Army Rangers on D-Day

/*! elementor – v3.21.0 – 26-05-2024 */ .elementor-heading-title{padding:0;margin:0;line-height:1}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title[class*=elementor-size-]>a{color:inherit;font-size:inherit;line-height:inherit}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title.elementor-size-small{font-size:15px}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title.elementor-size-medium{font-size:19px}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title.elementor-size-large{font-size:29px}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title.elementor-size-xl{font-size:39px}.elementor-widget-heading .elementor-heading-title.elementor-size-xxl{font-size:59px} by Tom Clavin /*! elementor – v3.21.0 – 26-05-2024 */ .elementor-widget-text-editor.elementor-drop-cap-view-stacked .elementor-drop-cap{background-color:#69727d;color:#fff}.elementor-widget-text-editor.elementor-drop-cap-view-framed .elementor-drop-cap{color:#69727d;border:3px solid;background-color:transparent}.elementor-widget-text-editor:not(.elementor-drop-cap-view-default) .elementor-drop-cap{margin-top:8px}.elementor-widget-text-editor:not(.elementor-drop-cap-view-default) .elementor-drop-cap-letter{width:1em;height:1em}.elementor-widget-text-editor .elementor-drop-cap{float:left;text-align:center;line-height:1;font-size:50px}.elementor-widget-text-editor .elementor-drop-cap-letter{display:inline-block} As many of you are aware, this week marks the 80thanniversary of D-Day, the event that irrevocably changed the war against Germany. Pretty […]

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by Tom Clavin

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As many of you are aware, this week marks the 80thanniversary of D-Day, the event that irrevocably changed the war against Germany. Pretty amazing to think that if a participating soldier was 18 at the time, he would be 98 today. Obviously, there are very few D-Day veterans left to continue to receive our thanks. What follows is an excerpt fromThe Last Hillby Bob Drury and yours truly. The book is about the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which was given an especially daunting mission on D-Day—scaling cliffs to knock out a German artillery position. For those of you thinking Father’s Day, The Last Hill is now available in paperback.

Hurtgen Rangers. Photo Credit: US Army Signal Corps

Dog Company’sSgt. Len Lomellhad a vague sense that he had somehow mixed in with men from Easy and Fox Companies as he grabbed a rope and began to pull himself up. He had even spotted two American paratroopers as he’d crossed the beach; where they had come from, he hadn’t a clue. The clay cliffs were slippery from the rain and wave froth and footing was treacherous. Chunks of the cliff face had been dislodged by the naval shelling, and whenever Lomell saw the barrel of a German gun extend over the precipice he tried to swing his rope toward the indentations for cover. Midway to the crest, Lomell saw a half-dozen Rangers on a nearby rope suddenly free fall back to the beach, still holding their severed line. He watched, horrified, as they bounced from ledges and rock outcroppings before landing with a series of thuds. He kept on climbing.

The first person Lomell ran into when he dragged himself over the precipice was an Easy Company Ranger standing on the lip of a thirty-foot-wide shell crater. The Ranger’s BAR was “talking American” amid the clamor of Mauser rifle fire, exploding potato mashers, and the rat-a-tat reports from the new German machine pistols that GIs had dubbed burp guns.Beneath the BAR man, in the pit of the hole, sat Easy Company’s commanding officer, Captain Gilbert Baugh. Nicknamed “Sammy” after the great Washington Redskins’ quarterback, Baugh was dazed, likely in shock, and attempting to bandage his right hand, dangling from his wrist by thin slices of flesh and sinew. Lomell paused only long enough to inject a syrette of morphine into Baugh’s arm. Then he moved on, promising the captain to send a medic if he spotted one. His paramount mission was the 155 mm howitzers.

Lomell had traveled but a few yards when most of his platoon, twenty-two Rangers in all, seemed to coalesce around him as if by osmosis. As Dog Company was now short the troopers from Duke Slater’s sunken LCA, Lt. George Kerchner, the company’s 1st Platoon leader, had assumed command. Lomell had last seen Kerchner and his men topping the cliffs using extension ladders that had somehow made it ashore. Kerchner—a 26-year-old North Carolinian who bore an uncanny resemblance to the tough-guy Hollywood actor Robert Ryan—had headed off in search of their targets, the western-most 155s.

Lomell took a moment to orient himself. Beginning in late May he and his fellow Rangers had begun to study the contours and defenses of these uplands in detail. Before and after training exercises—early in the morning and late at night—small squads of Rangers would be led into a tent to find the Intel officer Harvey Cook surrounded by miniature rubber and plaster models conforming to overlays of the Pointe du Hoc terrain, down to the position of pillboxes and concertina-wire barriers. Lomell had tried to memorize aerial and topographical maps. Now he recognized nothing. Months of Allied bombing sorties topped off by the morning’s naval barrage had given the plateau an otherworldly aura, as if the limestone and pre-Cambrian schist that composed the crust of the Norman earth had been lifted, crumpled, and folded in on itself.

Lomell gathered his little group in a circle on the churned and pitted land. “Guys, look on this as a big football game,” he said. “Hit them fast and hard and keep moving faster. Never stop, because that’s when they’re going to pinwheel you.”

Lomell then led his platoon southwest, ducking enemy fire as they hop-scotched from bomb crater to bomb crater.

As Lomell’s squad drifted from sight, Rangers who had crested the summit behind them began sweeping the German hidey-holes and bunkers that catacombed the tableland. Enemy snipers took their toll, as did the machine guns the Germans had begun moving from near the inland highway toward the cliff edge. Individual heroism and, in some cases, recklessness, was the order of the day.

Herm Stein had been assigned as an ammo carrier to the Fox Company BAR man Sgt. Jake Richards. When Richards took a slug to the throat that killed him, Stein picked up the gun and wiped out a German squad in what he described as “a turkey shoot.” And when Sgt. L-Rod Petty ventured too far out in front of his unit while crossing a clearing, he saw too late the sign hanging from a strand of concertina wire: “ACHTUNG! MINEN!” Petty carefully retraced his steps, digging his Corcoran boots into the loamy soil as deep as possible to leave a path. He then led a contingent of Fox and Easy Company Rangers back through the minefield single file.

At one point the 20-year-old aid man Frank South, following the plaintive cries of, “Medic! Medic!” ventured out onto the tablelands to treat a wounded Ranger. Wondering all the while whether the German riflemen would respect the Geneva Convention articles protecting medics wearing the Red Cross armband, South jabbed the trooper’s bullet-riddled body with a morphine syrette. South assured the man that his wound was his ticket back to the States before draping him across his shoulders and carrying him back to the rim of the Pointe to be lowered down. He never noticed that his patient had taken two more slugs along the journey and was dead.

Back near the cliff face, Rangers from Easy and Fox Companies had carved out a small, if tight, perimeter at the edge of the promontory. Below them, Doc Block—using as cover several of the large wedges of cliff face that had been blown to the beach by naval fire—had thrown together a semblance of a triage station to treat the expanding cadre of wounded. A few yards from Block’s aid center, Col. “Big Jim” Rudder had established a small command post in a cave-like alcove offering some protection from the fire from above. From the dozen or so flimsy cots stacked against the reinforced concrete wall behind him, he figured it was probably a way station for German beach patrols. Near the mouth of Rudder’s little grotto, Ike Eikner worked frantically to repair the field radio that had gone dead soon after he’d managed to transmit the first code word, “Crowbar.” Somewhere on the seabed beneath the roiling waters off Pointe du Hoc sat the rockets intended to fire the signal flares.

“Bingo,” Eikner shouted into the mouthpiece as his team hand-cranked the old radio’s generator. “Bingo!”

He looked at Rudder and shook his head. For his part, Rudder suspected that by now the point was moot. Rudder, blood trickling from a bullet wound in his thigh, was certain that Lt. Col. Schneider’s “Force C” was already steaming toward Omaha Beach. There would be no reinforcements. He told Eikner and his communications crew to pack up. They were heading up. As Rudder reached for a rope, he was surprised to see two Army Airborne paratroopers fall in with Eikner’s men.

When the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s commanding officer finally pulled himself over the rim of the cliff face, he took stock of his outfit’s striated positions. Rudder could only hope that, somewhere out in that wasteland, his Rangers had found the big German guns.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’sThe Overlook.

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Tom Clavin
Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—as well as Blood and Treasure, The Last Hill, and Throne of Grace with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

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