Orange County, Calif. --
Charles Ranger is a fighter.
It’s not readily apparently when meeting him for the first time. He’s currently confined to a wheel chair, the result of a nasty fall a couple of weeks back. He’s a bit older than he’d like to be, he said. His 86 years etching deep lines in his face, creating a sea of gray atop a head that used to be as dark as night. He trails off when talking about some topics.
“My mind is a bit cloudy,” he admits.
But ask him about his time fighting in World War II as a U.S. Marine, and suddenly, all of that falls away. His back straightens; his eyes find their focus, his voice becomes as clear as revelry on a Monday morning.
“I remember walking down the street with my grandma and seeing a group of [sailors],” Ranger said. “She said, ‘Don’t you want to be like them when you grow up?’ I told her no – I want to be a Marine.” That wish was fulfilled soon after, as World War II quickly saw the need for more men on the frontlines. For Ranger, it was never a question that he’d be anywhere else.
“I signed up knowing I was going to war. I signed up with the Marines to fight.”
And fight, he did. Assigned to the 28th Marines, Ranger was tagged to become a machine gunner. After the greatly shortened recruit training process of the time, he was sent overseas to be part of the assault on Iwo Jima.
His unit landed and was quickly loaded into armored vehicles to make a more concentrated push into the interior of the island.
“We were climbing a series of terraces, and once we came to the last one, we stopped” he recalled. “There was so much small arms fire that it sounded like rain on the armor.”
Eventually, they had to disembark and meet the enemy head on. Ranger and his fellow Marines fought for so long they were quickly running low on ammunition. He volunteered to race back to the resupply point.
“As I was hauling the cans back, somebody began taking potshots at me,” he said. “So I used the tactic called ‘common sense’ and started to zigzag. Five steps this way, four steps this way. I had to change it up, so he couldn’t get a bead on me.
“I’m happy they missed,” he said, with just a trace of a smile.
Ranger brought back the ammunition, saving the lives of every man in his unit. Even so, he remains humble, praising the men around him for their actions, rather than taking glory in his own.
“I didn’t really do much,” he said. “There were a lot of great men on the island. I can still remember them as if it was yesterday.”
While the battle of Iwo Jima saw the birth of many legends, Ranger’s story was cut short on the fourth day, the victim of an artillery round and subsequent shrapnel that tore into his leg. He was air lifted to a hospital in Saipan, and for all intents and purposes, that was the end of his Marine Corps career.
Now, nearly 60 years later, Ranger fights a different fight. He’s in the hospital, working toward getting back on his feet - mainly so that he can go back to his daily routine of making margaritas for his sweetheart, he said.
His son Brian has helped out with the recovery in his own way, calling on Marines to write letters of encouragement to his father. So far he’s gotten around ten letters from surrounding Marine Corps installations, and according to Charles, they’re read every day.
“Everybody says their dad is the toughest on the block,” Brian said. “But mine really is. He’s the toughest guy I know, but those letters from the Marines, to let him know he’s not forgotten, mean the world to him.”
One Marine took it one step further and decided to drop by the hospital unannounced.
Staff Sgt. Jose Sahagun, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of Recruiting Sub Station Costa Mesa, Recruiting Station Orange, said that Ranger is an inspiration to all Marines today, and the embodiment of the phrase “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.”
“He says he only spent four days in, but to us younger Marines, the fact that he was even there in the first place is mind-blowing.
“I can’t even imagine what combat was like in those days, and every Marine who fought there is an inspiration to us all,” Sahagun added. “I only hope we can live up to the example they – he set.”
The Marine Corps left an indelible mark on Charles Ranger. Throughout his follow-on career as a drafter, he accredited his work ethic and strong sense of commitment to the Marine Corps. He can recall the face of every Marine he went to war with, and those four days in hell built a lifetime of memories of war, but he has no regrets.
Well, maybe just one.
“I wish I could’ve stayed,” he said, his eyes drifting upwards, lost in a memory. “I always wanted to be a Marine. And I got to be one.”