If he were here today, I would hug him and thank him again
A Story Worth Telling
Saturday is Veteran’s Day, but every day should be Veteran’s Day.
We are the home of the free, only because of the brave who sacrifice to serve.
While I am grateful to all veterans, my favorite, of course, was my father. Between answering the call to serve his country in the spring of 1942 and V.E. Day, Leon Aldridge attained the rank of Master Sargent serving with the U.S. Army 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. He returned home to Pittsburg, Texas, wearing battle ribbons for participation in three campaigns: Ardennes, Rhineland and the Central Europe Campaign.
Every veteran has stories to tell, but like most, dad talked little about his. That changed in 1984 when we stopped in Cologne, Germany during a trip to the Netherlands, Germany and France, the areas where he spent his service years in World War II. As we walked around the perimeter of the majestic Cologne cathedral on the banks of the Rhine River, he began to tell stories that day I had never heard. I was 36 and he was
He talked in detail, with tears in his eyes, about a night of gunfire huddled close the base of the cathedral.
“See that spot there,” he said pointing to a sheltered area created by two of the many huge buttresses supporting the 750-year old structure. “I spent a night with a half dozen guys engaged in gun battles. We were separated from the rest of our detail while attempting to occupy the village.”
“We returned fire until it was secured at daybreak,” he said, recalling obviously painful memories stirred by standing on the same ground 40 years later. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out that night … and I sure never expected to be here again.”
When we reached the side of the cathedral facing the Rhine, he pointed south and said, “Remagen. That’s where I was standing on the abutment when the bridge fell.”
The 276th Combat Engineers were also at Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen, Germany, March 17, 1946 when the war-torn structure collapsed and fell into the Rhine River.
“We returned the damaged bridge to operational status under gunfire,” he said. “We had the Germans on the run, and they tried to blow up the bridge to stop advancement of Allied Forces.
“We were still working on the bridge on the day it fell,” he continued.
“Steel trusses began to groan, rivets started ‘popping like gunfire,’ and the bridge 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. Part of us fell back for materials and supplies. We were back at the abutment, waiting for the unit ahead of us to advance. Just as we started onto the bridge, it fell into the river. Five more minutes and I would have gone into the river with it and the others who were lost that day.”
Once my father began to talk, he share many experiences.
Like a story about sweeping fields near a combat zone when he stepped on a land mine. “I knew what it was when put my foot on it,” he said. “But at that moment, it was too late. I honestly thought I had taken my last breath. I fell and rolled, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Only by the grace of God,” he said, “the land mine failed to detonate, and I lived to tell the story.”
His stories included details about artillery lighting the night sky like daylight, brightly enough “to read a newspaper,” as he put it. His memories of the weather were many, things like freezing weather in which they used newspaper to line boots and clothing, hoping to avoid frostbite, or sleeping on cots in tents that were flooded with water.
My father died in 2007, and never talked as much again about his service years as he did on that trip. He was proud of his service and I was proud of him. His stories of duty and sacrifice as part of the nation’s military are but tiny, individual examples of why America has survived for 240 years as a free and proud nation.
As I wrote a few years ago in a similar Veteran’s Day column, I am glad I got the opportunity to thank him. And, I will end this one the same way, saying that if he were here today, I would hug him and thank him again.