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Monday, November 12, 2012

D-Day And ‘The Boys Of Pointe Du Hoc’

U.S. assault troops, laden with equipment, wade through the surf to a Normandy beach from landing craft in June 1944 to support those who had gone before in the D-Day assault. (AP)

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, they had one of the most dangerous missions. They had to land on Omaha Beach and scramble under that heavy German machine gun fire and then scale the cliff, still under that heavy fire.

Their job was to take out the big German guns at the top of the cliffs, guns that were trained on the Normandy beaches. And these American soldiers did just that.

“These men are very very proud of their legacy,” Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of “Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc – The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission And Led The Way Across Europe,” told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “They definitely think what they did against Germany was worth the cost. And every one of them has told me they’d do it again.”

O’Donnell describes Dog Company’s involvement in the Battle for Hill 400:

Book Excerpt: Dog Company

By: Patrick K. O’Donnell

Prologue

June 6, 1984, Pointe du Hoc, Normandy

Flags fluttered in the breeze as the flash of cameras dovetailed President Ronald Reagan’s stirring words. The speech marked the fortieth anniversary of D-Day in a special place, a sacred place. Solemn yet impassioned, President Reagan addressed the watchful crowd and the entire nation:

“We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the sixth of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers—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. . . .”

U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivers a speech at the Pointe du Hoc Memorial in Normandy, France, during commemorative ceremonies of the 40th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy in 1944. (AP)

One of the finest speeches of the Cold War, Reagan’s words touched each of the veteran Rangers, now senior citizens, who stood shoulder to shoulder before him. Rays of sun gently lit their faces, now lined with age, as the President’s words warmed their hearts.

Earlier, sixty-something Ranger veteran Herman Stein had miraculously reenacted the climb. A dozen young Green Berets—all Ranger-qualified and serving in West Germany—scaled the ninety-foot cliffs along with the veteran. His brother Rangers initially tried to dissuade Stein, now a roofer, from attempting this feat. Leonard G. Lomell, Dog Company’s first sergeant on D-Day, jokingly chided Stein, “Sixty-year-old Rangers shouldn’t try to compete against the Green Berets. We’re too old for this nonsense now.”

The former Dog Company Ranger didn’t listen. He not only scaled the precipice, but also out-climbed the younger Green Berets, easily beating them to the top. The crowd roared. The massive arms of Ranger Captain Otto Masny, who was affectionately called “Big Stoop” during the war, enveloped Stein in a bear hug. After his climb, Stein greeted the awaiting crowd and jokingly spoke a few words: “All these younger guys will be all right if they just stick with it. They hug the cliff too much.”

Nancy Reagan puts down a bunch of flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, France, as the Pres. Ronald Reagan stands behind her. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

After President Reagan delivered his speech, he approached the line of veteran D-Day Rangers, each dressed in blue blazers with their distinctive, hard-won Ranger patches prominently displayed along with their combat infantry badges and numerous medals. Now, thanks to the President’s rousing words, America had finally recognized the extreme bravery and sacrifices of its WWII veterans, acknowledging them as an example of the sacrifices needed to win the Cold War.

The President and First Lady Nancy Reagan hugged each of those Rangers present—Leonard G. Lomell, Tom Ruggiero, Jack Kuhn, L-Rod Petty, Frank South, and the others—but took a particular liking to the last man in line, Herman Stein. “Reagan was all over the moon about my climbing to the top of Pointe du Hoc. I think he wished he could have done it with me.”

As the President and the audience thought back on the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, several of the Dog Company Rangers couldn’t help but reflect on their “longest day,” December 7, 1944.

***

December 7, 1944, Bergstein, Germany: Hill 400

Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of “Dog Company”

“Fix bayonets!” barked Captain Otto Masny, the hulking Ranger officer.

In a scene reminiscent of a World War I battle, both sides stared at each other across a no man’s land. Lomell gazed beyond snow-covered ground the size of a football field as his eyes looked up at the ominous mount towering in front of Dog Company. Germans had dug foxholes at the base of the hill and manned bunkers. The icy, flat expanse made an ideal killing field. Germans held their fingers poised on the triggers of their machine guns; with a rate of fire of up to 1,500 rounds per minute, the gunners stood ready to tear the Rangers’ bodies to pieces.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

A creeping artillery barrage and mortars slowly closed in on Dog Company.

Like a tightly wound, coiled spring, tension within the Rangers’ ranks soon reached a breaking point. The acrid stench of cordite assaulted their nostrils. They knew the American artillery exploding in front of them would soon intersect with the German mortars dropping behind them. With Dog sandwiched between the ordnance from both forces, the falling fire would turn the company to hamburger meat within seconds.

Suddenly, a Ranger stood up, raised his tommy gun above his head and screamed: “Let’s go get the bastards!”

A Dog Company officer yelled, “Go!”

The Rangers fired a tremendous volley into the German positions facing them. In unison, they stood and let loose a blood-curdling Rebel yell as they charged across the open field.

“WA-WOO-WOOHOO! WA-WOO-WOOHOO! WA-WOO-WOOHOO!”

Shooting from the hip, the Rangers rushed through the snow-crusted field. “We stood up just like in a movie. It was like seeing a wave in the football field…. We went over the field as one,” remembered one Ranger.

Mortars and artillery shells exploded next to the men as Dog Company charged into a hail of bullets. Rangers began falling, wounded and maimed in the intense fire. German machine guns opened up from behind a nearby bunker and other positions. Halfway across the field, the Ranger charge grew staggered, as some men ran faster than others. Lomell’s heart pounded and his adrenaline surged as he and the other men raced across the field toward Hill 400.

Stunned by the sight of 120 seemingly crazy Americans screaming and yelling as they charged, some of the Germans abandoned their pillboxes and machine gun positions and ran for their lives up the hill.

A Ranger later reflected on the moment: “With bayonets shining, hip firing, and yelling a battle cry that probably goes back into the eons of time, we charged into the jaws of death.”

Excerpted from the book DOG COMPANY by Patrick K. O’Donnell. Copyright © 2012 by Patrick K. O’Donnell. Reprinted with permission of Da Capo Press.

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  • Michael Kilian

    I would be interested in understanding the truth behind statements that Pointe-du-Hoc was mostly decoy guns and that the actual guns were a kilometer inland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointe_du_Hoc, http://www.historynet.com/does-pointe-du-hoc-still-matter.htm

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      That’s interesting. Maybe Patrick can weigh in on that question.

    • http://www.patrickkodonnell.com/ Patrick K. O’Donnell

      A major objective  of the Allies prior to D-Day was Pointe du Hoc, and they relentlessly bombed it in an attempt to destroy the big guns on top of the Pointe.  To protect the artillery, the Germans towed the six big guns 800 yards inland to an apple orchard to protect them from the Allied bombardment.  The ammunition was stocked nearby and the guns were prepared to fire on Utah beach. Before they could do damage to the Invasion, the 2nd Ranger Battalion foiled their plans:  Dog Company – specifically First Sergeant Len Lomell, with help from Staff Sergeant Jack Kuhn – disabled five of the big guns, and another Ranger patrol took out the sixth gun.  Historian Stephen Ambrose considered Len Lomell the second most important person of D-Day, right behind Gen. Eisenhower. 

      More pictures on the guns and the men can be found at:
      http://www.dogcompanybook.com

      • dando

        HI

        I just wondered about the detail of the statements being made here … To correct you, there are only two gun pits at Pointe du Hoc which could have had a gun on them on/or near D-day. Of the others… one has an unfinished casement being built in front of it… another clearly is being built directly over a gun pit (see any aerial or ground photos) and another has the foundations of casement 3 being started on top of it. So these pits were clearly not operational for many weeks before D-day.

        The fourth gun pit was destroyed by the RAF on the 22/23 May which is noted in reconnaissance and period records.

        Therefore 4 of the 6 gun pits were not operational on D-day and for some time before.

        Can you explain to me the following…

        A) why you suggest that the guns from these pits were removed shortly before and not months earlier after Rommel was seen filming there.

        B) Why when I interviewed him on a number of occasions did Len Lomell tell me that he destroyed only 2 field howitzers. Not cannons as had been previously installed at PdH.

        C) Do you seriously believe that the German army would consider that the “safest place” to put their guns is in the open, with no protection for their men, ammunition in the open and unguarded – when they were expecting an invasion. Or do you think that the best place for guns is on their pits, with shelters for the men and ammunition. Plus a clear field of fire for the cannons (a direct fire weapon)… and of course the telephone links to the huge observation post on the cliff edge.? I know where I would have my guns if I was expecting an invasion – on their pits and ready.

        Unless of course they had another gun battery in the region already covering the landing area….

        Also… if you aim to be accurate. Sergeant Lomell and Staff/Sergeant Kuhn disabled 2 of the guns found inland not 5. The rest were destroyed by a patrol commanded by Staff Sergeant Frank Rupinski.

        There was no 6th gun. It was destroyed by the RAF earlier in the year.

        You do not mention the gun battery at Maisy and its role in firing at PdH and Vierville and its coverage of the sector ? Why not…?

        You will find a book called “D-day Cover Up” being released in November 2014 interesting. I think as it corrects all these issues using period information and the most comprehensive set of Ranger veteran interviews ever undertaken.

        For the sake of historical accuracy please get the facts straight.

        Thank you.

  • Kevin8

    Mr.O’Donnell book,in the GI own words sounds like a compelling read.
    Look forward to it.

  • D. Rumme

    Can’t wait to read. I knew one of those rangers and he would never speak of that day. Maybe now I’ll understand…

  • Dhamilt4

    I greatly enjoyed the excerpt from your interview with Patrick O’Donnell. I read Dog Company and couldn’t put it down. Mr. O’Donnell has done meticulous research and brilliantly weaves in oral histories he obtained from the Rangers themselves. It is admirable that he has been collecting them for almost 20 years. That is what makes Dog Company such an exciting, moving and cinematic read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sandra.wilcoxon Sandra Wilcoxon

    How can I reach Patrick O’Donnell?  I know an amazing WWII vet who is still very vital at 97 yrs. old and who was a ground radar operator in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He has some amazing stories and photos — someone needs to interview him before his stories are lost!  Find me on Facebook or reply here if there is a way to get in touch.  Thanks for the great story re. D-Day.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      try Patrick’s website
      http://www.patrickkodonnell.com/

      • http://www.facebook.com/sandra.wilcoxon Sandra Wilcoxon

         Got it–thanks!

  • Jackie (Sundby) Giller

    I am ordering this book today as my father Sigurd Sundby was interviewed by Mr. O’Donnel, too bad he’s not here to read the finished copy, but I will be reading it for him, besides he lived it. My dad and Len Lomell named their dogs Dco. As a kid I could never figure out why as my father never told us kids of his experiences in WWII or how he earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the Silver Star, Took me years to find out it stood for D company. Always been proud of my father and always will be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrickkodonnell Patrick k o’donnell

      Dear Jackie,

       

      Wonderful to hear from
      you.  

       

      Your father was an
      amazing man and I treasure the interview I had with him and other correspondence.
      In particular, one letter he wrote to Len Lomell (which I quoted in the book)
      always stood out to me.  After the Germans hit Hill 400 he saw Len Lomell
      carrying his tommy gun.  I thought your father’s words captured the spirit
      of Dog Company and the leadership men like Len and your Dad selflessly
      exhibited time and time again: “I can still see Len walking on the top of
      that hill [400], his blood coming from his hand [his finger was dangling from
      his tendon] and carrying his tommy gun.  A leader like that we would do
      anything for.”

       

       

      Best wishes,

       

      Patrick

      combathistorianpkogmail 

      .com
      http://www.facebook.com/patrickkodonnell

  • Markscalice

    Dear Patrick,
    The Christmas of 2012 I was given your book Dog Company  “The Boys of Pont du Hoc” my grandfather is Sheldon Bare.  I have talked to Pap several times regarding his experiences with the the 2nd Rangers and your book has left me humbled.  The respect, love and gratitude i have for my Pap and the other men of his unit hit home even more so after reading your book. I realize more so today how lucky he was to have survived and will cherish this book for ever.  Thanks Patrick.

    Mark A. Scalice
    Altoona, PA

  • Harrietroney

    William Petty is my uncle. He was my hero!  Thank you!

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