WWII vet Dan Yolo of Santa Rosa reluctantly remembers Remagen

Retired trucker Dan Yolo, 91, was standing on the strategic Rhine River span when it crumpled into the Rhine in 1945.|

Recall ever hearing of the Ludendorff Bridge in Germany?

Little remains of the long, steel railroad bridge today, 71 years after it popped and groaned and twisted and shook amid a lull in a historic and ironic World War II combat bombardment, then collapsed into the Rhine River.

Santa Rosa native Dan Yolo stood on it just then. As a U.S. Army sergeant only 20 years old, Yolo didn’t immediately take in the great significance of the moment, which came as Adolf Hitler’s beleaguered forces resorted to extreme efforts to destroy their own grand bridge in order to deny the Allies the use of it as a gateway to Germany’s heartland.

Former Santa Rosa High School student Yolo did the only reasonable thing to be done.

“I put it in high gear and took off,” said the now 91-year-old retired, self-employed trucker.

As Yolo recalls those few seconds on the afternoon of March 17, 1945, he ran toward one end of the convulsing bridge. How exactly he got off of it he’s not sure, but he found himself down on the bank, at the water’s edge.

Men were screaming. Yolo was directly responsible for the 14 Army engineers he’d supervised as they did what they could to repair the bridge after the Germans attacked it day after day for 10 days with planted explosives, aerial bombs, mortar shells, anything they could muster. The effort to destroy the bridge even included the first tactical launching of Hitler’s menacing if imprecise V-2 ballistic missile.

Hauling himself up from the bank, Sgt. Yolo joined the effort to rescue injured soldiers and recover those bodies that could be found. Historical accounts of the destruction of Ludendorff Bridge say there were about 200 Army engineers on it when it tumbled and of those, 28 were killed and 93 wounded.

Yolo assisted a fellow sergeant, a man he knew well. Yolo said his buddy seemed shaken but OK, but died not long later. Yolo wonders still if he’d suffered a lethal concussion.

When he could, Yolo went to gather his unit. Of his 14 men, all but four were wounded or killed.

At some point before moving on to his next assignment, Yolo took a last look at the wreckage of the Ludendorff Bridge, the destruction of which made the front pages of newspapers across America, as had the U.S. capture of the span less than two weeks earlier.

Reported war correspondent and future “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney on March 18, 1945, “The Ludendorff Bridge crumpled into the Rhine River yesterday afternoon, 10 days to the hour after the Ninth Armored Division captured it and crossed the river.”

A story on Page 1 of The Press Democrat on March 20 noted that Yolo had told a reporter with United Press International that the collapse of the bridge “was quick. Damned quick. It piled up just like match sticks. I never saw anything like it in my life, and I never want to again.”

Reflecting on how he felt about the loss of the span, Yolo said, “I didn’t give a damn about the bridge. It’s the men you lose. You never get them back.”

Through most of the past seven decades, Yolo has avoided talking about his role in World War II in general and about the deadly battle of the bridge at Remagen in particular. For years, his late wife, Margaret “Peggy” Ann (Batten) Yolo, a member of the Analy High School class of 1949, coached their three daughters and one son to let the subject lie.

But recently some of Yolo’s 16 grandchildren and great-grandchildren expressed interest in what he did in the war, and he has opened up. Though he has never involved himself in veterans organizations or activities, Yolo plans to ride in Friday’s Veterans Day parade in Petaluma.

He and history are aware that the sacrifices made at the Ludendorff Bridge may have hastened the end of the war in Europe. Within the first 24 hours of establishing the bridgehead at Remagen, American officers who oversaw the invasion of Europe at Normandy the previous June and at a historic cost overcame a German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge and moved almost 8,000 troops and many armored vehicles and trucks across the great defensive barrier that was the Rhine.

The taking of the nearly 1,100-foot bridge and the U.S. incursion deep into Germany buoyed the Allies and demoralized the Nazis. Enraged at his depleted troops’ failure to defend the bridge and then destroy it ahead of its capture, Hitler ordered the execution of five German officers he blamed for the defeat at Remagen.

Though the bombardment-weakened bridge did collapse, the Allied advance across the Rhine continued on pontoon bridges assembled by Army engineers.

Forty-four days after the fall of the Ludendorff Bridge, on April 30, Hitler was dead. On May 7, Germany surrendered.

The importance of America’s capture and defense of the bridge prompted a lieutenant colonel, Edgar Bell, to write in his diary that the Rhine River span was “the most valuable structure ever owned by the U.S. Army.”

The tale of the battle provided the grist for the 1969, highly fictionalized Hollywood movie, “The Bridge at Remagen,” starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn.

With the war’s end, Dan Yolo returned to Santa Rosa and for a time worked on his parents’ egg farm on Fulton Road. Later he and his brother, Charlie, bought a surplus Chevrolet two-axle truck and commenced hauling and selling hay. From that grew Yolo Brothers Trucking, which the combat veteran worked for decades.

Yolo said the country needed soldiers for World War II so he went and he followed orders, including those to do whatever possible to keep the besieged bridge at Remagen upright and capable of handling traffic. He knows he could easily have been among the young Army engineers who were killed when, despite their best efforts, the weakened span fell.

“But I lucked out and I’m still here,” Yolo said. He’d like to blast the Ludendorff Bridge from his mind, but he suspects that after 71 years it’s likely to remain.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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