John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

Building New Bridges

John Wilkins
January 22, 1968

Fellowship Year

Federal Republic of Germany

January 15, 1968


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

The twin towers on the bank of the Rhine at Remagen resemble nearby medieval castles but are not medieval; they are the western terminus of the Ludendorff Bridge. On the eastern bank, at the foot of a cliff, stands an identical set of towers. The bridge itself is gone. Since March 1945, it has been on the bottom of the Rhine with bones of Americans and Germans.

This was the “Remagen Bridge” made famous when captured by the U.S. Ninth Army two months before the war ended. It collapsed a few days after its capture, but by then the Americans had established a strong bridgehead and the engineers had thrown up two other bridges.

Whether capture of the bridge shortened the war, as was predicted at the time, is a question for military historians. But even before Julius Caesar crossed the Rhine a few miles from here, in 55 B.C., on a pile bridge that now is also on the bottom, the river had been a significant and symbolic border; to the Western Allies this first crossing in WWII was exhilarating news.

To Remageners it was the end. It was also an awakening from a nightmare of illusion, confusion and anguish to a world, which, no matter how bitter, was at least real.

The gap left by the bridge could well stand for the trauma of the war years — that dreamlike time which many middle-aged Germans can dwell upon only with great effort or when in a very special mood.

As the war went increasingly awry after the winter of 1941, Germans had become more and more skeptical of the so-called newspapers and radio, and a sense of isolation had grown throughout the nation. Remagen had a population of about 5,000 (grown now to about 7,500). Like many small-towners in Germany and elsewhere, they were set in their ways and inclined toward complacency, another form of isolation. Despite the historical richness of his region, being a tactical objective did not fit the Remagener’s self-image; along with the shock of discovering that his town was under attack, there must have been a special kind of petulance.

Fulsome as he may sound, I believe it when a Rhinelander says, “There were very few real Nazis around here. I was black (Catholic), not brown (Nazi).” A Bavarian may dissemble when referring to his involvement with the Nazis but does not conceal his pride in being tough. Most Germans from the North and East are candid about their martial heritage. But the Rhinelander — with Roman and Frankish roots and a heritage of French rule under Napoleon — regards himself as “different,” and so is he regarded by other Germans. In a large group, without fear of recrimination, he will tell how he avoided military service. As he describes himself, so he is to a large degree: he drinks his wine and beer, shrugs of politics, votes Christian Democratic, goes to the Catholic Church, turns pagan at carnival time, has a warm heart.

(Such generalizations are tenuous. One thinks of the “frosty-eyed Prussian” and the “easy-going Austrian” stereotypes in relation to the evidence of the Jewish Documentation Center, Vienna, which indicates that Austria contributed more than her share of death-camp guards.)

After living in Remagen for several months, it is only recently that I can claim to have some feeling of what it was like to be part of the community as the war neared its end.

Not that I didn’t hear about the bridge shortly after my arrival. Several Remageners assumed that because I was an American newsman I was drawn here by the bridge, and out of hospitality they offered to give me any information they could. But they did that somewhat as a duty. The fighting at Remagen was on a small scale. There were acts of high courage on both sides, but Remageners have little feeling of living “where WWII history was made.” They have their personal memories instead. The memories are bitter.

Gerhard Rothe is a quiet man who runs a hotel in town. His part in the battle of the bridge is one thing; his other memories of the period are another. Most of those feelings remain behind a half-smile and the comment, “That’s all over now.”

**Teddy Bear gets waltzed at wine festival.

**WASH ON RHINE — Cargo craft flies laundry and Dutch flak.

Rothe was the last German soldier across the bridge before Staff Sgt. Joe De Lisio, of The Bronx, led a squad of dogfaces across. Six-foot-one Rothe crawled the 700 feet with blood streaming from three bullet holes in his left leg, and De Lisio, short and chunky, advanced rapidly but as if on eggs, with the prospect of the bridge being blown at any second.

De Lisio stayed in the Army and in 1962 was assigned to Germany. He has been to Remagen several times and visited Rothe and other former defenders of the bridge. His last reunion with Rothe was last year, when he was about to leave for Viet Nam. De Lisio hasn’t written, and Rothe is concerned. Apparently the two men have built a bridge of their own.

**Gerhard Rothe, left, list German soldier to cross the Remagen Bridge, has weekly chess game with crony.

Rothe’s hometown was Remagen, where his parents owned the hotel he how owns. When the Americans approached the Rhine, he had recently been released from a hospital in the area and was recuperating from a wound received on the Russian front. Rothe, who was a sergeant, and other troops no longer fit for the front lines were organized into bridge-defense units along the Rhine, and Rothe managed to get the Remagen post. His last wounds were received in his hometown.

Rothe was also “wounded” to learn later that the hotel’s silverware and other souvenir material were missing when the Americans moved out. He says there was much stealing from the homes, causing increased hardship to the suffering townspeople, and he comments, “Well, that is war. . . . German soldiers behaved in the same way.”

He was not being ironic in his remark about German troop behavior; perhaps he was even being polite. Though a non-German or a young German is likely to gasp at their attitude, a very great number of middle-aged Germans, including veterans, feel that most German troops behaved “properly. “

(It is opportune — I am not taking poetic license — that at precisely the time I finished writing the above paragraph, my portable radio, which supplies background music as I sweat out these newsletters, began playing Israeli folk music. Yesterday I heard a radio play concerning a refugee’s flight from Germany in 1936. There is a relationship between the prevalence of such programs and the question of a person’s response to remarks about “proper” German troops. To wit:

(Anyone who is skeptical of hair-splitting between the German Army’s normal behavior in occupation and its tactics against The Resistance has an ally in his skepticism. The ally is German youth. They have seen films documenting the terrors and the absurdities; they have listened to recordings of Goebbels tirades as if to a man from Mars; as part of tile German radio-and-TV audience they receive frequent reminders of the Jewish heritage that was forfeited — and they condemn, showing little more inclination than non-Germans to distinguish, for instance, between the Waffen-SS (elite troops) and the special SS formations which carried out death-camp operations. I choose two examples at random:

(1. My teen-age daughter commutes by train to an American school in this area. Usually she sits with a German boy of about her own age who commutes to a German school. He is studying English, and frequently he looks over the books she carries. One day last week she was carrying “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She came home distressed, reporting that her friend picked up the book “and almost turned white.” She told me, “Gosh, I was stupid to have that book where he could see it. He must think that I think that all Germans are terrible. He scarcely said anything for the rest of the trip, but he was very polite.”

(2. Remagen is a tourist town in summer. A university-student friend here told me that the Dutch visitors are of low income — “otherwise they wouldn’t come here. If they could afford to go farther away, they would do it. They hate us, and I don’t blame them. The German occupation was terrible.” In my opinion, though, the Dutch tourists are very friendly.

(Before relinquishing these parentheses, I must point out another reaction of students. I had two almost identical experiences, one in Munich, one in Bonn. In each case the student told of a friend who had visited The States and been asked with some degree of hostility, “How come the Nazis are coming up again in Germany?” To a German scarcely out of his cradle when the war ended, pro-American, deeply concerned about making West German democracy work, it is devastating to encounter a we’ve-got-to-keep-our-eye-on-you-Germans attitude. “How can Americans bracket our generation with the Nazis?” the Bonn student asked. And then — as in Munich — came the kicker: “It must be the Jewish influence.”

(Wow! To hear the word “Jewish” articulated loudly in Germany is quite an experience for an American. You glance around, but no one seems to be turning red or even staring. What does this mean -that Germans have no sensibility. . . or that Americans are conditioned to a fear of sounding prejudiced? I concluded that to young Germans the word “Jew” is to be used as freely as “Arab,” “American” or “automobile.” To them it is understandable that Jews should be wary of German nationalism. They are wary themselves. They say “Nazi” just as loudly as they say “Jewish,” with no apologies, even though those words are spoken softly among the middle-aged middle class; youth generally has contempt for the Nazis and admiration for Israel.)

Blood Bond

In addition to Sgt. Rothe and the other convalescent soldiers, there were two non-Army units charged with defending the bridge: Hitler Youth and Volkssturm (Home Guard). Commanding the Volkssturm was a Nazi from Remagen who still lives here.

“Yes, he was a Sturmbahnfűhrer in the S.A. (Brown-shirt leader), but I must say that he was a good man,” a middle-aged woman told me. “He believed in Hitler, but he never got anyone from Remagen into trouble. His wife was Catholic; he let her take the children to church, which wasn’t model behavior for the S.A.

“ . . . It was after he had retreated across the bridge and the Americans had taken it . . . . One night he came back to this side of the river — I don’t know how. The Americans were in town. He was seen by some of the people in town; they were furious that he had come back. He went to see his wife arid children, to say goodbye.

“The next morning he was found off the road over there. He had cut his wrist.

“But he was still just alive. They saved him.

“An American soldier gave blood.”

The story was confirmed by a Remagener in his early 30s, who commented:

“I know the family very well, especially the son. The son immigrated to Canada and is doing well. He was bright, an apprentice, but he had trouble being hired in town because no one wanted to be reminded of the Nazis. A little late for that, eh?

“I have respect for the father. When other Nazis were trying to change identity, he kept right on wearing his armband and party uniform. I guess that at the very end he forced himself to face what the Nazis had done to Germany. My father knew him in the S.A.”

‘Will They Gas Us?’

A woman in her early 60s:

“Before the Americans captured the bridge, they had been trying to bomb it for two months. Many of the houses in town were destroyed, and other families would take in homeless people. Then the Americans came and took over many of the houses. Some of us were taken to a railroad tunnel for shelter. . I became frightened in there. . . I thought they might gas us: the same thing for us as for the Jews.”

I said, “Then you knew about the killing of the Jews?”

 “Yes, by then we knew. Earlier in the war there had been rumors that soap was being made from Jews, but there were all kinds of rumors so we couldn’t be sure. By 1945 the only thing we really knew was that things were getting worse. Some of us listened for dot-dot-dot-dash, the British radio. This was dangerous to do; we kept the radio very low. We knew the British were telling the truth about the results of air raids — and by the time Remagen was captured, we had heard from the British about those gas camps.”

Their Lost Youth

Herr Pomp, who inherited from his father a small furniture factory in Remagen, is 40. He likes to speak English but says he would be more fluent if the war hadn’t torn up his education and robbed him and his classmates of their youth. He has talked to me…

Of Christmas, 1939. His father, an Army Reserve major in the Siegfried Line during the “phony war” period, had sent word home for the factory manager and Herr Pomp, then aged 11, to meet him in Saarbrucken with several cases of wine for his men. The major took his son into the Siegfried Line the day before Christmas. . . and at midnight took him into the darkness — “My teeth were actually chattering” — toward the French line. There they met a French officer and exchanged gifts.

Of January 1943. “Our teacher told us we didn’t have to go to school the next day.  We were going into the ‘Luftwaffe Helpers.’ I was 15. We were trained in anti-aircraft gunnery for four weeks and then went into service inside Germany.”

Of January 1945. He was ordered to report for duty with the Regular Army to defend the Rhine but went home instead and worked in the furniture factory. When the Americans arrived, French prisoners who had worked in the factory backed up his story: that he had not been in a military formation but had worked in the factory for two years,

Of 1946, when there was near-starvation and his mother walked 22 miles a day for a liter of milk for her children.

Of last summer and previous ones, when he had as guests French families who had worked in the factory as prisoners and slave labor.

Of next year’s vacation, which he and his family will s1pend as guests of a Dutch couple, both of whom had worked in the factory.

Of now. “The war years were crazy, crazy. They taught us something, though. They taught us to be content.”

Received in New York January 22, 1968.