Retired East Lansing teacher to receive national honor as WWII Army Ranger

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GRAND LEDGE – It’s been nearly 80 years since Robert Vondale joined the US Army’s 5th Ranger Battalion, landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and fought across Europe with the 79th Infantry Division in World War II.

Over 7,000 US Army Rangers who served in World War II. Vondale is one of 13 people still alive.

He joined the elite group of all-volunteer soldiers created during the war after seeing a notice on a notice board when he arrived in England. before D-Day.

Now he is set to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. In June, President Joe Biden signed a bill authorizing the award of the medal to World War II Rangers.

After the war, Vondale graduated from Michigan State University and married his wife Beverly. They raised four children, and Vondale taught junior high and elementary students in public schools in East Lansing for 23 years.

Despite the many years since his service, time has not taken away his memories of the war.

From the living room of his apartment at Independence Living on Grand Ledge on Monday afternoon, Vondale, 97, a longtime East Lansing resident and elementary school teacher, painstakingly recounted his 2½ years of military service.

He spoke of the towns he visited, the exchanges of gunfire and explosions, aiding the wounded, recovering the dead and his own close calls.

“Looking back on it, I have no regrets,” Vondale said. “I think it was designed that way. I believe in God and I believe that everything happens for a reason.”

Memories of war

Cathy Schafer, Vondale’s daughter, said that when she was growing up, her father never shared with her what he had been through during World War II.

Schafer, 64, remembers Vondale as a dedicated teacher who spent hours after school ended each day meeting with parents and students. He was a loving father who accompanied her to school every day.

Robert Vondale, 97, looks at photos from 1945 while on duty Monday, July 18, 2022, at his Grand Ledge home.  Vondale is one of the few surviving members of the United States Army Ranger battalions of World War II.  Last month, President Biden signed an order awarding the rangers the Congressional Gold Medal.

“My dad taught me to be on time, to be respectful and to work hard,” she said.

Schafer didn’t think about the soldier his father once was until two years ago. His parents were moving to Grand Ledge. Schafer was helping them pack up and found Vondale’s handwritten World War II memoir.

“I came across it, just picked it up and started reading,” she said. Her story leaves her speechless.

“Oh my God, he never even told me,” Schafer recalled.

enlist in the army

To hear Vondale tell it, several twists of fate led him to the army, then to join one of the first six battalions of the Rangers, then the 79th division.

He intended to join the Navy. His brother Earl already had and was on board the battleship USS Oklahoma when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Although more than 400 crew members died, he survived.

Two years later, Vondale took an exam, stood before a naval officer, and saluted, ready to enlist.

Robert Vondale, 97, browses through an album of his time on duty Monday, July 18, 2022, at his Grand Ledge home.  Vondale is one of the few surviving members of the United States Army Ranger battalions of World War II.  Last month, President Biden signed an order awarding the rangers the Congressional Gold Medal.

“We’re not bringing men with glasses this month, so you can’t join the navy,” the officer told him.

“I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m in the military,'” Vondale said.

In August 1943, he boarded a train for an army camp in Illinois, then went to Fort McClellan in Alabama.

A fall in a stream four months later in the middle of training delayed his graduation. A few weeks later he traveled to England. He had only been there a few weeks when a notice asking for volunteers to join the Rangers caught his eye.

“I didn’t know what they were, but I signed up,” Vondale said.

Join the Rangers

The United States formed the Rangers in 1942 in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, said Ron Hudnell, who runs a Facebook group for World War II Rangers and their families.

“The army didn’t have a unit comparable to the British commandos,” Hudnell said. “The mission of the Rangers was to be the main force in the invasions into the occupied territories and to neutralize, as far as they could, the enemy forces there on the range for the troops pursuing them.”

A display of Robert Vondale's military service hangs at his home on Monday, July 18, 2022, at his Grand Ledge home.  Vondale is one of the few surviving members of the United States Army Ranger battalions of World War II.  Last month, President Biden signed an order awarding the rangers the Congressional Gold Medal.

Vondale was a member of the 5th Ranger Battalion and landed at Omaha Beach five days after the invasion began.

The scene there was “just terrible,” Vondale said. “Everything was torn apart. Boats were overturned. People were floating in the water.”

He spent seven weeks training as an assistant bazooka with Rangers in France, not far from the beach.

Shortly after, he joined the 79th Infantry Division.

“In the 10 months we are fighting we have lost 3,000 dead, 11,000 wounded and two battalions, 1,600 men, captured in the Battle of the Bulge,” Vondale said.

He was discharged from the army in January 1946.

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Life after the war

Vondale’s war memories do not torment him, but they remain clear.

“I remember what happened. I remember picking up the dead and the injured,” Vondale said.

Robert Vondale, 97, talks about his service Monday, July 18, 2022, at his Grand Ledge home.  Vondale is one of the few surviving members of the United States Army Ranger battalions of World War II.  Last month, President Biden signed an order awarding the rangers the Congressional Gold Medal.

War experiences he once kept silent about are stories he shares more often now, Beverly Vondale said, even recounting what happened in front of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He met other WWII Rangers after he left the army and returned to visit places where he fought in the war.

“It’s been gradual over the years,” she said.

His life after the war was filled with joy. He has been married to Beverly for 71 years and taught and lived in East Lansing for 23 years. Years later, Vondale is still in contact with just over a dozen former students.

“Teaching was my bag,” he said. “Every day was glorious. In their time of life, I was blessed to be an important part of it.”

The Rangers’ contribution to World War II was significant, Hudnell said, and news that they will receive the Congressional Gold Medal is a long time coming.

“These guys, they’re so thrilled and so honored that the country has recognized their service in World War II,” Hudnell said, though the presentation is likely still a year away.

The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by Congress and is the highest civilian honor in the United States. The decoration is awarded to an individual or unit who performs an act or deed of outstanding service for the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States.

Schafer aims to see his father receive his medal.

“I’m already planning my dad’s 100th birthday, so…” she said.

Contact Rachel Greco at rgreco@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

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