In advance of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy, historian and author Thomas Hatfield spoke at the Miramont Country Club in Bryan on Tuesday evening on the life and legacy of James Earl Rudder, the lieutenant colonel who commanded elite Army Rangers at the historic Pointe du Hoc battle on June 6, 1944.
Hatfield shared about some of the monuments to Rudder throughout the world and provided information about Rudder’s military actions. He conveyed anecdotes and provided insight into defining moments for Rudder in adolescence and young adulthood, and said he was “humane and tough” in equal measure as a leader.
“What you can see so vividly in Normandy, looking down the beaches, is all that sacrifice and all that effort was for a world that did not then exist,” Hatfield said. “It was a transforming event, and it was not just a clash of men and arms, but a clash between values and ideals of liberty, freedom and justice on one hand and on the other hand, oppression, governing by terror, conquest and censorship.”
Hatfield also emphatically refuted a Monday article in The Washington Post that argued the battle for Pointe Du Hoc may have been unnecessary, and that Rudder “failed to follow orders” that came before the assault.
Born in Eden, Texas, Rudder attended Tarleton State University and Texas A&M. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant following graduation and, later in life, became a major general and worked as the 16th president of Texas A&M University and as the third president of the A&M University System.
Two of Rudder’s children, Linda Rudder Williams and Bud Rudder, attended the event. Both spoke briefly during the program.
Both adults praised Hatfield’s book, Rudder: From Leader to Legend before and after Hatfield’s presentation and remarks.
“Dad died when I was 30 years old, and I can truly say that I never truly knew my dad until you came along. Thank you,” Rudder said to Hatfield.
“Today, Tom is like a brother because he knows so much about my dad,” Williams said at the start of the event. “Dad never spoke about his military history or experiences with me, so Tom and his book have become my go-to for all questions about Dad.”
Hatfield, who serves as director of the Military History Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the Pointe du Hoc battle.
“In Normandy, as many of you know, there are two American invasion beaches — one called Omaha and one called Utah,” he said. “And between them, there is a high promontory of land called Pointe du Hoc, on which the Germans had installed six powerful long-range guns.”
Hatfield said the guns were French guns from World War I, and American military personnel found that those long-range guns, atop the 100-foot promontory, threatened the Allied fleet at sea.
“They were thought to be the most dangerous guns on the whole French coast. They thought that the guns had to be taken out early in the morning on D-Day as close to the planned landing time as possible. It was deemed essential,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield explained that on Jan. 4, 1944, Rudder was called to London and shown a series of maps, charts and aerial photographs.
“He was told that his objective for his battalion was to knock out the guns on du Hoc,” Hatfield said. “No one told him how to do it, but that he was to do it very promptly early in the morning on June 6. He said it kind of ‘made you shudder in your boots,’ was Earl Rudder’s reaction to that.”
Hatfield detailed the training and preparation for the mission, and Rudder’s decision to scale the promontory because it would take the German military by surprise.
“He not only did it, withstanding terrific losses, but all of the objectives were accomplished within the first three hours,” Hatfield said. He said that Rudder’s Rangers took out the guns, penetrated inland 1,000 yards and held a coastal road to prevent reinforcements from arriving.
Relief for the Rangers did not come on the morning of June 6, as planned, but on the morning of June 8, 1944. Hatfield emphatically responded to The Washington Post piece alleging that Rudder had defied orders and said a “firestorm” has broken out among historians and others on the topic.
“The article [Monday] stated that Rudder had disobeyed his orders and deceived his men and had taken them to Pointe du Hoc rather than to the German post of Maisy Battery,” Hatfield said. “The Englishman [Gary Sterne] alleges that there was an intelligence report that the German guns had been removed from Pointe du Hoc, and indeed they had been — they’d been moved back about one mile.”
“They had not been taken away altogether, but he said there was an intelligence report that said Rudder knew about this and didn’t tell anybody. It’s just plan nonsense,” Hatfield continued. “It’s a lie, but this fellow has taken this allegation beyond just competition between how powerful the German guns were to now defaming and discrediting Earl Rudder.”
Attendees for the invitation-only event were supporters of the future Military Heritage Center. Historian John A. Adams, Jr. spoke at the event about the center, and a model of the facility was available for attendees to observe.
Event organizer Daisy White said before the event that she and her husband, former A&M Board of Regents chairman John White, wanted to make sure that there was a local event to honor both Rudder and the D-Day invasion anniversary.
“We went to Normandy a year ago,” Daisy White said. “And when I came back, I said we have to do something significant for the 75th anniversary. It’s time for us to remember him, and it’s time for us to remember all the men who sacrificed for where we are today.”