History Wars World War II

Army Ranger jumps into Normandy to honor his World War II Ranger grandfather

The judge advocate with the 75th Ranger Regiment was inspired by his grandfather, who fought in the 2nd Ranger Battalion in World War II.
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Maj. Jack Gibson with John Wardell, who fought with the 2nd Ranger Battalion in World War II. (photo courtesy Jack Gibson/U.S. Army)

In the summer of 1944, the soldiers of 2nd Ranger Battalion arrived in France, driving into Europe from the edges of Normandy, eventually pushing deep into Nazi-held territory. Among them was Pvt. Jim Shalala, a Cleveland resident who joined the Army in 1943. Shalala was with the Rangers through some of the fiercest fighting of 1944, including the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. Eight decades later his grandson, a fellow Ranger, was back in France.

Maj. Jack Gibson, part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, was one of the thousands of active-duty troops and veterans who went to France this past week as part of commemorations for the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the Allied invasion of Normandy. Part of his personal involvement was jumping out of a C-47 plane like the paratroopers of World War II did.

Taking part in the journey is helping him connect in his own way with his late grandfather Jim Shalala, who died in 2006, Gibson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Gibson is the regimental judge advocate for the 75th Ranger Regiment, essentially the top legal expert for the regiment, and is based out of Fort Moore in Georgia. His journey to the Rangers wasn’t direct. When he initially joined the Army, he served as Medical Service Corp officer in the the 3rd Infantry Division. After earning a law degree from the University of Georgia he served with the 101st Airborne Division as a judge advocate. He went to Afghanistan twice, with each division, but found himself drawn to the Rangers and remembered his grandfather’s service. 

Before Shalala’s death, he had given Gibson his Ranger insignia from World War II. Gibson told the Army and Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he knew how important it was to his grandfather, even if he didn’t know much at the time about the 2nd Ranger Battalion. 

During World War II, the Rangers were new, inspired by the British commandos and the Chindits. The men in the 2nd Ranger Battaltion spent months training before D-Day, when they climbed Norman cliffs to take Pointe du Hoc. Shalala joined them in France nearly two weeks later, a replacement who missed D-Day proper but fought with the unit through France and into Germany as the Allies pushed forward.

Decades later, the modern 75th Ranger Regiment has different requirements and different training. Even as a lawyer, Gibson still had to go through the same grueling training as other Rangers. And he had to go through Ranger School twice. His first attempt saw him getting recycled, having to start all over. He was 32 when he earned his Ranger tab. Two years later in 2021 he joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, having to go through the intense eight-week-long Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. 

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Gibson’s journey to Normandy was part of the wider 80th anniversary commemorations for D-Day. As part of the massive celebration — which also included speeches from President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and others honoring those who served — American and British troops staged parachute jumps and landings over D-Day battlefields. Some were in modern gear, others joined veterans and civilians in donning World War II-era uniform and gear to jump out of vintage C-47s or march through places like Carentan. 

Being a Ranger, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, helped him feel like he had a greater connection to his grandfather. “Or maybe I understand him a little better.”

The number of surviving World War II veterans is dwindling, with even fewer left who participated in the Normandy landings. Several vets from D-Day and the war overall made it to the battlefield this past week as part of the 80th anniversary. Gibson got to meet with several of those veterans, including John Wardell, the last living member of 2nd Ranger Battalion, while in France.

“It was a really cool opportunity to wear a similar scroll that my grandfather wore,” he said. “It was kind of a full circle moment for me. It’s been everything I thought it would be and more.”

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