Clarence "Bud" Thompson knows he may not survive the heart surgery he is to undergo this week.
"I’ve just got that feeling," the 82-year-old Scottsdale man said.
The risk of surgery has made Thompson take a good look at his life and he has one wish before heading into the operating room for multiple coronary bypass surgery. He wants to share his experiences as a U.S. Army veteran of the elite Darby’s Rangers during World War II. "This is something I’ve seldom talked about," he said.
He said he wants to tell his story — which took him from Nemours, Algeria, in North Africa to the famed Anzio Landing in Italy — so the sacrifices made by World War II veterans are not lost on future generations.
The years are running out for World War II veterans such as Thompson to speak about the war. It won’t be long until those stories will only come from history books or documentary films.
The ranks of World War II veterans thinned by 1.3 million — from 6 million to 4.7 million — between April 2000 and September 2002, the last year such information was available, according to U.S. Census and Department of Veterans Affairs data.
Thompson grew up on a Wisconsin farm and worked several different jobs during the Great Depression. "It was the worst poverty you can imagine," he said.
Then his country came calling, and he enlisted in the Army in December 1942 from Fort Sheridan, Ill.
Thompson had initial training with a tank destroyer company, and went overseas in March 1943, sailing to Oran, Algeria, in North Africa.
Col. William Orlando Darby, a West Point graduate who was given the task of creating an elite, lightweight assault unit modeled after British commandos, was there seeking recruits for the Rangers, forerunner of today’s Army Special Forces.
"He said, ‘If you’ve got any red blood in you, you’ll want to join this unit,’ " recalled Thompson, who volunteered to be part of the team.
The Rangers’ effectiveness would later be proven on the front lines of North Africa and Europe during several invasions on Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy which was largely defended by German troops. Darby would later be killed in action by an artillery round on April 30, 1945, just a few days before the European war ended.
The Rangers’ mission was to spearhead raids, invasions and other offensive assaults. The soldiers were expected to work with what they had, often with little help from support units.
"It was hell," Thompson said of the training. "First we’d get up in the morning, and the first sergeant would yell, ‘Come on you dog faces get out of your houses.’ "
Some men didn’t live through the training, and others quit, Thompson said.
In the summer of 1943, Thompson — admittedly a little "green" — took part in the invasion of Gela, Sicily, where he had his first taste of combat in a major beach assault.
"We were under tremendous force," he said. "They had Gela fortified and the beach was loaded with concrete bunkers and machine-gun nests."
But the guns weren’t the only danger. At least one landing craft let some of the men off in water up to their necks in the 2 a.m. raid.
"A lot of the guys got picked off like ducks," Thompson said. "We did hit the beach and lost a lot of guys."
But Thompson fought his way up and the Rangers finally reached their objective: A cathedral in the center of town.
Thompson also recalled one confrontation following the famed Anzio Landing on the Italian coast in 1944. The Rangers were on their way to take Cisterna, Italy, when they went up against elite German SS troops and Panzer tanks.
The Germans were dug in, and the Rangers were forced to advance on an open road. They would go from ditch to ditch, running about 20 feet each stretch under machinegun, rifle and mortar fire.
A scout ahead of Thompson caught a bullet in a grenade pouch he was carrying, which exploded, shattering his leg. Thompson and about two or three others made it to a house, and the Germans took up positions around them. A bullet struck Thompson’s pack, causing a can of beans to explode out of its other side. Several of the Rangers with him were wounded.
Eventually, reinforcements came and they ended up taking 30 prisoners. And Thompson collected a souvenir — a German-made P38 automatic pistol taken from an SS officer.
Thompson’s tour of duty ended when the war did.
He called many of the men he served with heroes, such as Randy Harris, later featured on the "This is Your Life" TV show, who guarded prisoners while "holding his guts in his hands" after being wounded.
Thompson earned a Bronze Star and several other decorations for his service.
After the war, Thompson went into business as a bricklayer and stone mason contractor.
Today, he resides in Scottsdale’s Gainey Ranch neighborhood, where he has lived since 1978. He and his wife, Vera, have a son, two daughters and six grandchildren.
Thompson’s physician, Dr. Richard Settles, acknowledged the surgery is risky but is confident Thompson who "has been through a lot of stuff" and "already fought off a cancer or two" will survive
"He’s been a real trouper," Settles said. "He’s been a real fighter."