By Kevin Kelley
If all you know about the Army Rangers’ D-Day climb up the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc is from the movie “The Longest Day,” you don’t know half the story.
In the 1962 film, Rangers are portrayed climbing the 90-foot cliffs on the northern coast of France while facing machine gun fire from German troops on top. When the Rangers finally get to the top, the big 155-mm guns that were the target of their suicide mission are nowhere to be found, leaving the soldiers questioning if their sacrifice was for naught.
But the Rangers’ story didn’t end there. Now, Patrick O’Donnell, a Westlake native and combat historian, has chronicled one group of Rangers from training to the end of World War II in his latest book, “Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc – The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Led the Way Across Europe.”
It’s true that the German guns that threatened the Allied invasions at Omaha and Utah beaches were not where most Rangers expected them to be. But two Dog Company members discovered the guns farther inland a few hours later and almost single-handedly succeeded in taking them out, a feat not recorded in “The Longest Day.”
Some Rangers were invited to the film’s premiere, O’Donnell said, and had been interviewed for the Cornelius Ryan book on which the film was based.
“When they got to that scene, they were universally upset to the extent where they almost walked out,” O’Donnell said, “because it misrepresents their story.”
Two decades after the film, President Ronald Reagan helped ensure their story would not be forgotten. In a famous, emotional speech on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, Reagan immortalized the Rangers’ bravery as many surviving soldiers – “the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” as Reagan called them – looked on: “Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe.”
Despite the heavy casualties the Rangers took on D-Day and during the German counterattacks that followed, O’Donnell said Dec. 7, 1944, was actually Dog Company’s “longest day.” That was the day those Rangers held off a German counterattack after taking Hill 400, a large, strategic hill in a German forrest.
“The artillery fell like rain,” recounted Len Lomell, whom O’Donnell counts as the main character in “Dog Company” and one of the greatest heroes of World War II. The Dog Company commander, one of the two Rangers who took out the German guns on D-Day, heroically continued fighting despite being wounded.
Through interviews with surviving Rangers and research of official company reports, O’Donnell provides an hour-by-hour account of Dog Company’s stand against a much larger German force.
“My stories are very personalized,” the St. Edward High School graduate told West Life. “They’re told at the small-unit level. They’re character-driven.
“The real theme of the book is war and its aftermath. These men revealed the hard truth of war. And it’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a World War II book.”
For example, in addition to discussing the physical wounds the Rangers suffered, O’Donnell talks of those who experienced shell shock, known today at post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These men had it in large quantities, especially those that were in the heart of combat,” the author said. “Especially those that were in close-quarter battle, those that lost their friends at close range and just endured nearly a year of absolute hell in some of the toughest battlefields of Europe.”
O’Donnell has spent the last 20 years interviewing World War II veterans for “Dog Company” and an online oral history project, thedropzone.org.
“Sadly, of the nearly 4,000 men who I had interviewed and become friends with, only a handful remain,” he said.
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- Westlake native’s book tells of heroic Korean War Marines
(Jan. 26, 2011)