By Mr. Dave Melancon (Europe)March 12, 2010
On March 7 Charles Aldieri celebrated his 85th birthday in a restaurant on the west side of the Rhine River here. The restaurant owner gave him a drink on the house.
His reception here 65 years ago was decidedly less friendly. As a 20-year-old corporal and tank driver assigned to Company A, 746th Tank Battalion, 9th Infantry Division, Aldieri celebrated his birthday in 1945 on the other side of the river dodging German bullets and artillery.
This week Aldieri joined eight of his World War II comrades-in-arms at the Peace Museum at Remagen's famed bridge to unveil a plaque honoring the 9th Infantry Division and its assigned and attached units for their service and sacrifice during the bridge's capture and for securing the allied positions on the east side of the river.
An audience of about 200 U.S. and Belgian veterans, Remagen residents, German Soldiers and veterans' family members gathered for the commemoration.
The 9th Armored Division captured and held the span -- officially known as the Ludendorff Bridge -- March 7, 1945. After a night-long road march, the 9th Infantry crossed the bridge and expanded the bridgehead.
Historians say that the bridge's capture and the allies' quick push across the Rhine helped shorten the war in Europe by at least six months.
"I have thoughts about guys dying while crossing that bridge," Aldieri said after the unveiling ceremony. "I think God was with me."
"They assembled here in Remagen -- under fire. They crossed the river -- under fire. They advanced into the bridgehead on the other side -- under fire," said keynote speaker Andrew Denison, director of Transatlantic Networks, a research group based in KAfAPnigswinter, Germany. "They lost their lives -- under fire. They saw their bodies broken, blasted by concussion, cut by burning steel; these young men in a faraway place, a place that saw horror in those days, a place the survivors would never forget."
Soldiers from the 9th Armored and the1st, 9th, 78th and 99th Infantry Divisions fought their way across the Rhine for the 10 days until the bridge's collapse, Denison said.
"Worth its weight in gold, reckoned the supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower," he continued. "Then the bridge collapsed into the cold, dark Rhine, taking 28 young men with it. The bridge gone, but the crossing accomplished, Allied forces found themselves favorably poised for the final push, deep into the German heartland."
Other speakers included Hans Peter KAfA1/4rten, former Remagen mayor and founder of the Remagen Bridge Peace Museum (Friedensmuseum BrAfA1/4cke von Remagen) and Col. Jeffrey W. Dill, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden.
"The Soldiers charged forward on the cold, brittle bridge not knowing that in 10 days the entire bridge would collapse. They charged forward not knowing that in four months, that victory would be declared," Dill said.
"As a commissioned officer of infantry, I recognize the sacrifices those brave men must have made charging forward," he said.
"It is a pleasure being back without anything to worry about or bullets being shot at you," said former Pvt. Henry Geary, Company L, 47th Infantry Regiment.
Looking across the Rhine to the towers standing on the eastern side, Geary said he was thinking about the veterans' place in history and their legacy to future generations.
"You look back at what you did in history. How much more can we pass down to the kids'" he asked. "You get a lot of memories that come back from the war."
Sixty-five years ago, the 15th Engineer Battalion was part of the 9th Infantry Division column. For a few hours during the ceremony, the Schweinfurt-based unit rejoined its former parent unit.
"The history of my battalion is the history of the 9th Infantry Division, said Lt. Col. David Hurley, the battalion's commanding officer. "From World War I through Vietnam until the inactivation of the division in 1991, the campaign streamers on our colors are those of the 9th Infantry Division."
Seven of those streamers, including one representing the Rhineland Campaign, are from World War II, reflecting "our shared service and our shared heritage." The 15th Engineers also earned a Presidential Unit Citation for their role in the Battle of Remagen.
The division's nickname -- "Old Reliable" -- is still the battalion's official greeting, Hurley said.
"Everything we are in the Army today is thanks to our veterans and their example of duty and sacrifice," Hurley said.
Battalion Command Sgt. Maj Bradley Houston said one of his personal goals at the event was to collect each veteran's signature. Staff Sgt. Michael Seelow and Spc. Ryan Panosh, the 15th's NCO of the Year and Soldier of the Year, accompanied Hurley to the ceremony and spent the afternoon talking with the veterans of the 9th.
"Their service is beyond words," Houston said. "It is awe inspiring to meet them."
"This is an important occasion for history and for the people who follow who do not know," said Jack Jewell a former first lieutenant with Company B, 39th Infantry.
The capture of the Remagen Bridge "hastened the conclusion of the war," he said. "Many lives were saved because of this bridge. Many lives were lost, but in the total picture, many were saved."