Spring Picnic by the Rhine

Published 3:14 pm Friday, April 16, 2010

Chapter 5

As the winter of 1945 gradually merged into early spring, German resistance to the advance of American troops through the western part of Germany seemed to become a defense of slightly different character. &bsp;

Fixed defensive battles seemed not to occur; instead there were frequent brief encounters, often mobile in character, between smaller groups. Although the allied forces continued to pursue the Germans, there seemed to be defensive positions planned only to deter any rapid American movement. &bsp;

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Even to the uninformed troops on the ground, it soon became apparent that the Germans were striving to reach and cross the Rhine for protection on the eastern side of the river.

This policy achieved a fair degree of success for the Germans. As the allied troops reached the Rhine, they typically found no feasible way to cross since the fleeing Nazi forces had destroyed every bridge as they fled to the east. &bsp;

A seven man patrol from our sister regiment, the 379th, crossed the skeleton of the badly damaged Adolf Hitler Brucke at Uerdingen.&bsp; They returned to the west bank of the river in urgent haste to report that the bridge faced nearly immediate collapse. Indeed, the steel frame fell into the river just a few hours later. &bsp;

Only one other weakened bridge survived in the whole course of the rivers path through Germany; that bridge allowed the American troops a few brief hours of use before it too collapsed.

We reached Rheinhausen, an apparently undamaged residential enclave just across the river from the industrial Ruhr pocket. Our approach was along an attractive boulevard incorporating a landscaped area down the center with apartment houses, four or five stories high, along each flank.

The street reached a dead end against similar buildings facing a street parallel to the river on our side but overlooking the Rhine itself on the opposite face. We could go no further; the Rheinhausen bridge had been destroyed even before we arrived. &bsp;

What a physical and financial waste war really is.

We had traveled along the boulevard in a convoy of seven jeeps and a few trucks, enjoying the sunlight of a cheerful early spring day, facing no enemy troops; they all had fled across the Rhine before destroying the last bridges.&bsp; We could continue no further so our driver pulled the jeep into the grass of the center divider. Other jeeps and trucks parked against the side curbs of the roadway. &bsp;

There were no German citizens to be seen (we seldom saw any civilians I dont know where they went). Almost all the soldiers trooped into the vacated apartments to heat their rations but I chose instead not to go indoors. The air was pleasant, the sun was shining, there were no enemy troops around. &bsp;

I climbed up onto the hood of the jeep, opened my crackers and cheese, crossed my knees, and prepared to enjoy a spring picnic lunch. In war though, you never know what might happen next. &bsp;

A few hundred feet ahead toward the river, an American Piper Cub artillery observation plan appeared from just above the apartments to my right and seemed to dive toward the ground. I thought, What is that idiot doing? but the question was soon tragically answered.&bsp; Two German fighter planes probably Messerschmidts appeared from behind me with machine guns in full fire flying diagonally toward the Piper. &bsp;

Hundreds of bullets must have hit the small craft; the cloth covering burned away in a flash, the pilot and the observer were clearly visible for a brief second, then the entire assemblage of men and machine fell to the pavement about a hundred feet ahead of me.

I jumped from the jeeps hood, seized the fire extinguisher from between the two front seats and ran toward the twisted wreckage.&bsp; Suddenly there was an explosion followed by flames, and that quickly, there was nothing left to run toward but ashes. &bsp;

I stopped, turned, and returned to the jeep and my lunch. That jeep never moved again and, indeed, never left that spot. &bsp;

There were by actual count, if memory serves me right, eighty-four bullet holes in the radiator and engine block.&bsp; We rode away a few hours later in the back of one of the trucks to the motor pool depot to collect a new jeep for the next part of our trip. &bsp;

I will never know how I survived that lunch nor, oddly enough, will I ever remember how I crossed the Rhine.