Tom Clavin Interview: The Tragic Loss of a Son and "Last Hill"
Image attributed to Gordon Grant
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator and a reporter for the New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and National Newspaper Association. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York.
Clavin’s books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy – Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West and Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell. His latest offering (with co-author Bob Drury), released November 1, 2022, is The Last Hill: The Epic Story of a Ranger Battalion and the Battle That Defined WWII, which details the incredible untold story of one Ranger battalion’s heroism and courage in the Second World War.
"It’s been a tough few months."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tom, this is our sixth interview!
Tom Clavin: Oh, my goodness. You must be sick of me by now (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Not true at all, my friend. We do want to express our deepest condolences on the loss of your son.
Tom Clavin: Thank you. Yeah. It’s been a tough few months.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Brendan was so young. Was he a writer also?
Tom Clavin: He had some smaller things published. I think he would’ve developed into a really good one. But there were other things that dragged him down. He was only 33.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Terribly tragic.
Tom Clavin: Yeah, it is. Every day since then, it’s been like living in an alternative universe in a way. There’s before Brendan, and then now, there’s after Brendan, and the two worlds don’t match.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have a new granddaughter?
Tom Clavin: My granddaughter just turned nine months, and that’s been a real help. Her mother, my daughter, is a therapist, so it’s good to have one in the family. I tell her that I’ll help her with the rent if I can get some free therapy (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Definitely sounds like a fair trade (laughs). The Last Hill is an interesting read. How in the world do you find these rarely told stories of World War II?
Tom Clavin: This particular one for The Last Hill, I have to credit Bob Drury, my co-author, because he had this desire to write about the Hürtgen Forest. You mention well-known campaigns in World War II to most people, they think of Battle of the Bulge, Anzio, Guadalcanal, all that kind of stuff and ask, “What the heck is the Hürtgen Forest?”
Two reasons why most people don’t know about the Hürtgen Forest is one, it was, for the most part, a very bad experience for the Allies. A lot of dumb decisions were made by the brass. A lot of lives were lost unnecessarily. It was a real slog over the course of months. The other reason is it basically concluded with the Battle of the Bulge when Hitler unleashed all these divisions in the Hürtgen Forest in a last ditch attempt to either win the war or at least get to a better place than he was, which was being trapped, and the Battle of the Bulge gets all the attention. So when we were discussing the Hürtgen Forest, it really is quite interesting.
But we said our kind of book is not a book about an entire campaign. Our kind of book is to find a story within a story and the characters that occupy that story. So I did some researching and looking about. We came across this Hill 400 battle, and it reminded us a lot of our book, The Last Stand of Fox Company, which is about a company of Marines who were basically holding a very strategic position against very steep odds. So we said, “Here’s an Army Ranger European Theater equivalent to that."
So we did more research and found some characters to be fascinating and the idea of this being the first hill inside Germany the Allies occupied, they had to hold it at all costs. Meanwhile, the Germans, who had the hill initially, had to hold it at all costs. So you had these two almost immovable forces clashing together, and we found that was a fascinating story.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Rangers were an elite group with a separate set of talents?
Tom Clavin: Yeah. We’re used to today talking about Rangers and elite naval forces and elite Marine forces and Navy SEALs, but this was uncommon when World War II began. You basically had the Army, the Army Air Corps, the Navy and the Marines. Everybody who enlisted or was drafted went into these standard units. But after the war began, Winston Churchill was a big, big proponent of creating special forces to do things like go behind enemy lines, to do demolition, to do espionage work and to do the really nasty kind of fighting that he thought was going to be required to defeat Hitler.
First, the Americans were reluctant. They thought that was not a gentlemanly kind of warfare (laughs). But if you suffered enough losses early in the war, you start to change your mind. Finally, the powers that be said, “Let’s try ourselves to organize a Ranger unit.” The 1st Ranger Battalion, that later became known as Darby’s Rangers, proved to be effective in the early European war and the North African fighting and things like that. So they said, “Let’s create another one.” That’s how the 2nd Ranger Battalion came about.
So they were intended to be an elite fighting force. They would only pick the best men available. Even if those best men available were picked, the training was so rigorous and so harsh that even the best of the best were dropping out and being replaced. So by the time the Ranger battalions got to Europe to right against Germany, it really was head and shoulders the best trained, best armed, best psychologically ready to take on whatever challenges were given to them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There is a 1958 film called Darby’s Rangers.
Tom Clavin: Yes, there is. I’ve looked at the pictures, and it’s highly fictionalized. But it does call attention to what it was like to be an Army Ranger in World War II.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And I believe that it was James Garner’s first starring role in a film.
Tom Clavin: Well, for that reason alone, it’s worth watching (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly (laughs). Speaking of films, I think that Ralph Goranson, the commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion was actually portrayed by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.
Tom Clavin: Yeah. Several sources that we looked at and even some people who were interviewed maintain that the role of the captain that Tom Hanks played in Saving Private Ryan was based on Captain Ralph Goranson of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. That’s because part of what our book talks about. The battle of Hill 400 is the climactic section of the book but very important that the Army Rangers 2nd Battalion participated in D-Day. They had a very crucial mission, which they completed. So they landed on the beach on June 6 in Normandy. Many of the units took severe casualties. So Ralph Goranson was one of those who landed on the beach and many years later became sort of the prototype for the Tom Hanks’ character.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There’s some trivia that you may already know if you are a fan of This Is Us. It involves Justin Hartley’s character, Kevin Pearson.
Tom Clavin: I think I know what you’re referring to. In the second season where Ron Howard is directing a movie, one of the sons is the actor and is supposedly making a film called The Last Hill.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe it was called Hill 400, but yes, you are correct. Sylvester Stallone makes a guest appearance on the show as the costar of the fictional film.
Tom Clavin: He probably played the hill (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) It’s interesting that James Rudder became the leader of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and after the war he became president of Texas A&M.
Tom Clavin: We were so happy when we found out about him because if we’d had a lackluster leader of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, it wouldn’t have made such an interesting book. But Rudder was a very dynamic man. He came from a small town in Texas and grew up poor, but he was kind of like a self-made military man. He was ROTC. He was leader of his football team in high school (what would become Texas A&M). When the war broke out, he wasn’t eager to leave his wife and family, but it was his role to do so. He bounced around a bit, and then finally, he caught the attention of a general there who said, “Listen. We have the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion that’s training in Tennessee, and the leadership is terrible. Would you go down there and see if he can mold this unit into the way it needs to be?”
So James Earl Rudder, known as “Big Jim,” a husky guy and football player, gym and history teacher, became the leader of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He was a very tough but fair man. He formed a great bond with his Rangers. He had to lead them into the most dangerous situations, and he was very proud of them. If there was a job to be done, he wanted his Rangers to be called upon. The last thing he and his unit wanted was to sit around in the background and just watch other people do the missions.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the actual significance of the battle at Hill 400 during that time in World War II?
Tom Clavin: For the Germans, there was a practical reason for holding that hill at all costs. The top of the hill was a great observation point for which to direct artillery at Allied positions. If you looked around the other side, you could barely see, gathering in the dead forest, hundreds of tanks and thousands and thousands of troops that were amassing as would become Battle of the Bulge. So they didn’t want the Allies to take the hill because they might possibly see that gathering of strength back there.
It was also psychological. This was the penetration to Germany. So if you did not hold this hill, what would that say to the rest of the fatherland? Maybe that would go, too, if you couldn’t hold this crucial hill. From the Allies’ point of view, it’s somewhat similar. There’s a psychological aspect. If you had penetrated Germany and taken the strategic hill, it’s going to be a blow to the German troops. Also there’s the strategic part of it, like “Okay. We can do the same thing if we take this hill.” They could put their artillery observers with direct bombardments as far into Germany as they could personally carry.
So it was really a turning point battle, and the Rangers were not the first Allied unit to try and take the hill. A couple of regiments had tried it and been chewed up. The Germans had put their units on the hill to defend it. So when the Rangers were called up, at first, it seemed like a desperate move because the Rangers only had about 400 men, and there was no telling how many thousands of Germans were on the hill. But that was the kind of challenge the Rangers excelled in up to this point. First, they had to try and take the hill. Then, if they were successful in taking the hill, they knew there was going to be fierce counterattacks. Then, they had to try and hold the hill.
So it was really a very important two-facet battle. That’s why it took all of two days to fight for this hill. The hill was not a mountain. We’re not talking about them climbing up the side of the mountain in the Alps or something like that. It was a hill 400 meters high. But it was filled with bunkers, and minefields, everything on that hill that would prevent it being taken, yet the Rangers were saying, “Okay. This is our job. Now, we’ve got to step off and do it.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the outcome?
Tom Clavin: The outcome was that they did take the hill. They stormed the hill and took it. Then, as was expected, there were five counterattacks all through the day, through the night and into the next day. They kept getting repulsed by the Rangers, but at the same time, there’s attrition there. Every time, there’s a counterattack, there’s casualties. So finally, the hill was considered secure, but after the 300 or so Rangers that went up that hill, I think when they were relieved finally, 22 walked off.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What would you tell readers who aren’t necessarily World War II buffs?
Tom Clavin: For those who are not World War II buffs, I think they still would be interested in the characters who were there because these characters represent a pretty good cross section of the American life. You have someone like James Rudder from a small town in Texas. You have a fellow who’s from Indiana who’s a daredevil. You have guys from Michigan. You have guys from Virginia. You have guys from other portions of the South, yet a couple of senior officers are from Chicago, and they grew up in the same neighborhood.
You have Doc Block who was a pediatrician, and he felt like he needed to get into the war and show his patriotism. His wife and kids were like, “Don’t join the Army!” So he said, “I joined the Rangers.” His wife was like, “That’s okay. That only has to do with the forest, right?” (laughs) So I think the diverse characters and the bond that they formed with each other is interesting. It is kind of like a Band of Brothers story because these guys landed on D-Day (June 6), and here we have followed their adventures all the way up until the climactic Hill 400 battle on December 7th and 8th. You really get a good cross section of what’s happening in World War II in Europe at that particular time, and this interesting group of characters are the guys.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What is the legacy of the Rangers?
Tom Clavin: The Rangers, thankfully, were not an abandoned concept when the war ended. There were ultimately five Ranger Battalions. When the war ended, they weren’t thrown in the trash heap. We have Army Rangers to this day. There’s an Army Ranger Hall of Fame that, if I remember correctly, is in Ft. Benning in Georgia.
The Army Rangers are the equivalent to the Navy SEALs. You have to be a very elite, well-trained volunteer. They don’t draft people into Army Rangers. They don’t want soldiers that don’t want to be there. So in the way that the Navy SEALs are called upon for special missions, the Army Rangers are called upon for special missions. This began with the 1st and 2nd Battalions in World War II and continues to this day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tom, did your father serve in World War II?
Tom Clavin: He was in World War II and Korea. He was a Navy man. When he graduated from high school, he immediately joined the Navy because his older brother was in the Navy. But my Dad graduated high school in 1945, so he was disappointed that the war in Japan was over three or four months later. So he stayed in the Reserves thinking that if war breaks out again, he was going back in. Then, after a few years, he thought, “Guess it’s not going to happen.” Then, Korea broke out, so he found himself back in the Navy. It was good for him in later years. Serving in two wars, there were plenty of benefits and VA hospital visits (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s the next book about?
Tom Clavin: My next solo one will be out in April. It’s got a rather provocative title called Follow Me to Hell. It’s about Leander McNelly and his company of Texas Rangers that took it upon themselves in 1875 to invade Mexico.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you write every day, Tom?
Tom Clavin: I do. I take off for Christmas. I used to take off for my birthday, too, but then, I realized I didn’t deserve it (laughs). I do have an occupation that I enjoy doing. The only bad thing about it or difficulty to it is that, if you work a different occupation at some point, you say, “I’m going to retire and write my memoirs. I’m going to retire and pick a topic to research as a hobby.” Well, if that’s what I do already, what am I going to retire to? Am I going to be a toll collector?
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