D-day: american rangers who terrified the germans

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Jun 6, 2006 – 12:00am

Army Rangers were a small, elite fighting force often referred to as “spearheaders” for being the first invasion forces on beaches during World War II.

That was certainly true on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions stormed ashore at Normandy.

More than 150 World War II Rangers and family members will gather in Lawrence this week in celebration of their national reunion. The gathering includes Rangers from all six Ranger Battalions.

There were 16 million Americans in uniform during World War II, and 8.3 million of them were in the Army. The original six Ranger Battalions totaled only 3,000 men; replacements raised that figure to about 7,000.

The 5th Rangers were diverted to Omaha Beach on D-Day when Lt. Col. Max Schneider did not receive the code word to land at Pointe du Hoc.

At that point, 2nd Rangers were to scale the cliffs and destroy the heavy German guns that could rake the entire length of Omaha Beach and annihilate the invasion force while it was still in the water.

Schneider presumed – wrongly – that the 2nd Rangers had failed in their daring mission.

‘Too young to be scared’

Though still teenagers, 5th Battalion Ranger Pfcs.

Bill Reed and Woody Dorman were responsible for using bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in the wire the Germans had placed on Omaha Beach in expectation of an invasion.

Both Reed and Dorman were transported across the English Channel by British ships. Reed admits to being scared, but he says the British gave him bacon and tomatoes for breakfast along with a rum ration.

“I was scared, but I also had a bit of a buzz,” Reed said.

Dorman, however, says he was “too young to be scared.”

D-Day: American Rangers Who Terrified the Germans

While under attack from German machine gunners, American soldiers wade ashore during the Allied landing operations on June 6, 1944, at Normandy, France.

His anticipation of the Brest battle that followed D-Day was much worse “because I had seen so many people killed on D-Day.”

Burdened with three, 5-foot-long bangalore torpedoes strapped to their M-1 rifles, grenades, .45 pistols and bandoleers of ammunition, Reed and Dorman struggled through waist-deep water, which was quickly turning red from the blood of dying soldiers, to reach the beach and seawall.

Through withering fire from mortars, machine guns and rifles, they vaulted over the seawall, planted their torpedoes under the wire and set them off, blowing a 20- to 30-foot gap in the wire through which soldiers could pass. Reed and Dorman were awarded Silver Stars for their heroics.

“People were frozen on the beach,” Reed says, and the Rangers were ordered to clear everyone off the beach. It was then that the phrase that has become the Ranger motto – “Rangers, lead the way!” – was shouted by Gen. Norman Cota.

Once through the wire, the Rangers made their way across a minefield and began the grim task of using grenades, rifles and bayonets to clear the enemy from strongholds and trenches. When the high ground and the Vierville exit to Pointe du Hoc was secured, the Omaha Beachhead was saved and the 5th Rangers began fighting their way toward the 2nd Rangers at Pointe du Hoc.

Scaling the wall

One of D-Day’s most famous, heroic assaults may have been unnecessary

Pointe du Hoc, France — Seventy-five years ago Thursday, a battalion of elite U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot promontory here overlooking Omaha Beach, with nothing more than ropes and rickety ladders.

As enemy gunfire and grenades rained down, picking them off as they climbed, the Rangers managed to secure the strategic high ground and silence a small battery of long-range German guns that had been moved inland.

The battle for Pointe du Hoc became one of the most heroic moments of the D-Day invasion. It was lionized by the legendary Hollywood film “The Longest Day” and by President Ronald Reagan, who stood on this hallowed ground to one of his most famous speeches, extolling the bravery of the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” on the 40th anniversary of the largest amphibious assault in the world’s history.

But a little more than three miles down the windswept Normandy coastline, an archaeological dig on a vast swath of farmland is starting to tell another story about what took place that day.

A World War II artifact collector and historian accidentally stumbled upon a massive German artillery installation that was buried after the invasion. His discovery, along with a trove of declassified U.S.

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and British military documents, threatens to alter the narrative of Pointe du Hoc and its importance as a military objective during the D-Day invasion.

Only now are historians beginning to reckon with the implications. Depending on which is talking, the discovery of what is known as “Maisy Battery” either calls into question the wisdom of the entire Pointe du Hoc operation or is simply one more footnote in a war full of footnotes.

75 years after D-Day, veteran still wonders why he was spared

One thing is certain: The mythology of Pointe du Hoc is firmly established. Those who challenge the story do so at their own peril.

D-Day veteran recalls the horror and fear during Allied invasion of Normandy 70 years ago

  • HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – “Once we hit the beach, you have not heard any noise like that.”
  • That's something that still resonates with Harold McMurran, 70 years after he landed on Utah Beach, part of the Allied forces' bold D-Day attack.
  • McMurran recalled the LST – the boat that carried him and other members of the 546th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Company, Field Army to shore – “pushing bodies side-to-side” in the water as it made its way to the Normandy sands.
  • He endured several emotions as the beach grew closer.

“I was scared,” he said.

“I was afraid. And finally I was numb. I was ready to accept whatever happened to me.”

Friday was the 70th anniversary of D-Day, “the day the battle began that ended Hitler's insane gamble to dominate the world,” as author Cornelius Ryan wrote in his “The Longest Day.”

D-Day was commemorated at the Space and Rocket Center with the showing of a 3D movie entitled “D-Day: Normandy 1944,” after which McMurran shared his memories. He was joined by 10 other World War II veterans, part of that “Greatest Generation” which we are too-quickly losing.

He was but 19 years old when he landed on Utah Beach, part of a company trained, as he put it, “to maintain everything from pocket watches to tanks.”

Once Normandy was captured, it was hardly the end of the trauma. The 546th kept marching forward, supporting troops and equipment as the Germans were forced into retreat in the brutal winter of 1944-45.

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“There were no pleasant things that went on from the time we hit the beach until the Battle of the Bulge,” said McMurran. He added that “I have never suffered through a winter that was as cold and bitter as that winter.”

George Kerchner, Led a D-Day Maneuver, Dies at 93

Continue reading the main story

George Kerchner, who as an Army Ranger was decorated for bravery in leading his company up the face of a towering cliff to seize a battery of German big guns overlooking the American invasion beaches of D-Day, died on Feb. 17 in Midlothian, Va. He was 93.

His death was announced by his family.

For all the countless acts of bravery on June 6, 1944, when American, British and Canadian troops breached Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in the invasion of Normandy, the Rangers’ storming of the 130-foot-high Pointe du Hoc, scaling it with ropes after coming under fire on the beachhead, remains one of the most enduring in memory.

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” President Ronald Reagan declared at the site, accompanied by Ranger veterans, on D-Day’s 40th anniversary in 1984. “These are the champions who helped free a continent.”

Lieutenant Kerchner was among more than 200 men from the Second Ranger Battalion who climbed Pointe du Hoc on a mission to seize a cliff-top outpost, kill its German defenders and knock out their 155-millimeter guns, which could have brought devastating fire on the American troops landing at the beaches code-named Omaha and Utah.

But nearly everything went wrong at the outset. A landing craft carrying the commander of Lieutenant Kerchner’s D Company and many of his men foundered in the English Channel, forcing their return to England.

The three Ranger companies designated for the morning assault approached the French coast at the wrong spot because of a navigational error, and while reassembling along the coastline, they were visible to the Germans, losing the element of surprise.

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ImageLt. Col. James E. Rudder, left, and Lt. George Kerchner.Credit…U.S. Army Signal Corps

When Lieutenant Kerchner left his landing craft, he stepped into water over his head and made it to shore, where he became his company’s new commander.

“We were being fired on by a machine gun from the top of the cliff off to the left,” he said in an interview with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies in New Orleans. “Two men in my boat crew were immediately hit. I don’t know how they missed me because they were right next to me.”

But “climbing the cliff was very easy,” he recalled.

The Rangers, having rehearsed their mission in England, went up the cliff on ropes attached to rocket-propelled grapnels they had fired to grasp the terrain. The Germans threw some grenades and cut some ropes, but the Rangers received strong fire support from the United States destroyer Satterlee and the British destroyer Talybont, which had moved close to shore.

Lieutenant Kerchner arrived atop to find a landscape pockmarked with craters from previous Allied bombing and shelling.

“I would run from one shell crater to another,” he told the Eisenhower Center. “The Germans started shelling us from inland. It was a rather terrifying experience.”

Sgts. Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn of D Company found five big guns in a camouflaged spot, trained on Utah Beach and ready to be activated. They saw German troops nearby, but before the enemy saw them, Sergeant Lomell disabled the guns with grenades.

Lieutenant Kerchner next led his Rangers in blocking off a coastal road behind Pointe du Hoc that ran between the Utah and Omaha Beach areas, thereby denying the Germans movement between the two invasion sectors.

His reinforcements were to arrive by midday, but when night fell none had come.

Army Rangers rested after mounting the Pointe du Hoc cliffs in Normandy on June 6, 1944.Credit…U.S. Navy/National Archives

“For a while, we weren’t even sure that the Americans had not pulled everyone out, gone back to England and left us alone,” Mr. Kerchner recalled in the book “June 6, 1944: The Voices of D-Day,” by Gerald Astor.

The Rangers held their roadblock despite intense enemy fire. Lieutenant Kerchner received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor, for rallying his troops.

“Second Lieutenant Kerchner and 15 members of his organization were surrounded and cut off from the main body for two and one half days,” the citation said. “He tenaciously and courageously held his position until relieved and was a constant inspiration to his troops.”

Lieutenant Kerchner was later wounded at St. Lo, France, and sent back to the United States.

George Francis Kerchner was born on Feb. 22, 1918, in Baltimore. He left military service after the war as a captain and was later the president of a family ice cream company.

7 Surprising Facts About D-Day

The legacy of D-Day resonates through history: It was the largest-ever amphibious military invasion. Allied forces faced rough weather and fierce German gunfire as they stormed Normandy’s coast. Despite tough odds and high casualties, Allied forces ultimately won the battle and helped turn the tide of World War II toward victory against Hitler’s forces.

But there are some aspects from D-Day that may not be as well known. Among them: Hitler’s miscalculations, a hero medic who has still not received official recognition, and the horror faced by a 19-year-old coastguardsman as he followed a tough command. Here are some lesser-known stories about the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

1. Eisenhower threatened to quit just months before D-Day

Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Birmingham Post and Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Just a few months before the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill were at odds over a controversial plan. Eisenhower wanted to divert Allied strategic bombers that had been hammering German industrial plants to instead begin bombing critical French infrastructure. 

The Many Meanings of D-Day

This essay investigates what D-Day has symbolized for Americans and how and why its meaning has changed over the past six decades. While the commemoration functions differently in U.S.

domestic and foreign policies, in both cases it has been used to mark new beginnings.

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Ronald Reagan launched his “morning again in America” 1984 re-election campaign from the Pointe du Hoc, and the international commemorations on the Normandy beaches since 1990 have been occasions to display the changing face of Europe and the realignment of allies.

Top of page

1For Americans, June 6, 1944 “D-Day” has come to symbolize World War II, with commemorations at home and abroad. How did this date come to assume such significance and how have the commemorations changed over the 65 years since the Normandy landings? How does D-Day function in U.S.

cultural memory and in domestic politics and foreign policy? This paper will look at some of the major trends in D-Day remembrances, particularly in international commemorations and D-Day’s meaning in U.S. and Allied foreign policy.

Although war commemorations are ostensibly directed at reflecting on the hallowed past, the D-Day observances, particularly since the 1980s, have also marked new beginnings in both domestic and foreign policy.

2As the invasion was taking place in June 1944, there was, of course, a great deal of coverage in the U.S. media. The events in Normandy, however, shared the June headlines with other simultaneous developments on the European front including the fall of Rome.1

3The very first anniversary of the D-Day landings was marked on June 6, 1945 by a holiday for the Allied forces. In his message to the troops announcing the holiday General Eisenhower stated that “formal ceremonies would be avoided.”2

4By the time the invasion’s fifth anniversary rolled around in 1949 the day was marked by a “colorful but modest memorial service” at the beach. The U.S. was represented at the event by the military attaché and the naval attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

A French naval guard, a local bugle corps and an honor guard from an American Legion Post in Paris all took part. A pair of young girls from the surrounding villages placed wreaths on the beach, and a U.S.

Air Force Flying Fortresses passed over, firing rockets and dropping flowers.3

5The anniversaries of the early 1950s reflected the tenor of the times, evoking both the economic and military Cold War projects of the U.S. in Europe: the Marshall Plan and NATO. Barry Bingham, head of the Marshall Plan Mission in France, used the occasion of the 1950 D-Day commemoration ceremony to praise France’s postwar recovery efforts.

4 Held in the middle of the Korean War, the 1952 D-Day commemoration at Utah Beach proved an opportunity for General Matthew D. Ridgway, Supreme Commander Allied Forces in Europe and a D-Day veteran, to speak of U.S. purpose in the Cold War against “a new and more fearful totalitarianism.

” He warned the Communist powers not to “underestimate our resolve to live as free men in our own territories….We will gather the strength we have pledged to one another and set it before our people and our lands as a protective shield until reason backed by strength halts further aggression….

” Referring to both his status as a D-Day participant and his current role as military commander of NATO, Ridgway pledged: “The last time I came here, I came as one of thousands to wage war. This time I come to wage peace.”5

6The tenth anniversary of the D-Day landings found President Dwight Eisenhower, who as Commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) had led the Normandy invasion, strolling through a wheat field in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.6 Eisenhower sent a statement to be read at the Utah Beach commemoration ceremony by the U.S.

Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. who was the President’s personal representative at the anniversary events. In contrast to the bellicose remarks of General Ridgway a few years earlier, Eisenhower in 1954 expressed “profound regret” that all of “the members of the Grand Alliance have not maintained in time of peace the spirit of that wartime union.

” Eisenhower used this anniversary occasion to recall “my pleasant association with the outstanding Soviet Soldier, Marshall Zhukov, and the victorious meeting at the Elbe of the armies of the West and of the East.

”7 A decade later, in preparation for the twentieth anniversary of the D-Day landings, Eisenhower, no longer president, returned to the Normandy beaches in 1963 to film a D-Day TV special for CBS.8

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