle roamed and joined the fight in the liberation of the nearby town of St Lo. The city had already suffered an extensive attack by American troops during the Battle of Normandy. The city was bombed again by Germans in July. Gaining St. Lo would give Allied forces access to the opening of the Falaise Gap, a foothold to expel German forces from northern France.

Once St. Lo was secure, Allied troops proceeded along the Saar River in northeastern France. Clarke was driving a jeep with his platoon commander and a sergeant sat in the back seat using a 50-cal machine gun. Other soldiers walked along the road when Clarke saw one soldier take a direct hit. “His body was splattered across the road,” he said. “I vomited and my platoon leader did, too, but we kept going.”

 

The 3rd Army’s objective was to stop the German tanks. “There was a lot of fire from German tanks,” he said. “When their 88s came at us, they went by you or through you.”

The battle was made more difficult by the fact that the Allies often didn’t know their way. “The Germans reversed road signs so we could not depend on the signs to tell us where to go,” said Clarke. “Our military didn’t have good maps of Germany when the war started so we used some from National Geographic.”

At Metz, a city in northeastern France soldiers bunked down for the night, but were awakened and told to prepare to leave. Some troops boarded trucks while others prepared to walk to the small Belgian town of Bastogne. “We walked for two days in snow,” said Clarke.

During the spring of 1945, Allies prevailed along the Saar River, taking over towns along the way. “We told the Burgermeister (mayor) in each that they must hand over all weapons and all uniformed soldiers must surrender,” said Clarke.

In one village the Allies smelled something strange. Upon being questioned, one Burgermeister admitted to working with a Jewish concentration camp in the area. “We saw stacks of bodies,” said Clarke. “I couldn’t believe anyone could do what Hitler did and that other people could follow him.” The 3rd Army liberated the camp and left other Americans in charge.

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That was not the end of surprises. As the 3rd Army bedded in a nearby hay loft, soldiers felt lumps under the straw. When they pulled out parts of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a German fighter aircraft, they discovered the barn was part of an underground aircraft assembly plant. Again, members of the Third Army remained behind to control the discovery while others proceeded through the area.

Clarke was at Hitler’s birth place in Linz, Austria, on May 8, 1945, when he heard the war was over (May 8/ VE Day). That was when Clarke’s real work began.

Having worked in a camera store before the war, he had applied to join the Signal Corps at the beginning of the war, but was not accepted.

After VE Day, the Army confiscated hundreds of rolls of film soldiers had shot during the war. Clarke’s interest in photography was honed when he received orders to join the 165th Signal Corps in May 1945.

Since the Civil War when it was first organized, the US Army Signal Corps had developed, tested and managed communications support for the command and control of combined arms forces.

While stationed in Czechoslovakia, Clarke and another soldier set up a dark room with chemicals and an enlarger. “Our job was to develop photos from 500 rolls of film,” said Clarke. The signal corps had been made up of men, mostly middle-aged, with experience in photography, even some from Hollywood. Clarke also shot photos of troops awaiting discharge.

When Clarke received his discharge a few months later, he was shipped from Marseilles, France, to the East Coast of the US, then Camp Atterbury in Indiana where he was discharged at the rank of T5 corporal. He returned home with several items from the war, including a German flag, German daggers, rifles, shotgun, pistol, knives.

Clarke graduated from Purdue in 1948 as a mechanical engineer. He worked in Fort Wayne. In 1953 he married and he and wife Lucy became parents to three children.

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Clarke and family members have returned to Europe to trace his path as a soldier during World War II. Clarke participated in the Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2013.

“It was an amazing experience to be a soldier during World War II,” said Clarke. “It was scary and challenging to watch those poor people being released from prison camps. I made it through the war without injuries. I feel very fortunate.”

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This article first appeared in News-Sentinel.

Beresford Clarke died 10/23/15. I feel privileged to have had the chance to meet and interview him. Stories like this are available in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans which can be purchased on this site’s home page and Amazon.

Please thank a veteran today!