BELLINGHAM - At age 92, John Bellows moves slowly with a walker to get around the apartment he shares with his wife, Florence, in The Leopold Retirement Residence.
But in his prime, Bellows was a specially trained soldier, one of 3,000 initial members of the U.S. Army Rangers, a volunteer combat force schooled in commando raids and amphibious landings.
Seventy years ago, on June 6, 1944, the Rangers played an important early role in the Allied assault against German forces along the northern coast of France. It was D-Day, the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.
A Vermonter, Bellows enlisted in the Army. He volunteered to become a paratrooper, but medics detected something irregular in his heartbeat and they turned him down. No barriers arose, however, when he answered the call for soldiers willing to become Rangers.
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Modeled after the elite British Commandos, the Rangers were activated for WWII to lead assaults and infiltrate behind enemy lines.
"We were trained primarily as the lead people going ashore and establishing a landing area for the rest of the troops," Bellows said.
He was a staff sergeant in Company A of the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion. During D-Day he carried a rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher. Other times, he manned a machine gun.
After training in the states, he and his fellow Rangers sailed from New York in January 1944 for a secret destination - England, where they continued their training.
Next came Scotland, where the Rangers practiced amphibious landings on beaches rigged with obstacles akin to those captured in Allied photographs taken over Normandy.
After more training scaling cliffs in southern England, they were ready when it came time to board ships to cross the English Channel to retake Europe.
ON THE BEACH
Early on the morning of June 6, the Rangers transferred to "landing craft assault" vessels, the military name for barge-like boats that ferried troops ashore. Sitting on a bench inside, Bellows could see the battle he would soon join.
When the bow ramp dropped open, Bellows jumped into waist-deep water. Moving forward, a buddy held him back for a moment when bullets bit the sand in front of them.
The plan was to have members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion use ropes, ladders and grappling hooks to scale 100-foot cliffs and capture the German's large guns atop Pointe du Hoc, a natural landmark between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east.
Other Rangers, including Bellows, fought elsewhere. Several Rangers' boats, but not Bellows', landed on a part of Omaha Beach where intense German gunfire took a quick and heavy toll.
The 5th Battalion, including Bellows in Company A, landed about 1,000 yards to the east. Where Bellows came ashore, the Rangers soon cleared a path to the flatlands above the shoreline.
"Nobody had broken through the barbed wire barricades on the beach," he said.
Later, while crawling through a minefield, a bullet ripped through his upper right arm but missed the bone. Later that day, a captured German medic bandaged his wound to staunch the bleeding.
"I couldn't tell what he was thinking," Bellows said, "but he was very agreeable."
About a week later, his arm showed signs of infection. Medics wanted to send him back to England for treatment, but Bellows didn't want to leave and won the argument.
"They improvised an operating table," he said. "Stayed overnight and went back to the unit the next day."
Over the course of the war, the 5th Battalion earned distinction fighting in France, Belgium and Germany.
Bellows was discharged from the Army in October 1945, having served three years. He used the GI Bill to study agricultural economics at the University of Vermont, the start of a career in farm credit work for agencies and a cooperative in the New England area.
The Bellowses have three children: a son and daughter in the Seattle area and a daughter in Texas. The couple moved to the Northwest about 25 years ago, living in Sudden Valley before moving to the Leopold a few years ago.
John Bellows is a thoughtful man who doesn't boast about his war service. Even while approaching the mayhem on the beaches of Normandy, his mind kept an even keel.
"I was thinking it might be the end," he recalled. "I was there, and I would give it my best."