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Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Meeting with then-Col. James E. Rudder made lasting impression on this draftee

I watched the curtain go up yesterday on the greatest drama in the history of the world – the invasion of Hitler’s Europe.

With those eloquent words began one of the finest pieces of newspaper writing I have ever read. I came across the story in a book called “A Treasury of Great Reporting.” I lent the book to a friend many years ago but, unfortunately, it was never returned. You know how that goes.

That opening paragraph refers, of course, to the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, an event of June 6, 1944, which we commemorated recently as a grateful nation paid tribute to the brave Americans and their World War II allies who began the rout of the Axis forces that didn’t end until August of the following year.

D-Day may have been what Winston Churchill had in mind when, referring to Hitler as a “filthy guttersnipe and his gang of work-your-wicked-wills,” he said, “it was not the beginning, and it was not the end, but it was the beginning of the end.”

The Free World will always remember D-Day as one of the pivotal dates in history, the date on which the world gained renewed hope that we had the Axis on the run, and our troops would soon be returning to a grateful land that greeted them with ticker-tape parades, hugs and kisses, and hope for a future not punctuated by outbursts of armed conflict.

That euphoria lasted only until 1950, when we took up arms once again in our next overseas foray, the Korean War – except they refused to call it a war because, you know, we weren’t going to fight any more wars. It was, instead, the “Korean Conflict.”

Well, everybody I talked to who came back to Fort Hood, Texas, from the Far East Command said it sure looked like a war to them.

One of the most interesting people I ever met at Fort Hood was one of the greatest heroes this country has ever known. Only Audie Murphy had more medals. But Col. James E. Rudder had all the rest. He lacked only the Medal of Honor.

I may be the only person in Lake County who ever knew Rudder. I met him, and wrote about him, when I was in the Public Information Office of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Hood. Rudder was there in 1954 for summer training with his Army Reserve unit.

The timing was significant. It was the 10th anniversary of D-Day, and Collier’s Magazine (remember that?) ran a cover story about Rudder titled, “I Took My Son to Omaha Beach.”

The date on that magazine was June 11, 1954, and the cover price was 15 cents. And yes, I still have my copy of it. As you may know, I never throw anything away. (You can read the entire Collier’s article here, with color pictures.)

The significance of the role Rudder played on that historic day was that he was the first man ashore in the invasion of Europe. He was commanding officer of the Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion, and the invasion was a treacherous and perilous undertaking.

His Army Rangers stormed the beach at Pointe du Hoc and were forced to scale 100-foot high cliffs using grappling hooks, under heavy enemy fire all the while.

The battalion’s casualty rate was more than 50 percent. Rudder, the first man up the cliff, was himself wounded twice. But they dug in and fought off the Germans for two days, successfully establishing a beachhead for the Allied forces.

It was the kind of stuff movies are made of. But this was a real life saga. And the cast of characters was not of movie elites and extras but of real people.

Rudder was one of the nicest people I have ever met – a true gentleman. He was gracious, kind and most considerate of a young draftee who, fortunately, after basic combat training, was put into a job that he knew something about.

About the time I knew him he was promoted to brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves. In 1957 he was promoted to major (two stars) general.

In civilian life he didn’t do too badly. In brief, in 1958 he became president of Texas A&M University, the college of you-know-who of the Cleveland Browns, and transformed it into one of the largest and greatest universities in the U.S. He was elected state land commissioner in 1956, and in 1967 was awarded the nation’s highest peacetime service award by President Lyndon Johnson.

Not bad for a high school football coach from Brady, Texas, his hometown, which he served as mayor for six years and where he and his wife, Margaret, raised three daughters and two sons.

Rudder died March 23, 1970, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Among the giants in the pantheon of American military heroes, he ranks as one of the highest.

But as I sat with him that day in his Jeep out in the wild expanses of the Fort Hood military reservation, he looked just like any of a thousand other guys in uniform that I knew.

Except he had a bearing that you couldn’t mistake. Call it “class.”


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