By John A. Adams ‘73
The “Texas Aggies Go to War” exhibition opens December 12, 2014 in the Van Geluwe building in downtown Bastogne, Belgium. It will mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans made a last push to extend their front line toward the English Channel and were forced back by Americans dug into deep snow inside the Ardennes Forest.
The exhibit will highlight the lives of five Aggies who represent all citizen soldiers. It will honor the lives of Texas Aggies who fought in and around the Battle of the Bulge, such as Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder ’32, Capt. Joe E. Routt ’37, Maj. James F. Hollingsworth ’40, Lt. Turney W. Leonard ’42, and Lt. William M. Pena ’42 before, during, and after the war. The five men chosen will be the ‘everyman’ …ciphers for every Aggie, every U.S. serviceman that fought in the war. For the next five weeks there will be a series of articles to highlight these and to remind each of us of the sacrifice of all who made our nation the great nation it is today. The person highlighted in the first article is General James Earl Rudder ’32.
James Earl Rudder ‘32
“War is all teamwork. Fighting a battle is a lot like playing football, only in war the teams are bigger and the stakes are deadly.”
-Colonel Earl Rudder
August 30, 1945
James Earl Rudder ’32 lived a distinguished career from the football fields of Concho County in far West Texas, to the sands of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and back home to Texas to hold key statewide leadership positions for both the state of Texas as Texas Land Commissioner and ultimately president of his alma mater Texas A&M University.
Earl was born in rural Eden, Texas on May 6, 1910. Living on the edge of the great American frontier, the benefits of electricity, refrigeration, and indoor lighting did not come to his home until he was 15 years old. Lean economic times were a hallmark of a very modest life among neighbors with like challenges to eke out a living. His grandparents were of an early Texas frontier generation by habit warned their children to “watch out for Indians,” though such threats were no longer present. The raw environs of West Texas has been referred to as an ‘incubator of patriotism’ as stories of the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee — who Rudder would note was the ‘epitome of a military leader’ – as well as veteran memories of battles across the ‘big pond’ from World War I, that transmitted pride, instilled self-confidence, honor, and high standards for all who came in contact with those in the ranching community. All of which form the bedrock foundation of emerging leaders.
Rudder’s passion for sports, and especially football, would be a life-long part of his existence. Sports epitomized competition, physical skill, and drive to be a champion. He worked odd jobs at the local pharmacy and on the ranch where he learned the value of physical conditioning, practice, and teamwork – all elements critical to a wartime commander. Thus, Earl – nicknamed ‘Curly’ in high school — excelled on the Eden High School Bulldog football team which proved to be a prime element in his growth. After his outstanding performance on the 1926 team, he earned an athletic scholarship to John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Texas.
With or without the oncoming Great Depression, Rudder did not have the money to pay for college and looked forward to finding a paying job in Eden, and even envisioned hitchhiking to California to find employment. However, Tarleton coach W.J. Wisdom, who coached both football and basketball, assured Rudder, the first in his family to attend college, that a job to pay tuition would be available on campus, along with housing and the ‘best meals in the state.’
Rudder enrolled at Tarleton and quickly adjusted to the college atmosphere. He excelled at the position of center on the football team in the fall of 1927, and helped lead the Plowboys to the state junior college championship, beating North Texas Agricultural College on Thanksgiving Day, 18-7. However, he continued to struggle with paying his college expenses and considered withdrawing from school. Coach Wisdom appealed to the local Stephenville Lion Club to assist with a new sports scholarship, and established, according to biographer Tom Hatfield, what became known as the “milk cow scholarship.” Terms of the scholarship included the donation by the club of a two-year old jersey heifer to graze the college grounds. Each morning and evening ‘Curly’ Rudder would milk the cow and give the bucket of milk to the dining hall, which was credited against is daily meals. Rudder was criticized by the dining hall manager on occasion for not having a full pail of milk, which he quietly solved by topping off the bucket, if needed, with water.
In the fall of 1928, Rudder was elected team captain, and again the Plowboys captured the state championship. Rudder loved football and aspired to be a coach, yet he also gained his first insight in the military. He was an average student but gained added interest in classes after enrolling in the college ROTC program – Reserve Officers Training Corps. His best grades for course work through 1929 were in classes on coaching and military science. Upon finishing the basic academic course work at Tarleton, Rudder’s life-long friend and mentor, Coach Wisdom urged him to finish his education at A&M College.
Texas A&M University would set the course for the balance of Earl Rudder’s career and life. The new larger College Station campus was a grand departure from Stephenville. Football, the Corps of Cadets, and military training — what Hatfield called the ‘spiritual essence of Texas A&M — would be the focus of his time at Texas A&M. Still concerned about paying for college he worked part-time jobs on campus selling brooms, waiting tables in the cadet mess hall, known as “Sbisa Volunteers,” and received 20 cents per game for officiating student intramural games. The cost to attend college in 1930 for nine months was $900.00 for classes, room and board, and an additional $75.00 to offset the price of uniforms.
Cadet life and sports were a full-time activity with little or no time to leave the campus. In addition to military training classes on campus, cadets spent at least six weeks training each summer in tactics and weapons at army posts across the country. As a cadet, Rudder served as a Captain on the Infantry Regimental staff. On campus Rudder played on the freshman football team his first year at Texas A&M, even though he transferred into the junior class. In the fall of 1931, he played both defense and offense, becoming a member of the athletic association’s “T’ Club. He was the A&M intramural Wrestling Champion, in the 175 lb. class.
Graduating with an Industrial Education degree in May 28, 1932, and while commissioned a reserve officer in the U.S. Army, he was not called to active duty, and like many of his fellow classmates, he was without a job. In the depths of the Depression, only one member of the Class of ’32 had a job upon graduation. Unemployment was over 23 percent nationwide – and rising. The Dow Jones Industrial average, a barometer on the nation’s economic health, hit its lowest point (41) in over three decades in early June. Times were very tough, yet Rudder was determined to follow his passion and land a coaching job in Texas. At first he returned to his home in Eden and had a job digging ditches for the highway department at 25 cents an hour; however, he continued to look for a better job.
After a year-long search he was offered an assistant coaching job at Brady High School in the fall of 1933 to coaching both football and basketball as well as teaching three classes in history, mathematics, and chemistry – all subjects for which he only had rudimentary knowledge. Yet it did not matter, he was happy to have a job – and a nine month contract at $100.00 per month! Teaching the classes allowed Rudder to do what he loved best – coach football. Over five years he built the Brady football program into a state contender winning 80 percent of their games during his tenure. His success attracted the attention of his first alma mater, Tarleton, who later hired him to coach in 1938. Rudder’s coaching job at Tarleton was a dream come true. His pay was increased and enabled Rudder to purchase a small house next to the campus. Yet war clouds on the horizon in Europe weighed heavy on his mind as he attended annual army summer training camp. Upon hearing of the fall of France to Nazi Germany in June 1940, he knew the situation would soon change and involve the United States.
In the fall of 1940, the U.S. Congress confirmed the suspicions of many that America would somehow be in the fight by approving a measure to call to duty both National Guard and reserve officers, even though there was a majority of Americans against any and all involvement with the war. The memory of World War I was very powerful. Earl Rudder soon received his notice, and was ordered to report for duty on June 18, 1941. Immediately promoted to the rank of Captain, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia and Fort Sam Houston, Texas for training. After assignment to the 83rd Division he was sent to Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and promoted to the rank of major. Once finished he assumed command of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.
World War II
“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.”
– General Omar Bradley
Commander of U.S. Ground Forces in France
After months of training in Florida, Tennessee, and New Jersey, Major Rudder and his 225 hand-picked men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were shipped on the HMS Queen Mary to England in December 1943. Upon arrival they had no idea what or when their assignment would be as the Rangers spent months training with their counterparts, the British Commandos, and the Royal Navy along the cliffs and the English southern coast, to include the heights at the Isle of Wight. In February, Rudder and the Rangers were briefed that their objective would be to land at H-Hour on D-Day at Pointe du Hoc at Normandy, scale 100-foot cliffs under heavy enemy fire and within 30 minutes destroy the German battery of six 155mm howitzers trained on Omaha and Utah Beaches, site of the main landing in force on June 6, 1944. The mission was accomplished with the battalion suffering over 50 percent casualties, including Rudder being wounded twice. But the fight was not over. Rudder’s first dispatch from the battle set the tone for the first fierce week of the fight, Rudder wrote:
“Located Pointe du Hoc. Mission accomplished. Need ammunition and reinforcements. Many casualties.”
The terse reply: “No reinforcements available”
The Ranger’s soon secured the beachhead and moved inland. Following two months of moving into France, Colonel Rudder was given the command of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division on December 8, 1944 – the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. The 109th was placed into offensive action at once, defending against a crippling German assault into the Hurtgen Forest and the Ardennes. Rudder entrenched his exposed left flank and armed to stop the German advance to Luxembourg. As the enemy moved down the Sure River, Rudder devised a delaying action and counter attack that halted and defeated the German advance at Grosbous and thus, proved a major factor in preventing the enemy from taking Bastogne at Christmas. Following this action, the U.S. Army formed “Task Force Rudder” to eliminate all enemy forces on the south side of the Sure River and west of the Oure River in advance of General George Patton’s Third Army sweeping move into the heart of Germany. In January 1945 the 109th liberated Colmar, France — one of the last major cities held by the enemy and liberated by Americans.
– Thomas M. Hatfield
Rudder: From Leader to Legend
|Note: In the midst of the fighting after Christmas 1944, Col. Rudder called a brief late night meeting of the three Texas Aggies in his unit, 3rd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. James H. McCoy ‘40 and a young lieutenant from Laredo, Texas, William “Willie’ Pena ‘ 42. Future architecture worldwide personality, Pena recalls the meeting was cordial but all business. Rudder’s comrade-in-arms, Col. McCoy became the commandant of cadets at Texas A&M, 1967-1971.|
A Career of Excellence
Colonel Rudder returned to the United Sates with the 109th Regiment to work at the War Department in Washington, D.C. In spite of being released from active army duty in April 1946, Rudder would remain an active part of the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of major general in command of the 90th Infantry Division, Fourth U. S. Army Reserve in Austin, Texas. General Rudder returned to West Texas to resume his interest in ranching and was soon elected mayor of the City of Brady from 1946 to 1952. Following his term in office, he remained in Brady to ranch and work with the Brady Aviation Company.
In January 1955, he was appointed a Commissioner of the Texas Land Office for the State of Texas. In need of reorganization and new leadership, Rudder was able to expand the Veteran Land Program and improved the agencies operations. In early 1958, Texas Governor Allan Shivers appointed Rudder to be the President of Texas A&M University, a position he served in until his untimely death in 1970.
General Rudder crafted a vision for his alma mater for the enhancement of education excellence and growth. In the process Texas A&M, for example, doubled enrollment, opened the university to co-education, expanded international programs in the agricultural and engineering programs, and drafted a detailed strategic plan that placed the university on an aggressive path to becoming the leading university in the nation.
If you have interest in learning more about the exhibit, attending the grand opening or donating to this exhibit, please visit the website. http://texasaggiesgotowarexhibit.tamus.edu
The relationship with GSK pharmaceuticals is the most impactful relationship to date as a result of A&Ms collaborations with the Belgians.
Ivan H. Peterman, “They Took the Nazis’ Sunday Punch [at the Bulge]” Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1946.
Lt. G. K. Hodenfield, “I Climbed the Cliffs with the Rangers.” Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1944.
“The Rudder Papers.” Cushing Library, Texas A&M University, College Station
Thomas M. Hatfield, Rudder: From Leaded to Legend. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
John Adams, Keepers of the Spirit. CS: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.
Henry Dethloff and John Adams, Texas Aggies Go to War. CS: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.
W.C. Heinz, “I [Earl Rudder] Took My Son to Omaha Beach.” Collier’s, June 11, 1964.
General Omar Bradley, A Soldier’s Story. New York: Henry Hold & Co., 1951.
Interview with Texas Aggie Captain Willie Pena ‘42, Houston, Texas, January 2014.
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