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He covered my head

By Peter J. Dahlberg

Editor’s note: In anticipation of Veteran’s Day on November 11, readers are encouraged to pray for those who continue to defend our nation in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world.

It was utter devastation! March 12, 1945, stands out as more terrifying than anything we had previously experienced during World War II. Our Company L, 309th Regiment, part of the 78th Infantry Division, had just crossed the Rhine River in our march across Germany during the final months of the war. Although their defeat was imminent, the German soldiers still offered stiff resistance. They tenaciously defended this last natural barrier by blowing up all the bridges. Only one bridge remained intact, the Ludendorff Bridge at the little town of Remagen.

We marched all night to reach the bridge, which had been captured by the Allies a few days before in a surprisingly swift move. The 78th Division was then called upon to take advantage of the unexpected achievement. It was a dramatic sight in early morning looking down from the hills just above Remagen and seeing the bridge below. In the heavy overcast a German dive bomber broke through the clouds, dropping its bomb in a vain attempt to demolish the bridge. We watched as the bomb overshot its mark, falling harmlessly into the river.

The Ludendorff Bridge had been built years before as a railroad bridge. Upon capturing it, American soldiers placed heavy planks across the rails to facilitate crossing by infantry, tanks, trucks and jeeps. We got to the bridge and paused momentarily, waiting for a lull in shells striking the superstructure. We then dashed across and soon occupied the little village of Erpel on the far side.

A little later, returning from a brief night patrol, sleep came fitfully. Artillery shells continually rocked the house we occupied. Early next morning we moved forward, intent on taking a hill from which another unit had been driven back the day before. Heavy fog lay over the landscape obscuring our vision. We captured a few German soldiers who warned of strong resistance ahead. Upon reaching the top of the hill, orders were given to spread out and dig in. My squad leader, Sgt. Luther Raine, just ahead and to my right, signaled me to join him in a shell hole, which offered some protection and also made digging far easier. The other men in our platoon hurriedly moved out across the open area to our left, little realizing what awaited.

My squad leader and I removed our backpacks and started digging when suddenly the fog lifted. Rifle and machine gun fire immediately began sweeping the hillside. Our men in the open had no chance of escape. I ducked low in the shell hole and began firing back, when suddenly a bullet careened off my steel helmet making a crease on the right side. An inch or two further toward center would have been fatal — a direct hit could penetrate steel helmets quite easily.

Almost as quickly as it had lifted, the fog again settled down. Gunfire ceased. All was quiet except for agonizing cries of strong men in the throes of death. It is a sound that will always haunt me. No wonder war has been likened to hell. After a few minutes my squad leader, badly shaken by it all, said, “Let’s get out of here; we’ll never survive otherwise!” With that he leaped for a hedge row nearby. I followed closely behind him. We had gone only a few steps when a mortar shell burst directly in front of us, knocking us both to the ground. Picking myself up, I felt as if I had been hit over my entire body. I was certain this was it, but soon discovered my wounds were superficial, with nothing but a trickle of blood running down my face.

My squad leader lay completely still, except for heavy breathing. His steel helmet lay on the ground beside him. He was bleeding profusely from a huge gaping wound that had removed a portion of his skull. Totally unconscious, he continued breathing heavily. Although I knew nothing could save him, I removed his first-aid bandage and placed it over the flowing wound, then watched as strength left his body and he breathed his last. Looking at my hands I saw that they were covered with his blood. A strong young man lay dead. I’ve often thought of a wife and two small children back in Louisiana who never had the joy of welcoming him home.

Somewhat in a daze, I wandered back to the area we so recently left. One of our tanks rolled up and a tank observer came to meet me on foot. He inquired as to where the enemy was entrenched. After I pointed out the direction some 100 yards away he relayed the message to the tank gunner who lobbed two or three shells into the area. Moments later a stream of 70 to 80 German soldiers dressed in long overcoats, hands upraised and placed behind their heads, came streaming out of the wooded area.

The battle was over, but at a heavy cost of precious lives. The price of freedom is always great. Nearly half our platoon lay dead on the field. Later that day their bodies were carried off and laid side by side, almost like cordwood. But these were human beings, my close friends whom I had come to know and love. During the next few days we tried to regroup and kept moving on. The war wasn’t over and there would be more battles to fight, more lives that would be lost, but nothing would ever quite compare to that day.

I can’t help but believe that God helped us gain victory over Hitler and his powerful forces, and I am alive today by God’s grace alone. Surely He “covered my head in the day of battle” (Psalm 140:7, KJV) and that covering was far more effective than steel. Of this I am certain: God was with me all the way. Why my life was spared while others’ were taken I may never know; but He evidently had a purpose. With whatever strength He gives me I will try to follow as best I can and live according to His great plan. No matter how long I live I will always remember that day when the fog so suddenly lifted. I will be eternally grateful.  

Peter J. Dahlberg served as a Veterans Administration and South Dakota State Veterans chaplain for almost 30 years and has been a minister since 1948. He currently serves as seniors pastor at Bethel Assembly of God in Rapid City, S.D., and as the South Dakota Seniors Ministries Director for the Assemblies of God.

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