You would think an event that had never happened before in military history, and that no less than Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said shortened the deadliest war in world history by at least six months, would be listed on every calendar that lists military events.
You would think wrong.
This seemingly momentous event happened 69 years ago Friday, on March 7, 1945, at a sleepy little Rhine River town called Remagen. Yet there is no entry about it on either the Veterans of Foreign Wars calendar or that of the National Museum of the U.S. Army.
Allied forces had landed at Normandy, France, nine months before and had fought their way inexorably eastward toward Germany’s border in the last months of World War II in Europe.
Things had been going too well until a little blip called the Battle of the Bulge halted the Allied advance for a few weeks in December and January.
But, Lt. Gen. George Patton’s famous prayer, asking for “fair weather for battle,” was answered, and by mid-January the Allied forces were moving forward again.
In early March, the U.S. Ninth Armored Division was rapidly approaching the Rhine River, which throughout history had been a traditional defensive barrier into what became Germany in 1871. No invading enemy had ever forced a crossing across the Rhine.
One of Napoleon’s marshal’s troops crossed it on its way east in the early 1800s, but the marshal was allied with some Germanic dukedoms along the river and his troops were given the right of passage.
The Ninth Armored Division had no such alliance with anyone along the river. If the barrier was to be breached, it would have to be by force.
All bridges across the Rhine were thought by Allied intelligence to have been blown. But, as the lead elements of the Ninth Armored entered the little river town of Remagen and reconnaissance troops went up high ground to scout, to their amazement there was the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge intact.
Orders had been given for the division to halt on the west side of the river. But, when word was flashed to Brig. Gen. William Hoge, assistant division commander, he knew the bridge had to be crossed without delay.
The division commander was out of radio range, which meant Hoge was the acting decision maker. He did what he’d been taught in the Command and General Staff College class of 1928, which was to evaluate, analyze, and decide.
He ordered the 27th Armored Infantry Regiment to cross the bridge, but due to shell craters blocking the east side of the bridge, only dismounted infantrymen could cross. Armor would have to wait until daylight so engineers could fill the craters during the night.
The first man across was Sgt. Alex Drabik, a humble butcher of Polish descent from Toledo. He ran across the bridge, dodging machinegun bullets, and ran into the history books. He was joined by Sgt. Ralph Shackelford, of Platte County, Mo., and a small group of infantrymen.
When Hoge Barracks was dedicated at the fort in 1986, Shackelford, Elmer Lindsey, of Weston, and another veteran from western Kansas unexpectedly came for the ceremony. All proudly wore ball caps proclaiming “The Remagen Division.”
All were promptly invited to that fall’s Armor Ball, and they plus about 10 other veterans of Company A, the first unit across, came.
Alex Drabik and wife Margaret came from Toledo. They kept coming each year until all but Shackelford died.
At 96, he doesn’t come anymore as the ball died in 2006, with Lt. Gen. Dave Petraeus as the last guest speaker. Shackelford is now in a retirement home near KCI. It was a great day, 69 years ago yesterday. Except on some calendars.