Last Man Across

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Alex Kershaw
March 7, 2024

Paul Priest is the last survivor of the Americans who fought their way across the legendary Ludendorff Bridge on 7 March 1945.

I happened upon a Wikipedia entry the other day. I was researching notable “last living WWII survivors”. Someone has been diligent – filling in the date of death for each person. So very few in a long list are still alive. One of them jumped out at me: “Paul Priest, 25 December 1925, aged 98, last surviving veteran of the Battle of Remagen."

Paul Priest, “last surviving veteran of the Battle of Remagen.”

I did a fast search and found Priest’s telephone number and called him. He was in a good mood, sharp, and his hearing was okay – so often I have to shout to make myself understood as the last of the Greatest Generation near or pass the century mark.

Priest lucidly told me his remarkable story, just in time for the anniversary this 7th March of one of the most thrilling and significant actions of WWII: the seizure of the Ludendorff Bridge by Priest’s reconnaissance unit from the 9th Armored Division.

Priest remembers being told early on 7 March 1945 to get to the bridge, the last left standing across the river, as quickly as possible with his platoon. He was an unruly soldier from Flint, Michigan, who’d been promoted to corporal and then busted back down to Pfc. - more than once. Yet he was also agile and gutsy, “the type needed,” he remembers. “I didn’t get lost in the woods at night. On patrols, I always carried just a pistol, not a rifle – that was too heavy."

Troops from the 9th Armored Division crossing the Ludendorff Bridge on 7 March 1945.

It was early afternoon on 7 March when Priest approached the bridge with fellow members of A Company, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion. Accompanying Pershing tanks ground to a halt due to a large crater at the western end of the bridge. Lt. Karl Timmermann, who had been born in Germany in 1922, then led Priest’s platoon onto the bridge around 1530 hours. Priest and his buddies were to sprint across and provide covering fire for others who would cut wires and kick demolition charges off the bridge.

2nd Lt. Karl Timmermann, the first American officer to cross the bridge.

US troops crossing the bridge.

Machine gun bullets filled the air. Priest scrambled from girder to girder but then he heard a massive explosion – the Germans had detonated charges on the eastern side of the bridge. Miraculously, it seemed, the bridge lifted into the air and then dropped back, still standing.

Priest pushed on through dust and smoke and a hail of bullets. Ahead of him ran squad leader Sergeant Alexander Drabnik who, at about 1545 hours, became the first American across. Priest soon followed. German machine guns were silenced and engineers quickly got to work, covering holes so that armored vehicles could cross. Priest found time to paint words on a piece of planking and then place it close to the bridge: “Cross the Rhine with dry feet/courtesy of 9th Armd Div.”

General Omar Bradley was overjoyed when he learned that afternoon that the 9th Armored had taken the bridge. Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower was also utterly delighted when Bradley contacted him with the news.

“Brad, that’s wonderful.”

Bradley wanted to get as many men and vehicles across as possible before the bridge was blown or collapsed.

“Sure,” agreed Eisenhower, “get right on across with everything you’ve got. It’s the best break we’ve had.”

That evening, the mother of Priest’s commanding officer, Lt. Timmermann, answered a long-distance telephone call. Marie Timmermann had reason to be nervous. She had close family in the Third Reich – two brothers were fighting for Germany. Two of her sons were in combat on the US side.  

“Your son Karl has just crossed the Remagen bridge,” said a reporter. “You know what that means?”

“I know what it means to me: Is he hurt?"

“No, he's not hurt. But listen to this: Karl Timmermann was the first officer of an invading army to cross the Rhine River since Napoleon.”

“Napoleon I don't care about,” she replied. “How is my Karl?”

He was just fine. He would go on to fight in Korea having received the DSC for his actions that day, 7 March 1945.

Within 24 hours, over 8000 US troops would join Marie  Timmermann’s son on the eastern banks of the Rhine.

Hitler was understandably furious when he heard about the American crossing. Why hadn’t the Ludendorff Bridge been destroyed? Field Marshal von Rundstedt, commander of German forces on the Western Front, was fired. Others were summarily shot.

Everything possible was done to destroy the bridge, the last of forty that had spanned the Rhine. Frogmen were deployed. V2 rockets were fired. More than three hundred German aircraft attacked, including the world’s first turbo-jet bombers. On 17 March 1945, the seemingly indestructible bridge collapsed. By then, the US had put nine divisions across.

Troops inspect the bridge after it collapsed on 17 March 1945.

In the meantime, Priest had been hit in the helmet by a bullet but was soon back in action. He says he saw the remnants of the bridge after it finally broke apart, killing 28 and wounding more than 90 engineers who were working on it at the time.

After the war, Priest returned to Michigan and worked as a carpet installer. In 2020, he returned to Remagen and gazed at the blackened remains with his wife, Joan, who sadly passed away not long after – the couple had been married for seventy-five years. Recently, he signed two hundred and fifty replica road-signs with REMAGEN emblazoned on them.

The remains of the bridge today.

Priest says his “legs are shot”, meaning he can’t walk any more, but he’ll return to Europe for the 80th anniversary of D Day this June and be the only veteran in his party who actually fought into Germany. “I’m proud of what we did,” he says. “We helped end the war.”

What will he do to commemorate the crossing this 7 March? “I’ll wake up and tell myself: “Hey, it’s a beautiful day.” Every day, I’m just glad to be alive.”

Friends will be visiting the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen this fall on our The Last Battles Tour. For further information, please visit: