5th Ranger Battalion soldiers recover some of their slain comrades on Omaha Beach before continuing the attack on D-Day (National Archives)
By George Morris
Daniel Farley didn’t know it at the time, but his West Virginia upbringing helped prepare him for a date with destiny in World War II.
On June 6, 1944, Pfc. Farley was part of the U.S. Army Rangers’ D-Day assault on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc. Although wounded, he fought for four days before being hospitalized.
“Being a Ranger is all in the mind and the heart, period,” Farley said.
In his case, having the desired skill set didn’t hurt.
Farley enlisted on March 29, 1943, before he graduated from high school. After basic training, he volunteered for the Rangers, an elite infantry group being patterned after British Commandos.
“You had to be an athlete, a mountaineer, you knew demolitions,” Farley said. “I was a champion Golden Gloves boxer, and I knew demolitions. My father was a coal miner, and he taught me all about blowing up things with black powder and TNT.”
About 20 percent of volunteers dropped out because of the grueling training, which included daily speed marches and exercises in which men tossed a log into the air to another five who caught it and threw it back.
The 5th Ranger Battalion went to England in early 1944 and trained with Commandos in Scotland. In one area, they stayed in a hotel at the top of a cliff and had to use ropes to descend to the beach, where they were fed, then went back to the top.
When they arrived at one town, the unit that was leaving played a trick on them.
“They told the civilians that we were all criminals, that we just got out of prison and if we lived through World War II we’d be pardoned,” Farley said. “We would go to fish-and-chip places and try to speak to people and they’d get up and leave. So, the chaplain went over to the Church of England ministers and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ and they told him. The ministers straightened it out.”
The Rangers entered a bivouac area in April that was guarded so none of them could leave before the invasion. There, when not climbing ladders to keep in shape, they studied large sand tables that depicted the area they would attack.
“Every enlisted man knew as much as the commanding officer, the battalion commander,” Farley said. “That’s the way we operated. Everybody knew exactly what we had to do.”
Omaha Beach was a nightmare scenario for the attackers, a sandy crescent overlooked by steep, 150-foot cliffs topped by artillery and honeycombed with machine gun nests. The 5th Ranger Battalion joined the 29th Infantry Division attacking a western sector of Omaha. The 2nd Ranger Battalion used ropes and rope ladders to assault Pointe du Hoc, a high point on which the Germans had built artillery emplacements that overlooked Omaha and Utah beaches.
Rangers used ladders to scale the cliffs at Pointe Du-Hoc on D-Day (National Archives)
Heavy seas conspired with the defenders to make the attack difficult. Landing craft that carried the 5th Rangers’ communication equipment and extra ammunition sank.
“If you want to see what Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc was, watch the first 25 or 30 minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” Farley said. “Boats were turning over. People were drowning.”
Farley was part of a 23-man unit that, he said, went farther inland than any other unit on D-Day. They fought their way up the cliff and then five kilometers west to Pointe du Hoc, joining what remained of the 2nd Ranger Battalion there about two hours before dark.
“They certainly were glad to see us,” Farley said.
While Farley’s group meant more men and guns, they were still short of ammunition to hold off German counterattacks. Farley and others returned to Omaha Beach to collect ammo from the many slain soldiers there.
Farley had been shot through the top of his right shoulder earlier that day, but he treated the wound and remained with his unit when it found a larger artillery complex at Maisy that was continuing to fire on Omaha Beach.
The Rangers attacked the complex on June 9, and German soldiers began surrendering. But German SS officers began shooting surrendering troops in the back.
“So they all went back down and we had to do it all over again,” Farley said.
The Rangers fixed bayonets and went in. They didn’t have to use the bayonets, Farley said, but the fighting was fierce if brief before the artillery battery was captured.
The victors received an unexpected bonus.
“That’s where we found the German payroll,” Farley said. “The taxpayers took a beating there. We took a bunch of money. You’d go down to the beach after everything settled down and they had a post office and you could buy a money order with the francs because we were issued francs. Finally, they caught on. The only thing thereafter you could send home was how much your pay was by your rank, plus your overseas pay.”
When his shoulder didn’t heal, Farley was sent to a hospital in England, where the British royal family, including Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth, visited wounded soldiers.
Farley returned to his unit after it was attached to 3rd Army and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. The 5th Rangers also helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
After the war, Farley owned janitorial businesses in Dallas, Texas, and the Washington, D.C., area, and he moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2004. In 2009, Farley was named a member of France’s Legion of Honor for his military service in liberating that country from German occupation.