The Pianist at the Bridge

Originally published March 3, 2020

Alex Bongiorno was a brilliant pianist, the sort of precocious talent who could move an entire room with the beauty of his play, and no one was prouder of her Alex than his mother. Every Christmas, she would beam with pride as young Alex would play carols for the family in their home in West Allis. They were happy, and the future seemed bright.

But the darkness of the world intervened and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Alex was just 19, but his country needed him. The world needed him, and every other bright, talented young man like him to stop the advancing darkness.

Alex enlisted and was assigned to General George Patton’s Third Army and quickly rose through the ranks to become a sergeant with the 204th Engineer Combat Battalion. He found that he was as adept at building and fixing things on the battlefield as he was at the piano at home, and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge as Patton’s Army tore through Europe and beat the forces of darkness all the way back to Germany.

The war was nearing its end, but victory was far from certain. Hitler’s troops were retreating back to Berlin to regroup and Patton’s Army couldn’t let rebuild his war machine. The Third Army follow them and end the darkness once and for all.

The 204th Engineers led the way, fortifying roads and building bridges to quite literally pave the way to victory. One footbridge over a stream in particular was critical. Thousands of troops needed to cross or else the mission would be compromised. The push to Berlin hinged on the building of that bridge.

The Germans realized this, too, though, and tried to destroy it. Alex’s company came under heavy fire. Fixing the bridge would be impossible. Even trying would mean certain death. As his men took cover, Alex decided that he knew what had to be done.

He grabbed his tools.

Wading into the stream, he drew the enemy’s fire immediately. His men provided cover as best they could but bullets whizzed by him with each step he took. He faced certain death, but he couldn't stop. The bridge was just a few feet away and the mission, the march to Berlin, perhaps the fate of the war and even the world were at stake.

Alex reached the bridge and with bullets still landing just inches from him, got to work. The seconds felt like hours, the minutes like days, but the bridge was fixed, the mission was saved. Allied forces could continue their march to Berlin and Alex was the reason why.

But he never got the chance to be thanked. As he made his way back to the shore, enemy bullets cut him down. He was just 22 years old.

Back home in West Allis, his mother was devastated when word reached her. The world was saved, but her world, it seemed, was over. For years, she refused to believe that he was gone--preferring instead to think that he was just missing and might come home any day. Still, deep down, she knew. For years, she stopped celebrating Christmas because she couldn't bring herself to listen to the silence where Alex's carols once filled their home.

Their piano was silenced forever, but Alex's sacrifice--on March 3rd, 1945, 75 years ago today--allowed the world to sing again. Two months later, Germany surrendered. The war in Europe was won. The darkness was vanquished forever.

And all because talented young men sacrificed everything, just like Alex Bongiorno, the pianist who built the bridge to victory.

How does Dan know so much about Alex? Because Alex was Dan's mother's cousin and has been a family legend for 76 years. Today, however, his story belongs to the country he helped save from the forces of darkness and this entire series, "Forgotten History," is dedicated to him.