EDITOR’S NOTE: Ken Hechler, a Long Island, N.Y., native who found success working in D.C. and went on to represent West Virginia in Congress and serve as West Virginia Secretary of State. Today, he is 99 and living in Hampshire County. Among his books are 1957’s “The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945” and “Hero of the Rhine: The Karl Timmermann Story” in 2004.
SLANESVILLE – Lt. Karl Timmermann was the company commander of the World War II task force that under heavy fire on March 7, 1945, captured the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge between Cologne and Koblenz, Germany. The last Rhine River bridge still standing, the Germans had rigged it for demolition.
Journalists called the bridge capture the “Miracle of Remagen,” and Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower described the bridge as “worth its weight in gold.” His actions saved the lives of thousands of American soliders and shortened the war in Europe.
Karl and all the troops he’d led were replaced by fresh troops. They came back to a defensive position close to a wine cellar where they had nothing to do but talk about their exploit while drinking wine, a perfect situation for my on-the-spot interviews.
I learned that Karl had been born in Germany to a no-account father. In 1919, just before he was to be sentenced for nonpayment of his debts, Nebraska-born John Henry Timmermann had fled the scene. He’d enlisted in the Army, where he was immediately assigned to the occupation army in Germany.
He deserted that work to engage in one-night stands with available German war widows. After Maria Weisbecker became pregnant, he was forced at gunpoint to get married. They named the child who arrived June 19, 1922, Karl. The American Friends Service Committee befriended the poverty-stricken family and paid their way to America. Maria felt too seasick even to nurse little Karl. They left Le Havre in December 1923 and arrived at Ellis Island in early 1924, prompting her to lament: “I was two years on the ocean!”
They eventually wound up in West Point, Neb., where Karl joined the Citizens Military Training Corps while attending Guardian Angels School, where he earned his high school diploma in 1940. Years later when Maria received a phone call from the Omaha World Herald informing her that her oldest son was a hero who had led the first assault crossing of the Rhine since Napoleon. She answered: “Napoleon, I don’t care about! How’s my Karl?”
On the 10th anniversary of the bridge capture, I persuaded President Eisenhower to invite the Distinguished Service Cross winners for a White House commemoration. Unfortunately, Karl was no longer alive. Missing the challenges of the Army, he had re-enlisted in the military in 1947 and had taken part in the Korean War, but had his career cut short when he was diagnosed with cancer.
Only 29, he died Oct. 21, 1951, in an Army hospital at Fort Logan in Colorado.
Though buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery with full military honors, Karl was not properly honored in West Point for years, perhaps because many remembered his father’s long-ago desertion.
But an enterprising veterans service officer named Bob Westouval organized a belated celebration in West Point in 1965. On that Memorial Day, the overflow crowd included Nebraska’s governor and other dignitaries as well as family members including Karl’s widow LaVera and his daughter Gay.
Westouval also arranged for a public park and a river bridge in West Point to be named in Timmermann’s memory. Timmermann Theater at Fort Dix, N.J., is named for him as well. Many of the members of the company commanded by Karl spent the rest of their lives singing his praises and in 1995, the Lt. Karl H. Timmermann Memorial was erected with fanfare in Timmermann Park.