There's an elite gathering on the first Saturday of each month at a Perkins restaurant in Bloomington. A small group of men in their mid-80s -- some joined by a son or daughter -- gather around a table to reminisce over coffee and pancakes. They are World War II Army Rangers. Every year, their number grows smaller.

The Rangers weren't numerous back in 1942, for that matter, when -- at a low point in the war -- they were formed to give the U.S. a desperately needed capability to carry out commando raids and amphibious assaults. Then at Cisterna, Italy, in 1944, they were almost wiped out. But they became the foundation of today's Rangers, who have played a vital role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 1st Ranger Battalion was "the fighting-est unit in World War II," said Don Frederick of Richfield, who organizes the breakfasts.

Frederick, who joined the National Guard at 16 and was sent to England at 18, was one of several hundred Rangers selected from a much larger group of volunteers.

Their training in Achnacarry, Scotland, included brutal daily speed marches, cliff-scaling and the "death ride": a perilous rope slide over a river while live ammunition was fired and demolition charges detonated.

Needless to say, conversation at the breakfasts never flags.

Frederick, for example, took part in the Rangers' first solo operation, a night raid to take out coastal artillery at Arzew, Algeria.

While recuperating from appendicitis, he went AWOL from a hospital in North Africa to rejoin his unit, which had spearheaded the invasion of Sicily. He and a few buddies hitched a ride on a boat to Sicily, commandeered a private car ("we borrowed it," says Frederick), and scoured the island to find their units. "The Army is still looking for me," he jokes.

Frederick was part of the 1943 invasion of Italy near Salerno, where the Germans were dug into mountainous terrain in a complex network of pillboxes and minefields. Sick with jaundice, he was instructed by his doctor to sit the next mission out. "I told him we were going to be relieved in 24 hours, and then I would go back to the hospital if necessary," he says.

Frederick -- by then a lieutenant -- was charged with preventing German infantry and armor from getting beyond a couple of hairpin turns in the highway far below. But their relief troops never showed up. "We were out there all alone. One little battalion with no air support, no artillery support, no support period. But my platoon ran the Germans off the mountain three times."

At one point, Frederick clambered down to give morphine shots to two badly wounded men. He was caught in the open by the Germans.

"They took me to a young German lieutenant about my age," he explains. "He extended his hand and said, 'Congratulations on a fine fire fight.' But then he took me down to a Quonset hut. They had a Lugar pistol right at the back of my neck. There must have been 50 dead and dying Germans in there."

"'Why are so many of my men shot through the head?' he asked. I think he thought I might have captured and executed them."

The Rangers were excellent marksmen. "We didn't waste ammunition," says Frederick. "The Germans were in prepared positions, like foxholes. I told the lieutenant their heads were the only target we had. He accepted that, or I wouldn't be here today."

For a year and a half, Frederick was shuttled among German POW camps. In March 1945, he was liberated by an American force, only to be recaptured after the tank he was riding on was blown up.

He was finally liberated at Moosburg, Germany. Several tanks broke through the camp's front gate, he says, followed by Gen. George Patton. He was "standing up in his jeep, dressed as if for a ball and vowing, 'I'll have you men out of here in 48 hours.'"

Frederick ended the war puffing on Hermann Goering's personal cigars, which a buddy had procured at Hitler's Eagle's Nest.

For Rangers like Frederick, the monthly breakfasts are a chance to reconnect. For example, he can see Sophie Wojcik Komec, sister of his best friend, Walter Wojcik of Minneapolis. Wojcik was killed at age 21 on the beach in Sicily. And there's Zane Shippy of Burnsville, who lost a lung in Italy a week after Frederick was captured.

Rangers from later days -- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan -- are welcome, too. "They are fine guys," says Frederick.

War is war, as the Rangers say.

Katherine Kersten •