They volunteered to fight in World War II and saw combat from the Normandy beaches to the Philippine jungles, but age has taken a greater toll than those battles. Their ranks once numbered nearly 7,000, but there are now just 15 living Army Ranger veterans of WWII left to receive a medal just approved by Congress.
On May 11, the House by a vote of 418-0 passed a bill authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest national honor that can be bestowed by Congress, to be awarded to the elite Rangers who set the standard for Army special operations in WWII. Family members of deceased Rangers also may request a medal.
The bill passed the Senate last October and now awaits the signature of President Joe Biden to begin the process of minting the medal. It is awarded to both individuals and groups, whether military or civilian, "who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture."
Biden could choose to make the award even more significant by scheduling his signing of the legislation for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, or possibly on June 6 to mark the 78th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, where the Rangers played a crucial role, said former Army Capt. Ron Hudnell, a Ranger himself and the son of the late WWII Ranger James H. Hudnell.
Time was a factor in notifying the 15 surviving Rangers, all of whom are over the age of 90, that the president had signed off on the medal, said Hudnell, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who was instrumental in lobbying for the award.
The House bill notes that "the World War II generation is getting smaller every day, and now is the time to commemorate the brave individuals that volunteered to be part of the elite Ranger Battalions of World War II."
One of the surviving 15, retired Maj. Gen. John Raaen, of Florida, recently turned 100 and is believed to be the last surviving Army officer who was in the first wave to hit Omaha Beach in the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Then-Capt. Raaen would earn the Silver Star for his actions.
In a Military.com interview in 2019, when the bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal was stalled in Congress, Raaen said the medal would be "quite meaningful" to the Rangers and their families, and also serve as a "final act of recognition" for what they had accomplished in North Africa and the European and Pacific theaters.
On D-Day, Raaen's unit with the Rangers' 5th Battalion was to support the dangerous mission to take the Pointe du Hoc cliffs, but they were forced to go to what he called "Plan B" when the landing craft put them ashore on Omaha Beach.
Under withering fire from German MG 42 heavy machine guns, nicknamed "Hitler's Buzz Saws," they used Bangalore torpedoes to punch holes in the barbed wire and swarm up the high bluffs inland of the beach, which were engulfed in flame and smoke from naval gunfire.
"We took no fire from above us, which would have been devastating," Raaen said. "They couldn't see us until we were on top of them," adding that "the moment my battalion hit the high ground, Hitler was done."
Proud Ranger Legacy
Hudnell credited Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), an Iowa Army National Guard veteran of Iraq, and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army captain and Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, for their efforts to pass the bill.
Ernst began introducing bills to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the WWII Rangers in 2018 and had come to know former Tech. Sgt. Lester B. Cook, of Des Moines, who served in the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions in WWII and also served in Korea and Vietnam during a 26-year Army career.
Cook, who earned two Silver Stars, died in August 2019 at age 97. Ernst attended his funeral, saying later, "It was truly an honor to stand among Mr. Cook's family and friends to remember a truly great Iowan and American hero."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a retired Army lieutenant colonel and double amputee from Iraq, co-sponsored the Senate bill with Ernst.
In a statement following House passage of the bill last Wednesday, Crow said, "As an Army Ranger who followed in these immense footsteps, I thank them for their service and sacrifice."
According to Army histories, Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II, came up with the idea to form the Rangers after meetings with the British high command on a plan to have an American version of the British "commando" units to take on special missions.
Marshall chose then-Col. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. to get the job done, and he in turn picked the intrepid then-Lt. Col. William O. Darby to lead the first group of Rangers.
Darby, who would later be killed in action in Italy, put the Ranger volunteers through a harsh training regimen and, on June 18, 1942, the 1st Ranger Infantry Battalion was activated in Northern Ireland. Eventually, six Ranger battalions and one provisional battalion were formed.
The 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy; the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were in the D-Day landings and then fought across France, Belgium and Germany until the end of the war.
The 6th Ranger Battalion led landings in the Pacific theater and most famously rescued 516 Allied prisoners in the legendary raid on the infamous Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines.
The "Rangers lead the way" motto was born on the beaches of Normandy, and the elan of the units was possibly best summarized by President Ronald Reagan's "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" tribute on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1984.
Reagan spoke atop the rugged cliffs of the Pointe with its commanding views of Omaha and Utah beaches in describing the unbending will of the Rangers to take the position:
"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," he said. "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."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Raaen and Cook's battalions.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.