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U.S. Army Rangers

Leading the Way for 70 Years

Back in the Age of Muskets (1600-1850), every military commander knew that peasants made the best infantry: stolid, inured to hardship, and conditioned to obey their social superiors. But armies also needed soldiers of a different kind – agile, aggressive men, able to think fast and act with little supervision – for raids, night fighting, and other “special” missions. The best of these soldiers were recruited from professional hunters, gamekeepers, foresters, and frontiersmen. In German, they were called Jäger; in French, Chasseurs; in English, Light Infantry; or in Britain’s American colonies, Rangers.

The best of these soldiers were recruited from professional hunters, gamekeepers, foresters, and frontiersmen. In German, they were called Jäger; in French, Chasseurs; in English, Light Infantry; or in Britain’s American colonies, Rangers.

During the North American Colonial Wars, English colonists slowly learned to combine the superior lethality of their firearms with the irregular tactics of their Native American adversaries. Col. Benjamin Church of the Plymouth Colony in New England formed the first American Ranger company during King Philip’s War (1675-1678), later leading it on expeditions against the French and their native allies in Maine and New Brunswick.

Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church who is considered the First American Ranger. Engraving courtesy of the New York Public Library

As the global conflict between French and British empires escalated in the 18th century, Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire organized a militia regiment of nine companies (about 600 men) on the New England frontier. It became renowned as “Rogers’ Rangers,” America’s first real special operations forces (SOF) unit.

Today’s U.S. Army Rangers trace their historic lineage to this unit, which was active during the French and Indian Wars. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress authorized eight companies of sharpshooting riflemen, commanded by Dan Morgan and known as the Corps of Rangers.

Francis Marion built and led another famous Revolutionary War Ranger element known as Marion’s Partisans, continuing the fight against the British long after the Continental Army had been driven from South Carolina. Marion became known as “the Swamp Fox” for his ability to melt away into the Carolina swamps after attacks on the British.

Interestingly, the Queen’s York Rangers, a reservist unit of the Canadian Forces, raised by Rogers himself to fight the American rebels in 1776, also claims descent from Rogers’ Rangers. Rogers’ Rangers specialized in winter raiding, fighting several skirmishes on snowshoes. In 1759, Rogers codified his system of irregular warfare in “28 Rules of Ranging,” still preserved in the standing orders given to soldiers in U.S. Army Ranger School.

Highlights of Rogers’ rules include:

2. … if your number be small, march in a single file, keeping at such a distance from each other as to prevent one shot from killing two men …

3. … encamp … on a piece of ground that may afford your sentries the advantage of seeing or hearing the enemy some considerable distance, keeping one half of your whole party awake alternately through the night.

10. If the enemy is so superior that you are in danger of being surrounded …, let the whole body disperse, and every one take a different road to the place of rendezvous appointed for that evening …

21. If the enemy pursue your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks, and there form an ambush to receive them …

Veterans of Rogers’ Rangers fought on both sides in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

In the American Civil War, the most famous irregular unit was Virginia’s 43rd Battalion of “Partisan Rangers,” led by “the Gray Ghost,” Col. John Singleton Mosby. Although he opposed secession, Mosby volunteered as a private in the Confederate Army at the outbreak of hostilities. Impressed with his ability as a scout, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee’s cavalry commander, promoted him to lieutenant, and in 1863 sent him to organize a mounted unit operating behind Union lines in northern Virginia, which became known as “Mosby’s Rangers,” “Mosby’s Raiders,” and ultimately “Mosby’s Confederacy.”

John S. Mosby

John S. Mosby during the Civil War. Library of Congress photo

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 for the next “big war.” There simply was no interest within the U.S. military for unconventional warfare and units 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.

In 1940, after the heroic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill ordered the creation of volunteer raiding units that could strike back at the edges of Nazi-occupied Europe. He chose the name “Commando” for these units, recalling the Afrikaner mounted riflemen of the Boer War. When the first U.S. troops were sent to England in 1942, volunteer units were formed to train and fight alongside the Commandos, and the historic title of “Ranger” was revived for these battalions.

In 1940, after the heroic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill ordered the creation of volunteer raiding units that could strike back at the edges of Nazi-occupied Europe. He chose the name “Commando” for these units, recalling the Afrikaner mounted riflemen of the Boer War. When the first U.S. troops were sent to England in 1942, volunteer units were formed to train and fight alongside the Commandos, and the historic title of “Ranger” was revived for these battalions. William Orlando Darby, a young lieutenant colonel of artillery, was chosen to lead the first of the Ranger battalions, which stood up in May 1942 in Northern Ireland. The Operation Torch landings in North Africa, on Nov. 8, 1942, were the first major U.S. operations in the European theater; the 1st Ranger Battalion was part of the landing force. Darby’s Rangers led the way at Arzew, a port on the Algerian coast, conducting a difficult night assault to seize Vichy French gun batteries.

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 3rd Ranger battalions, trying to infiltrate through the German lines, were trapped in the hill town of Cisterna by an entire German division and nearly wiped out. Of the 767 men in the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions, six returned to the Allied lines and 761 were killed or captured.

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 front-line combat for too long also contributed to the disaster. The surrender at Cisterna was the darkest day in Ranger history, something the community has spent every day since making sure never happens again. Just a little more than five months later, they began getting payback for their Italian losses.

Army Rangers In Algeria

U.S. Rangers defend a captured gun position at Arzew Harbor, Algeria, during fighting in North Africa. The picture was taken at dawn after a night of fighting. National Archives photo

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 the beaches. The point was pounded from the air by heavy 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. On the 40th anniversary of Overlord, President Ronald Reagan retold 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.

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.

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. Especially at the eastern end of Omaha, where 29th Division soldiers were fighting for their lives, the 5th Ranger Battalion led the way off the beach and found the way inland. 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.

Rangers at Pointe du Hoc

Rangers at Point du Hoc, June 6, 1944. National Archives photo

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. A 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 a 1,000-mile march behind Japanese lines. 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.

Rangers In Germany

Soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion get ready to attack deeper into Germany. National Archives photo

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.

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. 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 with the help of Philippine guerrillas and stormed the camp, defeating strong counterattacks, and successfully evacuating the sick and weak prisoners to safety. It was, at the time, the largest hostage rescue operation in history.

Rangers In Burma

Troops of the 5307th Composite Unit rest during a break along the jungle trail near ‘Nhpum, Burma, April 28, 1944. National Archives photo

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 of excellent soldiers that generals preferred as small-unit leaders for regular units. The Army continued training individual soldiers at Ranger School, established in 1950 at Fort Benning, Ga., who then returned to their original units to provide leadership and subject-matter expertise. Also, during the Korean War, 16 Ranger companies were organized for special missions, though quickly disbanded when the war ended.

As the number of U.S. troops deployed to Vietnam grew during the 1960s, the Army saw a need for long-range reconnaissance patrols – soldiers skilled in jungle and mountain warfare who could operate deep in enemy-controlled territory. In 1969, these units were organized into the 75th Ranger Regiment, composed of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Ranger battalions and headquartered at Fort Benning, and revived the distinctive insignia of Merrill’s Marauders. It would be more than a decade, however, before the 75th was able to show its capabilities and skills to advantage. Through the 1970s, the 75th Rangers evolved their own new roles and missions, including airfield seizure and assault modeled on the Israeli raid on Entebbe.

As part of Operation Urgent Fury, the first major U.S. military operation since Vietnam, the 1st Battalion of the 75th Rangers (1/75th) parachuted at dawn onto Point Salines, Grenada, where Cuban troops were constructing an airfield. By 6:30 a.m., following a vicious firefight, Rangers had the runway cleared for the arrival of reinforcements. When Grenadian BTR armored personnel carriers attacked, Ranger recoilless rifle gunners knocked them out. This fine performance in battle ensured that when the U.S. SOF community was consolidated a few years later, the Rangers would be a major force in that evolution.

In October 1983, a violent military coup, with Cuban support, endangered a group of American medical students. As part of Operation Urgent Fury, the first major U.S. military operation since Vietnam, the 1st Battalion of the 75th Rangers (1/75th) parachuted at dawn onto Point Salines, Grenada, where Cuban troops were constructing an airfield. By 6:30 a.m., following a vicious firefight, Rangers had the runway cleared for the arrival of reinforcements. When Grenadian BTR armored personnel carriers attacked, Ranger recoilless rifle gunners knocked them out. This fine performance in battle ensured that when the U.S. SOF community was consolidated a few years later, the Rangers would be a major force in that evolution.

Cabamatuan POW Rescue

General view of the 92nd Evac. Hospital, Giumba, Luzon, P.I., showing some of the men of the 6th Ranger Battalion in front of building after their rescue of POWs at Cabamatuan. National Archives photo

When the Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen legislation was passed in the late 1980s, creating the U.S. Special Operations Command, the 75th became a major unit in the new U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), and was quickly called to arms. By December 1989, an escalating series of violent incidents made it clear that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was on a collision course with the United States. As part of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama to depose Noriega, 837 men of the 2nd and 3rd Ranger battalions parachuted in darkness onto Rio Hato Airfield to neutralize two companies of the Panama Defense Force (PDF) and secure the runways. But the PDF had been alerted, and, jumping from 500 feet, the Rangers landed in a hornet’s nest of gunfire. By daylight, the airfield was secured, with only four Rangers killed and 44 injured, mostly with jump-related injuries.

ver the next few years, the Rangers continued to evolve their roles and missions, including cementing their relationship with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), charged with anti-terror and other “special” national-level responsibilities.

Over the next few years, the Rangers continued to evolve their roles and missions, including cementing their relationship with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), charged with anti-terror and other “special” national-level responsibilities. The Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, October 3-4, 1993, is perhaps the most well-known JSOC Ranger mission; Bravo Company of the 3/75th provided force protection to a force of Special Mission Unit (SMU) personnel tasked to seize several senior advisers to Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, who was attacking United Nations peacekeepers and obstructing delivery of relief supplies. After two U.S. helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – the “Night Stalkers”) were downed by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), a fierce firefight broke out around the crash site. During the hours of fighting, 18 U.S. personnel were killed in action and 73 were wounded. Hard lessons were learned from the Battle of Mogadishu, which resonated throughout the U.S. military.

Rangers At Point Salines

Rangers return to the Point Salines airfield after completing their mission during Operation Urgent Fury. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The coming of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 meant that the 75th Rangers had a global war to fight, and fight it they have. On the night of Oct. 19, 2001, Bravo Company of the 3/75th once again led the way, as they jumped and seized Objective Rhino, an airstrip near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Along with JSOC SMU personnel, they raided a hunting camp belonging to Osama bin Laden before being recovered by helicopters of the 160th SOAR. The 75th did a number of other combat jumps and seizures prior to the Taliban surrender in early 2002, though their operations in Afghanistan continue to this day. These operations, however, have sometimes had a high cost.

Takur Ghar is a 10,469-foot peak that commands the Shah-i-Kot Valley of Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan. During Operation Anaconda in March 2002, a Navy SEAL team was assigned to establish an outpost on the mountaintop. When the SEALs came under Taliban attack, a platoon-sized Quick Reaction Force of Rangers was airlifted to support them in two 10th SOAR MH-47 Chinook helicopters. One of the helicopters was struck by RPG fire and crash-landed on the peak, while the other MH-47 delivered its team of Rangers farther down the mountainside. They climbed a steep slope covered in three feet of snow, weighted down by their weapons, body armor, and equipment. Takur Ghar was eventually secured, but eight Americans were killed, and many were wounded. Rangers have taken some hard losses over the past few decades, but never at the expense of their primary mission of leading the way for other U.S. forces on the battlefield.

Enduring eight days of heavy artillery bombardment and beating off constant counterattacks, the Rangers held until relieved. Rangers received five Purple Hearts, four Silver and 26 Bronze Stars, and 71 Army Commendation Medals for the Haditha Dam action. The airfield seizures and the Haditha Dam seizure were among hundreds of actions, large and small, that Rangers of the 75th fought in Iraq, along with others across the globe.

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was essential to capture the Haditha High Dam on the Euphrates River. Destruction of this dam would cause disastrous flooding downstream and cripple the country’s precarious electricity supply. The Rangers had already performed several combat parachute jumps to seize Iraqi airfields, when 154 soldiers of Bravo Company of the 3rd Ranger Battalion drew the assignment of seizing, securing, and holding the heavily defended dam.

Enduring eight days of heavy artillery bombardment and beating off constant counterattacks, the Rangers held until relieved. Rangers received five Purple Hearts, four Silver and 26 Bronze Stars, and 71 Army Commendation Medals for the Haditha Dam action. The airfield seizures and the Haditha Dam seizure were among hundreds of actions, large and small, that Rangers of the 75th fought in Iraq, along with others across the globe.

Haditha Dam Seizure

Rangers of 2nd Platoon, B Company, had to clear the nine-story administration building during the Haditha Dam seizure. By the end, they had run out of breaching charges and shotgun shells, and had resorted to hurling fully loaded Rangers at the locked doors. U.S. Army photo

To a Ranger of the 18th century, today’s Ranger would be instantly recognizable as a soldier, though he  might be amazed by the automatic fire of the M4 and baffled by the technologies of radio, GPS, body armor, and night-vision goggles. Similarly, the Ranger of 2050 will probably still be recognizable to us as a soldier, though we would probably be amazed by his personal equipment. Whatever the advances in technology, there will be a need for soldiers as long as there are conflicts among humans, and Rangers will continue to lead the way.

To a Ranger of the 18th century, today’s Ranger would be instantly recognizable as a soldier, though he  might be amazed by the automatic fire of the M4 and baffled by the technologies of radio, GPS, body armor, and night-vision goggles. Similarly, the Ranger of 2050 will probably still be recognizable to us as a soldier, though we would probably be amazed by his personal equipment. Whatever the advances in technology, there will be a need for soldiers as long as there are conflicts among humans, and Rangers will continue to lead the way.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.

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