BETHEL — Seventy years ago this month, late in the course of World War II, the quiet resort village of Remagen, Germany, on the banks of the Rhine River southeast of Cologne, suddenly commanded the world’s attention.

With the capture and crossing of the Ludendorff Bridge, Remagen became the site of a major military advance into the German interior by Allied forces.

Army veteran Avery Angevine of Bethel, now 96, was there as a member of the U.S. 9th Armored Division, and was one of the first American soldiers to cross the bridge.

The Rhine had served as a natural barrier, preventing the Allies from breaching the German heartland and permitting the German army to access significant Nazi war factories by waterway.

By 1945, the tide of the war had turned against the Axis powers. Adolf Hitler, desperate to prevent a further Allied advance, had ordered the destruction of all bridges over the Rhine.

So the members of the 9th Armored Division were surprised when they emerged from the woods on the west bank of the Rhine on the afternoon of March 7, 1945, and discovered that a railroad bridge across the river still stood.

Adding to the Allies’ good fortune, the bridge was being lightly defended, and had been modified with wooden planking by the Germans only the day before to permit the crossing of vehicular traffic.

A race for control of the bridge began, with the Germans scrambling to defend it, and to detonate the charges they had already planted. An initial charge blew a 30-foot crater in the western side of the approach, preventing the American tanks from crossing.

No time to be afraid

Drafted into the Army only nine months earlier, Angevine was a scout, the gunner for a three-man team which also included a jeep driver and a radio man.

With debris on the bridge rendering it impassable for vehicles, he said, his team abandoned its jeep and raced across on foot, under machine-gun fire from German soldiers stationed in a stone tower on the eastern bank.

A 1959 CBS documentary, “The Remagen Bridge,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, begins with a scene taken from original footage of the first American soldiers to cross the bridge.

“One of those soldiers is me,” Angevine said. “I can’t tell which one, because we had our backs to the camera, but one of them is me.”

In addition to being under gunfire as they crossed the 1,000-foot span, he said, the soldiers fully expected the explosive charges that studded the bridge to be detonated at any moment.

But, he added, “We didn’t have time to be afraid.”

Angevine was on the bridge when the order was given to blow it up, but despite prior testing of the electrical circuit, when the German engineer tried to activate it, nothing happened.

There are several theories about the failure of the charges to detonate, but Angevine believes the most widely held: that in the fighting that ensued prior to the attempt to blow up the bridge, an American tank shell had cut through the detonation cable.

Frantic, the Germans sent a soldier out onto the bridge, under fire from American tanks on the other side, to light the fuse to a smaller reserve charge. That charge was detonated successfully, but instead of being demolished, the bridge only lifted momentarily off its piers, then settled back, still intact.

The American soldiers, 120 in the first group, continued to the other side and seized control of the bridge tower, capturing the Germans inside and throwing the machine gun out the window.

‘Bridgeheads sealed the German fate’

Over the next 24 hours, about 8,000 American troops and hundreds of guns, jeeps, and tanks crossed the Ludendorff Bridge.

Because of concerns about the bridge’s weakened state, Angevine said nearby engineering units were immediately put to work building two pontoon bridges, one to the north and one to the south of the railroad bridge.

The first pontoon bridge was completed on March 10, after 30 continuous hours of work; the second was ready for vehicle traffic the following day. Within a week of the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge, 25,000 American troops had crossed the Rhine and the Germans were overwhelmed.

On March 17, the railroad bridge, weakened by demolition charges, artillery fire, and the weight of military vehicles, gave way and fell into the Rhine. The captured bridge had served its purpose, but 28 American engineers died in the collapse, and many more were wounded.

Allied forces launched an offensive known as Operation Voyage.

“We fought some of the strongest opposition for the next month or so,” Angevine said, “but then it just dried up.”

By April, more than 20,000 Germans had been taken prisoner in the operation, and the collapse of the Axis powers in Europe was imminent.

The importance of the capture and crossing of the bridge at Remagen to the course of the war was signaled by the reaction of Adolf Hitler.

Irate, he called for a “drumhead court-martial” in which the German officers held responsible for failing to prevent the Allied capture of the bridge were immediately tried and sentenced to death. Those who had not been captured by the Americans were summarily executed.

“Two bridgeheads sealed the German fate,” the CBS documentary reported Hitler to have said. “Normandy and Remagen.”

“I’m glad I served my time”

Angevine, who was born and raised in Upton, went to work when he was 14, doing highway construction in the summer and living and working in logging camps in the winter.

After marrying at the age of 20, he worked in local sawmills for several years before moving his young family to the Portland area, where he found work in a shipyard. Because shipbuilding was an essential industry in the war effort, he received six successive draft deferments.

“I was one of 32 people who were doing the most important work in the shipyard but getting paid the least,” he said. That didn’t bother him, he said, “because it was still the best job I’d ever had.”

Months before he was to turn 26, when he would have become ineligible for the draft, he was fired because of a protest for higher pay by the other workers and his own lack of seniority.

“They canceled my deferment, and I was drafted within 30 days,” he said.

After three months of basic training, he was on his way overseas, where he would play a part in the military operation that Allied journalists called the “Miracle of Remagen,” one that no doubt saved many lives by shortening the course of the war.

“I shouldn’t have even been there,” Angevine said. “That’s how I felt then, but I’m glad now that I served my time.”

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