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When Dwight D. Eisenhower revisited the beaches of Normandy 20 years after D-Day, he stood on a promontory called Pointe du Hoc and marveled at the bravery and accomplishments of the Allied forces. The former president, who had given the “let’s go” order for the massive force to cross the English Channel for the June 6, 1944, invasion of German-occupied France, spoke of one heroic phase of the operation conducted by specially trained Rangers who, he said, “could do anything.” The battalion’s ascent up the 100-foot cliffs and disabling of German artillery, Eisenhower recalled, was a “very dramatic piece of personal courage.” The hard-won defeat of the Germans entrenched on those cliffs was a key component to the invasion’s success.
This month, as we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, one of the most important figures we honor was a Texan—Maj. Gen. James Earl Rudder. Rudder, then a lieutenant colonel, led the 2nd Ranger Battalion in the invasion. “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the 34-year-old commander of this Provisional Ranger Force,” wrote Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commander of the U.S. Army during the invasion, in his 1951 autobiography, A Soldier’s Story. “Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, a rancher from Brady, Texas, was to take a force of 200 men, land on a shingled shelf under the face of a 100-foot cliff, scale the cliff, and there destroy an enemy battery of coastal guns.”
Born in the Concho County hamlet of Eden in 1910, Rudder grew up when old-timers still spun tales of the Civil War, Texas Ranger exploits and driving cattle up the trail. Raised in a hardscrabble home without electricity, Rudder excelled as a high school football player and earned a chance at higher education when a coach for John Tarleton Agricultural College arranged a partial “milk cow scholarship.” The Lions Club donated a 2-year-old Jersey heifer, which Rudder milked daily, trading the milk at Tarleton’s dining hall for reduced prices for his meals.
Rudder completed his education at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, where he played football and participated in ROTC. In June 1941, as war raged in Europe, he was called to active duty.
By November 1943, Rudder had earned the rank of major and commanded the 2nd Ranger Battalion. With his men, he boarded the Queen Elizbeth bound for the British Isles and—eventually—the coast of France. This would be what biographer Thomas M. Hatfield describes as Rudder’s “rendezvous with history” in Rudder: From Leader to Legend.
As Rudder boarded a troopship to cross the English Channel the afternoon of June 5, among an armada of thousands of vessels, the coming dangers were obvious. “What better way to die,” the Ranger commander said in a short, inspiring speech, “than to die for your country.”
Rudder’s Ranger battalion had three objectives on D-Day: disable six long-range 155 mm guns the Germans had in-stalled on Pointe du Hoc; cut off a coastal road behind the point; and take out additional big guns at the nearby Pointe et Raz de la Percée. Allied bomber planes hammered the German positions before the landing, and the USS Texas served as the flagship for battleships, which blasted Nazi fortifications.
Despite the heavy shelling from Allied ships and bombers, Rudder’s Rangers were under constant German fire as they ascended the cliff via expandable steel ladders and rocket-propelled grapnel hooks with ropes attached. Suffering nearly 60% casualties, the soldiers later used the ladder sections as stretchers to evacuate the dead and wounded. Rudder himself, though shot in the leg and wounded in the chest and arm by an errant Royal Navy round, refused to evacuate for additional treatment. Rudder’s men achieved their mission even though it took three days for the Rangers and other Allied forces to hold the area. One Ranger called his commander “one of the greatest men that ever lived.” Another said, “Seeing [him] in command saved our day. He was the strength of the whole operation in spite of his wound. Under his leadership, miracles seemed possible.”
Back home after the war, Rudder served as mayor of Brady for six years. When Gov. Allan Shivers needed someone to reform the General Land Office after a scandal, he called on Rudder. From 1959 to 1970, the last 11 years of his life, Rudder served as president of Texas A&M University. He brought race and gender integration to the university, made the Corps of Cadets a voluntary organization, and improved the university’s facilities and academics.
The memories of Pointe du Hoc and the men he led remained sacred to the Ranger commander. On a return visit to France in 1954, Rudder marveled at their heroic accomplishments. “Will you tell me how we did this?” the man from Eden asked. “It was crazy then, and it’s crazy now.”
Author Gene Fowler specializes in Texas travel and history.