Fort Benning (1953): The Thrilling Story of the Rangers
This month, we are celebrating the history of Fort Benning beginning with the story of the Rangers as highlighted in W.C. Woodall's 1953 Industrial Index. This spotlight will also include excerpts from an article by Major Herschle H. Hawkins about the Rangers, their missions, training, and the story of our very own Colonel Ralph Puckett.
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Sources: W.C. Woodall, Industrial Index (1953) Fort Benning Section and US Army biography of Col. Ralph Puckett, Jr. Medal of Honor Recipient.
We are highlighting several of local historian W.C. Woodall's Industrial Indexes over the course of this summer. If you aren't familiar with them, they are a wonderful collection of articles on local happenings, business advertisements, and images of new homes put together each year from 1912 until 1960. There are also issues dedicated to Phenix City and Fort Benning. You can find them in the Genealogy Room of the Columbus Public Library and the CSU Archives.
In every conflict between nations, certain individuals and units stand out in courage well above the call of duty. What human emotions motivate these deeds is difficult to say. Love of country may be one; another might be esprit de corps. Whatever they may be, in a struggle which no side has an overwhelming advantage, they may provide the deciding factor. The Rangers were such units. During World War II, the Rangers were activated to meet the demands of a new mode of warfare. The need arose out of the geographical pattern of a world war on several fronts. That the Rangers served well is a tribute to the American genius for adaptation of new ideas and techniques. The Colonial mode of existence which characterized the early 18th century in this country necessitated organizing hunters and scouts into formal units to combat Native Americans and protect the settlements. These men, the foremost fighters of the day, were called Rangers.
In 1742, the Rangers then known as the “Colonial Rangers,” came into being as a military unit for the first time. Major Robert Rogers developed them into a fighting and scouting organization that established a tradition which has persisted ever since.
George Washington had under his command in 1776 “a body of 120 rough and ready men known as Knowlton’s Rangers.” The War of 1812 saw Congress authorize the enlistment of six companies of Rangers. In 1845, Texas organized a force of volunteers and adopted a name of lasting fame, The Texas Rangers. In the spring of 1942 when the decision was made to organize Rangers, Generals Marshall and Eisenhower chose a young aggressive West Pointer, Colonel William O. Darby to lead them. The Darby Rangers were named for Rogers Rangers, the rough and crafty fighters of the Colonial days. American counterpart of the British Commandos, the Rangers were an elite fighting and striking force, volunteers who wanted something special in fighting assignments. The British Commandos set the standards and the Rangers followed with identical training.
Of the 2,000 volunteers, 700 were selected and training began. Under Colonel Darby’s direction, they were put through a seven-week Commando course in 31 days with the British Commandos as instructors. Ask any Ranger about this period in training and he will tell you “they tried to kill us.” When the training was done, only 520 of the original 700 still wanted to be Rangers and were acceptable. In battle, the Rangers added page after page to the hallowed history of American fighting men. The following highlights the Rangers in World War II.
The following eight missions highlight how the Rangers took part in World War II. Dieppe: First American Participation in Europe In mid-summer, the Rangers joined a larger force containing Canadian, Free French, Commandos and British regulars, and were given more training. Then, in August 1942, as guinea pig for the second front two years later, the force set sail from England and attacked at Dieppe. Africa: Spearheaded Invasion On November 8, 1942, spearheading the Central Task Force, the Rangers waded ashore in Africa at the sleepy Algerian village of Arzer, thirty miles east of Oran. Landing at night with the missions of knocking out two French-manned coastal guns, the Rangers had little trouble. In Tunisia, the Rangers were used for quick punches, raids that carried them deep into enemy territory, and succeeded because the enemy never expected them. Most of the Ranger attacks were made at night, with dark shapes of hills guiding them into the enemy stronghold. The Rangers had learned the tricks of night fighting. Sicily: Spearheaded Invasion In Sicily, the Rangers poured ashore at Gela and Licata, the small coastal fishing towns. On the beaches they found minefields, barbed wire, and concentrated gun fire. Northwest of Gela, ten miles across a flat plain, perched 1300 feet up a vertical rock cliff was Butera. The Germans used it as an artillery observation post. Butera was garrisoned by 300 Italians, supervised by German officers and non-commissioned officers. When it was over, the Rangers suffered two casualties. They took 100 prisoners. The rest were dead.
Salerno: Spearheaded Invasion On September 9, 1943, the Allies landed in Italy, and once again the spearheading Rangers were first in action. For 22 days on the beaches of northern Salerno, they faced constant counterattacks and for the first time there were many casualties. When the counterattacks stopped, the Rangers drove on towards Naples. Anzio: Spearheaded Invasion In January 1944, Rangers led the assault landing at night and crashed through the German defense into the seaside town. No other outfit in the Army knew more about slicing through the enemy’s ranks in the darkness and overpowering them at dawn. From the beachhead offensive, planned to carry the Allied forces out of Anzio into Rome itself. The Rangers were chosen to spearhead. The target was Cisterna di Littoria. Cisterna di Littoria They fought and died. Out of 1500 Rangers, 200 men lived to tell of it, but cleared the way to Rome. The story of this fight is a legend that will be told and retold wherever men gather recall the tales of brave deeds. This ended the first phase of the Rangers in the war, and they were brought home for a well-earned rest.
Normandy: Spearheaded Invasion At H hour on D Day, the Rangers spearheaded the second front on the hottest sector of Omaha Beach. One battalion climbed ashore against terrible enemy fire, assaulting and scaling cliffs 100 feet high, knocking out powerful enemy coastal guns. Another battalion, facing machine guns and rockets, blasted its way inland, and by nightfall had secured a toehold. As a special unit of Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, the Rangers were on call from every division in Europe. This resulted in their being transferred from one end of France to the other. They campaigned in every major battle in France. Luxon A situation existed in one of the prison camps in the Philippines which required immediate action of the part of the military authorities. A large number of American prisoners were living in near starvation. They called on the Rangers. One hundred and twenty Rangers volunteers to go with Filipino scouts far behind Japanese lines and free American prisoners from the notorious Camp Cabanatuan. They carried out their mission in one of the greatest raids of the war. Not one American prisoner died as a result of the raid. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the idea of using Rangers once again came to the front and a Ranger Training Command was established at Fort Benning. This organization turned out completely trained companies of Rangers.
The Army’s new-type Ranger training began at Fort Benning’s Infantry School in early January 1952, as the streamlined successor to the Korea-provoked Ranger course. Until the new course began, company-sized Ranger units were being trained at The Infantry School for assignment as special-mission units of divisions. However, the Army soon realized that cream-of-the-crop American youth were being specially trained and sent into elite type units instead of benefitting the Army as a whole. The Army discontinued development of Rangers and tactics for large-scale use in combat. Rangers then became trained at Fort Benning to provide the Army-at-Large with expert leaders who, having been trained as Rangers, would help raise proficiency and esprit de corps throughout the Army.
Ranger training at Fort Benning – an eight-week course for high IQ volunteer, noncommissioned and junior officers below the age of 30 – is perhaps the Army’s most rigorous, most highly concentrated training program. Student Rangers must embody brain, brawn, and courage to successfully complete the course. During the eight-week course, students work and live in three different laboratories provided by Mother Nature: Fort Benning pinelands, northwest Florida jungles, and North Georgia mountains. Training formulators of The Infantry School have written and put into practice an exacting program of physical and mental stress which teaches Rangers-to-be the arts of living, working, and fighting in small teams. Basically, the training stresses leadership through clear objective thinking, physical conditioning, and survival through a series of highly impossible appearing military problems and mental and physical tests.
When speaking of the Rangers, any story would be incomplete without mention of our own Colonel Ralph Puckett. Born in Tifton, Georgia, Ralph Puckett, Jr. graduated from the United States Military Academy, West Point and received his commission as an Infantry Officer in 1949. Assigned to occupation duty in Okinawa, he volunteered for the Eighth Army Ranger Company, which was formed shortly after the Korean Conflict began in 1950. Selected as the company’s commander, 1st Lt. Puckett had five-and-a-half weeks to train his Rangers before being committed to combat operations. While attached to Task Force Dolvin and leading the advance of the 25th Infantry Division on Nov. 25, 1950, Puckett and his Rangers attacked and secured Hill 205 in the vicinity of Unsan, Korea. Though outnumbered ten to one, Puckett and his Rangers defeated five successive Chinese counterattacks over four hours that night and into the early morning hours of Nov. 26. Finally, on the sixth assault, with supporting artillery fires unavailable, the Ranger company was overrun in hand-to-hand combat. Having suffered multiple serious wounds, Puckett was unable to move. Despite orders to abandon him, fellow Rangers fought their way to his side and evacuated him to safety. For his actions, Puckett was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Though offered a medical discharge for his wounds, Puckett refused and continued to serve on active duty at assignments that included the U.S. Army Ranger School and West Point. As a Ranger advisor to the Columbian Army, Puckett established the prestigious Escuela de Lanceros program. Later, after completing Special Forces training in 1960, Puckett commanded B and C teams in the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tolz, Germany. Retiring in 1971, he became the national programs coordinator of Outward Bound, Inc., and subsequently established Discovery, Inc., a leadership and teamwork development program that focused on “Personal Growth through Safe Adventure.” In 1992, he was an inaugural inductee into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame and, from 1996 to 2006, he served as the first honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Other honors followed, including an appointment as an ambassador of goodwill by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, selection as a 2004 distinguished graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and being chosen as a 2007 recipient of the Infantry’s Doughboy Award. Ralph has also received the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal, and Air Medal. On April 30, 2021, Puckett was notified of the recent decision to award him the Medal of Honor for his actions on November 25, 1950. He received the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House from President Joe Biden on May 21, 2021. “He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy. Clearly a unique, courageous Soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, Col. Puckett was an ultimate Infantry leader.” Retired General Jay Hendrix
In every conflict between nations, certain individuals and units stand out in courage well above the call of duty. What human emotions motivate these deeds is difficult to say. Love of country may be one; another might be esprit de corps. Whatever they may be, in a struggle which no side has an overwhelming advantage, they may provide the deciding factor. The Rangers were such units. Next Week: Next Thursday, we will highlight the story of Lawson Air Force Base and the vital role of the Airborne Infantryman in modern warfare as showcased in W.C. Woodall's 1953 Industrial Index. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!