REMAGEN, West Germany -- When Alex Drabik first saw the Remagen bridge 40 years ago, he was running for his life under a hail of German bullets. On Thursday, he was surrounded by friends -- American and German -- as he laid a wreath at the bridge's ruins.
On March 7, 1945, Drabik, a former U.S. Army sergeant, and his American comrades seized the only intact bridge across the Rhine River at Remagen and gained a strategic foothold in the heartland of Hitler's crumbling Third Reich.
About 700 people, many of them veterans of the historic battle, huddled in a chilling fog Thursday for an anniversary ceremony organized by Remagen Mayor Hans Peter Kuerten as a gesture of peace and reconciliation.
Some 134 aging veterans and their wives, all wearing powder-blue baseball caps emblazoned with the wartime 9th Armored Division ensignia, sang the Star Spangled Banner to the strains of a military band and waved tiny American flags.
A smaller group of Germans, including a few who once defended Remagen's Ludendorff Bridge, sang the German anthem -- Deutschland Ueber Alles -- when their turn came.
'Never again will we go to war to settle our differences. We must learn to live together as friends and allies,' said retired U.S. Army Col. Leonhard Engemann, who led the task force that took the bridge.
In his speech, Dieter Wuerzbach of the West German Defense Ministry said, 'This bridge is a symbol of freedom, peace and reconciliation that far transcends the borders of Germany and Europe.'
Albert Wirshoven was one of a few German Remagen veterans who Kuerten persuaded to return. Wirshoven was only 18 when he was captured as his unit executed one of Hitler's desperate orders to destroy or retake the bridge from the Americans.
'I came to find old comrades,' he said.
When the span collapsed 10 days later under the weight of eastbound U.S. convoys, Germany's defeat was already imminent.
Drabik, of Toledo, Ohio, and former medic David Keith of Drexel, Pa., placed a flowered wreath at the bridge in the name of fallen friends and foes. A plaque unveiled by the U.S. veterans on the bridge towers said the daring capture 'hastened the end of World War II in Europe.'
Drabik, 74, and Sgt. Michael Chinchar, 67, of Saddle Brook, N.J., were the first infantrymen to dash across the bridge under fire as German defenders tried vainly to blow it up. Both men won Distinguished Service Crosses for their valor.
'I just ran. I didn't think about being blown up,' Drabik said. 'I just wanted to get to the other side.'