Checkerboarders span the Rhine

Since the fall of Aachen, there had been no impressive gains on the Western Front. Soldiers under Gen. Hodges sensed that First Army was winding up for a Sunday punch, but there was no assurance that it would smash open the West Wall or that Germany would not defend every inch of ground, as Goebbels had promised, to the last man.
There still was little indication of a walkaway when the jump across the Roer River was made. The spearheading 3rd Armd. Div. threw a bridge across the Erft Canal near Bergheim, whose ancient gates stand astride the road to Cologne. Then the 391th took over the job of enlarging the bridgehead. When it had finished clearing the town and de-Krauting the woods, up went the sign: "You are now entering Bergheim, courtesy of the 395th Infantry Regiment.
Meanwhile, the 393rd and 394th bridged the Erft further downstream, all set to battle their way to the Rhine where it curves northwest from Cologne to Dusseldorf. Goebbels' "last man" also was on the run for the Rhine, and he had a pretty good headstart.
The 393rd, on the division left flank, swung. in a 20-mile arc toward Dusseldorf, spearheaded by Task Force Lueders,a specially designed armored unit commanded by Capt. Roy C. Lueders, Cincinnati, 99th Recon Troop, which included elements of the 786th Tank Bn. and the 629th TD Bn.
As the task force whipped northeast toward the Rhine, Sgt. Cliff "The Chief" Etsitty, Mexican Springs, N.M., herded a column of PWs as he rode on the back of a tank. The sergeant, a veteran of Attu and a member of 2nd Bn., 394th, was without a weapon. He had lost his rifle when an artillery shell landed near the tank and blasted off the other doughs riding on the armor. Because the tank was buttoned up, Etsitty couldn't inform tankers he was unarmed.
Almost before doughs could catch their breath, they had staked out a claim on the Rhine's west bank at Grimlinghausen. Capt. Felix Salmaggi's Co. K, 393rd, filled a bottle with Rhine water and sent it to Gen. Lauer as a memento of his return after 20 years to this world-famed and war-famed river.
It wasn't easy pickings. The 394th, in the center, was slowed up in the woods below Gohr while the 395th put up a stiff scrap before taking Delrath. Artillery changed the Germans' mind about defending the town and the regiments rolled through the ruins.
It was on the Rhine that the big guns of Lt. Col. John R. Brindley's 370th FA Bn., with 1st Lt. Percy J. Pace directing fire, caught two German ferries and a houseboat, sinking the craft for the division's biggest "naval" victory.
Checkerboarders were the first infantry division in First Army to reach the Rhine. They moved so fast that when a phone rang at a coal briquet factory at Neurath with the home office at Dusseldorf calling to find out where the Americans were, a lineman from the 99th Div. Sig. Co. offered first hand information. Beer still was on tap where division headquarters set up its mess at a gasthaus. The Battle Babies approached so fast that Germans had time to plant only a dozen mines between the Erft Canal and the Rhine.
The night was wet, miserable as doughs climbed on trucks and headed southeast. As they reached the hills above Remagen, they could sense history was being made nearby, that an ordeal was ahead.
T
HE crossing of the Ludendorff Bridge was a nightmare. Every 99th soldier who hiked or rode across this spidery steel framework with its squat brownish towers long will remember this operation. Underfoot were but a few unsteady planks and rails; overhead, nothing. Doughs felt naked in the sights of enemy guns.
First Sgt. Vernon A. Selters, South Sun Francisco, Co. L, 393rd, said: "The closer we got to the bridge the more scared I got. I wanted to run across but couldn't. The captain ahead of me had to walk, and I had to walk, and every man behind me had to walk. I'd heard of foxhole religion. Well, I believe that day I had bridgehead religion."
It was Saturday, March 10, the fourth day of the bridgehead drive, when the 394th led off across the river to relieve the 9th Inf. Div. just south of Linz. Division CP was set up the next day at the Gebrueder Blumenthal winery at Linz. Meanwhile, the 393rd took up the left flank of the division zone and hurled back two counter-attacks within a half hour. The 395th was held in Corps reserve.
Besides caring for the division's casualties at Linz, the 324th Med. Bn. furnished medical supplies and equipment for several hospitals filled with German soldiers and civilians.
As tired Battle Babies plunged on into the hills, they could well recall the perilous hours of forcing a foothold on the east bank of the majestic Rhine, as no invader had done since Napoleon's white-gaitered grenadiers. It had been a harrowing, frightening experience.
I
N the week that followed, the 99th played a vital part in expanding the bridgehead from a precarious grasp to a broad, firm grip on Festung Germania. The 394th drove south beyond Honningen. Col. James K. Woolnough's 393rd pushed east to the Wied River over the toughest terrain it ever had encountered. In advancing two miles, the regiment covered four miles uphill, another three miles down.
The Wied was no bed of water lilies, either. By midnight, March 22, the three regiments were abreast and after Brig. Gen. Frederick H. Black's artillery unleashed a 30-minute barrage, doughs slid down cliffs and waded the hip-deep river. Taking a brief but heavy shelling as they sloshed up the east bank toward their first objectives, the regiments gained momentum. By dawn, these same Battle Babies reached the Cologne-Frankfurt superhighway. With this last ribbon cut, the prize package of the inner Reich was ripped wide open.