70 years later, Durham veteran recalls historic World War II battle
Posted March 6, 2015 6:08 p.m. EST
Updated March 6, 2015 6:17 p.m. EST
Durham County, N.C. — Sunday marks the 70th anniversary of a critical battle in the final months of World War II.
On March 8, 1945, American soldiers captured the Bridge at Remagen – a railroad bridge over the Rhine River in Germany – allowing Allied Forces to swiftly advance into the country's industrial heartland and hasten the end of the war in Europe.
One of the first soldiers on that bridge was Ralph Denson, a 19-year-old who grew up on a Fuquay-Varina tobacco farm. Drafted into the war a year earlier, he was serving in the 47th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division.
"We didn't know that we were going to cross that bridge until they told us (that morning)," Denson, now 89 and living in Durham, said Friday. "(Four days later), we got across, and we fought hand-to-hand."
Despite the gunfire and German air attacks, Denson suffered no injuries, but he did see many fellow soldiers lose their lives to bullets.
"We come back as veterans, but we're not the heroes," Denson said. "The heroes are laying over there now, buried over there now. They're the ones who sent us back home, really."
After he crossed the Rhine River, Denson and his unit made it to Dachau – one of Germany's first concentration camps. He took photographs so future generations would not forget the sheer evil carried out there.
The memories still bring him to tears.
"It's something that you try to get out of your mind, but it's always there," he said. "It's just so heartbreaking."
Eventually, he returned home and met Betty, his wife of more than 60 years.
Last summer, Denson returned to Europe, revisiting the places he had only before seen as a young G.I. in battle. He stood on the bridge over the Rhine, where he says the tears flowed.
"I just had to walk off. I couldn't stay there," he said.