Monument pays tribute to role of engineer battalion in WWII Rhine crossing
By DAN STOUTAMIRE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 25, 2017
NIERSTEIN, Germany — This small town on the banks of the Rhine witnessed acts of extraordinary ingenuity and courage 72 years ago this week, when U.S. Army engineers built a 1,000-foot pontoon bridge in less than 24 hours.
Saturday, that contribution to the defeat of the Nazi regime and peace in Europe was commemorated with the dedication of a granite-and-bronze monument in honor of the men of the 249th Engineer Battalion, which constructed the bridge in the face of a nearby enemy and under fire from German artillery and aircraft.
The bridge’s construction enabled sections of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to cross the Rhine and begin moving through Germany’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Less than two months later, the war in Europe was over.
“With the enemy only 400 yards away, it was a stealth project and no noise was permitted,” World War II veteran Robert Shelato said at the dedication. The initial waves of engineers had to cross the river by paddling across so as to maintain silence – no motorized craft were permitted until later. Shelato, 92, lives in Fort Meyers, Fla. He was 19 at the time of the crossing, and was joined Saturday by four generations of his family. He recalled how three German planes attacked the construction site, all of them dropping bombs, though only one did any damage.
“You’ve honored and humbled me by your invitation,” he said to Nierstein officials present at the dedication. “I’d like to express my appreciation to all the volunteers who made this memorial a success.”
The idea for the monument has around for years, said Gerry McCarthy, the president of the 249th Engineer Battalion Association. But the project began in earnest in July 2015 when he and others from the association met with Nierstein officials.
Donations from the Ralph and Luci Schey Foundation contributed the lion’s share of the monument’s nearly $40,000 price tag. Ralph Schey, who passed away in 2011, served in the battalion in World War II alongside Shelato, and his widow Luci was in attendance.
The central theme at the dedication Saturday was unity, with all speakers commenting on how important the relationship between the United States and Germany has become in the 72 years since the war.
It’s reflected in the architecture of the monument, which stands between the German and American flags, and has bronze plaques in both German and English on its granite face.
“It’s very extraordinary because it looks so beautiful,” McCarthy said, fighting back tears. “I didn’t realize how beautiful it would be.”
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, aka Thomas Goode, talks to World War II veteran Robert Shelato at the dedication ceremony for the World War II Rhine River crossing monument in Nierstein, Germany, Saturday, March 25, 2017. Shelato, with the 249th Engineer Battalion, bridged the Rhine in March 1945, letting Patton's 3rd Army cross into the heart of Germany. Goode is a teacher at Ramstein High School.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES