A.C. Thomas recalls crossing the Rhine River over the Ludendorff Bridge, which German defenders had failed to destroy, with the U.S. 9th Armored Division. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)
By George Morris
In its desperate final months in World War II, Germany inadvertently left a door open in its defenses. A.C. Thomas, of Central, Louisiana, is one of those who went through it.
Thomas, then a halftrack driver in the U.S. Army 9th Armored Division, had been with the division in the Battle of the Bulge and in its drive into western Germany. But a major obstacle, the Rhine River, stood in the Allied armies’ path, and the defenders destroyed every bridge the Americans, British and French could use.
When the leading elements of the 9th neared the city of Remagen in early March 1945, they were stunned to see the Ludendorff Bridge still standing over the Rhine. The bridge had been wired with explosives, but those assigned to destroy it apparently thought they had more time. Infantrymen battled their way across the bridge, removing explosives and wires as they went. Although some of the explosives were set off, the bridge was damaged but not destroyed.
When Gen. Omar Bradley, First Army commander, learned of the bridge’s capture, he ordered his subordinates to “shove everything you can across.” One of those who made it was Thomas.
“They were still battling,” Thomas said, recalling the crossing.
Thomas moved to Baton Rouge in 1939 from Orlando, Fla., where he’d worked in a bakery. He joined the Army in 1942, shortly after America’s entry into World War II and was sent to cooking school. He moved into field artillery when it was discovered he knew how to drive heavy vehicles.
“I drove trucks at the gravel company, stockpiling and all that stuff,” Thomas said. “When you get in those holes, you couldn’t slap on your brake all at once. You had to use the motor. I learned all of that.”
Thomas became a halftrack driver for the 9th Armored Division’s 16th Field Artillery Battalion. The division landed in France in October 1944 and advanced immediately into Luxembourg. When the Germans launched their last great counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, on Dec. 16, the 9th saw considerable action in stopping the German advance.
The action was so furious that many of the big, 105 millimeter artillery guns lost the rifling in their barrels.
“The barrel looked like a shotgun, just as smooth as can be,” Thomas said. “We wore them out during the Battle of the Bulge.”
Even after the German advance was halted, the battle went on for weeks as American and British armies retook lost ground. Allied troops battled a brutal winter as well as the Germans, who sent English-speaking infiltrators dressed in American Army uniforms.
“They didn’t know we had a buddy system,” Thomas said. “Everybody had a buddy. You didn’t go nowhere without that buddy. If you had to go to the latrine, that buddy went with you. … I was lucky enough that the first buddy I had spoke fluent German.”
Allied armies entered Germany in January, but the Rhine, one of western Europe’s major rivers, was a natural barrier to all but the northwestern part of the country. Four German officers were executed for failing to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge, and efforts to destroy it with artillery, missiles, aerial bombing and scuba divers carrying explosives failed until the bridge finally collapsed 10 days later. By that time, thousands of troops and equipment had crossed and pontoon bridges had been erected nearby.
“We kept pushing in to the next town and then the next town,” Thomas said. “The next morning, we were 26 miles from the bridge. They were backing up, and we were pouring it to them. Once in a while we’d hit heavy mortar fire or something. That would slow us down until we could clear that up. Then we would move on in.
“That broke the back of the Germans. It disorganized them. We passed them by the thousands, their hands over their heads walking. No arms. The arms were all back where they left from, all stacked up.”
The 9th Armored Division went on to liberate a prisoner of war camp at Limburg, Germany, and had operations in the Black Forest, where the tree canopy was so dense, Thomas said, “If it rained on Monday, the water would hit you on Wednesday. That was the blackest place I’ve ever been in my life. You couldn’t see nothing.”
Thomas returned to the Baton Rouge area and worked for gravel companies until he retired.