The bedraggled men in an advance patrol of the U.S. 9th Armored Division could scarcely believe their eyes: After fighting their way through the maze of Eifel valleys, they discovered they had stumbled across the last intact bridge spanning the Rhine.

The sturdy iron and wood structure had survived repeated demolition attempts by its Nazi defenders, who were retreating after a failed offensive in the Ardennes. The prospect of seizing such a key supply link across the river made the bridge, in the words of general Dwight D. Eisenhower, "worth its weight in gold."

The unexpected capture of the Remagen Bridge on March 7, 1945, enabled the Americans to shove 25,000 combat troops across the river before the structure collapsed 10 days later. It established the first Allied bridgehead into the heart of Nazi Germany and hastened the demise of Hitler's regime.

Forty years later, hundreds of American and German soldiers who participated in the crucial battle at Remagen gathered here for a poignant reunion at the foot of the twin stone towers on the west bank of the Rhine. The bridge itself was never rebuilt, and the towers now serve as a peace museum and a memorial to those who died in the fighting.

Gazing across the river in the chilly fog, many of the veterans reminisced about the assault and shuddered when they thought about the dangers they courted in taking the bridge.

Ex-sergeant Alex Drabik, 74, the first American to cross the Rhine, recalled racing along the 350-yard span and expecting to get hit by withering machine-gun fire or blown up by a detonation mine. "It felt like an eternity, I was shaking the whole way," said the retired laborer from Toledo, Ohio. "I never thought I would make history."

"This time around, it's safe to walk around here," Grabik added. "It sure beats shooting at each other."

With the swapping of stories about fear, heroism and camaraderie, a sense of peace and reconciliation seemed to prevail in the encounters between the Germans and Americans who fought so bitterly against each other 40 years ago.

"This is an intensely private and difficult period for Germans," said William Woessner, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn. "There is hardly a German alive over the age of 50 who does not bear scars, either psychic or physical, from that dark era."

Michael Chinchar, another former sergeant who took out the machine-gun nests in the towers and made it safe for other soldiers to stream across the bridge, said, "The Germans are glad to see us back, because they are celebrating along with us this time as friends."

Many of the U.S. veterans seemed solicitous of German sensitivities about the approaching May 8 anniversary of the Nazi surrender. In commemorating the closing events of the war, Germans have become embroiled in an emotional struggle to reconcile joy over the collapse of Hitler's tyranny and lingering sorrow over the defeat and division of their nation.

"They know they lost, and there are a lot of mixed feelings on their side," said John Terral, a lieutenant in the war who is from Lake Providence, La. "It's like with us in the South; we lost a war, and the wounds took a long time to heal."

Friedrich Hoppe, a German pilot who was shot down in a bombing raid near Remagen, was badly burned when his plane caught fire. He said he came to the reunion to meet Americans who shared a common experience as former soldiers. "We had to do our duty for our country, just as the Americans had to do theirs," he said.

David Keith, a former U.S. Army medic who recalls rescuing 26 men on the first-day assault on the bridge, said he was surprised at the royal hospitality accorded the visiting Americans by their German hosts.

He turned to embrace Hans Peter Kuerten, the mayor of Remagen, and said, "These people are now our friends, and you don't go around cheering a victory over friends."

Kuerten said he conceived the idea of a reunion as a way of burying past enmity and toasting 40 years of "peace and friendship" between Germans and Americans.

"Nobody would have thought this was possible 40 years ago," Kuerten said. "Two formidable enemies, now working together as allies, friends and partners."

Kuerten also came up with the idea of a memorial to those who died in the battle for the famous bridge. When no money was forthcoming from governments or private donors, he decided to sell off small pieces of the stone pilings. The town reaped $30,000 from the souvenir sales to pay for the memorial.

Today, in the climax to the ceremonies, ex-GIs Keith and Drabik laid a wreath before a new plaque embedded in the stone towers that pays homage to the American contingents involved in taking the bridge. The motto reads, "To the quick and the brave belong the reward."