Honoring WWII Rangers' Climb Into History
Monday, June 6, 2005
The mission for Roger Neighborgall and his fellow U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day morning was straightforward: silencing German artillery that could fire on the invasion fleet from a cliff overlooking the English Channel. Their problem was daunting: scaling a wall of rock, 100 feet up, to get to the big guns.
The enduring image of D-Day has young soldiers dashing across bullet-strafed beaches at Normandy. Neighborgall has a starkly different memory of that wet dawn, 61 years ago today, when he and fellow soldiers of the Army's 5th Ranger Battalion emerged from a sea-sickening ride across the channel to land at high tide near the promontory of Pointe du Hoc.
Wide beaches? No, sir. "That's the way it was everyplace else but Omaha Beach," the 81-year-old Falls Church resident said of his landing. "Omaha, of course, was where all the casualties were."
Rangers were an elite volunteer group formed during the war and modeled on British commandoes. They were the tip of the spear in many difficult operations and fought in every theater, suffering so many fatalities that perhaps half of the roughly 6,000 who served saw the armistice. Neighborgall is now trying to commemorate the Rangers' World War II legacy by speaking to groups and working to erect a memorial.
The Indiana native and Duke University track star completed the daunting physical requirements to volunteer for the Rangers. He passed the final test when an Army major plunged a dagger between the unsuspecting young man's fingers, which were resting on a desktop. He did not stir.
"I wasn't heroic," he said. "I was too terrified to move."
They had trained for the D-Day cliff climbing in Scotland, and in almost a caricature of British can-do-ism, the London fire department suggested hoisting a ladder to get up and engaging the enemy. Fine idea when they tried it.
"Every one of them got shot," Neighborgall said. "The other plan was to shoot up a rope with a clawed end, but the Germans cut those down. The way you got up there was climbing."
Soldiers were pushing and pulling themselves up as mortar fire and grenades rained about them, nasty little presents from an enemy who could not fire with handguns over the cliff lest Allied snipers pick them off.
Hit by shrapnel, Neighborgall ignored his injuries and used his rifle to shoot "everybody, anything that moved. It was dicey for several hours before there was any feeling of security at all. The Germans were not cleared out of there until well into the afternoon."
Afterward, the signalman was supposed to radio officers commanding the battle from a ship in the channel. But the radio, having been soaked during the crossing, would not work. Neither would a carrier pigeon that "decided war was dangerous and wouldn't fly," Neighborgall said. So the radio man decided to use the semaphore signaling flags, conveying a less-than-reassuring message: "Send help."
Neighborgall fought in the Battle of the Bulge that winter and helped relieve the 101st Airborne Division, which was surrounded at Bastogne, Belgium. He received the Silver Star, partly for what happened while on patrol behind enemy lines with an officer who had been shot in both legs.