The 2nd Division Rangers

by Les Hughes

©1987 by author
































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The following, in essence, is an article of mine that was published in 19871. All photographs in the publication in which it appeared were, at that time, black and white, and images of insignia were obtained by conventional photography. In reproducing the content of the article for this website, I have had to rely on the original imagery, which, by current standards, is rather primitive. Given the fact the insignia that are the subject of this article are black and white, such imagery is not as big a handicap as might otherwise be the case.

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In the mid-1980s, a local collector of militaria who knew of my interest in insignia, called to tell me about a conversation he had had with a gunsmith who lived in our community. The gunsmith, a veteran of the 2nd Infantry Division, told him that some of the men in his unit had worn a patch depicting a skull and crossed bones during the Second World War. What, my friend asked, did I know about the patch? I suspect that my stock as a patch expert dropped considerably when I pled ignorance. I resolved, however, to remedy the situation.

I visited the gunsmith and learned the following. Sometime during 1941, probably during the spring or summer, while the 2nd Division was headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, he and a number of other members of the 9th Infantry Regiment were singled out for what he called “Ranger training.” Upon completion of the training, the men were given the patch in question, which they wore on the lower left sleeve of their uniforms, and they were formed into “Ranger” platoons, one to a company within the regiment. He was unsure if other regiments within the division had participated in the training. Unfortunately, the gunsmith no longer had one of the patches, and he had lost contact with his buddies in the platoon. It wasn't much information, but it was the start.

I contacted the editor of the newsletter of the 2nd Division Association and asked if he would publish a notice on my behalf requesting information on the Ranger training and the patch. He generously consented to help, and subsequently a notice appeared in the newsletter that summarized what the gunsmith had told me and that invited additional information. All that I could do at that point was to sit back and hope that someone recalled the training and the patch. Someone did.

I received about a dozen responses. I quickly learned that my description of the patch was not quite correct: the patch bore only a skull; no crossed bones. Those who responded also informed me that the training did not take place at Fort Sam Houston, but rather at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. Then I received responses informing me that the training had taken place in Ireland. Oral history is rarely cut and dried. The following is a synthesis of the information and material provided by those who responded and by those to whom I was referred.

Three veterans, one each from the 9th, 23rd, and 38th Infantry Regiments, recalled having had the training at Fort Sam Houston in 1941. Each of these individuals believed that the training involved only personnel in his regiment, leading me to believe that the training at that point was provided at the regimental level. The training was described as consisting of hand-to-hand combat, map reading, bridge building, physical training, and other “Ranger” subjects. Two of these individuals received the patch at the end of the training; one still had his.


Left: Somewhere in Belgium, 23 December 1944: SFC W. E. Bolt and a fellow graduate of the Ranger Battle Training Course who is wearing the skull patch on the left sleeve of his field Jacket. Right: the certificate awarded to personnel who successfully completed the Ranger Battle Training Course at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.

Also provided at Fort Sam Houston, to the entire division, was what some referred to as “airborne” training, but which one individual2 said was more accurately “air landing” training. Using C-53s initially, and later C-47s, training was provided to make the division “airmobile,” not “airborne.”

After the division arrived at Camp McCoy, the Ranger training was formalized by establishing the Ranger Battle Training School for the purpose of training a limited number of selected personnel in subjects that would enable them to perform difficult, specialized missions in combat. The Commandant of the school was BG T. L. Martin, and its Director was Major Olinto M. Barsanti, who, two decades later as a major general, would command the 101st Airborne Division. The staff comprised 10 officers, three from each of the division's three infantry regiments and one from the 2nd Engineer Battalion.

The Ranger Battle Training Course was offered to a select group of division personnel drawn from the three infantry regiments and from its engineer and artillery units. Approximately 3 soldiers from each company were selected on the basis of their records and performance.

The course began on 12 April 1943. For two months, the trainees spent half of each day in the Ranger school and the other half with their parent units. The graduation program for the course described the training as: “intensive training in ranger patrolling with emphasis on night patrols has been given during the course which also included map reading, terrain appreciation, compass work, and hand-to-hand combat, bayonet and grenade combat, use of toggle rope, explosives and demolitions, sketching, message and report writing, use of portable radios, and camouflage. A stiff physical conditioning program was maintained to keep these men hardened for this type of work.”

On 5 June 1943, a formal graduation ceremony was held for those who had successfully negotiated the course. A newspaper article (perhaps from the division’s newspaper—the author is a CPL William Norton), which refers to the graduates as the Second Division Rangers, reported: “at the graduation, each man was presented with a certificate and a striking sleeve emblem of a white skull on a black circular background. Explaining that the insignias had been made by hand by the wives and other women associated with the division, Brig. Gen. T. L. Martin, assistant division commanding general and commandant of the Ranger Battle School, said with feeling: ‘with every stitch in these insignias went a prayer, a hope. Make the prayers and hopes of these women come true. You can if you live up to the motto of the Army—duty, honor, country'.” Mrs. Florence Lomax, whose husband was an instructor for the course, confirmed that the patches have been made by the wives and provided one for this article.

Upon completion of the course, the graduates returned to their parent organizations. The course provided the division with a nucleus of highly trained combat leaders at the NCO level.

After the division arrived in Ireland, similar training was undertaken, although apparently not as formalized as the course at Camp McCoy. One veteran of the training in Ireland stated that the trainees were shown the skull patch at the beginning of training and were told that those who finished the course would receive one. But the patches did not materialize when the training was completed. Another veteran of the training in Ireland implicitly corroborated this when he told me that he and a few others had to have the patches made locally. More than one veteran speculated that the patch might have fallen into disfavor because of its similarity to the death head insignia of the SS.

The patch was generally worn on the lower left sleeve of the dress tunic or Ike jacket, although I know of one instance when it was worn on the lower right sleeve; and, as you can see, it was worn on at least one field jacket. Wearing the patch was not without its liabilities. According to two of the men who finished the training, wearing the patch into town on a Saturday night was a surefire invitation to prove your mettle.

Examples of the patch awarded at Camp McCoy (left) and at Fort Sam Houston (right).

End Notes

1. Hughes, Les. "The Second Division Rangers," The Trading Post, July-September 1987.

2. LTC (ret) Louis D. Wittkower, private comunication. Colonel Wittkower was a member of the Ranger school staff.