Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc
By Patrick K. O’Donnell. 320 pp. Da Capo, 2012. $26.
On June 6, 1984, Ronald Reagan’s rousing 40th anniversary speech on the cliffs of Normandy’s Pointe du Hoc thrust World War II’s Ranger battalions back into history’s spotlight—a sharp contrast to their historical experience as the U.S. Army’s stepchildren, with commanders struggling to define their role. Were they small-unit raiders? Elite light infantry? Or problem-solvers, deployed on missions whose sole common denominator was that only the best had a chance of completing them?
That last rationale dictated the destiny of the 2nd Ranger Battalion—and particularly of Dog, one of its six companies. Dog Company seldom counted as many as 70 men in its ranks at any one time. But from those Normandy cliffs through the Hürtgen Forest to the Roer River, it led the way across northwest Europe. Dog has found a fitting chronicler in Patrick O’Donnell, an expert in the small-unit dynamics of elite and specialoperations forces, as well as the technique of comparative interviews, best known from Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. O’Donnell spent years in conversation at homes and reunions, walking the terrain of Dog’s battles, interviewing its German opponents. The result: a unique reconstruction of a special kind of war fought by a rare breed of soldiers.
Dog Company’s Rangers were trained, not born. The core was an eclectic group of volunteers from an ordinary draftee division; the rest included a fair proportion of army-wide discards. But Captain Harold Slater and First Sergeant Leonard Lomell, both citizen soldiers honed by war, shook their recruits down through a demanding training program that made them feel like the world’s best fighting men. Dog’s small size helped foster a collective spirit, transcending words like comradeship and brotherhood. A training manual called it Rangerism— and for once a manual got it right.
Rangerism was first tested on D-Day: a 10-story climb up a sheer cliff face in order to destroy a heavily defended battery capable of raking both U.S. invasion beaches. O’Donnell’s gripping account of this seeming suicide mission is a case study in courage, skill, and spirit, undiminished by the ironic fact, unknown to the Allies, that Point du Hoc’s guns had been removed. Two days of constant German counterattacks nearly drove Dog’s survivors back over the cliff. When a relief force broke through on June 8, 23 of Dog’s 70 men were dead and half of the survivors were wounded.
That was just the beginning of Dog’s war. The rebuilt company captured Hill 63, a key strongpoint on the road to Brest. Then four Rangers convinced the commander of an enemy coastal battery to surrender his 800 men. Next came the blindfolded slaughterhouse of the Hürtgen Forest. Here Dog served first as a quick-reaction force, then moved through the vital village of Bergstein; its objective was Hill 400, the area’s most commanding terrain feature. The Rangers faced an open snowy field sown with mines. Just before 7:30 a.m. on December 7, 1944, they went in with bayonets; an hour later, the hill was in their hands. The rest of the day, Dog Company, along with Fox, resisted one after another of the slashing counterattacks at which the Germans were masters. In the intervals they endured some of the heaviest barrages of the entire campaign. When finally relieved late on December 8, Dog had advanced further into the Reich than any British or American unit. Almost every man in the company was a casualty.
Hill 400 proved to be Dog’s “longest day.” The company participated briefly in the Bulge, returned to the Hürtgen for mop-up duty, and crossed the icy Roer River on foot. But it traversed the Rhine on a newly built pontoon bridge, met minimal resistance slicing into Germany, and finished the war as a corps honor guard. Dog and its parent 2nd Ranger Battalion returned home in October; deactivation featured neither ruffles nor flourishes. But Dog’s legacy endures— in the memories of its survivors, in the deeds of the army’s contemporary Ranger regiment, and now in O’Donnell’s understated but eloquent tribute to service beyond any call of duty.