They warm their hands on coffee mugs, ask little boys with curious eyes: “How did you go to the toilet in the tank?”
The meeting looks like a picnic. But it is a historical picture: four US World War II veterans are sitting at the Ittenbach military cemetery (North Rhine-Westphalia) facing the enemy of yore. The former Wehrmacht lieutenant Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff (97) smiles: “An empty grenade case went around, and then out of the hatch!”
The veterans laugh together. They shot at each other 77 years ago: in the Ardennes, on the Rhine …
“I lost my left leg 77 years ago”
The US troop revisits the places of its fears, pains and victories. Al Bucharelli (98, lost a leg in Monte Cassino in 1944) to BILD: “We don’t need any anniversaries as occasions. We’re running out of time to talk and listen. ”The Americans have had to postpone their planned visits several times in recent years. But it worked. It was worth the effort. In the end, everyone agrees.
Visiting is also keeping a promise
Two years ago, Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff in Bastogne (Belgium) on Bob White (98, paratrooper) and Al “Doc” Blaney (96, paramedic). The retired Ministerialrat (they call him “German Gentleman”): “I received a very friendly welcome. Even if I was jittery at first. “
An iconic photo of the meeting was taken. The scene, captured by the BILD photographer, in which the enemies of yore sit together over beer, cola and sauerkraut, hangs in many living rooms of US veterans and their families.
The fighters of yore (together 488 years old) now visit the remains of the Remagen Bridge (formerly: “Ludendorff Bridge”), where there is now a Peace Museum. Only the towers are still standing.
The bridge has not existed since it collapsed on March 17, 1945. Ten days earlier, members of the 9th US Panzer Division had captured the last intact crossing. The way for the 1st US Army was clear. 18 Allied regiments streamed towards the Ruhr area. The collapse of the western front.
“I shot at the Ludi”
Ex-fighter pilot Ed Cottrell (99): “I shot at the ‘Ludi’ (Ludendorff Bridge, the editor) and then defended it. In between I hunted Jürgen’s King Tiger. I’m glad I didn’t aim well and that we can be friends. ”The King Tiger was the heaviest German battle tank in World War II.
The German shakes his head in disbelief: “How could we have been rushed against each other and we go along with it? We have to tell as long as we can. “
Search for a comrade’s grave
For the former flyer, the tour is particularly emotional. He: “I am 99 years old. I don’t think I’ll ever be here again. ”Cottrell had been looking for one of his best friends for 77 years. Thanks to the help, including from the young Afghanistan veteran Andrew Biggio (33, author of the bestseller “The Rifle”), “Ed” was able to finish. During this trip to Europe, he found the final resting place of his friend Ted in a Belgian cemetery.
The almost 100-year-old man spontaneously got on his knees for his friend and mourned – finally. The ex-pilot recalls: “On January 1, 1945, our squadron was sent on a mission. My friend Ted was the leader of the squadron of four machines. He was hit by anti-aircraft bullets and pulled the machine up. But it wasn’t enough for a jump. The plane couldn’t fly any further and he crashed and was killed. “
“Suddenly I was hanging in a tree”
Bob White (98, 17th Airborne) is also looking for the places that have left unanswered questions and traces on the former paratrooper and Bronze Star carrier (he received the high award more than 70 years after the end of the war) for decades.
On an inconspicuous dirt road near Wesel, the ex-GI encounters the moments from back then. You are immediately back in the head of the enthusiastic jogger. It stands at the place where it landed in a tree by the roadside in March 1945 as part of the largest contiguous airborne operation (Operation Varsity).
White: “I heard someone shouting that he was hanging there. I looked around, saw nothing. It hung very high with its parachute. There was no way I could cut him off. If I had cut it off there, we would both have crashed. Then I wanted to organize help for my comrade. The last thing I can remember. He shouted: The damned Germans will shoot me. “
Bob White had to continue to cut the radio cables of the German units. He never saw his comrade again.
“I came to Berchtesgarden”
Al Blaney (96), the youngest of the squad, has a history in one of the most famous units of the war. “I served in the 326th Medical Company and we belonged to the 101st Airborne.” The 101st helped, among other things, to defend the Belgian town of Bastogne at the end of 1944 and to stop the Ardennes offensive by Hitler’s army in the west.
The troupe (known on TV from the series “Band of Brothers”) comes to Berchtesgarden to Hitler’s “Adlernest”, his retreat in the Alps. Blaney: “When I last left Germany in 1948, I was sure that I would never come back. But I had the chance. I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe I don’t even want to know. “
The opponents of a long time ago: As old men they are curious about each other, they agree: All these horrors must never happen again.
Talking shop about the technology of the time
The German-American group talks shop about technology, their eyes flash. The hunger for the “why”. And the questions that remained even after 80 years. Panzer hunter Ed wants to know from the King Tiger commander how he could have eliminated him back then. The later German bearer of the great Federal Cross of Merit: “… get caught from behind.” Cottrell replies: “The only thing we knew: that the tanks were so robust that bullets could not harm them. Just the bombs. “
Dr. Jürgen Tegethoff dryly: “But we didn’t write it down.”
The veterans laugh heartily together. There are conciliatory moments that everyone involved experiences together.
A Kölsch on the Rhine
For dinner, Tegethoff invites US guests to a Kölsch on the banks of the Rhine. The restaurant is called “Wacht am Rhein”. A name with a symbolic character. The title of the famous song from the imperial era in 1944 for the Ardennes offensive was used as an alias. There is Kölsch for the group. Curry sausage for the Americans.
Tegethoff shows an old photo album. The Americans leaf through every single page with anticipation. During the turmoil of the last weeks of the war in 1945, the King Tiger officer hid it from advancing GIs and says a toast:
“What you can uncork today, don’t postpone it until tomorrow.”