|(Names have been changed)
There I stood enchanted. Before me lay Schlosshausen, seconds before only a meaningless few words on a map where a job was to be done, now something out of a picture story book- a landscape painter's dream. In the foreground, almost at my feet it seemed were the postage stamp terraces of the southerly slope of a Moselle River stream long famous for their exquisite wines. Just beyond the onion bulb spire of the church with its tree bordered grave yard lay a cluster of white-washed houses with red tiled roofs, clinging to the precipitous near bank of the Morsdorfer River. At the far edge, the bridge, a graceful stone arch, rising a hundred feet or more above the clear waters and framing the lower houses of the village. Beyond the bridge were neatly patterned, vari-hued fields obviously leveled these many years by man's contribution to nature's endowment.
Suddenly it occurred to me that this was no time to be enjoying picturesque scenes, silhouetted as I was on the horizon so I hit the ground and started a more professional approach. Through field glasses I could see some of the narrow passage ways and a section of the only slightly wider road through the village to the bridge. I made plans for entering.
Our small part of the war had been progressing nicely in the last few days. General Patton's fast moving forces had covered the 100 miles or so between Trier and Koblenz with the Moselle as its right flank in 3 days. My job with a task force of a company of armored cavalry and one of combat engineers was to screen this action by surveillance, by outposting the flank and by destruction of approach bridges -all aimed toward warning or slowdown of any major attack from the South.
It had been a pleasant four days away from command harassment and marked by living off the land. An occasional liberated chicken or pig had been welcome relief from the usual K rations. Also by being outside the vortex of the armored advance we were greeted by sights akin to picnics when the local populace largely women and children delighted over their village having been spared, fell to ln good spirit in removing the earlier and defensively demanded log cribs, abatis (fallen tree barriers) and filling obstructive craters. There wag little doubt that they had been impressed earlier to put them in- and were now happier to provoke no destruction.
An occasional foray, I learned later, by some of our most savvy would be to an even more remote village where the burgermeister would be directed to collect all arms, cameras, field glasses within the hour. A beer or so later- the pick-up- no loot or looting only protecting the rear while incidentally acquiring a souvenir.
I radioed the command jeep to get a pair of light tanks and a squad of engineers ready to go and walked the 500 yards or so to the woods where the task force had taken cover. This looked like a routine takeover.
We moved out, my tank second, advancing by bounds keeping the lead tank in sight. At the edge of town not a person could be seen so I sent a foot patrol to move through the town to the bridge. As I stood behind a covering wall I noticed the town entrance sign, orange on black with the words "Schlossbach". A quick glimpse at my Michelin map showed that I couldn't be wrong. This must be Schlosthausen because there was no other village within 4 or 5 miles up or downstream.
Within an hour the patrol returned casually walking up the street. The sergeant stopped off at one of the houses and came out accompanied by a typical Rhineland farmer, boots sloppy jodphurlike pants and a nondescript jacket, about 60, probably the burgermeister, I thought.
On approaching me he braced himself, threw his shoulders back stopped a few paces in front, snapped his heels as the old soldier I correctly assumed him to be and reported himself to be the burgermeister, at my service, according to Oby Klein, my little Milwaukee translator.
I disregard him to get the results of the Recon. Sergeant Ellis reported that everyone was in cellars, that they had apparently seen us coming and had expected a softening barrage before we moved in. He also reported that the enemy, about 50 in number, had pulled out before dawn that morning. He had gone to the far side of the bridge and had encountered nothing.
I turned my attention to the still erect figure in front of me. Typical burgher, I thought - squat about five foot four inches, close cropped greying hair, florid almost cherubic face with a long aged scar along the right side of his neck. I addressed myself to him.
"You were in the last war?" I snapped in the manner his appearance evoked.
"Ya wohl, drei yahren in Verdun, Mein Capitan"
That exhausted my limited knowledge of German so I had Oby translate the rest.
"When did the soldiers leave?"
"Before dawn this morning"
"Ein und fumfzig mein Capitan"
Are they in position on the other side of the river?"
I don't think so, mein Capitan. I saw a column heading over the hills 5 or 6 kilometers from here as dawn broke"
OK, I said and told Oby to give him the routine pitch about collecting all firearms and cameras in the village, that I would have them picked up at four o'clock. I also informed him that my troops would be in soon and that they would need places to sleep and that myself and five officers would stay at his house.
Then his question, obviously one held been anxious to get in.
"Are you going to blow the bridge?"
I told him it was not our nature to indiscriminately blow up bridges, that it might be necessary however. With that I picked up the radio and directed Lieutenant Jackson to bring the column in, that the town was clear and to inform all troops that they would hold down the liberating.
As I turned to give more instructions to Sergeant Ellis I noticed the burgermeister still there, unmoved, evidently with more on his mind. After telling the sergeant to out post the far side of the bridge, I asked him what more he wanted.
Oby did not interrupt during the five minute discourse but when the burgermeister began to get overwrought stopped him to pass on the information. It seemed that the bridge was indeed a point of some need as well as pride. It had been built by Charlemagne in one of his campaigns. of about 800 A.D. which had resulted in the lifting of a siege of the old schloss or fortress now in ruins on the near bank. It appeared too that the stones from the fortress had been used for most of the village houses after its destruction in a siege by Barbarossa in about 1150 and that some scattered round stones still in the courtyard had been catapulted in during that siege. Further that the bridge had survived that siege and he would like to see it survive this action. More importantly tho was its vital current purpose. With all the arable land on its far side it was essential to the livelihood of the village.
This information I mentally filed as not being pertinent to the immediate mission.
The burgermeister excused himself and I sat down alongside the tank waiting arrival of the troops. Several groups went in and out of his house, presumably getting word on the gathering of arms. As the troops approached he came out of the house with a large roll of paper under his arm, proceeded to the town entrance sign and posted over it a crudely lettered replacement with the letters SCHLOSSHAUSEN. So this was the reason for the prior name confusion. Evidently the Germans, when they occupied the area in the late 1930's had changed the names of some of the villages as part of their Germanization program. The burgermeister was now showing his colors, obviously not Hitlerian, and I presumed a French shading of long disputed Rhineland.
Just before dark a check of the security dispositions led me to the bridge. I found it to be of more than casual interest. Its steeply sloped approach curved through a narrow defile to the near anchorage fused into a vine covered approach. It was only wide enough for a single vehicle and had ruts dished into the stone surface by centuries of passing wagons and carts.
A narrow three foot high masonry guard rail bounded the arched road surface with a semicircular projection outward at the crown of the arch. This appeared to be a place for pedestrians to stand by and allow carts to pass but I deduced its original purpose was to serve as a toll takers position. Intricate stone carvings faced the outer edges of the guard rail and remains of a gargoyle looked up and downstream at these toll takers projections.
After a little cutting of a weathered joint with my pocket knife it took no great archeological judgement to conclude that this was a natural stone arch, of stone precisely cut and emplaced with no mortar and with the entire strength reliant on the center crown block. Only a few blocks of explosive would dislodge this stone and the whole would crumble like a house of cards. It was indeed a master mason's craft work - a skill long forgotten.
As I sensed, our supper was not one begrudgingly prepared or served. Stimulating odors that had long been denied drifted from the wispy clouds over the huge cooking stove. At each place there appeared a liter bottle with its ceramic reusable stopper filled with thick dark tasty beer. A hardy potato soup, hardly exquisite by French tastes, set the tone for the huge bowls of greenery and meat that followed. Herr Burgermeister X. still anonymous by the conventions of warfare, hovered over us as he directed the ladies of the kitchen.
With the last plates removed, we stretched, patted bellies in reflection of satiation as he walked over to an intricately carved chest. obviously his domain, and pulled out two unlabeled clear bottles of some proudful product. With the sly look of a knowing man he set glasses before us and filled them carefully to the brim. It was a warm and warming, conviviality inducing Kirschwasser, no doubt home made and with the first taste my recently acquired reserve for anything German was cast aside and I insisted he join us.
Hesitantly he did so, and realizing that he felt somewhat apart from we of the conquering forces, we only exchanged knowing nods of mutual appreciation for his handiwork as we consumed the first bottle. I sensed an intense desire by both of us to communicate so directed myself to him.
It may be contended that there can be no communication without meaningful word exchanges but I can report that it can be done without them. With expressive emotion, arched motions of the arms for the "brucke" and a flat motion for the "felds". I was well apprised of the vital necessity of the bridge, of the tragedy to the villagers if it should be destroyed.
With the demise of the second bottle we. by now not unwelcome guests, were directed to our deep feather beds while the burgermeister and his covy found comfort, I suspected, in the shredded straw pile such as we'd slept in on preceding nights.
As I dropped fully clothed into the deep feathers of the rare comfort my thoughts were of the why. Why did I elect an architectural course a few years ago with all those late evening renditions while others of the frat were having fun? Why didn't I stay in college? Why did I elect Officer's Candidate School? Why was I here?
I reflected on the short few years at LaFayette College of' the support its namesake once lent- of the time when some freshman draftees arrived under sponsorship of the Armed Forces, the Army Specialized Training Program, as I recalled, and of my casual association with some of them.
As an upper classman an optional role was to welcome and assist in adjustment some of the young, now happier draftees. among whom I remembered a young Henry K. of German descent and whose motivation and intelligence stood out, evan though disappointed at not being immediately assigned to the liberation of his homeland.
My thoughts meandered through some past mental acquisitions such as the the intricate stone emplacements in corbeling of the ancient Roman Baths of Bath, England, of the advanced Roman skills in bridge and road construction- and here I was about to take out one of the remaining vestiges of that art and skill. Why should I, one who had aspired to preservation of such treasures be called on, not solely as a participant but in charge of such dastardly deed? Why couldn't it have happened to an economist or mortician?
Why - - - - - - - -
I'd hardly gone to sleep when Oby woke me up with the extension radio-phone held pulled in from the command jeep just outside my window. "TANTRUM 6 is on the horns Sir"
"Harris, Have you blown that bridge yet?"
"Well do it and quick. TORO has just developed some photo- Recon, made just before dark, and there are indications of a build-up 15 or 20 kilometers Southeast of your position. They are worried about this flank and you are on the most logical approach."
No questions no recourse.
"What a helluva war" I thought as I hooked up my field gear and reviewed the limited courses of action. Well, TANTRUM 6 was well named and I knew that if I did not do it, I'd be back there ramrodding a small part of the Red Ball Express through France in short order. I rationalized that if the main attack came through here I may not survive anyway, so since there may be little more I could endow to my unseen new daughter, Jane, than an extra effort to preserve this priceless antiquity decided we'd go for it.
This radical departure from the book. I mused was certainly no way to get to be a Major or hardly even a way to finish a war.
By 0300 I'd beefed up the far side defense forces, prepared the demo charges and had the 105 mm self propelled pieces zeroed in on the various reference points forward of our outposts. After some climbing about I positioned the machine gun and marveled at the way an instinct for survival leads the way to judgements so quickly acquired when one's life is at stake. It was on a prolongation of the bridge in the craggy cliffs, overlooking the crown and such that only a direct hit by mortar fire, and no doubt there would be some if we were attacked, could take out. Although there was barely room I took position alongside the light machine gun crew and young Pitts, the engineer with the detonator.
Our position was about on a level with the bridge crown and aside from the shadow cast by the guard rail on the moon-ward side and the toll takers projection we could see the entire upper arch road way in the soft moonglow.
The demo circuit was checked and the machine gun cleared for firing. Stupid, it occurred to me, when we could have blown the bridge and settled down for a rare and secure night's sleep.
Dawn and the arrival of a new day always dispels the uncertainties of darkness and offers renewed hope. Such were my thoughts with hope for another hour of tranquility when it started. Several rounds of rifle fire followed in quick succession by the silk rending sound of the German MG42. Our self propelled let fly at the pre-arranged targets but the action continued and in about 15 minutes Lieutenant Grabowski radioed in reporting that his ground outposts had been forced in, his light tank immobilized and requested approval for withdrawal to the near side of the river. I told him to stay on the shadowed side of the bridge and bring his men in. Grabowski and his group had barely crossed the bridge when the enemy fire started again from our immediate front. Mortar moved in blanketing our cliff side some rounds dangerously close to our protective niche. Though knowing the enemy was closing in, my savvy soldiers refused to rise to the bait by firing and disclosing our positions. Dry mouthed and sweating, as I knew my entire group was also, I told Pitts, with his hand on the plunger to watch my right hand. When it came down he was to send the plunger home.
Suddenly two dim forms appeared, running up the far slope of the bridge toward us. Without prompting my machine gunner opened fire and with arm up-raised, I saw the first one fall. The other was almost at the crown when a rolly-polly figure bounded from the still darkened toll takers position and dived at the on rushing phantom. Momentum carried the grappling pair over the low guard rail and into the water. Almost simultaneously two explosions shattered the momentary silence. Climax. A few more mortar rounds, sporadic fire of the withdrawing forces, then more silence. Probably everyone happy, with a feeling of destruction accomplished, I thought - but I could see otherwise.
As the light of approaching dawn emerged we sat there too dulled, shaken and exhausted to move, hoping the evidence of withdrawal would hold good. I must have dozed when Lieutenant Gray came on the radio. Dawn had made its welcome appearance.
"TOMCAT 6 from TOMCAT 8, Say, one of the downstream machine gun positions reports a civilian evidently freshly wounded, caught in a nearby tree branch but alive. From the description I'd say it was the man we broke the bottle with last night."
"TOMCAT 6, Oka., Be careful exposing, anyone, pull him out and take him up to his house.
I, too sensed that it was our host.
I crawled from our nest, sore in every bone, stretched and climbed down to the bridge. Twenty feet from the crown, alongside a damaged section of the guard rail, lay our first intruder. There was no trace of the second in the water below. Probably well downstream, I speculated, and killed by the explosive charge he was carrying as he went overboard.
Back at my jeep I radioed "TANTRUM 6" and told him what happened.
Goddamit, Harris, You sure lucked out on this one. Evidently the main effort is a few kilometers downstream of you. There is a helluva fire fight going on there now and they must have wanted that bridge out for their own protection. Now get your bunch going and move up on them but give them an escape route and don't get trapped. And by God next time you take it on yourself to change my orders you'll damn well get reclassified." "OUT"
Just before we rolled I stopped off to see the little burgermeister. He was pretty well bruised and banged up from the concussion. With a wan smile he pointed to a bandage on his leg and said "Americanische". Then pointing to his "schronk". the ornate chest, he gave some directions to his wife. She pulled out another, the last I noticed, of his elixir, handed it to him and he in turn presented it to me. With his "Dankeschoen" I snapped him a salute and left.
The bottle now occupies a treasured niche in my den, the contents long ago dedicated to the lil Burgermeister, on V.E. Day to be exact.
Author: Bruce W. Reagan