James Earl Rudder was born in the community of Eden, Texas in Concho County to Dee Forest Rudder and Annie Clark Powell Rudder. Upon graduation from high school, he attended college in Stephenville at the former John Tarleton Agricultural College in 1928 and 1929 before transferring to Texas A&M, previously known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. After receiving his degree in Industrial Education, he began teaching and coaching football at Brady, Texas. He remained in Brady for a few years before becoming an instructor and coach at John Tarleton Agricultural College in 1938.
Upon his graduation from Texas A&M, Rudder had received a commission as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army and was called to active duty in 1941. During the months prior to the D-Day invasion, he would receive promotions and was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the invasion in 1944. His assignment that day was to direct the Rangers in his 2nd Ranger Battalion to take the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. It was the high ground shaped like an inverted V that allowed coverage of Utah Beach to the left and Omaha Beach to the right as viewed from the coastline. The cliff was just under 100 feet high and was defended by six 155mm cannon in reinforced concrete bunkers. The cannon were directed by spotters placed on the cliff and the big guns had a clear view of each beach.
In the weeks prior to the invasion, the Allies had bombed the area in missions of the U. S. Eighth Air Force and British Bomber Command. It was further assisted by the venerable battleship U. S. S. Texas with its 14 inch guns. It is estimated that Pointe du Hoc had sustained more than ten kilotons of bombs up to the moment the attempted landing began at 0630.
Rudder had been ordered to direct but not physically lead the attack by Lt. Gen. Clarence Huebner, in command of the 1st Division and overall commander of Omaha Beach in consideration for the expected high rate of casualties in the attack. However, Rudder told Huebner that he feared the assault would not succeed without his personal participation and arrived on the beach in the first landing craft, a British LCA. The LCA was built along the lines of the “Higgins boat” but it was more heavily armed with metal along the sides and gunwales, making it sail slower and ride lower in the water than the comparable U. S. landing craft. Some boats would swamp from having taken on water from the swells and others tossed some of their load to remain afloat. In addition, the coxswain of Rudder’s lead boat had originally headed to the beach at Pointe de la Percée instead of its actual assignment, further delaying the arrival by 35 minutes. Despite these unexpected problems the Rangers reached the beach and began the assault on the cliffs.
Rudder received two wounds while leading his 200 men to scale the cliffs as it suffered a casualty rate of over 50%. Because of the slight delay, the German defenders were able to recover and prepare for the assault in the interim between the ending of the barrage and the allied landing, putting them in position to fire down on the allies and drop hand grenades. At one point, an allied destroyer lined up and hammered the cliff to drive the German defenders back. The Rangers eventually scaled the cliffs, only to find decoy telephone poles where they expected the gun emplacements to be. They continued on to locate and secure the weapons. The Rangers smashed the gun sights on them and destroyed the rails that allowed the enemy to retract them into the bunkers, thus protecting remaining allies on the nearby beachheads until the Rangers could be relieved two days later. General Omar Bradley, field commander of the U. S. forces in the invasion would say of Rudder, “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the 34-year-old commander of this Ranger force.”
Months later, Rudder would be placed in command of the 109th Infantry Regiment, participating in the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to become one of the most decorated soldiers in the war, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit, Silver Star, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, French Legion of Honor with Croix de Guerre and Palm, and Order of Leopold (Belgium) with Croix de Guerre and Palm. He would receive promotions to Colonel by the end of the war. In further service, he would be promoted to Brigadier General of the Army Reserves in 1954 and Major General in 1957.
Returning to civilian life, he resided in Brady, Texas for a number of years. Rudder served as mayor of Brady and would later be appointed Texas Land Commissioner to fill a vacant position. As Land Commissioner, he was noted for having made a number of policy improvements and other positive changes. His final position would be to serve as president of his alma mater, Texas A&M until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 23, 1970, at age 60. Under his leadership, the university expanded, dropping the requirement for service in the Corps of Cadets. It also was desegregated and began to admit female students, leading to its growth into one of the largest universities in the United States. Numerous roads, facilities, schools and buildings are named in his honor. Though he could have been buried elsewhere, Gen. Rudder is interred in the Memorial Cemetery of College Station, a few miles from the campus of Texas A&M.
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