Most Americans remember December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day. But the seventh haunts many World War II Ranger veterans for another reason: It marks the anniversary of one of the great untold small-unit actions of World War II — the Battle of Hill 400, the U.S. Army Rangers’ “longest day.” My new book, Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc, chronicles that epic battle, as well as the other heroic efforts of this remarkable Ranger company.
“Fix bayonets!” barked a hulking Ranger officer.
In a scene reminiscent of a World War I battle, Germans and Americans stared at each other across a vast no man’s land. Best friends Lieutenant Leonard Lomell and Sergeant Tom Ruggiero gazed across the icy, flat expanse. They realized it made an ideal killing field, and wondered if they would live long enough to cross the field and make it up the hill. The Rangers were huddled behind an embankment. In bunkers and foxholes on the other side of the field, Germans held their fingers poised on the triggers of their machine guns, which boasted a rate of fire of up to 1,500 rounds per minute. The gunners stood ready to tear the Rangers’ bodies to pieces. Along the Ranger line, the men could hear the deafening sound of heavy artillery.
boom! boom! boom! boom!
A creeping artillery barrage and mortars slowly closed in on Dog Company, as tensions neared the breaking point.
Suddenly, a Ranger stood up, raised his tommy gun above his head, and screamed: “Let’s go get the bastards!”
The Rangers fired a tremendous volley into the German positions facing them. In unison, they stood and let loose a blood-curdling Rebel yell as they charged across the open field.
“wa-woo-woohoo! wa-woo-woohoo! wa-woo-woohoo!”
“We stood up just like in a movie,” one Ranger later remembered. “It was like seeing a wave at the football field. . . . We went over the field as one. With bayonets shining, hip-firing, and yelling a battle cry that probably goes back into the eons of time, we charged into the jaws of death.”
Sustaining massive casualties, Dog (or D) Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, along with its sister unit, Fox Company, seized Hill 400 and, against all odds, held it for two days. Both Ruggiero and Lomell would be badly wounded in an operation that killed nearly all of their friends. The few surviving Rangers are still haunted by the memories of Hill 400 that are forever seared in their minds.
The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc
But the Battle of Hill 400 was far from the first time Dog Company had changed the course of the war.
Six months earlier, on June 6, 1944, the men of Dog Company and other elements of the Second Ranger Battalion took on what was arguably D-Day’s toughest mission. They scaled the 90-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc under direct machine-gun and artillery fire while German soldiers threw grenades down upon them. Using ropes and their bare hands, the men of Dog Company scaled the precipice.
One of those Rangers was Leonard Lomell, Dog Company’s inspiring first sergeant, who continued to climb, even after being wounded in the side by a bullet from a machine gun.
Once on top, Dog Company fought its way through a Guns of Navarone–like labyrinth of bunkers, tunnels, machine-gun nests, and tens of thousands of mines. Somehow, Lomell and his close friend Jack Kuhn found the guns that hundreds of Allied bombers and thousands of Naval shells failed to destroy. Because the big guns could reach Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, and the Allied armada in the English Channel, taking them out was a top priority. They had to be neutralized at all costs.
For two days, Lomell and the rest of Dog Company sustained tremendous casualties, endured relentless German counterattacks, and — somehow — held the line against overwhelming numbers.
The Rangers’ accomplishments at Pointe du Hoc were nothing short of awe-inspiring. Yet somewhat surprisingly, the soldiers involved didn’t consider it their most difficult battle. To a man, the Rangers of Dog Company all said one thing: Our longest day was not D-day but Hill 400, in the Hürtgen Forest.