Albert Mario Ranzani
US Army, 832nd Engineer Aviation Battalion – Private First Class
World War II (1943-1945)
Albert Ranzani of San Rafael, California is a member of an elite group in Marin County. Ranzani is one of four men in Marin County to receive the French Legion of Honor for his services on behalf of France during World War II. The award was a surprise for Ranzani. According to French Consul General, Romain Serman, Ranzani is a hero and “His courage, faith and dedication contributed to the defense against enemies of France and to save our common values: freedom, justice, tolerance and democracy.” Ever the humble man, Ranzani was honored to receive the award, but did not know why he was selected. He stated, “How do I deserve it?” Like most men during World War II, Ranzani was just doing his job and was focused on working together as a unit with his fellow soldiers. Ranzani would later put his engineering training and cooperative nature to good use and became an engineer with the California Department of Transportation.
Albert Mario Ranzani was born on February 11, 1925 in Crockett, California. He grew up in Crockett with his parents, grandmother and maternal uncle. His father was an Italian immigrant that worked in the sugar refinery in Crocket. His father was in the Italian Army prior to immigrating to America. His uncle served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Pacific during World War II. Ranzani attended John Swett High School in Crockett and graduated in 1943. He recalled hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor while he was in high school. Upon graduation from high school, Ranzani became a store keeper at Mare Island. Around this time, his parents divorced and although his father still lived in Crockett, Ranzani felt a strong sense of obligation to take care of his mother and grandmother. Ranzani was drafted in April 1943 at the age of 18. His primary concern at the time was leaving his mother and grandmother at home alone. Ranzani noted that he received little money from the military and needed to support his family financially. He claimed, “His mother did not want to see him getting drafted.”
Ranzani was drafted into the Army because it was the only unit available at the time. He was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in early 1943 for approximately five months of basic training. Fort Leonard Wood was an Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC) and located in the Mark Twain National Forest. It was 1 of 3 training centers in the US besides Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Camp Abbott in Oregon. Fort Leonard Wood was an ideal place to train because its ruggedness was so varied the soldiers could be schooled in all types of warfare. The training included learning to shoot properly in varied weather conditions, basic principles of military engineering were taught, as well as the functions of the soldier in combat. The primary goal of an ERTC was to train men as combat engineers. These men received instruction on how to use tools, construct fixed and floating bridges, build roads and obstacles, execute demolitions and how to defend against an enemy attack. The ERTC at Fort Leonard Wood was divided into 3 training groups with some specialist battalions and companies. Ranzani was assigned to the 30th Engineer Training Battalion, Company C. A typical day consisted of early roll call and breakfast, calisthenics, drill, and the remainder of the day was spent in lecture and execution of theories.
According to Ranzani, the primary focus of his basic training was on building, learning mechanics and working as a unit together. He and his company learned to quickly build a bridge in a blackout using only 2 flashlights, how to construct bridges using pontoons, and how to navigate an obstacles course burdened with packs and rifles. Trainees also learned to build tank traps wide & deep, knot tying, construction of steel girder bridges, erection of gin poles, digging of trenches, roadblocks, and how to create roadways. Ranzani emphasized, “Skill and speed was the focus.” The trainees also practiced using cargo nets to simulate debarkment from shipboard, living outdoors in tents and to shoot rifles in standing and prone positions. Ranzani felt his training was very thorough and taken seriously by his superiors. “Most in his unit took it seriously, others were good natured and some were just there because they had to be”, noted Ranzani. He learned to work as a unit and if there was something his company did wrong, they were corrected by their superiors. Cooperation as a unit was emphasized. Despite being a young man fresh out of high school, Ranzani felt that he “learned quite a bit in his training, how to cooperate with people and do things.” In general, he trained 10-12 hours a day which was average for engineering training and the living conditions were fine. Ranzani explained, “It was regular military life, they worked together and slept together in the barracks.”
After completion of his basic and engineering training at Fort Leonard Wood, he returned home to Crockett for a visit and then was assigned to a carry or replacement unit to fill in for those overseas in Europe. Ranzani departed for Europe from Virginia in mid 1943. He had no expectations of where he would be assigned, his duties, or to what Division or Battalion when he arrived in Europe. Ranzani was there to do a job and he did not request an engineering unit. According to Ranzani, it took about two months to travel to Europe via a transport ship. “The living conditions were lousy,” claimed Ranzani and “they slept on cots in a large hall with lots of men, and were served hot meals or C rations.” Ranzani further noted, while onboard “he had to keep the ship clean, serve on KP and he didn’t just stand around doing nothing.” He did, however, get the opportunity to rest and didn’t work all day aboard ship. He even was able to go on deck during the crossing and watch the other transport ships sailing across with them. Ranzani landed in Scotland and was assigned to the 832nd Engineer Aviation Battalion. At the time, he did not know why he was assigned to the 832nd and assumed it was because his testing showed he was mechanically inclined. He thought the role of the 832nd was to build and construct anything; it was a construction unit. Later, Ranzani would learn that the 832nd was responsible for building and maintaining airfields in England, France and Germany, the reinforcement of English air defenses, and support of allied air operations against Germany. The goal of the 832nd and all Aviation Engineers was to provide the Army Air Force with adequate base facilities in combat areas in the European theater.
Upon arrival in Scotland, Ranzani claimed that “he wasn’t excited to join in the war effort or be in Europe. He was scared and didn’t know what to expect.” However, he was pleased to be assigned to a specific unit. Ranzani “wanted to know what he would be doing instead of just kicking around.” Ranzani was not concerned about being assigned to Europe and preferred it over the Pacific. At the time he arrived in Scotland, his rank was Private. From Scotland, Ranzani was transported by train to Matlask, Norfolk in southern England. The primary duties of the Battalion were to get organized and prepare to go to France to help repair and build air fields and air strips. In England, Ranzani received additional engineer combat training, learned to deal with tactical problems in reconnaissance and field work. He also did some construction work and learned to work with others. Ranzani was in England for about two months and the living conditions consisted of tents or barracks and typical of the war.
After D-Day in Normandy, the 832nd was transported to Omaha Beach, Normandy via LSTS in late June 1944 with large convoys of vehicles and equipment to build and repair airfields. Upon his landing in Normandy, Ranzani recalled seeing “steel railings driven into the ground supposedly to stop any invasions or landings.” He also recalled that “not everything was cleaned up, service men were lying out on the beach and not all of the bodies had been removed yet from the initial invasion.” “Everyone was moving around so fast to get out of the way of shelling and you didn’t know who was who”, Ranzani claimed when he first landed at Omaha Beach. According to Ranzani, every landing while in Europe was dangerous because of the shelling. While in Normandy, he served primarily as a gunner and used a fifty caliber machine gun that was water cooled. He was a gunner on a truck, could lean on the back of the truck as it drove through the area and use his waist to shoot. Building wasn’t possible near the initial landing site due to the shelling and the terrain. Ranzani didn’t know what he was supposed to do in Normandy and he “just did what he was told.” After waiting about 1-2 weeks, they were able to move out and head up the coast of France. At this time, Ranzani claimed that he and the men in his Battalion knew “they had to keep their spirits up and he knew he had work to do.”
The construction task of the Battalion was to build a landing strip near St. Lambert. The area was under enemy observation and the front line was only one mile away. The strip was to be an Advanced Landing Ground and consist of one runway 5,000 feet in length, two taxiways with a total length of 12, 0000 feet and 75 hardstands. The Advanced Landing Ground was completed in less than 15 days. During this time and throughout his time in France, Ranzani slept in army tents usually over or near foxholes, ate C rations with the occasional K ration and had little free time due to the quick pace of construction. He recalled the weather was pretty fair. Ranzani claimed, he was “there to do a job and that was about all they could do with the orders they got.” He was not privy to the goals of the Battalion, expectations or what their specific work was to be in the future. In general, he felt his duties in France were the same everywhere: “construct and build air fields all the way up to the Belgian line.” According to Ranzani, he primarily built “pierce landing air strips.” This type of air strip consisted of metallic strips that were about 14 inches wide, 14 feet long and a ¼ inch thick. The metallic strips were clipped together to avoid sliding or coming apart. The ground would be leveled flat and the pierce landing strips would be connected together and clipped in a length determined by the type of planes that would land at that strip. The goal was to use as many men available and build the strip as quickly as possible. Upon completion of a strip or field, the Battalion would move out to build the next strip. Ranzani recalled, “They had to construct and get out.”
Ranzani and the Battalion moved along the French coast, through to Paris, up to the Alps and eventually in to Belgium and central Germany. His Battalion comprised many units and Ranzani thought his particular unit built 10 airfields and 16 air strips in France and Belgium. He specifically recalled working on the large airfield in Chartes, France in August of 1944. The field was 5,500 feet in length and 260 feet wide. While in France, Ranzani noted the challenges were getting the supplies through as quickly as possible. Everything was transported by trucks via the “red ball express.” He traveled in a truck with his toolbox underneath him. As they travelled, the trucks were shelled on occasion. His Battalion was not only responsible for building the air strips, but the roads to transport the equipment on. “It was up to them to do anything to get things and the supplies there faster,” claimed Ranzani. There were some shortages in France and he recalled the morale was pretty low at the time. Ranzani stated, “We were in a foreign country and not sure what was going on.” Ranzani was in Northern France from July 1944 to September 1944 and traveled from Rennes, Chateaudun, to Chartes, and Bricy.
From September 1944 through early 1945, the Battalion worked through the Rhineland into northern Belgium. “The mission was to build airfields and they accomplished it,” noted Ranzani. They had limitations due to shortages and it was difficult to build and level the fields due to the terrain. On average, Ranzani claimed that the Battalion usually only had a week to build an air field. During this time, the Battalion worked on air fields and strips in many cities in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Germany. The living conditions were not great and the men lived in buildings that they could find. He recalled in Belgium they were able to eat hot rations and were greeted by locals waiving at them from their homes or the street. Ranzani also thought, “The men felt they were getting closer to victory” at this time. From the Rhineland, the 832nd moved into Central Europe from March until May 1945. The Battalion built airstrips and repaired air fields in Ober Olm, Germany near Mainz, and Hanau, Germany near Frankfurt. By this time, Ranzani claimed, “they just wanted to all get out of there.” He recalled shortages of construction supplies and food and experienced a few battles in the area. To cope, Ranzani read as much as he could and wrote home despite having his letters censored. After Germany, the 832nd moved forward into Ardennes to the Franco-Belgian border and to the southern border of Luxembourg. Ranzani and the men continued to build air strips and repair airfields. He did not recall any fighting in Ardennes. For the most part, Ranzani lived in old buildings and farmhouses in this area and recalled that the locals were glad to see the US soldiers. Ranzani even found time to take some much needed R & R in the French Alps.
When the war ended in May 1945, Ranzani recalled “everyone was glad it was all over.” At the time, he was a Private First Class. The Battalion was disbanded, he returned to the US and was sent to Virginia and discharged in December 1945. Ranzani was glad to get home to Crockett for Christmas. Upon his arrival home, he felt well received. He also remembered wearing his uniform for several days after his discharge until he was asked by his family to remove it because the war was over. After his discharge, Ranzani did not join the Reserves. However, he participated in Reunions of the 832nd and became active with the VFW, of which he was the Commander for years, as well as the Marin United Veterans Council, where he served as Treasurer. Ranzani is quite proud of a plaque he received at a Reunion, which is a replica of a memorial to the 832nd Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, that is inscribed with the motto of the 832nd: “We did what were asked to do and we did it well. We were proud to serve as individuals, as members of the 832nd Engineers and as United States soldiers.”
As a result of his service, Ranzani received campaign ribbons for his service in England, France and Germany. The Unit, as a whole, also received 5 campaign ribbons, an honor that not many units operating in the European Theater can claim. In addition, in May of 2012, Ranzani was awarded the French Legion of Honor by the French Consul General, Romain Serman, for Ranzani’s efforts building airfields in France. Ranzani did not know how the consulate knew of his efforts in France and why it was awarded so many years after his service. Unbeknownst to Ranzani, the Marin County branch of the VFW submitted the application and supporting documents to the French Consulate on his behalf. At the ceremony commemorating his service, Ranzani exclaimed with a laugh, “I was a PFC, so I did all the labor and the hard work. We came in right after D-Day and built the airfields up the coast to Belgium. It’s an honor to get the award.” Ranzani noted that he didn’t know why he received the award and solemnly stated, “How do I deserve it?”
After his discharge from the Army, Ranzani continued to live at his family home in Crockett and attended classes at Healds College in San Francisco where he received a degree in Engineering. Thereafter, he was employed by the California Department of Transportation in San Francisco for over 55 years and worked on roads and transportation until his retirement in 2007. He felt that his aviation and engineering training in the Army was helpful to his later career. He chose to pursue engineering because of the training he received during the war.
Upon reflection on his service, Ranzani felt the toughest part of his service was merely joining the Army and realizing what was going on. He felt he was very young at 18 and he did not know what to expect. This uncertainty and lack of knowledge on what was expected of you was also the scariest aspect of serving, as well. Ranzani did feel his service changed his outlook on life; he grew older and met lots of new people which he enjoyed. He also felt that “Serving is something money can’t buy. [He] received good training and think[s] people should go in the service to see how it works and see what their attitude is.” However, Ranzani did not feel his sacrifice in serving was justified. At the time he entered the Army, Ranzani felt responsible for his mother and grandmother. When he left, there was no one to care for them and the money he earned in the Army was not enough to pay for their care. In closing, Ranzani’s attitude about his service was that “it was something different. That is how you learn about different places and things.” Ranzani’s experience like most in World War II was positive. He credits the Army for the career he chose and the fundamental skill learned of working together as a unit. Ranzini feels the best part of his service was traveling around and meeting people that he would normally not meet.
Albert Mario Ranzani and the men of the 832nd Engineer Aviation Battalion did what they were asked to do and they certainly did it well. The 10 air fields, 16 air strips and numerous airfields maintained by this Battalion still stand today.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 24, 2012.