George Kerchner, a junior officer who led his Army Ranger company up the Pointe du Hoc cliffs during the Normandy invasion and who managed to silence German big guns that threatened the success of the D-Day landings, died Feb. 17 at his home in Midlothian, Va. He was 93.
He died of sepsis and pneumonia, said his son Greg Kerchner.
Then-Lt. Kerchner, a former Baltimore soda jerk, joined the Army in 1942 and volunteered the next year for duty in the elite Army Rangers. He trained for six months in England, climbing seaside cliffs in anticipation of raiding Pointe du Hoc, a well-fortified promontory jutting into the English Channel.
The mission, under the command of Lt. Col. James E. Rudder, was viewed as near-suicide. In an oft-quoted line, attributed to an intelligence officer, Rudder was warned of the 100-foot ascent up Pointe du Hoc that “it can’t be done. Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff.”
But Pointe du Hoc held crucial strategic importance. According to military reports, the Germans had stationed there six 155mm guns capable of reaching up to 15 miles into the channel. The guns at Pointe du Hoc — halfway between the Normandy beaches code-named Utah and Omaha — posed a danger to Allied troop ships offloading thousands of soldiers.
On the dawn of the June 6, 1944, invasion, Lt. Kerchner entered his British-manned landing craft with other members of Company D of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.
He recalled to historian Douglas Brinkley the advice of a chaplain conducting an impromptu Mass: “When you land on that beach and get in there, I don’t want to see anybody kneeling down and praying. If I do, I’m gonna come up and boot you in the tail. You leave the praying to me, and you do the fighting!”
As Lt. Kerchner neared France, he said he vowed to be the first off the landing craft ashore.
“Okay, let’s go!” he shouted, before plunging suddenly head-deep in the water amid the rising tide and losing his rifle. He said he felt a strong desire to “cuss out the British navy” but the miscalculation probably saved his life. Soldiers behind him jumped into much shallower water, and many of them were shot.
By the time he got to the rocky beach, he found himself in charge of D Company; every senior officer had been killed or severely wounded. From several hundred yards away, German machine-gun fire continued to rake the beach.
“This made me very angry because I figured he was shooting at me and I had nothing but a pistol,” Lt. Kerchner told historian Stephen Ambrose for his World War II book “The Victors.” “My first impulse was to go after this machine gun up there, but I immediately realized this was rather stupid, as our mission was to get to the top of that cliff and get on with destroying those guns.”
When Lt. Kerchner reached the top of Pointe du Hoc, he found the 155mm guns had been removed from their casements. Lt. Kerchner sent out patrols to locate and destroy the guns using incendiary grenades. Five were found scattered nearby; a sixth gun was destroyed in an earlier Allied bombing.
Germans remained at the perimeter in overwhelming force, and Lt. Kerchner and 15 men under his command were surrounded for 21 / 2 days. He held his position, fighting off Germans until finally being relieved by reinforcements. At times, he crawled into foxholes and cradled men who feared they would die.
The operation at Pointe du Hoc was as devastating as it was dramatic. About 100 out of the 225 Rangers at Normandy on June 6 were killed or wounded, said April Cheek-Messier, a vice president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, Va. Lt. Kerchner received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor.
Several months after the D-Day invasion, Lt. Kerchner was shot in the left shoulder during combat near the French city of Saint-Lo. He returned to the United States and became an infantry battle courses instructor. He later retired from the Maryland National Guard at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
George Francis Kerchner was born in Baltimore on Feb. 22, 1918. After World War II, he became president and general manager of Arundel Ice Cream, a Baltimore company started by an uncle. He sold the business in 1971 and then owned a hotel in Ocean City, Md., for many years. He moved to Midlothian, near Richmond, in 2004.
His first wife, the former Violet Schuneman, died in 1989 after 50 years of marriage. In 1991, he married Kathryn “Kay” Fairchild.
In addition to his wife, of Midlothian, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Mary Lou Kerchner of Hebron, Md., John Kerchner of Denton, Md., Thomas Kerchner of Princess Anne, Md., and Greg Kerchner of Ellicott City; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The Allied exploits at Pointe du Hoc were featured in the 1962 Hollywood epic “The Longest Day” and more recently in the video game “Call of Duty 2.” While such entertainments tend to emphasize the bravado of battle, George Kerchner was modest. “I didn’t think I did anything that heroic,” he told a television interviewer when he was 92.