FORT BRAGG, N.C. - From Europe to North Africa to the Pacific, U.S. Army Rangers played a crucial role in many of World War II’s most pivotal moments, laying down roots for today’s 75th Ranger Regiment. At the onset of the war, the Army had no units capable of performing specialized commando missions. By the end of the war, the Army had fielded seven Ranger battalions, beginning with the activation of the 1st Ranger Battalion in Northern Ireland on June 19, 1942.
Major William O. Darby, an artillery officer, was hand-picked to recruit volunteers for the battalion, designed to replicate the capability of British commandos. The volunteers underwent a strenuous selection program to identify and train the best candidates. On Aug. 19, 1942, 50 of these specially selected soldiers participated in Operation Jubilee, a Canadian-led amphibious assault on the English Channel port of Dieppe, France. The Rangers helped destroy one of the enemy batteries, at the cost of three of their own. Following the raid, the 1st Ranger Battalion participated in the U.S.-led invasion of North Africa.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 1942, Operation Torch commenced with attacks on the Algerian port in Arzew. As two Ranger companies led by Maj. Herman Dammer assaulted the port, three others led by Darby assaulted enemy cannons overlooking the harbor, capturing them within 15 minutes. Two Rangers died and eight were wounded during the action, but the Rangers’ success helped the Allies secure a foothold on the continent.
The 29th Ranger Battalion (Provisional) was formed on Dec. 20, 1942 in England. The volunteers came from the 29th Infantry Division. Attached to British commandos for additional training, several of the Rangers from the 29th participated in combat raids and reconnaissance missions into Norway before being disbanded on Oct. 15, 1943.
The 1st Ranger Battalion’s encouraging performance in Africa led the Army in 1943 to activate four more Ranger Battalions – the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Attached to the 1st Infantry Division of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Seventh Army, Darby led a Ranger Force consisting of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger battalions that spearheaded Operation Husky, the American landings in Sicily on July 10, 1943.
With Sicily secured, the Rangers turned their attention to mainland Italy and Operation Avalanche. Before daylight on Sept. 9, 1943, the Ranger Force hit the beach west of Salerno on the far-left flank of the Allied landing. The 4th Battalion, led by Maj. Roy Murray, quickly secured the beach, and cleared the way for the 1st and 3rd battalions to move inland. The Rangers rapidly gained their objectives by midmorning of the first day. The Ranger Force later participated in the Anzio operation, where they conducted a daring but ill-fated raid into the Italian town of Cisterna on January 30, 1944.
The 2nd and 5th entered the war on June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, France, during Operation Overlord. Three companies of 2nd Battalion Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James E. Rudder, daringly scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, overlooking Omaha Beach, to destroy German gun emplacements targeting troops landing on the beachhead. Meanwhile, the remainder of 2nd Battalion and the entirety of 5th Ranger Battalion fought their way ashore Omaha Beach alongside the 1st and 29th Infantry Division. The D-Day missions earned the Rangers their motto, "Rangers, lead the way!" The 2nd and 5th Rangers fought in the Allied campaign in western Europe until the end of the war.
In the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, another legendary Ranger lineage unit was organized on Oct. 3, 1943: the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). Better known as “Merrill’s Marauders” after its commander, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, the 5307th, a Long-Range Penetration Group, fought a grueling campaign in the mountainous jungles of Burma that lasted until mid-1944. Following the capture of Myitkyina, Burma, the remnants of the 5307th were consolidated with the 475th Infantry Regiment on Aug. 10, 1944. The 475th was part the second Long Range Penetration Group formed for service in Burma, the 5332nd Brigade (Provisional). Better known as the MARS Task Force, the 5332nd helped secure the last stretches of the Burma Road remaining in Japanese hands, before moving on to service in China.
In mid-1944, one more Ranger Battalion was activated, with the mission of supporting U.S. Sixth Army operations in the Southwest Pacific. Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Mucci was selected to organize, train, and command the 6th Ranger Battalion, which was formed out of the 98th Field Artillery Battalion, the 6th Rangers played a prominent role in the recapture of the Philippines, starting with the amphibious assault on Leyte in October 1944. On neighboring Luzon, in January 1945, Company A, 6th Rangers, supported by the Sixth Army Special Reconnaissance Unit, also known as the “Alamo Scouts,” and Philippine guerrillas, executed its most famous action when it raided a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp near Cabanatuan, Philippines. Against overwhelming odds, the operation freed more than five hundred Allied prisoners.
It's for these and many other actions that the Ranger units of World War II would go on to earn multiple unit citations prior to being disbanded in 1945. Their legacy endured long beyond the war, with their courage and audacity setting the example for future generations of U.S. Army Rangers.
To learn more about the U.S. Army Rangers of World War II, go to arsof-history.org.