Veterans of the World War II Ranger units — who inspired such movies as “Darby’s Rangers,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Great Raid” — will be in Columbus, Georgia from October 21st to the 25th for their annual reunion. The location is particularly appropriate because nearby Fort Benning is home to current Ranger units and the opportunity to associate is important to both past and present Rangers.
At a previous reunion in Iowa, one young Ranger described the experience of meeting Rangers of an earlier war as “walking among giants,” while an old Ranger, surveying the unlined faces of present-day Rangers, mused, “Were we ever really that young?”
Indeed, they were. Mike Kness was only 17 when his father signed for him to join Iowa's National Guard, which was mobilized in 1941, assigned to the 34th Division and later sent to Ireland for additional training. When the Rangers came calling for volunteers for an American commando unit, Mike, then a 20-year-old corporal, and his brother Les, a sergeant, were quick to volunteer for training in Scotland with the unit that became known as Darby's Rangers although he frankly admits, “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
The brothers first experienced combat when the Rangers spearheaded the invasion of North Africa. “Everyone was scared,” Mike Kness admits, “but you are more scared the second time because you know what can happen. We just wanted to stay alive.”
Assigned to the same battalion — the 4th — both brothers saw action in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno and Anzio and much hard fighting after those invasions. “Anzio was particularly difficult because the ground was flat and there was no cover.”
Anzio also ended Darby's Rangers after the 1st and 3rd Rangers were surrounded by an overwhelming number of Nazis at Cisterna. Only eight men of those battalions escaped death or capture. The 4th Battalion fought furiously to rescue the 1st and 3rd Battalions and had more casualties that day than the surrounded battalions combined. Amazingly, with all the action he saw, Mike Kness was never wounded. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he comments.
After the disaster at Cisterna, Kness' 4th Battalion fought on Anzio Beachhead until the Darby's Rangers were disbanded. He was sent home where he married his sweetheart and entered the family business manufacturing Ketch-all mousetraps with his father and brother.
Carl Lehmann, a sergeant in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, was one of those captured in Cisterna. He was a pre-law student when drafted and sent to Fort Dix where he joined the 34th Division and was later shipped to Ireland. He was 21 when he volunteered for the Rangers but, unlike the Kness brothers, Lehmann had a good idea of what he was getting into. “I knew what commandos were.”
Lehmann saw action in Africa and in Italy where he received two minor injuries. His e-mail address is reminiscent of his memorable view from Italy's Chiunzi Pass — where he had his picture taken — overlooking the plains of Naples and affording a dramatic view of Vesuvius which was erupting in September 1944.
The Nazis shot several captured and unarmed Rangers at Cisterna and Lehmann nearly became one of them when a young soldier found his cache of “scalps,” the small eagle insignia German military wore on their right chests. “I took a couple of them off soldiers,” Lehmann admits, “but most of them I found in a bunker."
“The young soldaten who found the patches took me from the group and placed me against a wall away from the others and begged the feldwebel [sergeant] several times for permission to shoot me. Each time, the feldwebel said “Nein,” and each time I blessed his sainted mother. When we were about to leave, the feldwebel smiled and said, ‘You haff a Churman name, Carl!’”
Lehmann escaped from prison camp three times and was recaptured twice before making it to the safety of British lines on April 14, 1945, which he remembers as “the day I learned President Roosevelt had died.”
Lehmann returned home after the war, finished his education and practiced law in private practice and as a lawyer for the State of Maryland. He is one of the WW II Rangers who plans to be exchanging stories with both old and young Rangers at the Columbus reunion.
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