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'Ranger Russ' remembers

At 19, he swam onto Omaha Beach. Now 79, this Clearwater resident modestly recalls his service.

LORRI HELFAND
Published June 6, 2004

CLEARWATER - Russell Worman didn't have much time to think as enemy fire ripped into his landing craft.

The 19-year-old staff sergeant joined the frenzy as hundreds of men bailed into the icy water.

He swam furiously toward shore.

His comrades tried to do the same.

Some drowned, weighed down by mounds of equipment.

Others tore off their hardware, only to be slaughtered by the constant barrage of bullets and mortar.

The water ran red with blood.

There was only one thing going through Worman's mind.

"Don't get shot," he told himself, over and over.

Sixty years later, at 79, the former Ranger remembers the terror he felt that day as one of the first wave of Allied soldiers invading the coast of Normandy on D-day.

"I was scared as hell," Worman said. "Anybody that says they weren't scared was a liar."

The magnitude of what he went through that day didn't hit him until decades later.

Worman, whose nickname is "Ranger Russ," was an intelligence staff sergeant in the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Before the invasion, he spent two months at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's office at Allied headquarters on the south coast of England, where he worked on the plans for Operation Overlord, the code name given to the attack.

Today, he has a modest view of his role in defeating the Nazi empire.

"I guess I'm proud of what we did. It's something we had to do," Worman said.

It took him 40 years to compile a "war book," a photo album crammed with memorabilia like his first Army driver's license, food ration cards, pictures of himself as a young soldier and photos he snapped of numerous lady friends with his compact Brownie camera.

On his wall, he hung the map he carried in his assault jacket during the invasion. It's one of 12 maps he hand-lettered with ship-to-shore firing coordinates for the battleship USS Texas.

Worman grew up in Mountain Lakes, N.J. He enlisted in the Army in 1942 and went through basic training in the 100th Infantry at Fort Jackson, S.C.

In April 1943, he volunteered for the 2nd Ranger Battalion. The Rangers were an elite Army unit that trained in rigorous wartime tasks, such as rope climbing and cliff scaling. Many of those Rangers didn't make it to battle.

"They were killed, wounded in training or asked to leave the unit," Worman said.

In December 1943, he arrived in England and trained with British Commandos. The following month, he went to specialist training school in England, where he studied intelligence, interpretation of enemy information, map reading, boobytrap rigging and demolition.

Three months later, he and a captain in his unit traveled to headquarters in England to help plan Operation Overlord.

For two months, he spent practically every day updating aerial maps, reviewing photos of the area and scanning three-dimensional models.

"I knew Gen. Eisenhower personally. In fact, he used to refer to me as "the young Ranger with the big cigar.' My father sent me Philadelphia cigars."

On June 6, 1944, at 6:30 a.m., Worman was among the first waves of soldiers landing on the bloody area of the coast called Omaha Beach, the section of the beach depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

German troops were supposed to be shell-shocked from Allied air and sea attacks, buying Worman and his men time to make it to shore.

Instead, they were greeted with machine-gun and artillery fire.

"Our LCA (landing craft, assault) got hit going in and it was going down and the only thing I remember, we had a cage with two pigeons aboard that we were supposed to release when we landed. The boat was going down and someone yelled "Don't forget the pigeons.' Someone else hollered, "(Forget) the pigeons,"' Worman said.

Somehow he made it to the sand.

But that was just the beginning.

"At low tide, where we landed to the seawall was about the length of three football fields," Worman said.

The Germans were bombarding them and shells were bursting everywhere.

Eventually, he got across the beach, where his fellow soldiers blasted through barbed wire so they could make their way up the bluffs.

At one point in the battle, he and another soldier took shelter behind the same row of brush. Worman had a call of nature and jumped to the side of the hedgerow to do his business. Just then, a mortar shell blasted the spot where he was standing seconds earlier. His Thompson submachine gun was trashed and his buddy was severely wounded.

"So now when I have the urge, I go. I don't wait. A call of nature saved my life," Worman said.

The only rations the men had for the mission were three British D Bars, bars of hard chocolate.

"I guess they didn't want to waste food on us. They figured most of us weren't going to make it," Worman said.

Luckily, that first night, Worman and his men reached the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, where they "liberated" French wine and German rye bread.

There were 540 Rangers in Worman's battalion. During the mission, from June 6 to June 8, 77 were killed, 152 were wounded and 38 were missing in action. Worman himself escaped injury.

Worman credits both luck and speed for his survival.

"It was being in the right place at the right time," he said.

After the invasion, Worman was assigned to collect bodies of dead soldiers.

"I remember picking up bodies of Americans and Germans and parts thereof and throwing them in the back of a 21/2-ton truck. They dug a big ditch and dumped everything in there."

That was the last time he saw Normandy.

Worman has his reasons for not returning.

With a wry smirk, he said, "Want me to go back and step on a mine I missed the first time? I don't think so."

But his true feelings are more complex.

"Only reason I wouldn't want to go back is that nothing's the same. The village is all gone. It's a cemetery. The little dirt road is probably a four-lane highway now," he said.

Worman earned numerous awards for his service: the Combat Infantryman Badge, Presidential Unit Citation for D-day, Army Air Corps Observer Wings, Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, among others.

He was discharged in October 1945 and returned to his hometown in Mountain Lakes, N.J., where he worked as an architect, a police officer and volunteer firefighter. In 1946, he married his wife, Carol, who passed away several years ago.

He moved to Florida in 1972 and worked for the city of Largo as a structural inspector for the building department. He took disability retirement in 1983 after an automobile accident on the job.

Nowadays, Worman wakes up when he wants to. He takes a dip in the pool at his Clearwater complex most afternoons and keeps himself busy with activities at the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other military service associations.

He has a concealed weapons permit and keeps his skills sharp with weekly trips to Knight Shooting Sports in Largo with his buddies.

"I've had a gun since I was 14. I don't leave home without it, and I only take it off when I go into a federal building or a bar," he said.

On Tuesday, Worman's buddy Ray Roy, 60, couldn't help but brag about him.

"He is so sharp at hitting (the target). It's unbelieveable," he said as Worman fired his Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver.

Worman still talks about the old days. He often watches videos about the D-day invasion. Sometimes he breaks down.

His "lady friend" Donna McGarr says he tells her he shouldn't watch them.

"And yet he's kind of drawn to it," McGarr said.

McGarr, who is 70, said she knows why Worman had such an important role in the military.

"I think the reason he was valuable when he was in the service is that he has a very methodical mind, and he has a memory that is absolutely out of this world. When we play cards, he can remember every single card that I played," McGarr said.

Worman often wears a Rangers T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. If he dedicates a song to McGarr at a dance, he says it's from "Ranger Russ." If he sends her a card, he signs it the same way.

"He is a Ranger through and through," McGarr said. "It's still a major part of his life. Anyone that dates him has to accept this."

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

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