Twenty-two year old Tennessee National Guard Private William Petty, from Cohutta, had his sights set very high. He wanted to become part of an elite, newly created, all-volunteer commando-type unit. Although well known by many today, the Army Rangers did not actually come into existence until mid-1942, during the first year of America’s participation in World War II.
Ranger entry requirements were, and still are, exacting. In April of 1943, walking with a limp while recovering from two broken legs suffered in a recent parachuting exercise, Petty failed the physical exam and was denied a spot among the 500 men being chosen for the recently formed 2nd Ranger Battalion. Ironically, it wasn’t the gimpy legs that led to his rejection, but rather his false teeth.
Private Petty becomes a Ranger
Petty, who attended the University of Georgia for a while before going on active duty, had lost most of his teeth playing football. The examining doctor informed him that he couldn’t get in the Rangers without his “choppers.”
Incensed that a dental issue such as false teeth would cause him to fail the physical, he sought out 2nd Ranger Battalion Commanding Officer Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder. Initially, Rudder concurred with the medical verdict. But, when Petty, referring to the Germans, told Rudder, “Sir. I don’t want to eat ’em. I want to fight ’em,” the Ranger commander admired his grit so much that he decided right then and there to accept him into the newly forming battalion.
Petty would go on to win two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star before war’s end. His valor on D-Day, June 6, 1944, is legendary.
Although he didn’t like to discuss it in the years following the war, Petty is credited with single-handedly wreaking havoc on the enemy on that day, during the Rangers’ epic struggle for a rugged, rocky point on the Normandy coast of France, called Pointe du Hoc.
Of all the targets singled out to be softened up, or even destroyed if possible, before Allied invasion troops stormed ashore in Europe to drive out the Nazi occupiers, Pointe du Hoc had top priority.
Aerial and naval bombardment would pummel, but not neutralize, this topographically formidable and heavily defended promontory, a strip of land jutting out into the English Channel in the shape of a dagger.
Significance of Pointe du Hoc
The vital importance of Pointe du Hoc lay in both its strategic location and in the massive weapons positioned there. Following the German blitzkrieg subjugation of France in 1940, the Nazis had moved six huge 155 mm French artillery pieces from the eastern part of the country to the northwestern coastal region of Normandy. With a range of 14 miles, these guns were capable of delivering deadly fire down the beaches in both directions, and of taking lethal aim at naval vessels offshore as well. Simply put, an invasion force could have been decimated at sea and on the shore by the monster artillery pieces located at Pointe du Hoc.
Of immense concern was the fact that the two American landing beaches on D-Day, Utah to the west of Pointe du Hoc and Omaha to the east, we’re both entirely within range of the 155 mm guns located there. If not neutralized, they could have rained down death on landing troops struggling ashore and likely have tipped the scales in favor of a German victory over the Allies on D-Day.
To be sure that the big guns were taken out of the fight, 225 Army Rangers, slightly less than half of the men comprising the 2nd Ranger Battalion, were to come ashore just prior to the main D-Day invasion force of some 150,000 men. Their mission, deemed suicidal by some, was to scale the hundred foot cliff face at Pointe du Hoc, flush out and destroy all German resistance from the heavily fortified network of concrete bunkers there, disable the big guns, and then hold the high ground to prevent German reinforcement of the Normandy coast in this area.
Ranger valor is legendary
Due to rough seas and a navigational error by the British Navy, the Rangers arrived at Pointe du Hoc some 40 minutes behind schedule. The tide was rising rapidly, and it was either scale the cliffs at once or drown. Under murderous German fire from above, the Rangers used specially designed mortars to propel grappling hooks, with ropes attached, to the top, or near the top, of the cliff. As they started climbing, the casualty toll continued to mount rapidly.
With legendary bravery, the Rangers eventually secured Pointe du Hoc and knocked the big guns out of action. Less than 75 of the original 225 men were still fit for duty. Over 150 were either killed, wounded or missing. A terrible price had been paid, but the deadly guns of Pointe du Hoc were now incapable of showering the landing beaches with destruction. The Allied victory on D-Day, and the ultimate liberation of a continent, had been spearheaded by a small, but valiant, band of Americans.
Reagan honors Boys of Pointe du Hoc
Forty years later, on June 6, 1984, as part of the 40th anniversary observances of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan would deliver one of his most memorable speeches along the wind-swept crest of Pointe du Hoc. With many of the Ranger survivors in the audience, most by then well into their 60s, the President remembered and honored them and their generation:
“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war. ... Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”
Remember those young American boys at Pointe du Hoc and what they gave to preserve our freedom ... 75 years ago.