Every bounce brought his knees closer to the thin, black steering wheel as the truck lumbered over busted pavement. His feet jumped from the clutch and brake to the accelerator, right hand straining at the gearstick by his thigh. He swerved when he could, but there was too much debris. Some things he just had to plow through. Icebergs of broken cement. The severed limbs of fallen soldiers. He hoped the tires held. Slowing down was not an option.
A mine exploded to his right. Dirt sprayed from the ground like water from a hose. It rained down on the canvas that covered the truck bed, and through the open side of the cab. His seatmate, Howard, caught a lapful.
Howard absently brushed the dirt from his pants. He didn’t seem to care. His eyes were on the sky.
“Bomber at left,” he said.
As he spoke, an enemy plane appeared over the ridge, a large swastika painted on its tail. Several more came up behind it. The planes didn’t come near them, though. They disappeared quickly behind the hill up ahead, already targeting the American Army’s current destination.
The 99th Infantry’s current position may have been vulnerable, but the Allies were winning, and they knew it. Germany was on the run. Boots Ezop and his fellow Army men were closing the distance, chasing Hitler’s troops deep into their beloved motherland. The Nazis were so desperate, they were literally blowing up bridges behind themselves – permanently destroying their own country’s infrastructure. But this time was different. Allied troops had captured the town of Remagen, and with it, the Ludendorff bridge – before the Nazis could destroy it. This was the last bridge spanning the Rhine river, and the 99th Infantry was already pouring across it as Nazi bombers tried to bring it down.
Nothing like cutting it close.
Every man on the West side of the Rhine, including Boots, was nervous. After this long under siege, how sturdy could the bridge really be? Each minute that passed made it more and more likely that he and Howard would be crossing when it finally collapsed.
“More,” Howard said, pointing to their left.
Over the tree line, another group of Nazi planes appeared. These ones were different. Sleek, narrow birds with swept-back wings – jet-powered fighters known as Schwalbe. Apparently the Nazis were sending in all their guns.
Boots could hear the bombs fall up ahead, exploding out of view as he drove the truck uphill. He resisted the urge to push the accelerator to the floor. They traveled in a miles-long caravan.
Single file, and maddeningly slow.
Finally, the truck crested the hill. The sight below was both relieving and terrifying. The Ludendorff bridge still stood. Her stone towers rose up through a haze. At her base were the Allies’ anti-aircraft gunners, the big tank-like pieces of equipment their only defense from the Nazi air strikes.
Between Boots and the bridge, the road wound lazily downward through rubble and smoke. Dirt volcanoes erupted under the shelling. Military vehicles burned. Bodies lay still and gray with the settling dust. The cost of the last three days.
Boot’s hand cramped on the wheel, but he couldn’t relax. Some of the smoldering vehicles were barely off the road. He swerved from the heat. Tart, black smoke drifted through the cab. Howard coughed into his meaty fist, but Boots just blinked through the haze.
Out of the corner of his eye, Boots tried to discern how many of the injured men were still alive. If they made it across and the Company got the tent set up quickly enough, perhaps he could make it back for them.
Unlike the soldiers in other units, Boots and Howard weren’t headed to pick up arms and attack the retreating German army. They followed with a different mission. The 324th Company of the 99th Infantry was a medical unit. Boots wasn’t a doctor. Not by a long shot. He was now 30, but his formal education ended in sixth grade, when his father died of gangrene. Boots served as the Company’s motor pool sergeant. He drove a lot, and repaired the vehicles when they broke down, often pilfering parts from other abandoned automobiles. Before being drafted, he didn’t have any experience as a mechanic, either. But Boots was a quick study – a natural scrounger.
When Boots wasn’t tinkering on engines late into the night, he retrieved the wounded. Just a few months before, he snuck an ambulance into Bastogne, Belgium under heavy fire. He rescued several wounded American soldiers, as bullets ripped through the vehicle.
It would be a shame, he thought, to live through the Battle of the Bulge only to die here, when the end of the war felt so close.
Two more Nazi planes appeared overhead. They swooped so low, Boots could feel the draft left in their wake. He braced himself, but no fire landed on his canvas top. Instead, they headed for the bridge, dropping their bombs above it before looping back up in the sky.
They missed, their armament crashing on the far shore, spraying dirt and water into the sky like a wet volcano.
“This shit’s gettin’ close,” mumbled Howard.
He’d barely finished speaking when a mortar shell exploded in the ditch next to them. Dirt sprayed into the truck, showering Boots’ lap and painting his cheek. He braked on instinct, then slammed the gas to get back up to speed.
The Ludendorff bridge was long. Really long. Boots had some experience building bridges, back when he worked in Wisconsin’s CCC camps, the conservation corps created by Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Those were small by comparison, just small crossings for state parks. The Ludendorff stretched over 1,000 feet of water. As Boots eased his front tires onto the unsteady boards, it looked like 1,000 miles.
It was designed as a rail bridge, but wooden planks had been laid between the train tracks to make a drivable surface. The truck jittered and bounced from board to board, but it was still a smoother ride than the hilly, busted road. Boots finally lifted his hand from the gear stick, flexing it a few times to release the cramping. He and Howard both hunched over the dash to peer up in the dark sky. They watched the planes circling like vultures, as if by seeing an incoming missile, they could will it to re-direct.
The boards beneath the tires groaned. The bridge was as battle-weary as the men crossing, and far from stable. Each vehicle rushed across it as fast as it could, but it still wasn’t fast enough for Boots. The caravan felt like a funeral procession.
As he drove, Boots watched shells fall into the water like pebbles. Some came close enough to dent the steel beams.
“Here it comes again,” Howard said.
Howard was a matter-of-fact guy, a brawny farm kid. The exact guy you want by your side in war. He could lift a truck like it was a hay bale and took orders as if questions didn’t exist. And his heart rate never seemed to elevate, which is why he could declare life threatening moments with a deadpan tone, as if he were reading baseball statistics instead of spotting the thing that could kill them all.
Howard pointed to an Fw 190G-1 Nazi fighter plane, circling back for another attempt. Boots poked his head out of the truck to look up ahead. They had passed the halfway mark, but were still nowhere near the end.
The Fw was nearly overhead, its centerline and left wing were empty but Boots could see one final bomb beneath its right wing, ready to drop. He wasn’t sure if he should watch, but couldn’t look away.
All around the battlefield, the sounds were constant and loud — from the thunder of the anti-aircraft guns to the high-pitched whine of his truck’s transmission. But now a new sound came, not unfamiliar, but much closer than he’d ever heard before. The sound of bullets ripping holes down the entire length of the Fw 190. A heavy slap, slap, slap, of lead on aircraft aluminum. The plane wobbled, then regained momentum. It flew over the bridge, but never dropped its bomb.
There were still many yards to go, and every sway from the bridge jammed Boots’ heart in his throat. When he finally drove the truck off the unsteady platform, his heartbeat slowed even though they were still unprotected from enemy fire. It was a relief to just be on firm land on the right side of the Rhine. As if they’d flipped a coin hours ago and now were lucky enough to see it land head’s up.
Farther down the tracks was a large, brick-lined train tunnel. It was the only place safe from the air-born attack. Boots was nearly to the entrance when a soldier ran into his path, arms raised. He was an MP with a M1 Carbine rifle held across his chest.
Boots slammed his brake.
“What’s going on?” Boots yelled over the shelling.
“We have a stuck jeep blocking the bridge,” the MP yelled.
Boots glanced behind him for the first time. What had once been a string of jeeps and trucks was now empty road. He’d been so focused ahead and above, he never noticed what was happening in his rear.
“Damn,” he whispered.
Another soldier rushed over. This one wore two silver bars on his shoulders, the insignia of a captain.
“Hey!” he hollered, pointing at the bridge. “You gotta go back. We need that jeep moved now!”
Maybe the coin hadn’t landed heads up after all.
The stuck jeep wasn’t from Boots’ unit. And it wasn’t his commanding officer giving the order. It didn’t matter. A captain was a captain. Besides, what was there to say? Men were dying.
Boots turned and sped back to the bridge. Without the caravan to slow him down, he pushed the truck to its limit – nearly shaking it to pieces on the uneven planks. When he got to the ill-fated jeep, two men had their shoulders down, trying to push it off to the side.
The captain was wrong. The jeep wasn’t exactly stuck.
“She just shut down on me!” the driver said.
With all the debris and shrapnel flying around, it was a wonder there weren’t more dead vehicles.
Howard pointed a thumb at Boots. “It’s your lucky day,” he said. “This guy can fix anything.”
Boots looked at the crush of vehicles stretching back along the bridge, and up the ragged hill. The line wasn’t straight anymore. Trucks and jeeps stuck at odd angles. Unable to go forward or back. Trapped under the falling shells. Some of them had slid into the ditch. Far away, he could see men struggling to get them free.
“No time,” he said. “We’ll just pull you!”
From the bed of his truck, Boots dragged a length of heavy chain. His hands were cold and stiff, but he moved fast. He hooked one end to the jeep’s bumper, and the other to his own.
“Throw her in neutral!” he yelled as he climbed back behind the wheel. Then he floored it. The chain snapped tight as a guitar string. Steel groaned on steel. But he kept his foot down and the jeep finally began to move.
Boots’ hand trembled on the gear stick as he crossed the Rhine, again. He forced both vehicles along through engine smoke and the whining transmission. They picked up speed as they went. He kept one eye behind him this time, watching both the jeep and the line of Army vehicles driving single file in his wake.
They made it off the bridge and headed for the tunnel once again. This time, they got to go inside. Boots pulled over, the coasting jeep nearly rear-ending him. He got out and unhooked the chains.
The driver slapped his back. “When we win this, beers are on me!”
Boots nodded his response as he gathered the chain in his arms. He tossed it into the bed of his truck and got back behind the wheel.
The driver followed, “What are you doing?”
“Those other vehicles were stuck, too.” Boots took a deep breath, glancing over at Howard. The big farm kid didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. It was the unspoken reason he hadn’t exited the truck. “We have to go back.”
Edward “Boots” Ezop went back into the battlefield twice more to rescue damaged vehicles, all while under heavy enemy shell fire. Miraculously, he was uninjured. These actions, among others, earned him a Bronze Star. Eventually, Hitler ordered V2 rockets to destroy the bridge, but even they never made a direct hit. Ten days after Allied troops captured the bridge, it finally collapsed, not due to any successful direct impact, but from the constant battering. The collapse killed 33 Army Engineers and wounded another 63 soldiers. By that time, Allied forces had already built temporary pontoon bridges and had their needed access. Over 25,000 Allied troops were able to cross the Rhine river. Most experts agree that capturing the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen shortened the war, which ended two months later.