By Master Sgt. Crista Mary Mack, U.S. Army EuropeMarch 26, 2017
NIERSTEIN, Germany - On a clear moonlit March 1945 night, U.S. Army combat engineers stepped onto an amphibious craft and quietly crossed the Rhine River at Nierstein, completing the first historic crossing of the Rhine, a strategic move advancing Allied troops towards the end of
World War II.
Although an action of war, this historic moment was memorialized as a symbol of the bonds of two nations, then enemies, now steadfast allies, Mar. 25 with a joint commemoration ceremony at the very spot the first boat landed, featuring the unveiling of a memorial with both German and U.S. flags flanking.
"The theme of the ceremony was bridging the gap between nations and generations," Lt. Col. Thomas Clark, an engineer from U.S. Army Europe who synchronized USAREUR's support for marking the memorial, said. "The event brings together the German and American communities and this crossing was really the beginning of democratic Germany, after the Nazi regime was defeated."
In attendance were many distinguished visitors and contributors to the project, including Robert Shelado, the last living Nierstein crossing veteran, a German World War II veteran and Helen Patton and Catherine Rommel, the granddaughters of U.S. Army Gen. George Patton and the granddaughter of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. All four participated in the unveiling of the monument together.
"The monument is not only a testimonial to the 249th Engineer combat battalion, it's also when people from two different parts of the world separated by thousands of miles worked together harmoniously," said Gerry McCarthy, president of the 249th Engineer Battalion Association from the U.S. while addressing the audience. "It's an achievement, a testimonial to how that can be done to accomplish this great project."
Together with Walter Kissel, President of the 249th Engineer Battalion Association - Europe and Nierstein resident, City of Nierstein Mayor Thomas Gunther and financial support from both sides of the ocean, the monument and event were made reality.
"I would like to praise the many efforts of the many folks on both sides of the Atlantic that have worked quietly behind the scenes and have made considerable effort in funds to make this memorial a reality," said U.S. Army Europe Brig. Gen. Phillip Jolly, deputy commanding general for Mobilization and Reserve Affairs, who addressed the crowd at the ceremony. "For over 70 years, forces from the United States and Germany have jointly served, building bridges and building relationships," said Jolly. "They show us what hard work and dedication can accomplish when we strive together for a common goal."
Also speaking at the event were Guenter Kern, Secretary of State, Rhineland Palitinate, Luci Schey, President Ralph and Luci Schey Foundation, and Klaus Schick, Chief Administrator Mainz-Bingen District. Presentations were given to and by Robert Shelato, Rhine River Crossing veteran, who personally detailed the events of crossing to the crowd, and to Lt. Col. Julie Balten, commander 249th Engineer Battalion.
In addition to the unveiling of the monument, the ceremony featured static displays of current and historic Engineer and amphibious U.S. and German equipment, a flyover of vintage Piper aircraft from time period, a ceremonial crossing of the Rhine and a second ceremony for the Kornsand Nazi Victims Memorial, six political sympathizers executed by the Wehrmacht for assisting the Allies.
"Although there is not a physical bridge today, this monument is a testament to the importance of building bridges with our actions and partnerships," said Clark. "This is a great opportunity to recognize the engineers that have gone before us, a critical point in World War II, and our continued partnership with Germany."
When they reached the shore, the now historic assault established the beachhead and enabled four more river crossings immediately following across the region. After the crossing, U.S. engineers built a bridge across the Rhine.
"In a mere 18 hours, a 330 foot bridge was successfully in place across the rapidly flowing Rhine… built at this very location where we are standing," said McCarthy. "The speed with which this bridge and the other three bridges was completed undoubtedly contributed to an early ending of the war, thus saving many lives on both sides of the conflict."
The static display at the event featured historic and present day equipment utilized by the German and U.S. armies, including soldiers and equipment from the Bundeswehr Panzer Battalion 101 and the U.S. Army Reserve 361st Multi-Role Bridge company from Georgia.
"Before we were adversaries during World War II, and now we do all our missions here in Europe, especially crossing rivers, with the Bundeswehr," said Clark, referring to the present day relationship between engineer units of both militaries. "The 130th Panzer Engineer Battalion has been instrumental for us crossing major rivers in operations and exercises here in Europe and it's great to be working with them to mark this significant and important event."
The ceremony concluded with a literal crossing of the Rhine on a barge to a second dedication on the far side to recognize the Kornsand Nazi victims.
About Us: U.S. Army Europe is uniquely positioned in its 51-country area of responsibility to advance American strategic interests in Europe and Eurasia. The relationships built during the more than 1,000 theater security cooperation events, held in more than 40 countries each year, lead directly to support for multinational contingency operations around the world, strengthen regional partnerships and enhance global security.