Last August, at a gathering of old warriors in Fort Wayne, Ind., members of the World War II Ranger Battalions Assn. selected Lawrence as the site of their 2006 reunion to be held June 8-10. Other cities competing for the event were Colorado Springs, Colo., and Washington, D.C. The latter city offered $20,000 in corporate funding to defray reunion expenses and promised a trip to nearby Bedford, Va., to view the magnificent D-Day monument dedicated in 2001.
Bedford may have the monument, but Lawrence has the artist who created it. The other cities could not compete with the opportunity for the Rangers to meet Jim Brothers, an artist greatly admired by members of the military who sacrificed so much to preserve our way of life. The admiration is mutual.
"Those guys are my heroes," says Brothers.
Rangers also expressed interest in seeing "From the Ashes," Brothers' sculpture dedicated July 3, 2004, at the Lawrence Visitors Center. That statue, a figure of a phoenix morphing into a man, honors Douglas County residents killed in wars ranging from the Civil War to present-day conflicts, as well as first-line defenders - police officers and firefighters - who died in the line of duty.
The Dole Institute of Politics proved another irresistible attraction for the Rangers. The Dole Institute's well-publicized dedication - The Greatest Celebration of the Greatest Generation - honored World War II veterans and showcased the community's gratitude to those who fought far from home to preserve freedom. The Dole Institute will be the site of the Rangers' memorial service remembering their brothers-in-arms who died during the past year. The list grows longer at every reunion.
Most of the Rangers are in their 80s now, some in their 90s. But as young men, those who served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions - dubbed Darby's Rangers for Col. William Orlando Darby, their commander - saw combat against Rommel's finest in the scorching sands of Africa and fought their way through the freezing, muddy mountains of Italy. The original 1st Battalion, trained by British Commandos in Scotland, slipped ashore in North Africa in the black, predawn hours of Nov. 8, 1942, and established a presence before the Nazi forces realized they were there. The Rangers' success resulted in recruitment of volunteers for two additional battalions, the 3rd and 4th, each containing a third of the original 1st battalion. All three battalions spearheaded invasions of Sicily, Salerno and Anzio.
The Rangers spearheaded a successful night landing at Anzio, but disaster awaited them a few days and a few miles away near Cisterna where the 1st and 3rd Battalions were sent to infiltrate German lines and seize the town. Perhaps it was a failure of intelligence that the operation did not go as planned. According to a December 1944 Reader's Digest article, the Rangers were surrounded by German troops, "paratroopers with automatic weapons and panzer grenadiers with tanks and 88s." Although the paratroopers outnumbered them 10-to-1, the Rangers, many badly wounded, made a fight of it.
The 4th Battalion, held in reserve, rushed to the aid of the 1st and 3rd. In repeated attacks against the German lines, the 4th lost half its combat strength; many of them, including five of six company commanders, died in the failed rescue attempt. The last words from the surrounded Rangers were: "They're closing in. But they won't get us cheap!" About noon on Jan. 30, 1944, the surviving 1st and 3rd Rangers, out of ammunition, did the only thing they could do. They surrendered and spent over a year as prisoners of war. Only eight Rangers escaped capture and made it safely to American lines.
Although unable to save the 1st and 3rd, the 4th Battalion finally broke through the ring of German paratroopers, saving the entire Anzio beachhead from fierce Nazi counterattacks. After the battle at Cisterna, the Rangers' only defeat, Darby's Rangers disbanded. According to the Reader's Digest Article, only 199 out of 2,000 returned to the United States: "The rest they left behind - in hospitals, in prison camps, in graves."
The Rangers were said to have "fought in more actions, with heavier casualties, than any other Army unit" and were the most highly decorated unit with "more Purple Hearts than men." Their valor won them Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Stars and Bronze Stars, as well as British, French and Russian medals.
As what was left of Darby's command returned home or joined other units after recovering from their wounds, a new group of Rangers - the 2nd and 5th Battalions - was being readied to take the war to the Germans in France. Those are the Rangers who led the way onto the beaches and cliffs of Normandy. Many still lie in the cemetery there. The 6th Ranger Battalion saw similar action in the Pacific Theater.
The Ranger motto is "Rangers Lead the Way" and next June they'll be leading the way to Lawrence.