Rockwall County resident Mike Donegan was given the Carolyn Francisco award last Friday by the Rockwall County Historical Foundation, at its monthly meeting.
Donegan, a veteran and the chaplain for the Rockwall Terry Fisher American Legion Post 117, kicked off the foundation meeting with an informative presentation on the daring Pointe du Hoc mission undertaken by Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder and his fellow Army Rangers on D-Day.
Foundation president Mark Russo presented the award, which he said is given to a member of the community who has exhibited “large amounts of work for the Historical Foundation, and preserves history far beyond what we expect.”
The award is named after Foundation board member Carolyn Francisco, who has played an instrumental role in the revitalization of historical preservation in Rockwall County over the last many years.
“This man does whatever we ask him, at any time, and does things above and beyond,” Russo said of Donegan. “He’s a man of God, I pray with him and I’m proud to call him a friend. On behalf of the board, I thank you for all that you do.”
One of Donegan’s primary contributions to the Foundation’s efforts has been to record the experiences and memories of Rockwall County veterans.
“I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on, because the fact is, history transcends all politics,” Russo said. “History is how we let our kids and our grandkids know what we do, and what we went through.”
Donegan’s presentation to the Historical Foundation members, in his own fashion, was a dramatic and heartfelt retelling of one of the bravest groups of soldiers to land in Normandy in June 1944.
“A British general involved with the D-Day planning once said that ‘four old women with brooms could keep the Army Rangers off that cliff,” Donegan said of Pointe du Hoc.
The point at the crest of the cliffs housed a crucial German station of anti-aircraft and anti-infantry gun batteries – securing it was crucial for the success of Operation Overlord, particularly on Omaha and Utah beaches, but many thought the undertaking was a fool’s mission.
Donegan also explained that the forces scaling Pointe du Hoc also hoped to capture a highway nearby the gun batteries, to set up blockades and prevent any Nazi reinforcements from reaching the beachheads or the cliffs above.
“In fact, the man who was in charge of the original force got drunk the night before the invasion and went into a rage, telling everybody it was a suicide mission and couldn’t be accomplished,” Donegan said.
When Rudder and his men landed on the beach shortly after 7 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the group approached the cliff face under the blanket of oppressive small arms fire. The arrival was approximately 40 minutes late, and nearly half of the cliff-scaling Ranger forces had been killed in sunk landing crafts before even reaching the beach.
After reaching Pointe du Hoc, Rudder’s Rangers located and identified five of the crucial German gun batteries, destroyed their firing mechanisms with thermite, and then successfully defended the high point from counterassault until they were relieved by other Rangers and a tank company on June 8.
Donegan went on to explain that Rudder’s service to his state and nation didn’t end with the declaration of victory in Europe the next year.
“When I was a “fish” at Texas A&M in 1968, then-General Rudder was president of the university,” Donegan said. Rudder himself was a Texas A&M University former student of the class of 1932. “He was an Aggie, a football player at Tarleton and A&M, and after he left the Rangers he became a regimental commander in the Battle of the Bulge.”
After the war, Rudder became the Texas Land Commissioner before accepting the position of president at his alma mater.
“He became Texas A&M president in 1959, when the university was going through some difficult times and enrollment was considerably down,” Donegan said. “Nobody wanted to go to an all-male, all-military school, particularly after World War II and Korea.”
Donegan explained that Rudder made three significant changes to the university to bring it into the modern age, and that he defended the changes in the face of significant opposition: participation in the Corps of Cadets would become optional, and the university would begin accepting women and students of color after being an all-male, all-white school since its inception in 1876.
“It took him a little over three years to get that done, and he did it, even though a lot of students and former students almost revolted.”