The Remagen Bridgehead Battle
In early March, the 394th bypassed Koln and fought battles at Bergheim, Elsdorf, and Fortuna in the Erft Canal area. They were northwest of Koln when ordered to turn immediately south towards the city of Remagen. Both German and Allied forces had already bombed many of the bridges that crossed the Rhine but amazingly, the railroad bridge at Remagen still stood. Upon hearing this, American forces raced to cross this bridge that would take them deep into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the Germans were desperate to blow the bridge and prevent the American penetration.
Built in 1916, Remagen's railroad bridge rested on four fortress-like towers black with grime. The overall length was 1,069 feet. A year before the start of WWII, the Germans had installed an elaborate demolition scheme to blow up the bridge in the face of an enemy attack. Now, as German troops crossed the bridge, they warned of the Americans coming behind them. Although Hitler gave prior orders to destroy any bridge threatened by the enemy, he was fanatically against destroying a bridge prematurely; therefore, precious time was lost in deciding when to blow up the bridge.
Finally, Germans received the order from Major Hans Scheller, staff officer of the German Army Corps, and raced to set off the explosion. Much to their surprise, nothing happened. The activation key was turned again and again and still no response. A repair team moved onto the bridge under intense machine gun, tank fire, and phosphorus smoke screens that burned the eyes and skin. Unable to complete the repair job, a German volunteer dashed to the bridge and ignited the primer cord by hand. At last, a sudden roar ripped through the air and timbers flew wildly in every direction. Yet, when the smoke cleared, the bridge still stood!
Despite the fact that the bridge was structurally damaged, under constant heavy artillery fire, pitted with huge holes, and littered with dead bodies, the allied troops poured across.
According to a diary written by a K Company soldier and given to Captain Simmons, K Company reached the outskirts of Koln but bypassed it and continued to Elsdorf, where "villages were wrecked and fires were still burning." K Company moved on to Garsdorf and to Anstel and then to Gohn (northwest of Koln). Suddenly, they were ordered to turn south to the city of Remagen. They began a dead-heat race with the Germans to reach the Rhine River and cross the bridge at Remagen. The soldiers had to discard much equipment, including their blankets, to lessen the load. It was still uncomfortably cold in early March. Pine branches were cut down and used for blankets during the one hour of sleep each man received while his buddy stood watch. Two or three times per night the troops stopped to "dig in" and then were told to "move out." The partially-dug, unused fox holes were left behind as they continued the relentless drive to the Rhine. The lack of food, shelter, and sleep became the enemy. Troops searched abandoned farm houses for food and usually turned up nothing. To find a piece of German black bread or home-canned cherries was nirvana--the gift of life itself. At one point, Pvt. Arlinghaus gagged while eating a jar of fat drippings just to keep from starving.
On March 10, 1945, they arrived in the town of Remagen--the Germans were waiting for them. A deafening Boom! Boom! sounded about 250 feet down the main road. Artillery guns had opened up in a "traverse and search" military operation. The shells were exploding at precise intervals killing the troops with deadly precision. Because of his sergeant's training in Heavy Weapons at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, Arlinghaus knew the shells hit every ten seconds; this was the time it took to reload the artillery and change its trajectory (position). His platoon, with just four or five months of infantry training, was not so lucky; Arlinghaus yelled to his buddies to "hit the ditch" but many were dead before they knew what happened. The only way to outwit the gunners was to dive into a ditch right before a shell exploded, break into a run while counting to eight, and dive again before the next shell exploded two seconds later.
Everything was in chaos. Men screamed and writhed in agony as they watched their blood stream onto the road. Arlinghaus gave them "wound pills" but felt helpless to do more. He picked up a soldier who had half his buttock blown off, carried him up an incline to a brick house and into the cellar for protection. He put the soldier down in a cleaned-out coal bin and looked around for something to lay him on. There was nothing. He lit a candle and bandaged the man who didn't even whimper (probably in shock, he thought). As he turned to go, the soldier pleaded with him to stay. Arlinghaus felt like hell leaving him there but knew his duty was to continue fighting with the troops. He placed the man's rifle, topped with his helmet, at the door to alert the medics. (The rifle topped with a helmet is the army's pre-arranged signal that a wounded man is nearby). As he walked out the front door, he could see his thinned out Company running towards the bridge; behind them was a scene far worse than any depicted in Dante's Inferno. A line from the Charge of the Light Brigade echoed in his head: "through the valley of death rode the six hundred...." As he ran to catch up, he knew he would meet the mutilated man in his nightmares and wonder if he survived.
When Company K crossed the Remagen railroad bridge, the night was so black that it seemed the earth ceased to exist. The blinding flash and deafening scream of artillery every thirty seconds reminded the men that they remained in hell. The soldiers were taut with fear, expecting the bridge to collapse. Men who were not shot, worried about falling through the jeep-sized holes. Some sources say that at many places the holes in the bridge stretched all the way across, while some were located between the railroad tracks and between the tracks and the steel girders. Arlinghaus was terrified because he could not swim. He kept his eyes on a white track and dutifully followed it, although he did not know why it was there. Later, he thought the white tape may have been put down for tanks to follow. He did not know how long it took to cross the bridge. Many thought it took a lifetime.