By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"I cut down two pine trees with a bayonet," he said. "They were five or six feet long. I took our jackets off and put the pine trees through the sleeves." On the makeshift sled, he dragged the officer three miles to safety.
He narrowly missed fighting in the Pacific theater. The Japanese surrendered during his brief leave in the United States, and he left the war with the rank of second lieutenant.
Sixty-one years later, Neighborgall has retained a sinewy appearance. He has the taut features and enviable gait of actor Jack Palance. "I played tennis for two hours last night," he said over lunch last week, as if to add, "And what did you do?"
He is president of the Northern Virginia Tennis League and Friends of the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, a preservation group. He spent his career in marketing, and the thought of retirement baffles him. He is a vice president of Noesis, an engineering firm and defense contractor in Arlington.
For decades, the war was something he resigned to the past. Too many nightmares. His children had only been "vaguely aware" of his Army service. Only after a local Rangers reunion a few years ago was he tempted to join the Ranger Battalions Association of World War II. He now is president of the group, whose membership is about 300 -- the surviving Ranger veterans from the war.
His wife, Linda, persuaded him to attend ceremonies honoring the 60th anniversary of D-Day. In France, he was elated at his reception, the "rock star" euphoria of fetes and other tributes. Peering over the edge of Pointe du Hoc, he marveled at what he had accomplished. "I said, 'How did you ever get up there?' "
He began opening up, telling war stories to students and civic associations. He wanted to be a resource, a supplement to history books. He added a marketing spin, arranging a slick PowerPoint presentation. He knows his audiences. High school students cheer when he sports his bandolier, a belt worn over the shoulder as a part of his uniform. He then tells -- in an abbreviated, captivating way -- horrific, sometimes humorous war anecdotes.
For example, the brutally cold winter -- below zero -- on the road to Bastogne, when he leapt off a Sherman tank and began firing his M1 rifle at approaching Germans.
"In order to fire an M1, you put it close to you, and the metal stuck to my cheek," he said. "My friend said, 'Keep firing and I'll blow [warm air] on your cheek until you can take the gun away."
Neighborgall shared this story with the History Channel and the official Xinhua News Agency of China, which was seeking out veterans to commemorate the war's end.
The Rangers' story also is told in a new book by Douglas Brinkley, "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion."
Neighborgall is trying to persuade Congress to pass legislation authorizing a headstone-size monument to World War II Rangers. He wants it placed in Arlington National Cemetery. That there is a black granite monument to Ranger veterans at the World War II Victory Museum in Auburn, Ind., is beside the point, he said. "There's only one Arlington National Cemetery."
He proposed the bill to Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) last week, and Allen's office has submitted it to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Neighborgall said the key to political success, as in combat, is "know your enemy." So he has not asked for appropriations, having raised the $20,000 he said is needed to create a monument identical to the one in Indiana.
"The 60th anniversary of D-Day made me realize that as long as I'm alive -- and we're losing friends all the time -- that I should be responsible to tell this story to as many people as will listen."