Valley to Camp Merrill, Rangers Lead The Way
By Sharon Hall
This article was published in
Water still dripped from the tall pines, but for the most part the rain had
stopped when the Camp Frank D. Merrill color guard marched across the soaked
earth. They strode through ranks of lean young men and white-haired
grandfathers with arthritic hands, but all stood straight and gave a crisp
salute to the passing American flag.
Pine Valley, a site south of Dahlonega on Highway 9, was being dedicated as the
first Ranger training camp in Georgia Saturday, and about 450 Rangers and
former Rangers, their families and friends had gathered to mark the occasion.
Steve Hawk, president of the U.S. Mountain Ranger Association, told the group
that when he first contacted the Georgia Historical Commission about placing an
historical marker at the site he wasn't sure about accomplishing the task. He
was told by a "very southern lady that she couldn't see a tie between Georgia
history and the Rangers," Hawk said. "As far as she was concerned, and I quote,
'the Rangers were a bunch of short-haired hooligans running around Savannah.'"
But Hawk, a former Ranger and trained to overcome insurmountable obstacles,
persevered. He told the lady, among other things, that if it hadn't been for
Georgia Coastal and Highlander Rangers the official language of the state might
well be Spanish today. It was a handful of Rangers, a part of the Georgia
Militia formed by Gen. James Oglethorpe, who repelled 200 elite Spanish
Grenadiers at the Battle of Bloody Marsh near St. Simmons Island in 1742.
"After two hours of expending ammunition at men that would hide and shoot, the
Spanish withdrew-not knowing they severely outnumbered the Georgia Militia.
After this encounter the Spanish would completely withdraw from Georgia, never
to invade again."
Ranger history pre-dates the American Revolution, with Ranger companies being
formed and disbanded throughout times of all American conflicts. In modern
times Rangers have played vital rolls in combat, drawing first blood for the
American forces in the European theater during World War II, leading assaults
in Africa, joining with British troops to sweep across Sicily and into Italy,
loosing three battalions at Anzio, and playing a major role in the D-Day
invasion at Omaha and Utah beaches. Rangers cleared islands in the south
Pacific, rescuing the survivors of the Bataan Death March from the Cabanatuan
Prisoner of War Compound in the Philippines, moving men and supplies along the
Ledo road in Burma, fighting the Japanese the entire time. Most of the men who
volunteered as Rangers during World War II were trained by the British and
Scots, or by veterans from their own ranks.
It wasn't until 1950s that the U.S. Army developed a course of instruction to
train officers and NCOs to be sent back to their units to spread the training,
espirit-de-corps and attitude of the U.S. Army Ranger. Rangers participated in
Korea, mostly in actions behind the lines or on specialized missions. They
worked in small teams, acting as the eyes and ears of for the divisions of U.S.
troops spread throughout Vietnam, conducting raids and ambushes and disrupting
enemy operations. They were involved in the attempted rescue of American
hostages held in Tehran, Iran in 1980, parachuted into Grenada to secure
Salinas Airfield, dropped into Panama and were deployed to Saudi Arabia during
Operation Desert Storm, took part in a raid to capture Mohammed Aidid in
Mogadishu, Somalia and are today fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since 1951, every Ranger in every conflict has passed through Lumpkin County,
home of the mountain phase of the U.S. Army Ranger School. The first Mountain
Ranger Training Camp was established at Pine Valley, now a recreational area of
North Georgia College & State University, in 1951 under command of Lt. Ralph
Puckett. Puckett, now a colonel, along with five of the original cadre of 29
Ranger Instructors, was present at Saturday's dedication. He was among the
dignitaries speaking at the ceremony.
Puckett has many memories of Lumpkin County. He and his wife, Jean, started
their married life in Dahlonega in a $50-a-month rental house. He remembers the
days when the telephone operator knew everything going on in town. She was the
one who dialed all the numbers in those days. He remembers being up at 4:30
a.m. to eat the breakfast his wife prepared, "I trained her right," he says,
but he also gave praise to all Ranger wives. "They often go unrecognized, but I
couldn't have made it through my career without my wife," he said. He was at
Pine Valley by 5:30 a.m. It was a "tent city" then, he recalls. The mess hall
was a circus tent and the food would get cold between the kitchen tent and the
mess hall. He remembers warning trainees about coming across a moonshine still
while out on maneuvers. "I told them the leave the moonshiners alone and
they'll leave you alone," he said.
The other four surviving members of the original cadre have memories of those
days, too, and of the man they served under. Johnny Burt recalls Puckett giving
him a three-day pass so her could marry the girl he'd met working at the Holly
Theater. "He said, 'Son, if the Army had wanted you to have a wife, they'd have
issued you one.' But he gave me the pass, 51 years ago this August," he said.
Bob Bigart remembers a little building out near the road with a "two-holer"
behind the house the cooks used to burn the garbage. One day a cook told Sgt.
Close, "How about burning down the shit house," and he doused it in kerosene
and burned it down. They used the same site as an open pit for garbage burning
The time the Etowah River, which runs through the site, flooded the camp out is
what Jim Allison remembers most clearly. "It woke us all up at 2 a.m. We got
called out of the tents and headed for high ground," he says. He remembers
Puckett well. He was his hero, he said. "I was just one of 29 men, a small
piece of a larger puzzle. Puckett, he was my hero; a good man and the best
commanding officer anyone could wish for." "We had some of the best NCOs and
officers I've ever been with here," Billy Bratton recalls. "We played hard, but
we worked hard. Just about all the cadre had combat experience. We'd run into
obstacles we didn't have the training to overcome. That's what we wanted to
provide in training Rangers, how to overcome all obstacles, large or small."
Puckett spoke of the training men have received at the Mountain Ranger School,
and the men who trained them. He said it is the best life insurance a military
man could have, and praised Ranger Instructors past and present. "How well you
do your job," he told them, "determines whether men will live or die on the
battlefield; whether we will win or loose on the battlefield. The Rangers
fighting today in Iraq and they are your legacy." Though the camp has moved
from Pine Valley to Camp Wahsega to its present location on national forest
land at Camp Frank D. Merrill, that same training is on-going today, preparing
men to overcome all obstacles, as Rangers Lead The Way.