It was a nice morning on the Rhine — warm, hazy, a breeze. I remember it that way and have checked the weather records to make sure I’m not idealizing it after 67 years.
I was sweeping horse manure from a Bailey bridge that my outfit, the 1251st Combat Engineer Battalion, had built from Neuss to Dusseldorf. A major driving by in a jeep pulled up, leaned toward me across the passenger seat, and said before I could free my hand to salute him, “It’s over, son.”
I went numb. I’d been expecting it, but couldn’t believe it.
“Going to celebrate?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. We’ve saved up some beer and schnapps.”
He looked at me as if I were young for that and sat back up at the wheel. “Make sure you clear that horse shit first,” he said.
In 1939, when World War II started, 47 rail and road bridges spanned the Rhine River in Germany. By March 1945, when we reached the river, 46 had been destroyed and the one still standing, at Remagen, was near collapse.
Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were across the river, fighting 100 miles and more to the east, needing supplies. The solution was a Bailey bridge, the brainstorm of Donald Bailey, a British tinkerer who invented a modular bridge supported by 570-pound, 10-foot-long steel panels that six men could hand carry and set into place without resorting to cranes or special tools. The bridge, about 900 feet long in my memory’s eye, had short spans on either side, with the long central portion resting on pontoons.
We had the bridge up and operating around the clock in five days, whereupon I was sent to a pontoon with my rifle to shoot at explosives we were warned the Germans would float downstream at us. I shot up empty cartons, toys, rowboats, and corpses, which I poked aside and allowed to continue down the river, but no mines came. The Germans were giving up.
Behind me on the bridge’s wood planks, supply trucks, tanks, jeeps, and command cars rolled eastward toward the front 22 hours a day. The other two hours, between 5 and 7 in the morning, Germans who had fled east from our advancing armies were returning — to what, they could not know. Every morning, whatever the weather, they came in droves, on foot, aboard carriages drawn by spent, whipped, desperate horses, on the backs of chugging trucks powered by charcoal from burning, stinking old wood. With them were possessions, often surreal and burdensome, they had fled with: rosewood china cupboards and dining tables, oak four-poster beds, even grand pianos — symbols of a culture that was perishing, borne back to homes that probably no longer existed, to share with family and friends that only perhaps were still alive.
The parade would stagger up the gravel incline on the west bank, some pausing to rest, but we forced them on. Back in April, a 5-year-old boy had graciously accepted a chocolate bar from a corporal from Kentucky, slipped off to eat it, and had a leg blown off by a German mine we had failed to clear. I heard it happen — the mine’s pop, a pause hanging with horror, the mother’s screams, the shouting for the ambulance that was always standing by.
I stayed on the pontoon, obeying orders. Anyway, there would be no time for sympathy. Back down the road, the tanks were waiting for the bank to clear.
It is commonly believed we don’t talk much about our war experiences because we want to avoid reliving them or upsetting people. This is so, but there is another reason. We believe that no one who wasn’t there can understand.
On our first day in basic training, a grizzled first sergeant lined us up under a cold Georgia sun and told us our first job was to forget everything we thought we knew about war, the Army, and ourselves. Now, I feel I must say much the same thing to people who ask me about my service in World War II. The prevailing version is myth. We were not fighting for peace and justice, but to survive and come home. We were not all angels of mercy or the Germans all hard-core killers. We were rarely brave and thought it a fluke when we were. The Army was not a well-oiled, efficient machine, but from top to bottom constantly making ridiculous mistakes.
The word “snafu,” which started life as an acronym for “situation normal: all fucked up,” was born in World War II. Snafus twice saved me from devastating combat. The first happened in January 1945 when the major commanding our battalion got lost and led us to orchards in Brittany rather than to battle in Belgium; the second a little afterward when higher headquarters couldn’t locate us and sent the 1252nd into battle instead.
Do I feel guilty? I don’t think I do. So much is chance. Dumb luck, good and bad. In June, after the war, I got a five-day pass to Paris. When I returned, a Polish boy we’d adopted ran up to me weeping and shouting, “Italiano kaput! Italiano kaput!” Johnny Cisco from Brooklyn, who’d taken over my guard duty when I was away, had been killed by a falling tree. He’d just been sitting there, on a low cement wall in front of our billets, his rifle and helmet beside him, and the tree, probably weakened by shrapnel, fell on him.
But beautiful things happened too, most of all our coming together with the Germans, as individuals. Allied bombing, much of it deliberate terror bombing, killed 500,000 German civilians. The Germans had tried it out at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, saw the possibilities, and so followed it up at Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London. We upped the ante big and reduced 45 of Germany’s 60 cities to rubble. In the Rhineland, some of our outfits leveled towns that didn’t hang out white sheets fast enough.
I don’t write this to denigrate us. It will happen again and again until we decide to solve differences without war. I was all for it at the time.
We expected them to hate us and we gloried and strutted at the prospect of our hating them. Once there it all changed.
There’s a story that encapsulates the way we looked at things. It tells how Shelly Sanders (name changed to protect the lucky), a fellow private first class, from Pittsburgh, became the first G.I. in the 1251st to go home.
Shelly was 19, tall, intense, and awkward, as I was. Unlike me, he just had to have a German pistol for a souvenir. He bought a small-caliber Luger from a Polish D.P. (displaced person) who came by every week or so selling them and an ammunition load for five packs of Chesterfields, which we got for 3 cents a pack and sometimes for free.
Accompanied by his new toy, Shelly, a virgin, went off to lose his cherry to a girl named Ursula. After what, he was to tell me then, and repeat 50 years later, would ever remain the most wonderful experience of his life, he woke up beside her, reached languidly on the bedside table for his watch, and shot his hand.
Ursula was 17. As they made love, Shelly noticed she wore a locket with a picture of her husband, a German soldier who’d been killed in Russia. She got up, kissed him, cleaned and bandaged his wound, gave him a sausage and a knife to cut it, and sent him off to the nearest American hospital, where they put him in a ward among G.I.s wounded in battle.
A bit later, a major and a sergeant appeared with a clipboard and a bucket of Purple Hearts, the country’s medal for warriors wounded in combat. They went from bed to bed, the sergeant recording each soldier’s name, rank, serial number, and outfit while the major scooped out a medal, pinned it to the G.I.’s pajamas, saluted, told him his country would be forever grateful, and moved on to the next bed. I can picture Shelly to this day, his eager face with its striving, unauthorized mustache, grinning as he snapped off a return salute.
It was via this process that Shelly was awarded a Purple Heart, which was worth months in demobilization points and got him home way before the rest of us. No one in the battalion or among the battle-wounded men in his ward, to whom he confessed, blamed him for accepting the medal. On the contrary, they hatched a party for him before he left. The joke of the moment was that Shelly had been mentally unbalanced by bliss fatigue and so couldn’t help shooting himself.
We couldn’t stop laughing about the Army’s dilemma. Owning up to the real action in which Shelly sustained his wound would expose the utter failure of the policy of nonfraternization with the Germans. They were assuring wives, mothers, and prohibitionists on the home front that the policy was strictly enforced, when it was being thoroughly and blithely violated. An example: Whenever our company sergeant delivered the official shun-the-Hun warning, the company clerk would be nearby, handing out condoms.
When you think about it, how else could it be? We knew Nazis were still around, fawning and hating, and we wanted them punished. We didn’t forget the death camps or the massacre of G.I. prisoners at Malmedy. And we knew much of the German warmth and welcome was motivated by opportunism. We had food, they were starving. We had real coffee, theirs was ersatz. We had gasoline, tents, towels, booze, sulfa drugs, even toys and nylons, not to mention urban planners to get their water, trains, and electricity running again.
But something else essential to human survival was present in Neuss and the rest of Germany the U.S. then occupied. Its men and our women weren’t there. Our men and their women were there, tired of hating, exhausted from it. Hated-out, aching to touch one another.
It was a lot better than revenge.
Dedicated to Dr. Rheba de Tornyay, whose daily letters during the war kept me going.
Richard Rosenthal lives in East Hampton.