Featured in the Manning News Journal -- April 5, 2002
by Pam Kusel

Wilmer Ranniger
one of Manning's many veterans

Wilmer Ranniger is a veteran. He is a member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations. He is one of two local servicemen honored by the French government for contributing to the liberation of France during World War II with the Normandy Invasion of France, June 6, 1944. He is also a very humble man who feels he has done no more than any other veteran.

Gratitude from the French government was expressed during ceremonies at the State Capital last October. Wilmer was among 650 Iowa veterans recognized.

"The French government wanted to honor those who went into Normandy, but I think it ended up to be anybody that went into France when the war was going on," said Wilmer. "Wade Mohr could have went, but his health wouldn't let him. Wade was in the Navy and made a landing on Omaha Beach. I was with the 82nd Airborne Division. We flew in over the top and landed in four or five miles."

Stories of his service have often been recounted. Among his souvenirs are newspaper articles from the Carroll, Manning and Denison papers, written in 1994 which marked the 50th anniversary of the invasion.

Wilmer was 26 years old when he was drafted into service. He was not married, but wrote to his sweetheart, Vila Cafourek, who later became his wife.

"The war broke out Sept. 7, 1941, and we started getting draft letters in February. I went in March 1942," said Wilmer.

He entered the service in March 1942, reporting to Fort Sill, OK, for basic training. From there he was sent to Camp Clayborne, LA, where he joined the 82nd Airborne Division and was assigned to the 319th Glider Field Artillery.

Wilmer worked with communication for which he said he had no particular aptitude.

Wires were strung from observation points to the artillery companies in order to help the unit aim their mortars and shells. Wilmer spent most of his time on the telephone relaying messages. The companies would fire smoke shells, adjusting after each shot according to orders from the observation point until they were on target. Then real shells were fired.

Wilmer's unit shipped out of Fort Bragg, NC, April 1943 for Africa where they took part in the Invasion of Sicily, and later the Invasion of Italy. Then it was on to Ireland and England where they prepared for the Normandy Invasion which took place June 6, 1944.

Flipping through his commemorative book, he pointed to a picture of a glider, stating, "They called them Horsa gliders. They were made of plywood."

The gliders were towed by C-47 cargo planes to a destination. Then with the pull of a rope, were released to coast to a quiet landing. His glider carried jeeps, artillery (75-millimeter Howitzers), and 14 soldiers.

In preparation for the Normandy Invasion, Wilmer's division was sent to a large airport in southern England.

"We couldn't communicate with anybody for about a month because it was secret, and they didn't want the Germans to know where they were going to cross the channel. When the day came, Eisenhower picked the fifth of June and then they delayed it one more day," he recalled.

C-47 planes dropped paratroopers, then came back and towed the gliders across the channel. There were about 100 pulled into Normandy. It was late in the day when Wilmer's plane took off.

"When we got to the coast of England, we had just gone a little ways over water and all of a sudden here was a landing. I didn't know what that was. It was the Isle of Wight. Then we had to go 80 miles on across yet. The channel was full of ships," he said. "It was starting to get dark by the time we got to France. I suppose everybody was scared. If you weren't scared, you weren't normal."

Wilmer's glider battalion landed near St. Mere Eglise, France.

"Two guys got killed when we landed. We landed in some trees," he said. "A lot of the gliders were all tore up."

Scattered over several miles, they had to get organized and get their guns ready. There was no gun fire where they landed. The next morning they saw German soldiers fleeing inland. His unit was assigned to set up artilleries and fire at the German infantry. Progress inland was made everyday with his unit moving a couple miles. They continued for 33 days.

Asked about action he saw, Wilmer replied, "I'll tell you what, these movies exaggerate. It isn't quite as bad as what the movies are. I wasn't with the infantry. They were a couple days ahead of us, but we had shells come in."

His division moved on to Holland in September 1944 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. They ended at the Elbe River in Germany where they met Russian soldiers May 7, 1945, which was the last campaign before Germany surrendered. The 87- year-old veteran recalls dates and events with incredible memory.

"Oh, I just remember. I'll never forget it," he said.

Even so, among his souvenirs is a diary he wrote 50 years ago and rewrote this winter. Its contents have been copied and shared with his children and grandchildren. Excerpts from the diary provide fascinating reading.

April 28, 1943 - "Left New York, embarked for overseas. We did not know where we were going. Got sea sick for couple of days on account of rough seas -- lots of fellows got sick. We had 34 ships in our convoy. Had an abandon ship call one night on account of German submarine.

They put out some depth charges. We were 5,000 men on the Santa Rosa, an old Caribbean ship for 12 days, two men to a bunk."

May 10, 1943 - "Arrived in Africa - Casablanca. Camped in a wheat field for two weeks."

May 12, 1943 - "Left Casablanca on an old French freight train, an open box car - 22 men per car. We met another train going the other way loaded with German prisoners of war heading for the U.S. They hollered and waved to us. They were happy as the war was over for them."

May 12-14, 1943 - "Through the north Sahara, arrived in Oudja, Algeria, where we camped in a wheat field. Our government paid France for the wheat, but in the meantime they let Arabs come in and harvest the wheat. The men, about five abreast, cut it with a scythe and the women tied it in bundles. They chanted all the while and paid no attention to us. They thrashed it by letting horses tramp the wheat out. Then they fanned the chaff in the wind and threw out the horse manure. It was interesting."

 June 23, 1943 - "Loaded up for a 600 mile ride to Tunisia. We camped in an olive orchard with 20-foot cactus all around it. We ate the prickly pears off these cactus."

July 8, 1943 - "Loaded gliders for the Invasion of Sicily. That same night the German Luftwaffe bombed us. A few guys took some shrapnel, but didn't kill anybody."

July 9, 1943 - "Invasion of Sicily, but a storm that night wrecked our gliders so the paratroops had to go in alone - lost a lot of men."

Sept. 7, 1943 - "Left for Invasion of Italy by boat."

Sept. 9, 1943 - "Day before we landed Italy surrendered. We pulled up along side of command ship and they threw us apples and oranges - also saw a station submarine surface next to us. The men on the sub were happy and hollering 'Win war over there.' We were in Gulf of Salerno, 25 miles south of Naples."

Sept. 10-30, 1943 - "We had our artillery set up and firing into Salerno. We were supporting Darwin-Darby's Rangers. It was called battle of Mt. Angelo."

Oct. 1, 1943 - "First to arrive in Naples, Italy. They give us wine and hung flowers on jeeps."

Aug. 8, 1945 - "Japanese surrendered."

Sept. 6, 1945 - "Left for home by way of Marseille, France, in south part of the Mediterranean Sea aboard the U.S. Wakefield. Had 8,263 men aboard. Went through the Straight of Gibraltar into the Atlantic."

Sept. 21, 1945 - "Got our honorable discharge. Otto Porsch was right in line with me. Went home together."

Porsch was from Manning. Only two other occasions brought him together with Manning men. He saw Louie Otto at Fort Bragg, NC, and Donald Brady at Fort Sill, OK. He admits there was quite a party when he came home.

"We got drunk in Chicago the day after the discharge," he said. With a laugh he added, "I could have come home one day sooner, but I didn't feel like it."

He stays in contact with two Army buddies. He corresponds with a buddy in West Virginia, but they've never seen each other since the service. Another buddy from Indiana has stopped by a couple of times.

During his tour of duty Wilmer took part in six campaigns and one-half of his division was able to return to the U.S. Having earned 99 points, he was honorably discharged Sept. 20, 1945, in Fort Sheridan, IL.

His service still provides lasting memories. He saw President Dwight Eisenhower five times in his life. The night before the Normandy Invasion, he stood within 100 feet of Gen. Eisenhower when he wished the troops "God speed." Wilmer recalls his pay of $21 a month in 1942. He was in Cologne, Germany, when Roosevelt died and was in Ludwigslust, West Germany, when the war ended. After the war he visited one concentration camp, a vivid memory for Wilmer with bodies lying in the open.

"Some of the German people just couldn't realize that there was such a thing as concentration camps for the Jews," he said. "That was kept pretty secret."

One of his most vivid memories is of riding in the glider. He said, "When we were going into Normandy the pilot stuck his head out the door and said, 'We're going down.' I'll always remember that."

During the two and one-half years he was overseas, letters kept him in touch with home.

"I wrote about every two-three weeks. I didn't write too much of the bad stuff, cause it would make Ma excited," he said.

He also wrote to his girlfriend, Vila. She saved the letters for a long time. Recalling his discharge, she said, "He came home in September and came up to Minnesota where I was in October. We were engaged in October and married in December. Our romance was through the mail."

When asked if he feels like a hero, Wilmer replied, "No, because I didn't believe in war myself. I never did get much rank because I didn't stick my head out."

While his record reflects commendable service to his country, he remains humble. He asked, "Why should I get attention? There were hundreds in the same position."


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