WWII vet recalls horrors of POW march across Europe
Rut Murray was a country boy from Holly Hill, one of 10 kids, when World War II became the hell that sent thousands of men to their graves.
Veterans Day events
Summerville: Veterans Day ceremony at 10:30 a.m. at the Dorchester County Services Building, 500 N. Main St. A reception and fellowship will follow at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3433, 10154 Bellwright Road, Ladson.
Sullivan’s Island: The Church of the Holy Cross, 2520 Middle St., will have a Veterans Day Remembrance Service beginning at 11 a.m. Participant organizations include The Citadel, Washington Light Infantry, Royal Society of St. George, Carolinian Branch.
Magnolia Plantation: Offering free admission to active-duty military personnel and veterans and their immediate family.
North Charleston: Veterans Day tribute from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Park Circle.
Mount Pleasant: Patriots Point will offer free admission for all veterans and their families; the $5 per vehicle parking fee will still apply.
Magnolia Plantation: Offering free admission to active-duty military personnel and veterans and their immediate family.
Rut and an older brother, who both worked their dad’s large cattle farm, figured one of them would get drafted next.
Rut was single; his brother was married.
So Charles Rutledge Murray, a boy everyone called Rut, volunteered to go to war. He had just turned 18.
By the time he came home he weighed 97 pounds. He had spent three months as a German prisoner of war, trekked 233 miles across a frozen Europe and nearly crossed death’s threshold several times along the way.
But he survived, even brought home a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and several POW awards. He won’t mention them unless you ask.
Murray is 87 years old now. He has buried all but one of his siblings. And when he dons his POW vest to go to events this Veterans Day, he won’t meet many other guys who were there, who remember.
But Murray sure does.
Murray entered the Army in February 1944. After training he joined the 103rd Infantry Division and was issued jungle fatigues — surely a good sign. At that point, the Pacific sounded better than Hitler’s Europe.
The soldiers loaded onto a train. They unloaded. Then loaded again. Unloaded. Loaded. But why?
“The weirdest thing was not knowing,” Murray recalled.
When he woke one morning, sun streamed in the wrong side of the train. They had turned around.
The soldiers exchanged their jungle gear for heavy wool clothes and boarded a troop ship in New York.
For 14 days they zigzagged across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German submarines.
“The trouble started right there,” he said.
A massive storm struck, rocking the seas for days and leaving Murray and his comrades anxious and seasick.
By the time the men saw a coastline again, they had joined more than 100 other ships.
Why the secrecy shrouding their journey? They would be part of the second wave to invade southern France.
Murray scurried down a rope ladder and piled into a landing craft. His buddy fell down the ladder and smacked onto the craft, breaking his back.
In all, 35 soldiers packed aboard. When they hit the beach, the front of their landing craft wouldn’t open. Together, they rammed it open to get out.
German planes flew over. American ships shelled the German ground positions. Mortars exploded all around.
“You could see buddies on both sides of you going down,” Murray recalled.
He never imagined he could run so fast. Those who made it off the beach fought into the Vosges Mountains and crossed the frigid Meurthe River.
A mine blast killed nine men with him one day. Only Murray and another man survived. They salvaged supplies from the gore.
“I found out real quickly that you could get killed,” he said.
Finally, they captured the town of St. Dié near the German border and set up defensive positions. Mission achieved.
The ground was frozen. Moisture froze and jammed their weapons. Germans infested the mountains all around.
Murray blasted the ground to create foxholes. He also guarded the American battalion headquarters, set up in an abandoned house. He had just finished a shift when German ski troopers descended.
Murray’s squad took up defensive positions. Four hid in the attic. Murray raced to a kitchen window.
And there stood a German soldier. Murray fired, but before the German fell he threw a concussion grenade through the window. It landed near Murray’s feet.
The grenade exploded like an upside down umbrella, sending its blast mostly up and over him. Fragments sliced his forearm and hand. Fire blazed through the room. Allied artillery rained down on the building, exploding the attic.
Two American soldiers hiding up there fell out, one dead, one’s legs severed. Machine gun fire killed another.
Should the rest fight or run?
One American raced out to their Jeep to get ammunition. He was shot. Crawling over the yard, he struggled back to the house’s door. But every time the soldiers reached out to him, the Germans fired. Just as he made it to the door, the Germans shot and killed him.
The soldier’s dying expression is stitched forever into the fabric of Murray’s recollections. Not that there was time to think about it then.
With Germans surrounding the house, Murray and his comrades emerged, hands up as they crossed a garden to surrender.
A German shot the soldier beside Murray in the leg. The distinct thunk of bullet striking flesh also stitched itself into the many horrors Murray still remembers. Germans carried the soldier away.
Murray and the other prisoners were kept in a coal bin overnight. Before dawn, they marched toward German headquarters.
En route they passed the last foxhole Murray helped a buddy dig the day before. An American soldier lay dead inside.
When the POWs reached a snow-laced field, a German guard lined them up. He pulled the bolt back on his burp gun.
“We heard the gun click. We thought he was going to shoot us,” Murray recalled.
Silence blanketed the field.
A German officer stepped in. The POWs would not be killed. First, they would be interrogated.
It was December 1944 when the POWs reached German headquarters in an old barn. Each waited his turn for interrogation.
While they waited, guards made them stand outside in the street as Americans shelled the area. Wouldn’t it be funny if they were killed by their own artillery?
A shell hit a few yards in front of Murray. He awaited death. But in a cloud of kicked-up snow, the shell ricocheted off into the mountains.
“It was a dud, or I wouldn’t be here today.”
Then it was his turn for interrogation. The Germans knew he had been guarding the American headquarters. Surely, he could tell them something.
They hung him upside down until his nose bled.
“They kept questioning and questioning. I thought I’d never make it out of there,” he said.
When he told them nothing, the Germans took everything except his wool clothing and forced the POWs out into one of the harshest winters recorded in the north of France.
The Germans forced them to walk in the middle of the roads. American fighter planes overhead would fire at them, not realizing they were POWs. Each day the prisoners ran from the planes. Finally, a man suggested that they stay on the road and wave at the pilots to show who they were.
As a P-51 flew down for the kill, Murray forced his feet to walk forward down the road.
Step. Step. Don’t run.
Don’t run. Don’t run.
Just when he imagined the pilot pressing his machine gun button, the pilot passed and tipped his wing. He was so low, Murray saw him wave.
Relief, for a moment.
The Germans marched them onward.
Murray figured they were headed for a facility to be processed as prisoners of war. Indeed, at one stop they filled out Red Cross identification cards.
A German supervisor burned the cards in front of them.
If they died, who would know?
One afternoon, 25 or 30 POWs were stuffed into a boxcar. It was so crammed, nobody could sit down. But Murray, shivering and exhausted, felt relief.
“I was so glad because we got to ride for a little while,” he said.
That night, the boxcar halted. But nobody was let out, not even as the Allies bombed.
The boxcar rocked from the blasts. Fragments sliced holes in its metal walls. For 16 hours, death and blood and diarrhea and urine filled the boxcar.
Another stitch of terror embroidered itself onto the fabric of Murray’s memories.
Those who lived trekked onward across the frozen countryside, sleeping outside huddled in a large circle when it snowed and sleeted. They rotated in and out of the center to keep each other from freezing to death.
When they woke, if any prisoner tried to run that day, the Germans threatened to kill two more.
When a prisoner weakened, a guard would take him away. The POWs would hear a gunshot behind them.
Once, a prisoner was washing his face in a stream. A guard called to him, but the man didn’t hear. When the soldier looked up, the German shot him between the eyes.
Another guard struck Murray across the back with his rifle. When Murray regained consciousness, fellow prisoners carried him until they reached a huge prison camp in Augsburg, Germany.
“It crossed my mind that they could shoot me or that I wouldn’t survive all of it,” Murray recalled.
They stopped at prison camps along the way and took prisoners with them until their ranks grew to 1,200, a wandering mass of imprisoned humanity.
At one point, the Germans didn’t feed them for four days.
“Prisoner life is like this: You are absolutely nothing. Your dignity is gone. You are just a figure,” he said. “What used to puzzle me was how a human being could treat another human being so badly.”
Yet there were other moments, slim rays through the misery.
When the POWs stopped at a filthy barn along their journey, Murray thought he might starve that very day. A German woman approached and, through the rotting slats, held out a chunk of bread to trade.
Throughout the ordeal, Murray had hidden his gold high school ring in a pocket.
He fiddled with it then, looking at the bread.
Desperate to live, he walked over and handed her the ring. She shoved the bread through. He hurried away.
When he turned back, the woman motioned for him to come over. Tears streamed down her face.
She held out the ring. He held out his hand.
“Sometimes, I just wonder what she was thinking,” he recalled, sitting at his dining room table all these years later, spinning that gold class ring around his finger.
By then, Murray prayed harder than ever for an end to his ordeal. He had been a prisoner for three months. His feet had swelled. Lice chewed his skin. He weighed 97 pounds.
The Germans forced them on until stopping to put 250 prisoners, including Murray, into a dairy barn near Munich.
It was still dark when an American tank passed by on a little road outside the barn. It stopped and two men got out. An American lieutenant opened the barn door.
“Are there any GIs in here?” he hollered.
The lieutenant left what food and ammunition he had for the prisoners before heading out.
More American tanks passed by. Nine bigger tanks followed. Allied planes flew over. A fierce battle broke out all around.
“There was such shooting and carrying on!” Murray recalled.
And then, surrender.
Bands of surrendering German soldiers marched past the barn. Then an American Jeep rolled up. The front bumper read: 103rd Infantry Division.
It was Murray’s old division.
He was liberated on April 27, 1945. He had walked 233 miles from Schillersdorf, France, to Munich, Germany. The country boy who volunteered for service had been a POW for 97 days.
Murray’s family had received two telegrams since he left.
The first reported him Missing in Action.
The second said he was MIA, assumed captured.
He dictated a third: See you soon.
When he boarded the Monticello, the ship’s whistle blew and the captain announced, “The destination of this ship is Pier 13, New York City.”
It was the pier Murray had departed from.
“You couldn’t hear yourself talk” through the cheers, Murray recalled.
As they sailed into New York, Murray saw what so many soldiers would never see — the Statue of Liberty welcoming them home.
Today, the fabric of Murray’s memories is stitched with death and suffering, but also with marriage and children and a post-war life lived well.
“I’m no hero,” he said. “I am a survivor.”
After coming home, he joined the Highway Patrol and met his future wife after stopping her for a broken taillight. He and Dorothy have been married for almost 59 years.
They raised two children and now live on a tranquil street in St. George. They have five granddaughters, recently welcomed their first great-grandchild and are awaiting a second.
On this Veterans Day, Murray is 87 years old. A gentle man with kind eyes and a mischievous smile, he has endured two heart-bypass surgeries, and his hearing has slipped a bit.
In just the past few weeks, the Lowcountry has lost two local POWs from WWII. Nearly 30 men used to attend meetings of the local POW group. Only a handful remain.
It’s why Murray still goes to schools to talk to students. He fears that the veterans’ stories are slipping into the bygone days of history lessons. Yet Murray hopes the fabric of their memories remain vibrant long after they are all gone.
Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.