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Long-ago battles come alive when World War II Rangers convene

Special to the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald

Editor's Note: Next week, Oct. 21-25, veterans of World War II Ranger units, who inspired such movies as "Darby's Rangers," "The Great Raid," and "Saving Private Ryan," will hold their annual, National Reunion in Columbus, Ga. Each year, their numbers decline, as age and illnesses take their toll. But these brave soldiers should not be forgotten. Gov. Sonny Perdue has issued a proclamation in their honor, in advance of next week's reunion, and these newspapers salute them all -- past and present warriors, who have dedicated themselves to ensuring America's freedom.

World War II Rangers from six battalions will reminisce about long-ago battles when they assemble in Columbus, Ga., from Oct. 21st to the 25th for their national reunion. Until recently, these men, who spearheaded invasions on three continents and participated in daring raids and rescues, have shared their stories only with those few who also experienced them.

More than 16 million Americans served in the military during WW II, more than 8 million of them in the Army. And of that number, only approximately 6,000 (including replacements) were Rangers. The 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions, known as Darby's Rangers, spearheaded invasions of Africa, Sicily and Italy before being disbanded after faulty intelligence led to almost all men of the 1st and 3rd Battalions being killed, or captured, at Cisterna after the Anzio invasion.

The 2nd and 5th Battalions, referred to as Rudder's Rangers, spearheaded the D-Day invasion of France. One of those Rangers was 18-year-old Bill Reed who, with his late comrade, Woody Dorman, was charged with using bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in the wire that the Nazis, who expected the invasion, had placed on Omaha Beach

Burdened with three, 5-foot-long bangalore torpedoes strapped to their M-1 rifles, grenades, .45 pistols and bandoleers of ammunition, the two men struggled through waist-deep water, stained with the blood of dying soldiers, toward their objective. Once on the beach, they vaulted over the seawall - miraculously unscathed from withering mortar, machine gun and rifle fire - and used their torpedoes to blow a 20- to 30-foot gap in the wire through which soldiers could pass.

Reed and Dorman received Silver Stars for their heroics. Reed said he plans to attend the reunion and one of the stories he likely will be asked to relate is when the Rangers were ordered to clear the beach of soldiers who were frozen in place. It was then that Gen. Norman Cota shouted the phrase that has become the Ranger motto: "Rangers, lead the way!"

The 6th Battalion, dubbed Mucci's Rangers, was the only Ranger unit to serve in the Pacific. Their heroic raid on Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines to free 512 survivors of the Bataan Death March before the Japanese killed them, as they frequently did with prisoners when Allied forces drew near, inspired the movie entitled, "The Great Raid."

Only 100 Rangers, of the entire 500-man battalion who volunteered, were selected to participate in the raid. Most doubted they would survive the attempt to rescue the prisoners, held 29 miles behind enemy lines, who had been starved and brutalized by their captors for almost three years. Still, the late Capt. Robert Prince, considered the architect of the raid, said all of the Rangers "felt privileged to be selected for this mission."

The Rangers were accompanied by a dozen Alamo scouts and 200 Filipino guerrillas, who protected the Ranger force's flanks and covered their return with the rescued POWs. Also crucial to the success of the mission was the help of Filipino civilians, who provided intelligence and carabao carts to transport the prisoners, most of whom could not walk.

But first the Rangers had to crawl over a long stretch of open ground. One of the guerrilla leaders, who had spied on the prison camp, noticed that Japanese guards became agitated whenever planes flew over the camp. He suggested that an American P-61 - a night fighter known as the "Black Widow" - buzz the camp just before and during the time the Rangers were crawling toward it across the open ground.

Prince gave much credit for the success of the raid to the Air Force pilots of the Black Widow - dubbed "Hard to Get" for the voluptuous nude blonde painted on its nose - who distracted the guards by flying low over the camp, pretending to have engine trouble, as the Rangers inched toward the camp on their bellies.

The Rangers attacked from both front and back of the camp, trapping the Japanese guards in a devastating fire from rifles, BARs and Tommy guns. Twelve minutes into the attack, the Rangers were leading and carrying POWs out of the camp. Of the 512 POWs rescued, 490 were Americans. One grizzled U.S. Marine was said to have wrapped his arms around a Ranger's neck and kissed him, saying, "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!"

Prince made the final check of the camp to ensure all prisoners were rescued, but missed an elderly British POW in a latrine, who was found later that night by Filipino guerrillas. More than 275 Japanese lay dead within the enclosure. The Rangers lost two men, including their highly respected physician. One POW suffered a fatal heart attack before reaching the front gate.

Crossing the Rizal highway in enemy territory was the most dangerous part of the retreat, because the terrain did not allow a direct crossing. The long, slow line of men and carabao carts had to march one mile south before exiting on the other side an hour later.

Prince and his commander, Mucci, were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their parts in the mission. The other officers received the Silver Star and the rest of the Rangers won the Bronze Star.

Many tales like those above will be shared when the Rangers gather in Columbus. Among the listeners will be present-day Rangers eager to hear the thrilling exploits of the Rangers who led the way for them.