“Six of us huddled there returning fire for several hours until the village was secured. Two of us walked out.”— Master Sergeant Leon Aldridge, U.S. Army 1942-1945
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My father and I stood at the base of massive stone buttresses supporting the majestic Cologne Cathedral that has towered above Germany’s Rhine River since 1248.
That sentence introduced this column some 25 years ago for Veterans Day. I still get requests for it, and it was used again this week for Veterans Day in the newspapers that publish my column. I may write a better one some day, but for now it remains my favorite Veterans Day column about my favorite Veteran.
That November in 1984 when we stood together, I marveled at the incredible sight, not realizing until I saw Dad’s tears that he was reliving a night 40 years earlier. “See that spot there,” he said, pointing into a crevice between two spreading buttresses supporting the more than 700-year-old structure.
“Forty years ago,” he said solemnly, “half a dozen of us huddled there all night. The rest of our outfit was scattered down toward the river. We secured the road for the infantry behind us before encountering what was left of German defenders in the village. The gunfire was bright as day. We weren’t sure we’d see the sunrise,” he said before pausing. “Six of us huddled there returning fire for several hours until the rest of the unit moved up to secure the village. Two of us walked out.”
Dad talked very little about his service, at least not about battlefield experiences. On this rare occasion, I just listened. “When I walked out of this spot, I never expected to return here again,” he said.
Leon D. Aldridge graduated from Pittsburg High School in 1941 as Hitler was marching through Europe. He was a freshman student at Texas A&M in December when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Not long after, the letter arrived. “Greetings, having submitted yourself to a committee composed of your local neighbors and friends, you have been selected …..”
After reporting to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, he was assigned to combat engineers training in Dixon, Tennessee, with the U.S. Army 276th Engineer Combat Battalion known as “Rough and Ready.”
After training, Private Aldridge shipped out for Belgium, but not before meeting a 1941 graduate of Winchester, Kentucky High School who would be his wife of 63 years and my mother. Before V.E. Day arrived, he would rise to the rank of Master Sergeant. And the 276th Combat Engineers would return home wearing battle ribbons for three major campaigns: Ardennes, Rhineland, and the Central Europe Campaign.
“Remagen, about an hour down the river,” he pointed as we walked, “is where I was standing on the abutment when the bridge fell.” Combat engineers preceded infantry and armor to build roadways and bridges. Hence, his presence at the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, a pivotal point in the European campaign and the eventual defeat of the Axis powers. The bridge across the Rhine River was the last German hope against the advancing Allies. After allowing German forces to cross, Hitler’s troops attempted to destroy the structure with explosives, substantially damaging the bridge but not destroying it.
According to “ROUGH AND READY Unit History 276th Engineer Combat Battalion” by Allen L. Ryan, The “Rough and Ready” worked under gunfire for five days to complete repairs while units attached to the 276th built floating structures called “Bailey Bridges” downstream. On March 9, 1945, they returned the bridge to operational status, and American troops crossed as combat engineers continued working to strengthen it. 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 waiting for the unit ahead of us to advance. Just as we started onto the bridge, it fell. 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. His story of duty and sacrifice as part of the nation’s military is but one small example of why America has survived for 244 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.
We live in the land of the free because of the brave who have served. Thank a veteran today and every day for their service to our country.
Photo at top of the page: Leon D. Aldridge (far right) at the entrance to Battalion CO, Olpe, Germany. — Photo credit “ROUGH AND READY Unit History 276 Engineer Combat Battalion” by Allen L Ryan.
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