With healed legs once shattered in a parachute jump and a mouthful of false teeth from his football days, former Cohutta resident William Petty never wavered in his journey to become a U.S. Army Ranger.
Because luckily for Petty, his will was never broken.
As a 22-year-old member of the 2nd U.S. Ranger Battalion, Petty was part of the first wave of troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy and scaled the treacherous cliffs there in northern France on June 6, 1944.
That date would be known as D-Day.
On that day more than 150,000 Allied troops began Operation Neptune, part of the larger Operation Overlord. The military maneuvers were an attempt to regain control of the German-controlled country during World War II and defeat Adolf Hitler.
The invasion was bloody and costly.
Some 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded; however, almost 100,000 soldiers started to cross Europe and defeat the Nazis. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft were involved in the invasion.
Petty survived the harrowing ordeal and became a war hero. He is credited with killing more than 30 Germans during D-Day. With the help of several Rangers, they leveled a huge concrete gun emplacement at Pointe du Hoc that was aimed at the English Channel. By the time his military career was over, Petty had earned a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
Petty passed away at age 78 on March 21, 2000, in Carmel, N.Y. His stories of bravery live on. He is featured heavily in Ronald L. Lane’s “Rudder’s Rangers” and receives several pages in Douglas Brinkley’s “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” and Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day.”
Petty’s stories were also handed down to his family.
“I remember growing up you used to hear the stories over and over from all of his buddies,” his son, Bill Petty, said. “The guys that did survive, they were very tight knit. We used to have reunions and we’d travel across the country and we would always be staying at some Ranger’s house somewhere. You always heard the stories. As a kid you’re like, ‘Oh not again.’ Now as an adult, with him not being here, you have a greater appreciation for all of it.”
Petty was born in Appomattox, Va., on May 22, 1921. His family, which included 13 children, moved to Cohutta when he was a child and operated a cotton farm. Petty attended the University of Georgia, but his studies were cut short after he joined the Army.
Petty almost never made it to Normandy. In fact, he barely became a part of the Rangers.
After that first parachute jump gone awry, Petty decided he wanted to become a part of the all-volunteer force that often operated behind enemy lines.
In the early 1940s, he went to Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tenn., which was one of the U.S. Army’s largest training bases during World War II. There he began the process to become a Ranger. The parachute accident left Petty with a pronounced limp.
“He had to be a fast talker because he was still walking like a duck when he got there,” recalled Monroe Reed, a lifelong Cohutta resident and Petty’s childhood friend. “His legs had healed enough so he could put weight on them.”
After taking the physical, the doctor declined to allow Petty into the group. Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, the commanding officer of the Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion, agreed with the doctor’s assessment.
The doctor also noted another problem.
Petty had none of his original teeth. They were all knocked while playing football. He had false teeth.
“The officer that was interviewing him for enlistment said, ‘Well, you can probably get where you can walk and run pretty good but you ain’t got a tooth in your head that you can use,” Reed said.
Petty persevered. He requested a more intense medical examination. Eventually, he met with Rudder.
“The very fact that even after fracturing both legs he still wanted to be a Ranger showed true heart,” Brinkley wrote in “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.” “Petty insisted to Rudder that it was unfair to disqualify him because of his dental malady.”
Rudder admired Petty’s tenacity, his grit.
Petty then uttered his now famous line about the Germans.
“Hell, sir! I don’t want to eat’em. I want to fight’em.”
The lieutenant colonel flashed a smiled then signed a form, succinctly telling Petty, “You’re in.”
At Normandy, the Rangers went into northern France about one hour ahead of the other troops. They scaled 100-foot cliffs under the cover of darkness to take out the German 15.5 cm Kanone 418(f) coastal defense guns. The guns were thought to be near the landing areas on the beach, but the Germans had placed the guns farther back. The Rangers were successful in destroying the emplacements. However, about 60 percent of the 200-member Ranger squad perished.
After the service, Petty went back to UGA. He eventually returned to Dalton for a short time and opened a laundry. The business failed and Petty moved to New York, where he earned a master’s degree from New York University.
For years he was the director of Clear Pool Boys Camp, which served troubled children from New York City.
“From my blog, I still get people that write me every once in a while about what a big difference he made in their lives,” said Eddie Hunter, Petty’s nephew.
Reminiscing on his father’s military service, Bill Petty recalled a poignant moment with his children.
“I remember walking through a library with my kids and I saw the book,” he said. “I pulled it out and said, ‘Hey, do you want to see something cool?’ And I flipped it to the back and there was William ‘L-Rod’ Petty.”
There for future generations to read about.