An ordinary Army combat engineer of World War II became a legend in the sporting world.
In March 1945, Staff Sgt. Warren Spahn, 23, of the 276th Combat Engineer Battalion, and hundreds of other soldiers were working feverishly to shore up the Bridge at Remagen on the Rhine River in Germany.
The span, whose formal name was the Ludendorff Bridge, had been captured by armored units on March 7 after the Germans tried to blow it up, but somehow it had withstood the blast. The next days were spent getting a few groups of soldiers across the Rhine while trying to repair the weakened span, while other engineer units worked to construct pontoon bridges nearby amid floodwaters, German attempts to float bombs on the water, artillery fire and attacks from Messerschmitt jets, a new arrival in the war.
On March 17, Spahn was ready to lead a security detail onto the span to protect engineer repair crews. Suddenly, without warning, the heavily damaged 1,000-foot bridge collapsed, killing 28 engineers and injuring 93.
“In only a matter of minutes, I would have been on that thing,” Spahn said in a 1985 interview with Tom Mueller of the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper. The story appears in "Building the Bridges to Victory," Mueller's book (published in 2007 and expanded in 2011) about a different combat engineer battalion.
Eleven of those killed were in Spahn’s battalion. According to www.abmc.gov, eight are buried in Europe and three are on MIA walls there. They include Maj. James Foley of Rhode Island, who is buried in the U.S. cemetery at Margraten, the Netherlands. Any soldier whose body was returned to America is not in the database of foreign burials and MIAs, so perhaps even more in Spahn’s battalion died that day.
“The rivets popped out … and it sounded like machine-gun fire. We thought we were under attack,” Spahn told Mueller as part of a story about ordinary soldiers and sailors who became prominent in Wisconsin in the following decades, including a governor.
Spahn said he entered the military after appearing in four games in the 1942 season, his debut year. He returned to baseball and the Boston Braves in 1946 and had an 8-5 record, appearing in 24 games. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and Spahn helped lead them to a World Series title in 1957.
By the time he retired in 1964 at the age of 44. Spahn had won 363 games, which is still, by far, the most for any left-hander. It is hard to conceive that anyone will ever surpass him – No. 2 is Steve Carlton, who had 329 victories in a 24-year career that ended in 1988.
Spahn died in 2003 at the age of 82.
“Building the Bridges to Victory" is on the home page of this website. It is not available on the Internet; it is for sale only from the author.