I rented a car, and marked our route of flight on the map, using the circles, triangles, and squares with which we laid out a military mission. It was a short drive to my old base, which had been deactivated. I stared at the hardened aircraft shelters, large domed concrete structures. They could be destroyed only by a direct hit with a powerful bomb.
I drove northeast, passing south of Frankfurt, and stopped along what had been the border between the two Germanys. Walking along the remnants of the wall, I watched a team removing land mines. I also climbed into one of the guard towers that had been maintained by the East Germans and thought about what that tower represented.
I could feel myself tense up. Certainly there was no reason to do so; everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. But I still felt I was in enemy territory. What would we have seen from 500 feet or lower, traveling at 350 mph? Part of the flight would have been across a wide valley. I looked up at the ridges on each side and envisioned the anti-aircraft guns and missile sites the enemy would have set up there.
I drove into the hills that surrounded the target. Approaching a ridge, I remembered this would have been the point at which I would have split my flight for the attack. Then I rounded a turn, and there was the bridge—old, tired, and still in use.
I stopped the car and got out. As two stout horses pulling a hay wagon passed by, the farmer waved and shouted a greeting in German, which I returned in English. He gave me a surprised look and continued on. Hearing a train approaching, I walked up a path to the bridge. As the train passed, the ground rumbled slightly.
I laid out my map. There was higher terrain to the east, but the ridge fell off to the north. I could envision how we would have attacked from different directions. I could trace how we would have maneuvered our aircraft and where the bombs would have fallen. I could see them hit the bridge, and the bridge falling on the road below.
Over the years, I have visited many battlefields. This was a battlefield of a different sort: one from a war that had not been fought. Had World War III erupted, what would this relatively minor action have meant? It would have been, at best, a one-line entry in an operational report, noting that because a bridge had been dropped, the advance of the Soviet 8th Guards Army in one sector had been slightly delayed. Then again, most all wars are accumulations of countless minor actions.
I tried to recall the other three pilots in my flight, then realized I had strayed into a gray area. As a historian, I could deal with the bridge. But by recalling those pilots, I was personalizing the mission. Now when I looked up and saw the circling A-10s, there were men in them, with names and faces and families.
I could see the enemy anti-aircraft guns and missile sites on the high ground. I could see crews firing long bursts of deadly rounds. I could hear the whooosh of the missiles as they streaked skyward with their warheads, seeking our maneuvering aircraft.
We would have made desperate warning calls to one another. The airplanes would have shuddered as the shells and missiles found their marks. In terms of a world war, this bridge was a minor matter. But to us, the men assigned to destroy it, the mission could have been the final event of our lives.