| On the evening of March 22,
1945 General George S. Patton's forces were fronting the last major obstacle
to the heart of Germany, the Rhine River. Although a bridge had been captured
some weeks before at Remagen, and a bridge-head tenuously held, this was
to be the first river assault crossing of this famous stream since Caesar's
General Patton had been goading his troops to get to the Rhine with more than his usual zeal. Only later was the reason for such extra drive revealed. He knew that this arch-rival, the detested Field Marshal Montgomery was mounting an extensively planned assault further downstream for the night of March 23 and Patton wanted this plum for his credits.
At the final coordinating conference for this action just before dark, it was revealed that the engineers responsible for the crossing were to be augmented by a variety of supporting units. Included, in addition to extra bridging suppliers, were smoke generators, anti-aircraft and field artillery, special units trained in protective boom construction (a must based on recent Remagen experience) and more importantly , a U.S. Navy Detachment of L.C.V.P.'s (Landing Craft, Vehicles and Personal) for working in the strong Rhine current.
The bridge location, long before established by the Third Army Staff, was to be an existing ferry site near the villages of Neirstein-Oppenheim, just south of Mainz. A river harbor with a river-side levee provided some protection from opposing direct fire for assemblage of the equipment.
The plan, conventional for such action but on a considerably larger scale then before, was to ferry the infantry across in small row boats for stealth in overcoming bank side defenses, then to follow with a build-up to provide a protective shield for construction of a bridge. Once reasonably secure, the bridging could be started. It was scheduled for 3:00 A. M., a few hours after the assault started.
A disturbing bit of news at the conference was that the landing craft were still en route but having trouble making some of the short turns at the masonry cornered streets, typical of many German Villages. Some houses had to be destroyed before the long loads could get through.
The bridging equipment of the era, called the floating Treadway, was comprised of 30 foot pneumatic rubber floats each supporting two steel beams spaced to accommodate the treads of a tank. These only 12 foot sections floated into position, pinned together for articulation, and properly anchored, could support the 35 ton Sherman Tank. It was a hairy and undulating passage with floats at times under water surface.
Pre-assemble of the sections-one inflated float, two treads, necessary pins, etc. making up one truck load, had already started in the cover of a forest to the rear.
At the conference it was decided that the landing craft would be given priority on placement in the water to hasten build-up of troops on the far side. Two were to be assigned to the bridge assemble.
A complication arose. How could the bridge be properly anchored under these conditions? The approach was to be at a former, and still active, stone paved ferry slip which was just at the end of the harbor outlet. Near shore anchorage by long steel cable sections at about half way across.
It was decided that the bridge would have to be assembled from the far to the near shore - not conventional but do-able.
The initial crews and equipment, minimized as exploratory to determine extent of any opposition and to avoid any appreciable losses of either, were in position to move to the harbor by H hour. Most of the landing craft had arrived but alas, not the unloading crane. At the harbor, after some head-scratching, it was decided to cut a ramp through the stone revetment by dozer, slide the craft off there carriers and push them in with the dozer.
Amidst cries by the Navy commander of "You can't do that to my hulls", the craft were soon in the water. Concurrently assemble of rafts consisting of two sections of bridging was underway. There were to be 41 such rafts to bridge the 972 foot gap.
The first raft was towed across amidst splattering of water from poorly directed artillery. On arrival, the leader, sensing possible complications, decided he'd better check the surrounding houses to ensure that no observers brought in more effective artillery fire - especially with dawn and bettered visibility approaching.
The convoy of enemy artillery spotters he overcame were either too surprised to react or disconsolate with their position and as dawn came on so did the obscuring smoke screen to inhibit further observation.
The smoke was effective except for the never before seen first jet aircraft the German Me 262. They heckled the operation all day but their speed and apparently inexperienced pilots resulted in only one hit but the damage was quickly repaired.
Later, we found their source. Deep in a forested area, a single assembly track ended at a nearby autobahn. Once assembled, it was assumed, a pilot was told to go up and take out the Neirstein Bridge. Consistent over and under dropping of its armament indicated the pilot's unappreciation of the jet speed.
At 6.00 p.m. the last connecting pin was in place and the armor started rolling across. It was like the fast lane on an Interstate.
During all this time the protective barriers were going in. They were in three separate bans stretching at an angle across the river well upstream. Floated by 55 gallon oil drums and intended to deflect or stop any damaging barge. The second was a single cable also floated with concertina barbed wire on top and wire mesh suspended to thwart any swimmer from going over or under The third was a series of three log booms, lashed together by wire cables and expendable if a surface floating mine should hit them. Along this stretch of river there were also low level artillery and sharpshooters to take out any floating identifiable, large or small.
The always active Rhine had a number of sunken barges abandoned along its banks. Its rapid change of water elevation dictated orders to ensure that all such flotsam be securely tied down. Unfortunately, not all were. The first sight at dawn on the 24th was a disturbing "S" wave in the bridge. A barge below the lower boom had re-floated and found its way into fouling the anchorage and leaning against the bridge.
There were some tense moments in re-establishing proper anchorage.
Also that night there was another near tragedy. Two "Gamma" swimmers, men in rubber diving suits, were apprehended coming out of the water, hands aloft.
They professed to be an especially trained under-water demolition team. That they had gotten into the water several miles up stream, with magnetic mines, cut them off and float on down to see the bridge destroyed.
Fortunately, the anti-personnel boom diverted them. That memorable day was heightened by the presence of the ubiquitous General Patton. Overlooking the traffic moving across, his query was "Where is my third bridge?" ( There was a second finished a few hours after the first a half mile downstream)" I ordered three bridges and I see only two."
Needless to say, there was more action but only for a day or two while a third bridge was put in - only to be rarely used because the whirl storm of action was passed on.
The remainder of the war was anti-climactic. Six weeks of clearing fallen trees along the roadways and replacing an occasional destroyed bridge - all by the die hard German Schutz -Staffel (S.S.) brought us to the Czechoslovakian border.
Here, barely in the country, there was a jubilant spirit such as had prevailed come months before as France was being crossed.