Knowlton's Rangers: part of an elite Military Intelligence tradition.
May 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm #77011Joe (G.W.N.S.)Moderator
Thought some Intelligence history might be helpful.
Knowlton’s Rangers: part of an elite Military Intelligence tradition.
Title Annotation: MI Traditions; Thomas Knowlton
Author: Quinn, Ruth
Geographic Code: 1USA
Date: Jul 1, 2012
Publication: Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
In 1995, the Military Intelligence Corps Association (MICA) and the MI Corps designated Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton as the “MI Hero.” Subsequently MICA created the Knowlton Award to be presented to individuals who have demonstrated excellence or superior support to Military Intelligence. Thomas Knowlton’s story is a tragic one, and the organization known as Knowlton’s Rangers was short-lived; but that story has been told in many sources-the purpose of this article is not to replicate that story. However, the unusual mission of Knowlton’s Rangers in providing combat intelligence links them to a long legacy of serving “Always Out Front,” going back to before America had an Army. Their spirit of courage and self-sacrifice is a heritage that continues today.
In his book on the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) of Vietnam, Michael Lee Lanning relates the history of the Ranger concept from its origins. He notes that by the time European settlers moved across the ocean to colonize the New World, combat had become standardized: long lines of troops facing each other across an open field. America, however, presented a problem. The terrain was a wilderness, with thick, virgin forest and unknown, unmapped territory. There were no roads for large troop movement, and the enemy was often unseen, striking from ambush against any intruder-man, woman, or child. If Europeans were going to survive in this foreign land, they were going to have to learn to live and fight more like the Native Americans.
Some of these colonists excelled in frontier skills-scouting, tracking, hunting, observing. They patrolled large areas, a practice known as “ranging” to scout for danger. These early frontiersmen became known as “Rangers,” and their unique skills, willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to protect others, and supreme courage in the face of danger have become the trademarks of all Army Rangers ever since.
Captain Benjamin Church commanded the first known military unit of Rangers in North America, which fought against an Indian revolt in 1675. Church’s Rangers, made up of skilled white colonists and friendly Indians, operated in terrain where regular militia units could not function. Later, during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Major Robert Rogers organized an elite unit of woodsmen to support British operations against the French. Rogers’ Rangers received unique training in wilderness warfare that was highly valued by British commanders, given their assignment in the great wilderness of New England.
Knowlton learned the Ranger profession with these men. In a biography of Knowlton published in a 2010 edition of MICA’s newsletter, The Vanguard, W.F. Morgan states, “Private Thomas Knowlton would gain his early military experience in the same regiment as Captain John Durkee and Major Israel Putnam, both, who had trained and served with Roger’s Rangers.” Knowlton’s early Ranger experiences would become invaluable later in the Revolutionary War.
By the time George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, the tradition of the Army Ranger was already well established. The concept involved an elite, specially trained, and highly mobile unit that could be called upon in special situations to perform dangerous and difficult missions. General Washington had a need for just such a unit. Knowlton’s Rangers were commissioned to conduct long-range patrols behind enemy lines and capture prisoners for interrogation. Orders detailing the mission were received by (then) Major Knowlton on July 18, 1776, from Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, who told him to get as near the enemy as possible without being discovered and, “should you be successful enough to take any of the British Troops as Prisoners, secure them well and treat them with humanity.” How many missions Knowlton led his Rangers on in the next two months is unknown, but it is clear he received orders directly from George Washington on September 16, 1776.
When the Long Island Campaign ended on August 27, 1776 with the British in control of New York, General Washington badly needed to regain that stronghold. Feeling paralyzed by a lack of intelligence, he sent numerous requests to Generals Heath and Clinton, saying that it was “of great consequence to gain intelligence of the enemy’s designs, and of their intended operations.” He did not receive a satisfactory response. On September 16, 1776, in obvious frustration, Washington told the President of Congress, John Hancock, “I have sent out some reconnoitering parties to gain Intelligence if possible, of the disposition of the Enemy.” He was referring to Knowlton’s Rangers. To fill in the information gaps, Washington had also decided to send one lone spy behind ememy lines; his volunteer came again from Knowlton’s Rangers.
Captain Nathan Hale, one of Knowlton’s company commanders, knew the dangers of this mission. When a class-mate of his from Yale tried to talk him out of volunteering, Hale replied, “I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation … If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claims to perform that service are imperious.” Hale would never return from this “peculiar service,” for he was executed by the British as a spy one week after volunteering. His commander also died, but from wounds he received during the Battle of Harlem Heights. Knowlton’s loss was personally mourned by General Washington. While this incident hardly represents a success, it illustrates an early use of the Rangers for intelligence gathering. It was a practice that would be repeated many times in the years to come.
An excellent example of this tradition, 168 years later, was embodied in Second Lieutenant (later Colonel) Harvey Cook, whose first job upon entering active duty in 1941 was teaching hand-to-hand combat at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. He was soon recruited by the 2nd Ranger Battalion as their S2, or intelligence officer. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Captain Cook scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc with his fellow Rangers and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. He would later receive three Bronze Star medals for service in WWII and Korea, and would see action again in Vietnam. Colonel Cook’s 30-year career epitomizes the courage, willingness to serve, and special skills, particularly in the intelligence realm, that Rangers have proudly displayed since their beginnings.
America’s current War on Terror is no different. In May 2008, a Signals Intelligence Analyst and member of the 75th Ranger Regiment was on a mission to locate an enemy insurgent in Afghanistan. His team, comprised entirely of Rangers, deployed on a rare daylight raid of a Taliban compound. These Rangers had to enter multiple buildings, and the enemy could see them coming. The danger was clear and present. Although the Intelligence Soldier was inexperienced, he understood his mission, knew the target, and had the training and equipment to do his part. He was also part of an elite team of Rangers who had trained together and knew they could trust each other. When the shooting started some of the Rangers were wounded; one was killed. One earned a Medal of Honor. Most of the Rangers on that team remain anonymous, true professionals. But they all share a heritage of common values. Nathan Hale, Harvey Cook, and today’s MI Soldiers serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment, following in the tradition of Knowlton’s Rangers, put their special intelligence skills to use in dangerous missions that require self-sacrifice, remarkable courage, and a willingness to lay down their lives for their friends.
by Ruth Quinn, Staff Historan, USAICoE Command History Office
May 14, 2014 at 10:47 pm #77012ThomasParticipant
Rangers, Lead the way!
May 15, 2014 at 10:45 am #77013M1-GuyParticipant
I suppose it is possible, but, I don’t believe there is any other country where we have so many “ordinary” people do extraordinary things.
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