WWII in Our Backyards – Georgia

Frank Merrill, William Darby, and James Rudder. Who were they and what do they have in common?

Frank Merrill’s name is perhaps the most well-known of the three, the man having been the subject of a number of books and Hollywood movies. Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill headed the 5307th Composite Unit in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. The unit, also known as “Galahad” and “Merrill’s Marauders” was one of the first special operations warfare units operating deep in enemy territory, in this case in ground held by the Japanese in 1943. The Marauders helped pave the way for the rebuilding of the Burma Road over which the United States and its Allies shipped supplies to the Chinese Army. The heroism (and casualties) of the unit’s jungle-warfare-trained soldiers is legendary. In the Marauders’ last battle, to secure the village and airfield at Myitkyina, nearly 300 were killed and 1,000 wounded. When disbanded at the end of the battle, only 100 of the nearly 3,000 original soliders survived.

Five thousand miles away William O. Darby, a West Point graduate, was one of the first soldiers to arrive in the European theater. Darby distinguished himself participating with British commandos and received numerous promotions, eventually participating in the invasion of Italy as a full colonel. Later, he returned to the United States to work at the Pentagon. But, during an observation tour in Italy in 1945, while coordinating an attack by the 10th Mountain Division, Darby was killed by enemy artillery fire. Germany surrendered less than a week later. Darby was promoted posthumously to Brigadier General.

James E. Rudder was in command of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, who scaled Pointe du Hoc’s 100-foot high cliffs on D-Day as part of the Normandy Invasion. Then Lieutenant Colonel Rudder and his men succeeded in taking the German artillery stations that could have been used to fire on American soldiers landing at Omaha and Utah beaches. In fact, on reaching the top of the cliffs, they found the Germans had moved their guns southward. The battalion proceeded inland to capture and command routes to the beaches. During a fierce two-day battle two-thirds of the original group of 225 Rangers were killed or wounded. Rudder, too, was wounded but survived to see service at the Battle of the Bulge. A full colonel at the end of the war, he was eventually promoted to the rank of Major General.

Merrill, Darby, and Rudder. Three courageous leaders in World War II. But wait, there’s more. The three men are honored and remembered today by lending their names to one of the Army’s most rigorous  training programs.

The US Army conducts its sixty day Ranger training in three phases: the first at Camp Darby on the grounds of Fort Benning, Georgia, the second, three-weeks of mountain training, at Camp Frank D. Merrill near Dahlonega, Georgia, and the third, swamp training at Camp James E. Rudder in Florida.

So, as we observe the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day in 2019, while a trip to Normandy would be unforgettable, we can honor those who sacrificed for us closer to home as well. The Camp Museum at Camp Frank D. Merrill in Dahlonega hosts an exhibition of Ranger memorabilia. The site is open to the public and includes an array of hiking trails through the scenic mountains of North Georgia. Fortunately, visitors won’t be required to carry sixty to ninety pounds of gear or trudge for miles on less than an hour’s sleep as the Rangers do.

For more information:

Books
Merrill’s Marauders, Edwin Hoyt
Rudder: From Leader to Legend, Thomas M. Hatfield.
The Battalion: The Dramatic Story of the 2nd Ranger Battalion in World War II, Robert W. Black
Onward We Charge: The Heroic Story of Darby’s Rangers in World War II, H. Paul Jeffers

Movies
The Longest Day (Rudder)
Merrill’s Marauders (Merrill)
Darby’s Rangers (Darby)

Sites
Camp Frank D. Merrill
1 Camp Merrill, Dahlonega Georgia 30533, 706-864-3327

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