In the decades after the Civil War, the U.S. Army saw little need for specialist Rangers. “Small wars” were left to the U.S. Marine Corps, while the Army prepared to fight the next “big war.” U.S. Army doctrine was largely shaped by French influence. The next war would be won by the marksmanship of riflemen, the firepower of massed artillery, and the mobility of horse cavalry. There simply was no interest within the U.S. military for unconventional warfare from 1865 until the start of World War II. However, World War II would provide a fertile venue for unconventional soldiers with their own ways of fighting, especially the Rangers, who had performed exceptionally well in their first battles.
As Allied forces advanced from Algeria eastward into Tunisia, the Axis poured in reinforcements to protect Erwin Rommel’s precarious supply line. The Rangers were pressed into frontline service, attached to the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed “The Big Red One”). Using special operations forces as infantry is contrary to sound military doctrine, but for commanders there are never enough riflemen, and combat is always an emergency. In February 1943, inexperienced and poorly led American troops had been badly mauled in their first engagement against German panzer troops at Kasserine Pass, and the Rangers had been called upon to help hold the line. Early in March, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton took command of the American forces in Tunisia.
On March 18, 1943, Darby’s Ranger battalion occupied the desert oasis of El Guettar. A few days later, they scaled a cliff to raid a dug-in enemy position, taking hundreds of demoralized Italians prisoner. In the early hours of March 23, the veteran German 10th Panzer Division attacked with 50 tanks and two battalions of infantry in halftracks. In several days of bitter fighting, the Rangers held the heights, while some of their element joined U.S. Army infantry units on the plain below and helped to turn back the German attack.
After the success of the 1st Ranger Battalion, Army leadership became more convinced of the usefulness of special operations forces. Elements of the 1st were split off to form the cores of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions. The 4th Ranger Battalion was activated May 29, 1943, in Tunisia, and the 3rd Ranger Battalion on June 19, 1943, in Morocco. Their training was tough and often dangerous, with 1st Battalion Rangers training the 3rd and 4th Battalions as they themselves had been trained. In the United States, the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were formed at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, activated in September 1943, and soon after shipped to England.
In Sicily and Italy, three Ranger battalions fought until the Anzio landings in January 1944 on the Italian coast south of Rome.
The 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions hit the beach at Gela in Sicily, captured the town and coastal artillery batteries, and then held during two days of counterattacks. The 3rd Ranger Battalion captured Porto Empedocle, and took more than 700 prisoners. As Allied forces drove toward Palermo and Messina, the three Ranger battalions protected the flanks of the advancing forces.
On Sept. 9, 1943, Rangers hit the beach at Salerno, and quickly took the high ground on the Sorrentino peninsula. But they were forced once again to hold objectives taken early in their amphibious assault, in this case for almost three weeks. Much too lightly armed for such a defense, and too few in number to hold a continuous line, the Rangers were forced to adopt a series of mutually supporting strongpoints, depending on naval gunfire, as they had at Gela, to hold off a series of fierce German counterattacks. Elements of Gen. Mark W. Clark’s Fifth Army finally broke through to the beleaguered Rangers on Sept. 30.
By November 1943, Clark was stuck, his forces facing the Germans across the “Winter Line,” actually a series of three lines of entrenchments and fortifications taking advantage of the ideal defensive terrain of Italy’s mountains. Here, Clark threw the Rangers into the fight once again, attaching the battalions to existing divisions in the hope of making a breakthrough. Instead, the Rangers suffered heavy casualties in bitter fighting between November and December.
The solution the Allies came up with to get past the Germans’ Winter Line was an amphibious assault on Anzio, which lay north of the German defensive lines and south of the ultimate goal of Rome.
The landing was virtually unopposed, but Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, commander of VI Corps, failed to aggressively move inland, and the Germans soon contained the beachhead. Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, 3rd Infantry Division commander, hoped to drive a wedge in the German lines by having the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions infiltrate four miles through the lines to the town of Cisterna. The plan was for the Rangers to take the town in a surprise attack, following which the 3rd Division, along with the 4th Ranger Battalion, would launch a frontal assault to link up with the Rangers in Cisterna. On the night of Jan. 31, 1944, the Rangers jumped off. Unknown to them, while Allied intelligence believed the main German line was behind Cisterna, in fact the town was an assembly point for German reinforcements. Instead of light forces, the Rangers were met short of the town by elements of the 715th Infantry Division and the Herman Goring Panzer Division, including at least 17 tanks. After a seven-hour battle, what was left of the two battalions finally surrendered to the Germans. Only seven Rangers of the 767 who had begun the mission made it back to Allied lines.
Historians argue over whether the disaster was simply the result of faulty intelligence, or whether the presence of many inexperienced replacements in the ranks of Ranger units who had been kept in frontline combat for too long also contributed to the disaster. The surrender at Cisterna was the darkest day in Ranger history. The remnants of the three battalions were rotated home or became part of the 1st Special Service Force, providing a pool of combat-hardened veterans to the elite outfit.
The Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944) was the most carefully planned assault in history. Planners were particularly concerned about a cliff-top German artillery battery at Pointe du Hoc, where six 155 mm guns in concrete revetments were positioned to pour devastating fire onto two of the invasion beaches. The point was pounded from the air by heavy and medium bombers, leaving a cratered landscape, but reconnaissance could not confirm that the guns were knocked out. The 2nd Ranger Battalion drew the assignment of making sure that the guns were spiked.
Dog, Easy, and Fox companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were to scale Pointe du Hoc. On June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of Overlord, President Ronald Reagan spoke at the site, retelling the epic story:
“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.
These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
In fact, the German guns had been pulled back inland and hidden under camouflage netting, where they were soon found by the Rangers and destroyed. In addition to their actions at Pointe du Hoc, Rangers were key in getting U.S. forces off of the killing ground of Omaha Beach. Able, Baker, and Charlie Companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and the entire 5th Ranger Battalion landed on Omaha Beach, along with the 1st Infantry Division and the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division. On Omaha Beach, surviving soldiers were pinned down on the shingle under machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire. It was on the eastern end of Omaha, where 29th Division soldiers were fighting for their lives, that the Rangers earned their motto. Here, Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, second in command of the 29th Division, called out, “Rangers, lead the way!” as he organized an attack. Rangers led the way off the beach and found the way inland. Rangers later fought at Brest, the Huertgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge.
Sadly, William O. Darby did not live to see final victory. On April 30, 1945, just a week before the Nazi surrender, he was killed in action by an enemy shell while leading the pursuit of retreating German forces in Northern Italy. He was 34 years old.
But the European theater was hardly the only place in World War II where Rangers served.
Early in the Pacific War, the Japanese invaded Burma, driving the British back into India and cutting the Burma Road, a tenuous supply line that kept China – just barely – in the war. The rugged mountains and thick jungle of northern Burma were exceptionally difficult terrain for conventional warfare.
Late in 1943, a secret Ranger unit was formed and began training in India for operations against the Japanese in Burma. The regiment-sized “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)” was soon nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders, after its commander, Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill (1903-1955). A 1929 West Point graduate, Merrill earned an engineering degree from MIT and learned Japanese, serving as a military attaché in Tokyo and later as an intelligence officer.–
In February 1944, 2,750 Marauders, in three battalions, arrived in Burma and began an epic five-month, 1,000-mile trek behind Japanese lines. The unit included a transport company equipped with mules.
The Marauders, usually outnumbered, always inflicted many more casualties than they suffered as they harassed Japanese lines of supply and communication and raided their rear areas.
In August 1944, on their final mission against Myitkyina, the only all-weather airfield in the region, the Marauders suffered 272 killed, 955 wounded, and 980 evacuated for sickness. Merrill refused evacuation after a heart attack before falling ill with malaria. By the time Myitkyina was secured, fewer than 200 Marauders were left out of the original 2,750 who had marched into Burma six months before.
As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, U.S. officials began receiving reports that the Japanese were massacring Allied prisoners of war (POWs) whenever Allied invasions were pending. On Dec. 14, 1944, at Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan, the Japanese herded 139 prisoners into trenches, poured gasoline over them, and burned them alive. Eleven survivors managed to escape.
Intelligence sources reported that more than 500 starving POWs, including survivors of the Bataan death march, were facing death at a prison camp near Cabanatuan on the Philippine island of Luzon. On Jan. 28, 1945, 121 picked troops of the 6th Ranger Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, infiltrated 30 miles behind Japanese lines guided by about 80 Philippine guerrillas and Alamo Scouts. The most dangerous phase of the attack would be the final phase of the approach. The Japanese had cleared the land around the camp, and the Rangers would have to low crawl over a flat field during the only hour of full darkness before the moon rose. An Army P-61 “Black Widow” night fighter repeatedly buzzed the camp at very low altitude in order to distract the Japanese guards during the Rangers’ critical final approach over the open ground. The distraction succeeded beyond all expectations, and the Rangers surrounded the camp without being detected. The Rangers lost two killed and four wounded in taking the camp and defeating strong counterattacks. Japanese losses are uncertain; one estimate is 530 killed. Predictably, no Japanese prisoners were taken. It was that kind of war.
Most of the 512 liberated prisoners (489 POWs and 33 civilians) were too sick and weak to march, so the Rangers hired dozens of native carts pulled by carabao (water buffalo) from local farmers. Hostile and suspicious communist guerrillas tried to interfere with the rescue, but Mucci, using diplomacy, bluff, and threats, managed to negotiate safe passage back to friendly lines. It was, at the time, the largest hostage rescue operation in history.
“No incident of the campaign in the Philippines has given me such satisfaction as the release of the POWs at Cabanatuan,” said Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “The mission was brilliantly successful.”
Mucci was promoted to colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The site of the raid, on land donated by the Philippine government, is today a memorial to the 2,656 Americans who died in the camp, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Despite their record of success, the Rangers suffered the same fate as much of the U.S. military following World War II. Faced with radical postwar downsizing, the Army was not keen to keep its Ranger units because they had suffered such high casualty rates, losing excellent soldiers that generals would have preferred to keep as small-unit leaders for regular units. The Army continued training individual soldiers at the Ranger School, established in 1950 at Fort Benning, Georgia, who then returned to their original units to provide leadership and subject-matter expertise.