World War II veterans are known to history as members of “The Greatest Generation.” During one of the greatest conflicts in human history, more than 20,000 Aggies served the United States with honor and distinction. They were stationed across the globe, representing their country and Texas A&M University. All witnessed casualties, saved lives and found unconditional camaraderie. Although they may not be comfortable discussing everything they did during the war, their pride shines through in recalling their stories. Here are eight Aggie veterans and their reflections on their experiences in World War II.

    Editor's Note: Since publishing this article, we received notification of four more living Aggie WWII veterans. These include: 

    • Otto Fuchs ’50, in Carmine, Texas, who served in the Battle of the Bulge
    • Earl Gordy ’50, in Beaumont, Texas, who served in the Philippines during the last part of the Pacific War
    • Ernest Sessums, who served in the European Campaign and also fought in the Battle of the Bulge
    • Robert “Bob” Warren ’42, in Frisco, Texas, who served as a cargo pilot and flew many missions during the war

     

    Dr. Henry Birdwell ’46 – Aviation Ordnanceman, United States Navy

    In 1944, after two years at Texas A&M, Dr. Henry Birdwell ’46 left campus to serve as an aviation ordnanceman in the United States Navy. He traveled to boot camp in San Diego, California, and vividly recalled his trek to the West Coast. “It was a bumpy and uncomfortable ride on that rail car,” Birdwell said. Upon completion of his boot camp training, he attended aviation ordnance school in Oklahoma and then ventured to Miami, Florida, to train as a gunner to operate aircraft defensive guns. As the war progressed, the reality of facing the brutality of the Pacific Theater became more apparent. “That is why we were so glad when the atomic bombs were dropped and stopped the war,” Birdwell said. “Had we been ordered to hit the beaches in Japan, we would have suffered more than one million casualties.”

    After serving in World War II, he spent eight years in the reserves and received his medical degree. During the Korean War, he returned to active duty as a captain in the United States Air Force through the “Doctor Draft,” for which he received letters of commendation. He attributes his discipline, organization and order to his extensive military service and hopes to be remembered as someone who loved his family and loved Texas A&M. “Do not waste a second of the life given to you,” Birdwell advised. “Every day is a gift. Seize each day with eager enthusiasm because we are never guaranteed another.” Birdwell went on to have a successful medical practice in Fort Worth, Texas, and he enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren.

     

    Dr. Samuel R. Gammon III ’44 – Second Lieutenant, United States Army

    Dr. Samuel Gammon III ’44 grew up bleeding maroon, as his father Dr. Samuel R. Gammon Jr. led Texas A&M’s Department of Government and History for 30 years. “I was a campus brat,” Gammon said. “I lived and breathed Texas A&M and could not wait to officially begin my life as an Aggie.” In 1943, he answered the call to serve his country in World War II. At age 19, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army and sent to Germany as a combat engineer. Because Gammon was the only soldier in his unit who spoke German, he quickly became an asset. He helped his fellow soldiers navigate through villages and credits his father for his language proficiency. “He insisted that I learn multiple languages and become fluent,” Gammon said. “He taught me Latin and French, and I chose to learn German during my time at Texas A&M.”

    After the war ended, he finished his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M and received his master’s and Ph.D. from Princeton University. He entered the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and was posted all over the world, during which he had the privilege of meeting several heads of state. During the Korean War, he could not serve on active duty, as he was the only surviving son of his family. “Even though I could not be active, I never lost my commitment to serving my country,” Gammon said. “I had a career that very few get to experience, and I am proud of my service.”

     

     

    L. D. “Duke” Hobbs ’47 – 314th Infantry Sergeant, United States Army

    Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, it still feels as if it was last week for 94-year-old Duke Hobbs ’47, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star veteran. As all young men during that time, he was highly invested in the war. “I was a freshman and ready to serve my country,” Hobbs said. “It was young men fighting an old men’s war.” He served in France and Belgium and ended his service in Dortmund, Germany, before traveling to Czechoslovakia to assist with the occupation. His most memorable experience in service was during an assault on a tank farm. “We were attacked by heavy German artillery fire,” Hobbs recalled. “As I looked through the bunker window, I heard an incoming projectile and ducked, taking shrapnel across my back.” He can recall the sound of artillery shells that flew above as he lay wounded. Medical personnel later transported him to a hospital for treatment.

    He recollects the overwhelming experiences during his service. “My buddies and I were proud to have served, but we would never want to endure that again,” Hobbs said. He never doubted the Allies would succeed, and the celebrations of the war’s end replay vividly in his memory. “The greatest display of fireworks, rockets, machine guns and bullets filled the air,” Hobbs said. “To this day, I still wonder where all the bullets landed!” For the next few months, he and his buddies toured Western Europe, entertaining fellow soldiers in GI stage shows. His message to younger generations would be that of compassion and respect. “Pay attention to your elders; they have been down the road you are on right now,” Hobbs said. “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is a good practice to follow. We are all equal under the skin and deserve to be treated with respect.”

     

    • Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus

      L. D. "Duke" Hobbs '47 was named a Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus by The Association of Former Students in 2018.
    • L. D. "Duke" Hobbs '47

      Hobbs, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star veteran, served in France, Belgium and Germany during World War II with the U.S. Army.

    Lee E. James ’36 – Colonel, United States Army

    Age is just a number for retired Col. Lee James ’36. The 106-year-old WWII veteran and oldest living Aggie is as sharp as a tack and easily recalls details of his time at Texas A&M University and his extensive military service. With financial assistance from the renowned Pinkie Downs, Class of 1906, James arrived to Aggieland in 1932. He received a bachelor's degree in agriculture and a master's degree in biology and served as a Ross Volunteer in the Corps of Cadets.

    As a World War II veteran, he is proud to share his experiences and to continue educating others about this significant time in history. Along with 3,000 fellow servicemen, James spent approximately 25 days aboard the USS Admiral Benson. While serving his country, he had the opportunity to see diverse areas of the world. “I traveled across Asia,” James said. “I left for Bombay, India, to wait for orders, and then I made my way to Toledo, Spain.” He later joined the 50th Chinese Division in central Burma as a liaison to push the Japanese to the Vietnamese peninsula. Later, he and the 50th Chinese division were airlifted out to stop the Chinese Red Army.

    With so many years of experiences underneath his belt, James is more than qualified to share advice with younger generations. In a previous interview with The Association of Former Students, he emphasized that prioritizing friendship and paying it forward to give others unique opportunities are crucial to a fulfilling life. James believes in the power of Aggies helping other Aggies, just as Pinkie Downs gave him the chance to attend his alma mater. His best advice is to enjoy all things in moderation and to always keep one’s mind active. Today, he resides in Mesquite, Texas, with his wife, Betty.

     

    Albert J. Marek ’50 – 2nd Class Electricians Mate, United States Navy

    For Albert Marek ’50, enlisting in the military was his chance to see the world and create a better life. On April 17, 1944, he enlisted in the United States Navy and trained in San Diego, California, as an on-board electrician. Posted to the USS Edsall at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, he escorted convoys carrying soldiers and war materials between the United States and Europe. It took 15 days to travel from the United States to England and then to France. The convoys were well-protected and were never hit by German U-boats. “We were the ones searching for the Germans,” Marek said. “With 20 to 30 destroyers surrounding the convoys, we were in pretty good company.” After their departure from Europe, Marek and his fellow soldiers went to the Pacific, as the war continued with Japan. They were in Hawaii making plans for the invasion of Japan when the two atomic bombs were dropped, thus ending the war.

    After his service in World War II, Marek used the GI Bill to attend Texas A&M University, and his service inspired him to receive his degree in electrical engineering. “I could not wait to attend Texas A&M,” Marek said. “Without the GI Bill, I could not have afforded to receive an education.” Marek has no regrets and owes many opportunities to his military service. If given the chance, he said he would serve his country again. To future generations, he hopes to be remembered as a patriot distinguished by his hard work and dedication. “We should be responsible for making the most of our lives and being good American citizens,” Marek said. “The most important thing we possess is freedom.”

     

    Charles I. McGinnis ’49 – Major General, United States Army

    As a retired major general in the United States Army, Charles McGinnis ’49 remembers his brief service in World War II as a private in the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program (ASTRP). In June 1945, at age 17, he joined the ASTRP detachment at South Dakota State College, where he served until the end of the war. After V-J Day, his commander had them participate in a parade in Brookings, South Dakota. “We wore olive-drab uniforms and marched up and down the streets; it was a joyful occasion,” McGinnis said.

    As an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), McGinnis oversaw national improvement projects, such as military construction and water resource development. He is grateful for his 30 years of distinguished military service and to those who never returned home. “As an American citizen, I am deeply grateful for the enormous sacrifice they and their families made to protect America and its way of life,” McGinnis said. “They rose to a demanding occasion in the most honorable and selfless way.” His greatest wish is for people to remember the significance of history. “We need to understand the extent to which our forefathers committed themselves to achieve an outcome far greater than themselves,” he added. “We must work to preserve the right of self-determination and personal freedom for future generations.”

     

     

     

    Wesley E. Peel ’46 – Major General, United States Army

    Update: Following his interview but prior to the publishing of this article, Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Peel ’46 passed away in late August 2020.

    Before his service in World War II, Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Peel ’46 was highly interested in agriculture and believed the best educational opportunities would be found at Texas A&M University. In 1942, he began life as an Aggie, pursuing a degree in agricultural education. Before his 18th birthday, he and his buddies volunteered to serve. The following year, Peel was called to active duty and began specialized training at Camp Maxey, Texas. He was then ordered to Ohio State University for the Army’s Specialized Training Program. In March 1944, he joined the 102nd Infantry at Camp Swift, where he met Gen. George C. Marshall, the four-star Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

    In December 1944, Peel arrived in Plymouth, England and, within a month, he and his unit were dispatched to France. His engineer company was responsible for repairing infrastructure and ensuring mines were not occupied by enemy combatants. He also took part in the legendary Battle of the Bulge and witnessed the Malmedy Massacre in Belgium, where more than 80 American prisoners of war were murdered by German Waffen-SS Troops. Years later, he served in Korea and Vietnam. During his 37-year military service, he received several awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. Upon his retirement, he returned to his love of agriculture. “I have no regrets and, if given the opportunity, would do it again,” Peel said. “I hope that future generations will possess the same desire to defend our country.”

     

    The late James Earl Rudder ’32 – Major General, United States Army

    The late Maj. Gen. James Earl Rudder ’32, who served as Texas A&M University’s 16th president, is renowned for his heroism in the war. His son, James E. Rudder Jr. ’62, spoke on behalf of his father and his service:

    “Before being called to duty, dad was a football coach and teacher at Brady High School in Brady, Texas. In 1938, he became Tarleton College’s football coach, where he had played as center. Called to duty in 1942, he trained the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion in Tennessee as a major and was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. On D-Day, he led his rangers and stormed the beach at Point du Hoc in France, scaling the 100-foot cliffs to overwhelm German forces. He fought his way across France and then took command of the 109th Infantry Regiment, part of the 28th division (Pennsylvania guard unit, commanded by Gen. Cota), only days before the Battle of the Bulge. At the end of the war, he was one of the most decorated soldiers.

    “He would have attributed his life experience to playing football, coaching and the military, which laid the foundation for his leadership skills,” Rudder Jr. continued. “Though he never said as much, he was most proud with the training of his ranger forces. Despite being under constant enemy fire and facing many casualties, they never gave up.” In a letter to a widow of one of his fallen rangers, Rudder eloquently stated the significance of a soldier’s sacrifice. “The people of America will realize what that Gold Star means to those who loved him and will resolve to keep America worthy of such men,” he wrote. “The surviving rangers will carry with them the example of his courage and will do their best to instill a like nobility in the hearts of generations to come.”

    Not all entries in Texas A&M’s former student database contain accurate records for military service. If you have information about other living former students who served in World War II, please let us know at info@txamfoundation.com.

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    Dunae Reader '15

    Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications/Spirit Editor/Maroon Co-Editor
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