My father stood at the base of the massive, towering stone buttresses supporting the majestic Cologne Cathedral. I watched him as he soberly examined the structure that has stood on the banks of the Rhine River in Germany since 1248.
Standing with him that fall day in 1984, I marveled at the incredible monument of religious history not realizing that in his mind, my father was reliving a night 40 years earlier. Then I saw the tears.
“You see that spot right there,” he said pointing into a huge crevice created by two of the many massive buttresses supporting the 767-year old structure.
“Forty years ago,” he continued, “half a dozen of us huddled in that space for most of the night. The rest of our outfit was scattered around the cathedral and down toward the river. We had secured the road for the infantry behind us when we encountered what was left of German defenders in the village. You could have read a newspaper from the light of the flashing gunfire. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out of that spot,” he said.
Pausing for a moment, he continued, “We huddled there and returned fire for several hours until the village was secured. Two of us walked out the next morning.”
My dad never talked much about his service in World War II, at least not about battlefield experiences. On this rare occasion, I listened as we stood there, tears still glistening on his cheeks, “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out of there that night, and I never expected to be standing here again.”
Leon D. Aldridge graduated from Pittsburg High School in the spring of 1941 as Hitler was marching through Europe destroying smaller nations. He was a freshman student at Texas A&M in December of 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He was not long into the spring semester of 1942 when the letter arrived, the one that read, “Greetings, having submitted yourself to a committee composed of your local neighbors and friends, you have been selected …..”
He reported to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma and was assigned to a combat engineers battalion that trained in Dixon, Tennessee where he became Private Leon Aldridge in the U.S. Army 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, known as “Rough and Ready.”
After training in Tennessee, he shipped out for Belgium in the Netherlands, but not before meeting a 1941 graduate of Winchester, Kentucky High School who was to become his wife of 63 years and my mother.
Before V.E. Day would arrive, Private Aldridge would rise to the rank of Master Sargent and the 276th Combat Engineers would return home wearing battle ribbons for participation in three campaigns: Ardennes, Rhineland and the Central Europe Campaign.
While he was reluctant to talk about his wartime experience before this day 30 years ago, we walked around the cathedral as his emotions detailed memories of a night 40 years earlier. When we reached the side facing the Rhine, he pointed south and said, “Remagen about an hour down the river, is where I was standing on the abutment when the bridge fell.”
Combat engineers typically preceded the infantry and armored in order to build roadways and bridges for their advancement. Hence his presence at the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen, a pivotal point in the European campaign and the eventual defeat of the Axis powers.
The bridge was the last German hope for preventing the advancing Allies across the Rhine River. After allowing German forces to cross, Hitler’s troops attempted to destroy the structure with explosives. The result was substantial damage to the bridge, but not total destruction.
The 276th Combat Engineers worked under gunfire for the next five days to complete repairs while units attached to the 276th built floating structures downstream known as “Bailey Bridges.”
On March 9, 1945, the 276th returned the bridge to operational status and American troops began crossing as the combat engineers continued working to strengthen the damaged bridge. On March 17 as the battalion replaced wooden flooring, steel trusses began to creak and groan, rivets started “popping like gunfire,” according to my father, and the structure collapsed into the Rhine. “Some scrambled for safety,” he said, “but many were not so fortunate.
“I had been on the bridge earlier that morning,” he continued. “Part of the unit fell back for materials and supplies. We were back to the abutment, waiting for the unit ahead of us to advance across. Just as we started onto the bridge, it fell into the river. Five more minutes and I would have gone into the river with it and the others who were lost that day.”
My father died in 2007. He was proud of his service and I was proud of him. His story of duty and sacrifice as part of the nation’s military is but one tiny, individual example of why America has survived for almost 240 years as a free and proud nation. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to thank him. If he were here today, I would hug him and thank him again.
November 11 is Veteran’s Day, but every day should be Veteran’s Day. Thank a veteran today, and everyday for their service to our country.
Leon Aldridge, Jr.
Adapted from a column published November 10, 2104 in the Center Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune