Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and bipartisan backers in the Senate and House are racing the clock to get the Congressional Gold Medal for the legendary Army Rangers of World War II, who proved the special operations concept from Normandy to the Philippines.
"We ran out of time last year" to pass the medal bill for the Rangers, she said in an interview in her Senate office March 10. "We need to get this done."
It is estimated there are currently about 40 surviving WWII Rangers.
Ernst said she has a couple of special reasons for pressing passage of the bill to get the Gold Medal, the highest award that can be bestowed by Congress, for the Rangers.
Back in Des Moines, there is 97-year-old former Tech. Sgt. Lester Cook, one of the original group of Rangers formed in 1942 under the leadership of then-Capt. William O. Darby.
"I would love, love, love to have this over the finish line while we still have Lester," said Ernst, an Iraq veteran who served in the Army Reserves and Iowa Army National Guard for 23 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2015.
In addition, many of the Ranger volunteers came from the 34th Infantry Division, known as the "Red Bulls" and the "Red Devils" to the Germans, a National Guard unit that drew troops from Iowa and Minnesota, she said.
The "United States Army Rangers Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act" passed the Senate unanimously earlier this month, Ernst said. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and double amputee from Iraq, was a co-sponsor.
The bill was endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and there now are more than 65 supporters in the House, according to Ernst's office. They are led by main sponsor Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander who lost an eye in Afghanistan.
In sponsoring the bill, Crenshaw said it is time to give the Rangers "the recognition they have long deserved. By enacting this bill, we're telling these veterans 'America will never forget.'"
"We still do have a number of members to get on board" in the House, Ernst said, "but I am hopeful we can get it done this year."
In a statement following the Senate action, David Williams, president of the Descendants of WWII Rangers, said he is encouraged that the bill passed the first milestone.
"We are hoping that the Congressional Gold Medal can pass the second milestone -- passage of the House bill H.R. 5002 -- so that the medal can be presented in mid-2021," he added.
Ernst acknowledged the difficulty of choosing the Rangers from among so many units from World War II that could merit similar recognition, but said the Rangers should receive the medal as "that special elite unit which has evolved into special operations today."
According to Army histories, the Rangers' concept grew out of meetings between Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II, and the British high command on a plan to have an American version of the British "commando" units to take on special missions.
Marshall chose then-Col. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. to get the job done. Darby was selected to form and lead the first group of Rangers.
Darby, who would later be killed in action in Italy, put the Ranger volunteers through a harsh training regimen and, on June 18, 1942, the 1st Ranger Infantry Battalion was activated in Northern Ireland. Eventually, six Ranger battalions and one provisional battalion were formed.
The 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy; the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were in the D-Day landings and then fought across France, Belgium and Germany until the end of the war.
The 6th Ranger Battalion led landings in the Pacific theater and most famously rescued 516 Allied prisoners in the legendary raid on the infamous Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines.
The 29th Provisional Ranger Battalion conducted raids on islands in the English Channel and on German installations in Norway.
In North Africa, the 1st Ranger Battalion led by Darby, by then a major, inflicted what was called the first defeat by U.S. troops of German forces in a battle against the Afrika Korps of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Darby and his troops got behind enemy lines to take the position at Djebel el Ank and captured 200 prisoners. They then held off and defeated a counterattack by the 10th Panzer Division in what Gen. Omar Bradley would later call "the first solid, indisputable defeat we inflicted on the German army in the war," according to the language of the Senate bill.
The "Rangers lead the way" motto was born on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and the elan of the units was possibly best summarized by President Ronald Reagan's "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" tribute on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1984.
Reagan spoke atop the rugged cliffs of the Pointe with its commanding views of Omaha and Utah beaches in describing the unbending will of the Rangers to take the position:
"Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb," he said. "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."
In an interview last November, 97-year-old retired Maj. Gen. John Raaen, a Ranger in the D-Day landings who went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, said he had similar thoughts on June 6, 1944.
His unit was initially intended to support the Pointe du Hoc operation but instead fought to the top of the ridge line overlooking Omaha beach.
And "the moment my battalion hit the high ground, Hitler was done," Raaen said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.