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77 years later, over coffee and beer – How the former enemies have made peace

They warm their hands on their coffee mugs and ask like curious little boys: “How did you go to the loo in the tank?”

The meeting looks like a picnic. But it is a historical scene. In the military cemetary Ittenbach (North Rhine-Westphalia), four US World War veterans are sitting opposite their past enemy. The former lieutenant of the Wehrmacht, Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff (97), smiles: “An empty grenade shell was passed around – and then out with it through the hatch!”

The veterans are laughing together. 77 years ago, they were shooting at each other – in the Ardennes, at the Rhine …

„I lost my left leg 77 years ago”

The US group once again visits the places where they experienced fear, pain, and victories. Al Bucharelli (98, lost a leg in Monte Cassino in 1944) tells BILD: “We don’t need anniversaries as reasons to meet up. We’re running out of time to tell our stories and to listen to each other’s.” Over the last few years, the Americans had to postpone their planned visit several times. But now everything has worked out. It was worth the effort. That’s what they all agree on.

The visit also means keeping a promise

Two years ago, Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff met Bob White (98, paratrooper) and Al “Doc” Blaney (96, paramedic) in Bastogne (Belgium). The retired public official (they called him the “German Gentlemen”) recounts: “I was greeted in a very friendly way. Even though I was a bit scared at first.”

An iconic photo was taken at the meeting. The image of the former enemies sitting together over beer, cola, and sauerkraut ¬– captured by BILD’s photographer – is now hanging in the living rooms of many US veterans and their families.

The former soldiers (488 years old together) now visit the remains of the Bridge at Remagen (formerly “Ludendorff Bridge”). There is a peace museum. Of the bridge, only the towers are left. It collapsed on 17 March 1945. Ten days earlier, members of the 9th Armored Division had seized the intact bridge and thus enabled the First United States Army to cross. Eighteen Allied regiments stormed towards the Ruhr area. It meant the collapse of the Western Front.

“I shot at the Ludi”

Former fighter pilot Ed Cottrell (99): “I shot at the ‘Ludi’ (Ludendorff Bridge, ed.) and then I defended it. In between, I hunted Jürgen’s King Tiger. I’m glad I didn’t aim that well, so we can be friends today.” The King Tiger (“Königstiger”) was the heaviest German tank of the Second World War.

Jürgen Tegethoff shakes his head in disbelief. “How could they have incited us against each other like that? How could we have participated? We must tell people about this for as long as we can.”

The search for a fellow soldier’s grave

For Ed Cottrell, this tour is particularly emotional. “I am 99 years old. I don’t think I’ll ever come here again.” Cottrell has been searching for one of his best friends for 77 years. Thanks to, among others, the young Afghanistan veteran Andrew Biggio (33, author of the bestseller “The Rifle”), he found closure. On this trip through Europe, he found the last resting place of his friend Ted in a Belgian cemetary.

The almost 100-year-old man spontaneously knelt at the grave and finally mourned for his friend. The former pilot remembers: “On 1 January 1945, our squadron was sent on a mission. My friend Ted was the leader of the squad, consisting of four aircrafts. He was hit by anti-aircraft missiles. He pulled up the plane, but it wasn’t enough to escape. He crashed and was killed.”

“Suddenly I was hanging in a tree”

Bob White (98, 17th Airborne Division) is also looking for places that have left the former paratrooper and Bronze Star wearer (he received the high reward more than 70 years after the end of the war) with open questions and unsolved hints for decades.

On an unremarkable dirt track near Wesel, the former G.I. meets his past. Immediately, his head is filled with images from the war. He is standing at the very place where, in March 1945 – in the course of the largest airborne forces operation on one day and in one location (Operation Varsity) – he landed in a tree at the edge of the road.

White: “I heard someone shout who was also hanging there. I looked around and saw nothing. He must have been higher up with his parachute. There was no way I could have cut him loose. If I had, both of us would have fallen. So I wanted to organize help for my brother-in-arms. The last thing I remember is that he shouted: ‘The damn Germans will shoot me!’”

Bob White had to move on in order to cut radio cables of the German units. He never saw his fellow soldier again.

“I came up to Berchtesgaden”

Al Blaney (96), the youngest of the group, reflects on the history of one of the war’s most famous divisions. “I served in the 326th Medical Company. We belonged to the 101st Airborne.” The 101st helped, among other things, to defend the Belgian village of Bastogne at the end of 1944 and to stop the Ardennes Counteroffensive of Hitler’s army in the West.

The battalion (known from the TV series “Band of Brothers”) made it up to Berchtesgaden, to Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest”, his refuge in the Alpes. Blaney: “When I last left Germany in 1948, I was sure I would never return. But now I had the opportunity. I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe I don’t want to know.”

As old men, the enemies from a time long ago are keen to know more about each other. And they agree that the horrors of the war must never happen again.

Talking about the technology of the past

The German-American group talks about technology, and their eyes light up. They are still curious. Some questions remain unanswered after 80 years. Fighter pilot Ed asks the King Tiger commander how he could have neutralized him at the time. The later wearer of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany just says: “… catch it from behind.” Cottrell comments: “The only thing we knew was that the tanks were so robust that bullets could not damage them – only bombs.”

Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff replies dryly: “But we didn’t write that on the tank.”

The veterans are laughing together heartily. These are moments of reconciliation, experienced together.

A kölsch at the Rhine

Tegethoff takes the US visitors for a kölsch (a local type of beer originating from Cologne) at the shore of the Rhine. The restaurant is called “Wacht am Rhein” (Rhine Watch). A symbolic name. It is the name of a famous German song from the time of the German Empire and was the code name for the Ardennes Counteroffensive in 1944. The group drinks kölsch, the Americans eat currywurst.

Tegethoff passes around an old photo album. The Americans look at each page with interest. The tank commander hid the album from the advancing G.I.s in the turmoil of the final weeks of the war in 1945. He raises his glass and says: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can drink today!”

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