In June 1954, a father and son strolled along a cliff, surveying the land and breathing in the fresh sea air. As fathers often do, this man shared stories of years gone by, and the son listened and was transported back to a day when the beach was not so calm. The father spoke of the events of another June morning on that very same cliff where the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the U.S. Army set foot on French soil. Pointe du Hoc, the sheer Norman Cliff, was the site of one of the U.S. military’s most heroic moments. This father telling a tale to his son was none other than James Rudder, the man who led the battalion into battle. While Rudder was a known man around Texas and had received accolades from the United States government, in France, he was but a tourist.
A mere ten years removed from D-Day, Rudder and his son canvassed the land by visiting with locals and viewing remnants of the battle. For Rudder, the events felt as if they had occurred just the day before. He remembered faces, names, locations, and moments in time, all forever seared into his memory. Rudder was a man known to fight for the lives of his men, which made him a great leader, both in military service and beyond. Locals met Rudder on his travels throughout the lush Norman landscape. Many recalled the efforts of the 2nd Ranger Battalion that day; the hearts and minds of the French remember the event almost daily. Rudder proudly led his son to specific sites and highlighted a watershed moment in not only his life but American and world history. The father and son explored the cliff of Pointe du Hoc and found many souvenirs from June 6, 1944: an American issue toothbrush, bullet casings, and one of the grapnels the Rangers used to scale the cliff.
This father son story appeared in the June 11, 1954, issue of Collier’s. The writer, W.C. Heinz, presented a story of a man with a clear grasp of how important June 6, 1944, truly was. A tender human element showed through, and readers easily understood the story that Rudder was explaining to his son. How does one explain war, sacrifice, and death to a child? Can the gravities of life easily be summarize into a digestible size? The efforts by Rudder as an army officer, Texas land commissioner, and President of Texas A&M University resulted in a man who could relate to and teach others; he constantly worked to improve and educate those around him. “The blessing of Earl Rudder’s life is that he was always looking for someone to help. The circle of his concern expanded throughout his life, from family to friends, schoolmates, army comrades, his state, and nation. All were involved in his devotion to Texas A&M, but he was not parochial in this regard,” said Thomas Hatfield, author of the book Rudder: Leader to Legend.
The Early Years
James Earl Rudder was born in Eden, Texas on May 6, 1910, to Dee and Annie Rudder. He attended John Tarleton Agricultural College for two years, and then transferred to Texas A&M, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in industrial education. Since its beginnings in 1876, the school has been known for its development of army ready officers through their Corps of Cadets, which is where Rudder prepared for his time in World War II. After graduation, he earned a second lieutenant commission in the Army Reserve. Despite this commission, his first job out of college was ditch digging along the highway between Menard and Eden. After fifteen months of this work, Rudder took a job teaching and coaching in Brady, Texas.
In 1937, Rudder married Margaret E. Williamson and continued to coach and teach, but now at the collegiate level. Over the years, Margaret and James welcomed five children into the world. The ever-changing political landscape of the late 1930s and early 1940s caused Rudder to leave the academic sector. Had Rudder lived during any other time period, he may have never stopped coaching, but times were changing…and not for the better.
The Call to Active Duty
In 1941 Rudder, like many other men at the time, received a call into active duty. This call put him into the regular army rotation for two years, but eventually he was appointed to one of the newest army outfits, the 2nd Ranger Battalion. The battalion formed in the spring of 1943 at Camp Forrest, Tennessee but did not take part in action until June 6, 1944. The “Boys of Pointe du Hoc,” as they were memorialized forty years later by President Reagan, forever established their legacy on that gray morning. The Rangers were an attempt by the United States Army to develop a group of men a cut above the standard rank and file. The army leadership believed they needed to match the intensity and expertise of the finest German units, and many individual units began to form. The Rangers and the paratroopers were both new experiments in both training and soldiering methods. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the United States Army was among the smallest in the developed world. But the years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second saw massive changes in America; the exploding growth of the 1920s was met with the same intensity by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The U.S. Army needed to learn modern combat tactics quickly. They turned to men like James Rudder, and he contributed largely to the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s success.
By the time of Rudder’s appointment to a commanding officer within the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the unit was in desperate need of a leader. Rudder quickly established a new training program and pushed the men to understand the basics of amphibious assaults and combat, and both would prove especially valuable in the upcoming operation. Under Rudder’s leadership, the men grew together and eventually reached the elite level that the U.S. Army had originally planned. Planning for combat is usually left to generals and tacticians, but the execution of plans for this particular operation was left to Rudder and his men. For months in both America and England, the men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion trained for an amphibious assault. No one amongst the ranks knew of the eventual location of the invasion, but all knew an invasion against Hitler’s stranglehold on Europe was imminent. Just prior to the eventual landings on June 6, 1944, the battalion, as well as Rudder, received their target: secure the guns on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.
Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France
Pointe du Hoc rises 100 feet out of the ocean and was the far west side of the Omaha Beach segment. It was far beyond the Dog Green sector, which saw the highest casualty rate of its day and was immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan. Rudder and his men were tasked with scaling the rocky cliff and attacking the gun emplacements at the top. At 0710 that morning, the first crafts carrying Rangers into French territory reached the banks of the cliff, and the men disembarked under tremendous fire. By 0740 the majority of the 225 Rangers reached the top of the cliffs and began the arduous process of capturing the gun emplacements. After two days of fighting, only 90 men remained unscathed; the rest were either wounded, killed, or missing. Among the wounded was Rudder himself. During the first day of fighting, a bullet entered his left leg, but fortunately missed both artery and bone, causing no mortal damage. Rudder immediately sought help from a medic, and after receiving field dressings, he returned to the site of battle. A mere 30 minutes after he rejoined his unit, a bunker he was in collapsed under enemy attack. Rudder escaped unscathed, and the remainder of the 2nd Ranger Battalion continued to push into France along with the rest of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
The Battle of the Bulge
If given the chance to visit the Pointe today, you only need a few seconds to realize a 30-minute climb from start to finish is impressive under clear skies, let alone gunfire. The months of training under Rudder, along with the resolve to see their mission through, pushed the men through the midst of battle. Ronald Reagan’s memorialization of the events of that day is accurate; tremendous odds were stacked against the Rangers, and yet they still delivered. General Omar Bradley, Commander of the U.S. Ground Forces in France, described the events in this way, “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the 34-year old commander, Lt. Col. Earl Rudder, of the Provisional Ranger Force in the capture of Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1944.” The efforts of the Rangers were a direct reflection of their leadership. This leadership that pulls men through the hardest moment in their life cannot be taught. It is a natural born trait, and one that Rudder took with him through the rest of his life.
Seven months after the initial landings in France, Rudder was reassigned to the 109th Infantry Regiment and participated in the largest battle the American army has yet fought, The Battle of the Bulge. This battle was Hitler’s last attempt to turn back the Allied advance on Germany. The German’s attack in the Ardennes Forest in the midst of winter completely took the Americans by surprise, and many units were completely surrounded. During the battle, Rudder’s men were severely outnumbered, sometimes as much as 10 to one, but the American lines held off the German attack. The Battle of the Bulge was yet another testament to the training and leadership of the U.S. Army; had the German army broken through the lines, the entire war would have turned. Instead, the Americans held, and the Germans suffered severe casualties, which crippled their army for the remainder of the war. Rudder’s efforts in one of the bloodiest battles in American history earned him a Silver Star and a subsequent Oak Leaf Cluster.
After the War: His Legacy Continues
After the war, Rudder returned to Brady, Texas a hero. His newfound renown changed his status within the town. In 1946, Rudder entered his name into the mayoral campaign, and with little effort or persuasion, he secured the office from the incumbent. He served three terms as mayor, exiting the office in 1952. Over the next three years, he served as Vice President of Brady Aviation Company until he answered the call of the government again. Bascom Giles vacated the Texas Land Commissioner position at the end of 1954 due to an investigation into criminal activities pertaining to the Veterans’ Land Program. So on January 1, 1955, James Rudder assumed the rule.
The Veterans’ Land Board Scandal, as it became known, rocked the land commissioner’s office, and Rudder spent a great deal of time reforming policies and procedures. While his first tenure as commissioner was non-elected, he won his position in the next election a year later. During his appointment, he expanded the office’s role with a seismic exploration staff and improved the working conditions for his employees. Beyond that, and in some ways a reflection of his educational background, Rudder instituted a program to preserve General Land Office documents for future use. His time in the land office mirrored that of his military career; he came in to lead a group not meeting expectations, and left the department in a better position than how he found it.
A statue of Rudder overlooking the length of Texas A&M University’s military walk best symbolizes the final era of his life. In 1958, Rudder joined his alma mater as vice president and the very next year became president of the then small land-grant college. The 1960s were a time of swift changes for Texas, and Rudder worked to implement these changes in College Station. Despite his participation in the Corps of Cadets at A&M, Rudder believed making the Corps optional opened the door for a larger number of students. If this change was the only change he oversaw during his presidency, it alone would be considered drastic, yet he pushed the school even further. He also opened the college to women for the very first time and pushed for racial integration of the still divided school. These were massive changes for a small university, and they sent the school on a skyward trajectory toward renown. In 1963, under Rudder’s watch, the Texas legislature voted to change the name of the school from Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas to Texas A&M University. This change and the expanded reach of the school lifted the university to a new academic level.
James Earl Rudder passed away in 1970 due to a cerebral hemorrhage. To show respect to the man who made the greatest strides as University President, his body lay in state in the administration building on campus. While the man is gone, his legacy remains both in France and College Station. In Normandy, across the ocean and at the site of Rudder’s greatest military accomplishment, is a Texas State Historical Marker, which bears an inscription commemorating the efforts of Rudder and his 2nd Ranger Battalion. In College Station, a specific unit within the Corps of Cadets bears the name Rudder’s Rangers, and multiple portions of the A&M campus are also named for its former president. In neighboring Bryan, James Earl Rudder High School takes the field every Friday night under the mascot of the “Ranger.” Other buildings throughout the state also carry his legacy, but it is at Texas A&M where he is most felt.
As Thomas Hatfield so eloquently phrased it, Rudder spent his life as a teacher. Whether it was in the midst of the greatest human conflict, or pulling a small land grant into a new era, he never forgot those around him. His persona and drive shifted both a university and the United States Army.