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World War II: Aggies make their mark

World War II: Aggies make their mark

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Texas A&M learned from World War I. A precedent had been established and administrators had a better handle on what A&M’s role should be before the United States entered World War II.

The campus had survived the Great Depression. The city of College Station was incorporated in 1938. The community developed, thanks to the automobile, an increase in college employees and married students living off campus. Newspapers started to call the A&M Fighting Farmers the “Aggies” in reference to the agricultural and mechanical studies.

From the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II, Aggies were involved in every aspect of the war, whether they were fighting the Axis Powers with modern warfare, researching and developing resources or protecting domestic borders.

Edward Knipling, class of 1930 and a world-renowned entomologist, was credited by the Department of Agriculture as leading the team of researchers who developed the use of DDT as an insect repellant by the military to stave off such diseases as malaria and typhus.

‘Beat the hell out of Japan’

The U.S. started to build its defenses at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as a precautionary move in the Pacific Ocean due to Japan’s hostile activities. Military officials were expecting the Philippines to be struck first, because Japan wanted control of its island neighbor to keep Allied forces away from the Japanese islands.

The U.S. had annexed the Philippines as part of the 1898 agreement that ended the Spanish-American War. Holdings in the Philippines were fortified to withstand a siege for months until reinforcements could arrive from Hawaii.

Aggies were among those who fought and died on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the naval ships and air bases at Pearl Harbor.

Back in College Station, it was the afternoon when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that Sunday and many students were watching a movie at the Campus Theater, according to A Pictorial History of Texas A&M University by Henry Dethloff. The theater manager shut off the film projector to announce the attack. The Aggies yelled, “Beat the hell out of Japan!” and “Let’s take a Corps Trip to Tokyo!”

Gen. George F. Moore

Gen. George F. Moore, class of 1908, was commandant of the Corps of Cadets from 1937 to 1940.

Col. George F. Moore, class of 1908, was commandant of cadets before being promoted to brigadier general in 194, and put in command of the Harbor Defenses of Manila and Subic Bay in the Philippines. Some Aggies were deployed there as well.

Japan attacked the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor — aka “The Rock” — on Dec. 30, 1941. Japan was attempting to push back U.S. defenses and build its own island perimeter.

It would take months for help to arrive from the mainland with Pearl Harbor still recovering. The Japanese had the Philippines islands covered from all angles, so U.S. Naval ships could not enter. Bataan was captured April 9, 1942. Filipino and American forces, including some Aggies, were taken as prisoners of war or escaped to Corregidor.

Boost in morale

On April 18, 1942, Capt. James Doolittle led 16 bomber crews from a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. The Doolittle air raid was the first over Japan and the crews bombed four major cities, including Tokyo.

Doolittle’s second-in-command, Maj. John A. Hilger, A&M class of 1932, piloted the 14th Army B-25 bomber. Two other Aggies on the raid were Lt. Robert M. Gray, class of 1941, and Lt. James M. Parker, class of 1941. Lt. Glen C. Roloson, class of 1941, was a co-pilot on a reserve crew for the raid. Ten military and industrial targets in Japan were bombed, but all 16 planes were lost. The mission was still considered a success, as it proved Japan’s vulnerability and boosted morale for the U.S. and the forces in the Philippines.

Moore read a roll call of Aggies fighting at Corregidor on April 21, 1942. The story has become a Muster legend as the news reports all over the country described how the Aggies “sang songs … and gave evidence that their fighting spirit was up to the traditions of Aggieland,” according to The Eagle on April 22, 1942.

The Alamo

The Army, Marines and Filipino soldiers continued defending Corregidor, but the end was nearing. According to university archives, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who evacuated to Australia during the siege, told A&M president T.O. Walton early on during the war, “A&M is writing its military history in the blood of its graduates, not only in the Philippines campaign but on the active fronts of the Southwest Pacific.” In the Corps of Cadets’ Standard, MacArthur goes on to say, “No name stands out more brilliantly than the heroic defender of Corregidor, General George F. Moore. Whenever I see a Texas man in my command, I have a feeling of confidence.”

On May 6, 1942, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, commander of the Army forces in the Far East, surrendered Corregidor. He told President Franklin Roosevelt, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” Maj. Tom Dooley, A&M class of 1935, was Wainwright’s aide-de-camp.

“The Rock” has become known as “the American Alamo of the South Pacific” because of the lives lost, and the soldiers' perseverance to keep fighting. Thirty-nine Aggies were either killed in action or died as prisoners of war at Bataan and Corregidor.

The turning point

George Gay

Ensign George Gay Jr.

The Navy overpowered a Japanese attack on the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. According to National Geographic’s “Return to Midway” online feature, Japan wanted to finish off the U.S. aircraft carriers that were absent from Pearl Harbor. U.S. code breakers were able to intercept Japan’s plans and the Battle of Midway became a turning point of the war. U.S. dive-bombers and torpedo planes were able to destroy all four Japanese aircraft carriers. One U.S. destroyer was lost and an aircraft carrier.

Ensign George H. Gay Jr., A&M class of 1940, was the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8 and witnessed three of Japan’s aircraft carriers sink. Squadron 8 took off from the USS Hornet, the same ship Doolittle’s raiders left from a month earlier. Gay was forced to bail out of his plane into the Pacific Ocean, and hid under a seat cushion to avoid detection from Japanese planes. After being rescued, he was asked by medical personnel how he kept his wounds clean. Gay said he soaked them in salt water for 30 hours.

Aggies also were present in many other battles and the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri and subsequent occupation of Japan.


James Earl Rudder_WWII

A French officer decorates Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder with a medal for valor displayed during the invasion on Pointe du Hoc.

The man who would later become one of A&M’s legendary presidents, Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, led a Provisional Rangers Unit onto the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Rangers’ task was to scale the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which were about 100 feet high, and disable 155-millimeter German guns before the rest of the U.S. troops arrived at Utah and Omaha beaches.

Adolf Hitler believed the Germans’ position on the Pointe to be well-fortified with its system of bunkers and tunnels, according to a July 2004 Eagle article about an A&M research group of students and professors exploring battlefield forensics.

Operation Overlord was to cover 60 miles of coastline. The Rangers at the Pointe were a key piece, and their failure could put the attack in jeopardy, according to Voices of D-Day by Ronald J. Drez. The Rangers were to do all of this in just more than 30 minutes. Gen. Omar Bradley wrote about Rudder, “No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the 34-year-old commander of the Provisional Ranger Force.”

The unit made the journey in early morning darkness in British landing crafts. Many boats capsized because of strong waves, and some soldiers died before reaching shore. The Rangers previously had devised a way to climb the cliffs by firing grapple hooks with mortar to secure ropes. They also had steel ladders. Much of the equipment was damaged in the boat ride in the English Channel.

In spite of the obstacles, including the Germans cutting the ropes and dropping grenades, soldiers were able to reach the top of the cliffs.

Rudder directed troops for two days. A sniper bullet went through his leg. Rudder was taking cover with two other officers in a captured German bunker on the second day. The bunker collapsed during an explosion and the other two officers died. Rudder had shrapnel from the incident in his right arm for the rest of his life, according to a July 1997 Eagle article. In the end, Rudder’s Rangers were successful in their mission, which paved the way for the success of the D-Day invasion. The unit was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and Rudder, later promoted to general, earned the Distinguished Service Cross.

Back at campus

Meanwhile, A&M had again offered its resources to the government and revised its academic calendar to year-round classes so students could graduate before being drafted or enlisting.

A&M offered specialized training to the military. According to a Nov. 11, 1942, article in the Houston Post, courses were scheduled 24 hours a day to prevent crowding in workshops and laboratories. New courses, the same taught to soldiers, were offered to students on a semester basis, whereas soldiers received instruction on an advanced 12-week program. Classes covered chemistry of gun powder and explosives, military aircraft design, sanitation and public health.

By the time the A&M ceased being a wartime training camp, more than 15,000 non-student military trainees received instruction at the campus, according to Keepers of the Spirit by John A. Adams Jr.

1941 Signal Corps

Signal Corps training had been going on at Texas A&M since 1919, and used Army equipment. Enrollment was limited to electrical engineering students. The Signal Corps is responsible for the communication and information systems within the armed forces. Training includes installing, maintain and operating communications equipment, and to repair and protect that equipment from enemy interference.

The ROTC had expanded to include more units in the years since WWI, including a flight-training program, cavalry and chemical warfare service units. Quartermaster and ordinance corps units were established during the 1941-1942 academic year.

More degree paths were offered with the addition of the department of aeronautical engineering in 1940, thus expanding the research areas for the engineering experiment station established in 1914. According to an August 1942 San Antonio Express-News article, the Forest Products Research Laboratory made training planes from plywood to reserve strategic metals for airplane manufacturing.

Courses at A&M were not open just to students and the military, but also to civilians. According to a November 1942 article in the Houston Post, classes were taught all over the state in hopes of reaching more people, including women, in “subjects essential to war production and defense.”

The war department chose the A&M campus as a location to host civilian protection schools in compliance with the Office of Civilian Defense. The federal agency was responsible for protecting and preparing civilians in war emergency. Individuals were chosen from different communities to learn “intensive training in protection against air raids, gas attacks, incendiaries, and decontamination following gas attacks,” according to the Houston Post article.

Once these men returned home, they were responsible for sharing what they learned with their community. A sense of cooperation and sacrifice between civilians was essential for the greater good of the war effort.

'We’ve Never Been Licked'

Aggies made it to the silver screen as the backdrop and inspiration for a propaganda film. We’ve Never Been Licked was great publicity for the campus and gave moviegoers around the world a glimpse of the “Spirit of Aggieland.” Almost the entire movie was filmed on campus in 1942, with the Corps of Cadets and its traditions appearing in the movie. John Rawlins (Arabian Nights) directed the cast including Richard Quine (Jane Eyre) and Texas native Anne Gwynne (The Green Hornet, House of Frankenstein) in the leading roles as Brad Craig and Nina Lambert, as well as Robert Mitchum. The plot follows a cadet accused of being a double agent for the Japanese.

Aggies in service

Turney Leonard

1st Lt. Turney White Leonard, class of 1942

Approximately 20,000 A&M students and former students fought in World War II, 14,000 of them serving as officers. According to the Corps guidebook, more Aggies served as officers than any other school, “including the combined totals of the United States Military Academy and United States Naval Academy.”

A&M’s enrollment was around 6,600 before the war in 1941, according to a June 1994 Eagle article, dropping to approximately 2,000 by fall 1943. Exact numbers are inconclusive because many Aggies did not graduate before entering the service. Records have named approximately 200 more since the war. Texas Aggies Go to War by Henry Dethloff lists the names of 854 Aggies who died in World War II. Seven Aggies were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Twenty-nine Aggies rose to the rank of general during World War II. Maj. Gen. Otto Weyland, class of 1923, led his combat unit in providing air support for Gen. George S. Patton. Patton said, “Without close cooperation of Gen. O.P. Weyland’s 19th Tactical Air Command we wouldn’t have dared to leave our flanks hanging in the air, deep in Nazi territory.”

Weyland went on to be the first Aggie to be a four-star general, in 1952. Maj. Gen. Andrew D. Bruce, class of 1916, founded Camp Hood near Killeen and developed an elite division known as the Tank Destroyer Force. The force was influential in countering German tanks. One of its members, Lt. Gen. Turney W. Leonard, class of 1916, received the Medal of Honor. Bruce was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

A return to civilian life

Walton Hall2



Circa 1950s

A&M saw its enrollment peak at more than 8,000 in fall 1946, according to The Eagle, as veterans looked to return to civilian life and earn an education. The 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, included educational benefits for veterans to help pay college tuition.

Women — mainly relatives of college personnel and students’ wives, who were excluded during the war — again were allowed to enroll for summer classes, according to Cushing Memorial Library's online exhibit Intended for All. Though women were still not able to receive degrees, A&M did enable them to transfer their credit hours to another college.

Several dormitories, such as Walton Hall, and cooperative housing buildings were converted for married couples and families in 1945. Corps enrollment was made optional for more than 2,000 student veterans, according to Texas Aggies Go to War.

A plaque is dedicated in the Philippines commemorating the site where the 1942 Muster was held. Another plaque at Pointe du Hoc memorializes Rudder and the Rangers who attacked the cliffs on D-Day.

The 1946 Muster was considered a homecoming for Aggie veterans who fought during the war, according to Softly Call the Muster by John A. Adams Jr. The three-day reunion event culminated with the Muster ceremony on Easter morning at Kyle Field. More than 15,000 attended to recognize Aggies who had died, and to listen to the keynote speaker, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“No more convincing testimony could be given to the manner in which the men of Texas A&M lived up to the ideals and principles inculcated in their days on the campus than the simple statement that the ... Medal of Honor has been awarded to [seven] former students, that 46 took part in the heroic defense of Bataan and Corregidor and that nearly 700 are on the list of our battle dead,” Eisenhower said.

Since then, the number of Aggies who died in World War II has grown to 950 as more names have been acknowledged.

The Memorial Student Center was dedicated in 1951 to all Aggies who died in both world wars. Today, the complex is dedicated to all Aggies who have died in wars.

— Compiled by Claire Heathman

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