Thank You, Military Veterans!

As we approach the Veterans Day weekend (and the actual date on Sunday, November 11), we owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone who is a military veteran for helping us maintain our freedoms. Perhaps no one said it better than one of those veterans, Charles M. Province. (Please note that when he uses the term soldier, we should also add the words sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman because every veteran of every branch of our military played his or her part.)

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Veterans, we offer our humble but sincere thanks for all you have afforded the rest of us.

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The Project that Birthed Death and Life

On this date in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a secret project that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and ended World War II. But it also led, in the long term, to the birth of a city and numerous other projects that resulted in countless prolonged and enhanced lives.

On October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt signed off on what became known as the Manhattan Project. It was a military operation the likes of which the United States and the world had never witnessed. It was cloaked in secrecy. It was empowered by the national government to take the farm lands, homes, churches, and grave sites of countless individuals, families, and church congregations in numerous small, tight-knit communities in the hills of East Tennessee for the purpose of building enormous facilities for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Not unlike the situation that occurred to the Cherokee Indians more than 100 years earlier and to the residents of hill communities in the nearby Norris community a decade earlier, the residents of Bear Creek, Scarborough, and numerous other small communities were given mere weeks to vacate their ancestral homes so that the government could erect the facilities of three super-secret “reservations” where the components of the bomb would be built. Those locations were code named X-10, Y-12, and K-25.

Thousands of workers were imported into a thrown-together, prefabricated city that became known as Oak Ridge. And they lived and worked within the confines of guard towers and barbed wire fences as long as the work continued. They could not talk about the work they did, and informants ratted them out if they did. In fact, most of them had no idea of the larger product of which their work was a part. Only after the bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they learn what they were producing. And even then, few really understood it all. (Although I seldom read fiction, I recently read a novel titled The Atomic City Girls by Denise Kiernan, and its descriptions of life within the Secret City and its plants is spot on.)

The products of all those thousands of employees’ labors resulted in the deaths of a conservative estimate of 225,000 people (150,000 at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki). But it also saved the lives of inestimable thousands of American servicemen who would have been killed if the United States had been forced to invade the home islands of Japan to end the war. Moreover, perhaps millions of lives have been saved, prolonged, or enhanced since that time through the civilian uses of nuclear energy that resulted from the ongoing studies of nuclear power.

I grew up only a few miles from Oak Ridge. During the Cold War (especially during the Cuban missile crisis), my life and the lives of my school classmates were directly affected by the potential threat to the facilities at Oak Ridge, which were deemed close enough to our community to affect us. Civil defense drills became a part of “normal” life in our school. We were even issued “dog tags” for identification following any enemy attack. I still have my dog tag as a reminder of those perilous times. (I wrote about growing up during this time and working there in “Living in the Shadow of the Atomic City,” Blue Ridge Country, May-June 1998.)

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I, too, would be one of those workers at the Oak Ridge plants, but I was. For seven years, until the end of the Cold War and the defense cut-backs of the Clinton years, I was a senior technical editor there. Many of the restrictions described in Kiernan’s novel were still in place even at that late date.

But my work was not focused on bombs and destruction. Rather, much of my work there dealt with the peace-time uses of nuclear energy and the transfer of the technology developed during the Cold War to civilian industrial uses. Just as many of the gadgets we use today are the result of the space program, many of them are also the result of the nuclear defense program at Oak Ridge.

Although we still have swords, we also have plowshares. As President Reagan termed it, “peace through strength.”

 

 

 

On This Day. . . .

Today, we take a look back at four historic events that occurred on this day, September 14.

First, on this day in 1741, 277 years ago, George Frideric Handel finished work on his oratorio known as “Messiah.” He had worked on it for 23 days nonstop. The work, an extended summary of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Christ, or Messiah, was not popular at first, but over time its popularity grew until it became the best known choral works in Western history. The portion that is most widely recognized and performed, of course, is the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Handel ended his oratorio by signing it with the words Soli Deo gloriaa Latin phrase meaning “Glory to God alone.”

Second, on this day in 1814, 204 years ago, Francis Scott Key wrote the words of a poem that he titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” after observing the British bombardment from aboard a British warship, where he was visiting an American prisoner for whom he was seeking release. The words were later set to music and retitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song became the U.S. national anthem upon passage of a resolution of Congress on March 3, 1931. Most people today know only the first of the song’s four verses (if they, indeed, even know that one!). The other three verses are about as familiar as the third verse of a four-verse hymn (that because in most churches the congregations sing only the first, second, and last verses).

Third, on this day in 1847, 171 years ago, U.S. Marines under the command of General Winfield Scott entered Mexico City during the Mexican-American War. The city became symbolically “the halls of Montezuma,” which were then immortalized in the Marine Hymn. The Marines have ever since been known as America’s elite forces, “the few, the proud, the brave.”

 

 

Finally, on this day in 1901, 117 years ago, President William McKinley was assassinated, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president, becoming the youngest man to serve as president. He maintained that distinction until John F. Kennedy became president in 1961.

 

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

 

Man of Arms, Man of Faith

James I. Robertson Jr. wrote one of the best and most exhaustive biographies of Thomas J. Jackson available. In it, he summarized Jackson’s life as being a balance of two callings, as a man of arms and a man of faith in God. Many people have readily recognized Jackson’s military genius, especially his “master of two of the greatest elements for victory in war–surprise and envelopment. . . .” Fewer, however, are willing to acknowledge the role of faith in his life, preferring (if they mention it at all) to belittle it as a perceived eccentricity.

But Dr. Moses Hoge, a contemporary of Jackson, declared, “To attempt to portray the life of Jackson while leaving out the religious element, would be like undertaking to describe Switzerland without making mention of the Alps.”

Jackson left the military after the Mexican War and entered a career in education at Virginia Military Institute. But he proved to be only a mediocre teacher. Perhaps his greatest deficiency in that career was that he knew only one way of teaching. If a student didn’t understand something, Jackson simply repeated his original explanation. He did not know to vary his teaching methods to suit the students’ individual learning styles. Consequently, his teaching was less than stellar, and he became the brunt of student jokes. His expertise was in military leadership.

But the real strength of Jackson’s life was his religious faith, which permeated every aspect of his life, including the military aspects. It was not something that he reserved only for Sunday worship services or tacked on only when he faced difficulties and dangers. He did not treat God and faith as a spare tire, reserved only for emergency use; it was an integral part of his daily life. His self-disciplined and consistent practice of daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer was as much a part of his routine as was his disciplined study of the elements on the battlefield and of artillery.

The practice of prayer he did not reserve for merely saying a perfunctory blessing before his meals. He engaged in it throughout the day. For example, he prayed for his students before they entered his classroom. He prayed over his lesson preparations. He breathed an ejaculatory petition before mailing any letter and again before opening one he had received. And he prayed before and during his battle planning. Even unreligious fellow generals, such as Richard S. Ewell, knew that they would not get answers to their questions about his plan of battle until after Jackson had bathed the matter in prayer. (Incidentally, Ewell later came to a saving knowledge of Christ as a result of the testimony of Jackson’s life.)

Because Jackson’s faith was a normal and permanent part of every day and every action, he could trust God to keep and preserve and empower him for every action he was to undertake. And that faith gave him great confidence, not in himself or his own abilities but in God Himself. Consequently, he seemed fearless, even in the face of mortal dangers on the battlefield.

It was in such circumstances on the field at Manassas that he was given the nickname that remains associated with his name to this day: “Stonewall.” When someone questioned how he could be so fearless in combat, he replied that his faith in God’s providence was so fixed that he felt as safe on the battlefield as he did at home in his own bed. Even when it came time to die, he was calm and confident in his God’s wise providence. In that confidence (a word that means, incidentally, “with faith”), he “cross[ed] over and rest[ed] in the shade of the trees” of eternity.

May God grant us the ability to express and live such faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Thirteen Days Later. . . .

In our finite sense of time and events, we often lose our sense of perspective. We often mentally compress time and events without realizing that much more happened in the intervening time span than we think. Such it is with the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

We recently commemorated the June 6, 1944, Allied landings on Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches that began the push that brought down the Third Reich. We then somehow jump mentally from the carnage along the beaches and cliffs of Normandy to the joining of U.S. and Russian forces at the Elbe, forgetting the long struggle that occurred among the hedgerows of the bocage, around the Falaise Gap, and in the fields of Belgium. We pause to recall the German surprise at the Bulge, but otherwise we tend to forget what took place between the initial clash on D-day and the celebrations of V-E Day.

On this date in history, June 19, 1944, my Uncle Dillon Summers had his own landing on Omaha Beach. He, a lowly, unassuming corporal, and the rest of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division assembled in a predesignated marshaling area, fired registration rounds from their 105 and 155 mm mobile gun platforms, and almost immediately engaged enemy targets. As they did so, the beaches were still under fire from German artillery. Thirteen days after the much-celebrated D-day landings.

Thirteen days later. That should tell us something about how hard the fighting was after the initial landings.

To identify the enemy artillery pieces that were raining death and destruction on U.S. troops on Omaha Beach, the 391st AFA had forward observers (FOs) who crept to the front-most edges of the battlefield, noted the location of the enemy guns, and radioed the coordinates back to the U.S. artillerists, who then unleashed their own death blows to the offending German artillery.

Uncle Dillon was one of the few soldiers assigned to get the FOs to that forward edge. Many such tank drivers, and even more FOs, never made it back. Dillon was wounded and won two Bronze Stars for valor while doing his job, and he made it back. He and others like him enabled the Allies, one enemy artillery piece and one enemy troop concentration at a time, to defeat a powerful, diabolical enemy.

That’s usually how it is. Whereas we often hear of the exploits of the generals and commemorate the single-day actions of divisions, we sadly forget that it is the grueling, day-to-day work of thousands of anonymous, unsung individual heroes who just faithfully do their jobs that make those big victories possible.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life? A teacher? A preacher? A parent?

Are you an unsung hero to someone because you are faithfully and consistently doing your job? Are your daily actions making it possible for someone else to gain victory in his or her life?

Someone may be watching and learning from your life. They might look upon you as their hero.

Think about it!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.

That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.

Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.

Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.

 

 

Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.

As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)

 

Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.

But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.

Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Assessing Davis’s Cabinet Members

“Although the members of the Confederate cabinet were, as individuals, talented and capable men, they were not particularly effective. The cabinet really never worked well together as a team. Some of them did not stay in office long enough to be effective. Others, arguably, were not effective because they stayed too long.”

(Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, p. 24)

Meditations on a Motto

For quite some time now, I’ve been researching my uncle’s World War II military service experiences. One of the most interesting findings was the motto of his unit, but more about that later. Since his and many other veterans’ records were destroyed in the St. Louis repository fire in the 1970s, I’ve had to piece together fragments of his experiences from other sources, tracing his steps through histories of the units of which he was a part.*

In the process, I’ve run across a lot of interesting details showing how and why those units deserve more credit than they have heretofore garnered. For example, the 3rd Armored Division fired the first shells into Germany, was the first unit to set foot on German soil, and advanced an amazing 102 miles in 24 hours, the longest such advance in history, and that against stiff German resistance. The 3rd AD also was responsible for capturing the largest number of enemy soldiers in two separate pincer movements that closed German escape routes in the Falaise Pocket (1944) and the Ruhr Pocket (1945).

The 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd AD spent a record 239 days in active combat and fired 170,100 rounds, the greatest number of any unit in the 3rd AD. The 391st AFA awarded 28 Silver Stars and 133 Bronze Stars, six of them Oak Leaf Clusters (including one to my uncle).

Despite these achievements, the 3rd AD was (and continues to be) overshadowed by the 1st AD, commanded by the flamboyant, bombastic, and self-promoting General George Patton. Patton’s men did achieve much, and he proudly made sure that people knew of those accomplishments. The soldiers of the 3rd AD, on the other hand, quietly went about their deadly tasks and left grandstanding to others. They surely are the unsung heroes of World War II.

But what about that motto, the detail from my research that most profoundly struck my attention? The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion was “Honor Before Honors.” They achieved much as a fighting force, but, overlooked and overshadowed as they were, the men quietly and humbly returned after the war and “got on with life,” never making a big deal of what they had done or experienced. (As a kid, I never recall my uncle’s talking about any of his war experiences, and that despite all the carnage he witnessed and the two Bronze Stars he had won.)

The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion came to my mind as I was reading my Bible recently and came across Proverbs 15:33: “Before honor is humility.”

A lot of people want the honors, but few have the honor (character) or the humility that is prerequisite to it. They want to receive the accolades of men without having done anything worthy of the honors. They want the bragging rights but not the character required to deserve that right or to handle it appropriately. On the other hand, as commentator Matthew Henry stated, “Where there is humility there is a happy presage of honour and preparative for it.”

The men of the 391st won honors because they had learned and prepared themselves to wage a brave fight that would make a difference to the greater cause, regardless of who got the credit. The 3rd AD was called the Spearhead and led the assault into Nazi Germany but only because they had proven themselves in earlier combat. The 391st AFA Btn. was the point of that spearhead. My uncle (kneeling on his M3 Lee medium tank in the photo), was a driver for a forward observer of that unit. Because he took his forward observer to the very front of the battle, the place of greatest danger, he was surely the tip of that point.

If the motto “Honor before honors” is true for a military combat unit, it is even more applicable to the spiritual condition of individuals today. How honorable and humble are we? Are we deserving of hearing our Lord’s “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”? Food for thought!

* [Sources searched include Spearhead in the West (history of the 3rd Armored Division); Combat History of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Battle History of “A” Battery, 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Armored Attack 1944; Armored Victory 1945; volumes 5 and 7 of the “Green Books,” the official government history U.S. Army in World War II; and many lesser-known publications.]

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

Two Historic Victories

On this date in history, March 7, 1945, two U.S. armored divisions achieved momentous victories, hastening the end of World War II in Europe.

The 3rd Armored Division captured Cologne on the Rhine River. My uncle was a tank driver for one of the three forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion in that division, which was nicknamed Spearhead. But the assault on that German city, as dangerous and destructive as it was, was a mere sideshow to the big show, so to speak. It kept German forces occupied and unable to send support to other German troops a few miles farther south, where an even greater victory occurred.

The 9th Armored Division achieved that victory: the capture of the Ludendorf Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen.

American troops never expected to find that railroad bridge intact. After all, all other bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed, either by American air power or by the Germans themselves in their attempt to slow the American juggernaut. Seeing the bridge still standing, the Americans worked desperately to get enough troops across it to establish a bridgehead before the Germans could destroy it.

The location of German forces on the heights on the eastern bank of the Rhine above the town of Remagen gave them a clear field of sight for ten miles. The German soldiers there had received orders to fight to the last man and to blow up the bridge to prevent American troops from crossing it. They kept the Americans under intense fire while engineers worked feverishly to set explosives to destroy the bridge.

But many of the Germans were convalescents, soldiers who had been wounded and were still recovering. Their commander had requested reinforcements, but none arrived. As they set about wiring the bridge with explosives, however, they realized that the explosives that they had been sent were industrial rather than military explosives. When they detonated them, the resulting explosions did not have the force necessary to topple the structure. Although damaged, the bridge remained intact, thereby allowing the Americans to send across infantrymen. American engineers, including future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, worked feverishly to strengthen the bridge to allow the passage of heavy armor to support the troops who were already crossing the bridge.

German troops manning machine guns in twin towers on the eastern end of the bridge were killed or captured by American infantrymen. Other German soldiers took refuge in a tunnel behind the towers, but German civilians, including many women and children, were also hiding in the tunnel. When the civilians began suffering casualties, they demanded that the German officers let them surrender. While the officers debated their request, the civilians surrendered without permission, and many of the German soldiers abandoned their weapons and joined them. The officers had no choice but to surrender as well. American troops established the bridgehead and kept the drive to Berlin alive and active.

Ironically, the bridge collapsed under its own weight (perhaps with the help of vibrations from the heavy armored vehicles that roared across it and numerous attempts by the Luftwaffe to destroy it) ten days later, on March 17.

Photos of the cathedral of Cologne, standing high above the ruins of the rest of the city, and the Ludendorf Bridge’s towers at Remagen are among the most iconic images that exist of World War II in Europe. The men who were involved in the capture of both landmarks deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice and service in helping to hasten the end of the war, which came two months later.