"Freedom is not free. Somebody has to fight for it.”
These are the words of René Kepperling, an Army Ranger of the 5th Ranger Battalion that came ashore on Omaha Beach over 75 years ago in Normandy, France, in the operation known as “D-Day”.
Mr. Kepperling was just 18 years old on June 6th, 1944, a mere boy who wanted to fight for his country that he now called home. You see, René Kepperling, known as “Kep” to his Ranger buddies, wasn’t born in the USA, he was born in France, and his family was forced to flee when Hitler and the Nazi’s invaded.
“Oh, so you’re French?” I inquired, after hearing his thick French accent. “NO!” Kepperling sternly corrected me, “I am an American!” He was then and is still very proud to be an American, along with still being sharp and feisty!
René Kepperling was so excited to be an American that he enlisted in the US Army in 1943, lying about his age just so he could serve. He was immediately interested in the joining the Rangers after seeing a wanted poster.
“They said I was too short and too small,” Kepperling explained. “But when I told them I spoke French, they gave me a chance to go through the training. I wanted to be a Ranger, and I was going to be a Ranger. I’ve always been so proud of it.”
The training was intense and grueling, but Kepperling made it through and earned his spot in E Company of the 5th Ranger Battalion as a Sniper and translator.
“10%, they told us Rangers that we had a 10% chance of going home,” Keppering said. “Don’t plan on going home, that was the first thing that they told you. They didn’t lie about it. They told you right upfront that your chances of going home are maybe 1 in 10.”
D-Day was more than just the largest amphibious invasion in the history of mankind, it was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from tyrannical control by the Nazi regime.
On June 6th, 1944, René Kepperling and his brothers in the 5th Ranger Battalion were sent straight to the front lines, landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France under intense enemy fire along with 160,000+ other Allied troops.
“It was like you were going into hell,” Kepperling said. "Bullets flying all around, explosions all over, in the water and on the land. It was, it was holy hell. You knew in a couple of minutes you were going to be dead.”
It’s hard to imagine just how Kepperling and his brothers of the 5th Ranger Battalion felt while riding on those landing crafts headed into the fight.
"We were all pretty scared to death," Kepperling said. "All hell was opening up in front of us. Bullets were flying all over the place, artillery, and the sky was littered with our planes. That was good, but there were a lot of dead, falling down."
Kepperling’s landing craft made it to Omaha Beach, coming ashore under intense enemy machine gun fire and artillery barrages.
“We got pinned down for a while, then a general came by and said “Rangers Lead the Way!”, and that’s where we got our motto, Rangers lead the way,” explained “Kep”. “When you’re pinned down, you’ve got to think before you move, but we finally broke through. You didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “You had to think clear. If you see a German, shoot. Don’t ask questions, don’t ask if it’s ok.”
Mr. Kepperling and his brothers from the 5th Ranger Battalion were successful in their mission on D-Day, and spearheaded the liberation of Europe and the ultimate end of World War II.
"There were bodies laying all over the place,” Kep recalled. “The ones on the beach were Americans. The ones further up were mostly Germans who were shot coming out of the bunkers.”
It’s hard to fathom what could’ve happened if Allied forces were not successful on D-Day, but thanks to courageous men like René Kepperling and his brothers in arms, Europe was liberated and the Nazi regime was destroyed.
“Surviving D-Day, that was a big deal,” Kepperling said. “But I want people to know that freedom is not free. People died for freedom.”
Myself and Mr. Kepperling spoke at length, discussing stories from the war as well as issues that face our world today, all in between autographs and photo ops from passing fans. It was obvious that even with being 94 years old, he still had a clear mind and was able to vividly recall specific details, moments, and events from 75 years ago, which was remarkable.
One story in particular stands out, that personifies his witty, sharp, and feisty demeanor.
“I slept in Hitler’s bedroom for four days, and when we left, I left him a little present in his toilet. I didn’t flush.”
A brave 18 year old boy and his brothers, forced to grow up early and fight like men for their country.
“People don’t realize how good they have it here in the USA,” said Kepperling. “It saddens me to see how ungrateful people our towards our country.”
In between stories, Mr. Kepperling was asked to autograph a $1 bill by a passing fan, and after he was finished signing the bill, he proclaimed, “It’s now worth $.75 cents!”
I was one of the lucky ones that was able to get his John Hancock on a bill, a $100 bill to be exact, as it was the only bill that I had on me.
“Would you look at that?” Kepperling said after I handed him the bill. “This nice fella gave me a $100 bill here!” as he stuffed the $100 bill in his shirt pocket.
Towards the end of our conversation, Mr. Kepperling explained how honored he was to represent his brothers in arms that never came home, as he is the last one left from his unit.
"We were brothers, blood brothers and they're all gone. I'm the last one in the area. It's lonesome.”
He never thought he would live past D-Day, let alone live to 94 years old to see the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. It was a special moment for him to be able to tell the story of his brothers that left us too soon, as his thoughts were with them and not himself.
“I wasn't anything special. It isn't like a was a high-ranking officer or something or Congressional medal of honor or anything like that, I was just a kid," Kepperling explained, humble as ever. He was just “Doing his job.”
"None of us thought we would make it. We had one chance in 10 to make it and if you were that one, you were probably wounded.
They don’t make men like René Kepperling nowadays. He is the last of a dying breed known as “The Greatest Generation”, a group of men that put the lives of fellow American’s and their country before themselves. We must hold their legacy dear to our hearts and treasure every word that is spoken as their time with us fades.
"Freedom is not free. Somebody has to fight for it," Kepperling said in closing. "Ever since 1776, somebody has died to fight for our freedom. We just cannot forget these people."