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NEWS | Sept. 20, 2012

Never forget: American POW tells story, unyielding in the face of death

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

(This feature is part of the "Never Forget" series on the Joint Base Charleston website. The purpose is to recognize local Prisoners of War, as well as remember the more than 80,000 Missing in Action servicemembers since World War II)

Growing up on his family's cattle farm in Holly Hill, S.C., 87-year-old Rut Murray dreamed of traveling the world. So, when he was 18, he enlisted into the U.S. Army. He had no idea his dreams would become nightmares.

In February 1944, Murray completed recruit training and became a 57-millimeter tank gunner. By the time he was 19, he was deployed and fighting for his life in World War II.

"We used to say, the enemy can't kill ya until you're 19," said Murray, thinking back to his early military experience. "I was part of the 103rd Infantry Division when I turned 19. It was in the flat, hot state of Texas that I completed additional combat training. I crawled underneath barbed wire while machine guns were going off above my head, polished up my shooting skills and got ready for war. They made sure we were up to snuff."

Murray, along with the rest of the 103rd Infantry Division, embarked for Europe, already devastated by World War II.

Murray received the Bronze Star for his role in a dangerous mission shortly after his arrival. His objective was to place landmines along a railroad track used by the Germans. During the mission, a Soldier lost his balance while carrying multiple explosive mines. The ensuing explosion claimed the lives of nine men.

Only Murray and another man were left standing. They searched through the carnage of the blast, gathered all the supplies and explosives they could salvage and finished the mission. It was Murray's first real brush with death, but far from his last.

His journey as an American Prisoner of War began on a snowy morning in the north of France. Murray, and a group of American troops had established a headquarters division in an abandoned tobacco farmhouse. It was Murray's job to protect the HQ from invaders. When the Germans attacked, Murray realized he was heavily outnumbered.
"Germans were everywhere," said Murray. "We knew we only had two options: run and hide or stay and fight it out. Well, we didn't give up without a fight."

In the morning, as dawn broke over the frozen European landscape. Murray, along with his fellow soldiers, rushed to cover all the windows and entrances of their HQ as the Germans, who were snow-skiing down the mountains began their assault.

The sound of German MP-40 sub-machine guns echoed through the woods as bullets struck the outer walls of the house ... glass and bits of wood scattered onto the floors as some of the bullets buzzed through the rooms.

Murray returned fire from the kitchen window. A Nazi soldier began to throw a grenade toward Murray. Murray shot him multiple times and although the German soldier died before he hit the ground, he still managed to release the grenade and it landed at Murray's feet in the kitchen.

"Because of my combat training, I knew the grenade would go off like an upside down umbrella," said Murray. "So, I dropped to the ground and covered my face with my arms."
Murray hit the floor just as the grenade exploded. After the blast, Murray looked around the room to see the wall paneling had peeled back and fire engulfing the room. But because of his quick thinking, Murray was able to walk away from the explosion, suffering only minor cuts and scrapes on his arms.

"Four Americans were in the upstairs of the farmhouse," said Murray. "I heard a loud explosion above me that rattled the ceiling. The upstairs had been bombed, fire shot everywhere and two of the men tumbled downstairs lifelessly toward me. Death came quick for all four of them."

The Americans needed additional ammunition and grenades, but the ammo was outside in their trucks. An American Soldier, hoping to re-arm his unit, ran from the kitchen door toward the vehicles to get more ammunition. As he ran back with grenades, he was shot multiple times by the Germans. In a final, heroic gesture before dying, the Soldier tried to roll the grenades to Murray but none of the men inside the HQ were able to reach them.

"I can't help but wonder what was going through his mind when he knew he was about to die," said Murray. "Lying on the frozen ground over a bed of snow, bleeding and looking toward me, just moments before death ... I can close my eyes and picture it like it was yesterday ... and I still wonder: what was going through his mind?"

As the firefight waned, only a few of the nine Americans were still alive.

The surviving men were captured and lined up in the snowy woods in Schillersdorf, France, along the France-Germany border, just outside of the abandoned tobacco farmhouse they had so bravely fought in. The acrid smell of gun powder still lingered in the air. After being lined up, Murray remembers hearing the distinctive "cha chink" sound of a round being chambered behind him. Then, everything went silent ... dead silent.

The gun shot Murray was expecting never came. Before the SS soldiers could execute the Americans, one of their officers ordered his men to take the Americans as prisoners. However, the records of their imprisonment didn't exist because the Germans set the records on fire moments after the paperwork had been filled out.

"Once they burned any records of taking us as prisoner, we figured they'd eventually kill us all," said Murray. "They could do whatever they wanted with us. From there, they marched us to be interrogated. Along the way we met up with other Allied prisoners, 48 men, and some of them were sick and wounded."

According to Murray, the POWs unable to march were taken away from the group by the Germans. The group was told the sick and injured were being taken for medical treatment. But Murray will always remember the moments after the injured Americans were taken from the group, hearing the echoing blast of a gun that shook the snow from the trees and sent nearby birds flying to safer ground.

"They never said they killed the ones they deemed 'unable' to march," said Murray. "But, they didn't have to. We knew what would happen if we slowed down. They were taking us a few miles into the woods toward the German division headquarters for interrogation."
This particular German headquarters was frequently shelled by American forces, so once the group arrived, the Germans forced Murray and the other POWs to stand still and exposed in the open road as explosions rained down from the sky all around them.

"The Germans thought it was funny to watch us stand there as our own forces were hitting the area with heavy artillery," said Murray. "All around me was fire and explosions and if I moved, they would have shot me. So I stood and waited. One bomb landed a few feet from me. I watched it hit the ground but it was a dud. It bounced off the road and landed hundreds of feet away. If it would have gone off, like they usually did, I definitely wouldn't be here today."

It wasn't the only time the Germans showed a twisted sense of humor. Other times, often for no reason at all, or when the Germans felt the POWs were moving too slowly, they would unleash their German Shepherd dogs to attack the frail prisoners.

Then came the interrogations. Murray was tied by his feet upside down until his nose and ears bled. He was viciously assaulted but the Germans were unable to extract any information from him. His interrogation was more violent than the other POWs because the Germans mistakenly assumed he was more important then he actually was since he was captured at an Allied HQ.

As a POW, Murray was never in one place for more than a few days, which wasn't typical during World War II. The POWs would sleep where they could find shelter from the piercing winter winds. At night, the distant sound of combat was comforting to Murray. With every reverberating gunshot or explosion, he knew the Americans were close and he never gave up on his belief that they wouldn't give up on him.

One day, while staying in an abandoned barn with the other POWs, the men were approached by German nationals. One lady wanted to trade her bread to Murray, but he didn't have anything to trade. He searched through his wool pants and found the one thing he had successfully hidden from his captures ... his... his high school ring.

"I hid my ring from the Germans for months," said Murray. "But, I thought I was going to starve to death in that dirty barn. So, gave it to her for a loaf of bread."

With a heavy heart, Murray watched the woman through the cracks of the barn as she walked away with his cherished ring. But before she left, she turned around. She didn't speak a word and with tears in her eyes, she motioned for Murray to come back toward her. She handed the ring back to Murray. Although they were from different countries, spoke different languages and were on the opposites sides of a war, one basic human element connected them: compassion.

At the time, Murray didn't understand. He didn't ask, and even if he could, she wouldn't understand. So, he took back his ring, placed it back into his wool pants and kept the loaf of bread.

Shortly after that incident, he was liberated by American forces. His nightmare was over but as Murray was boarding a train with other ex-prisoners en-route to going home, he witnessed a moment of American history.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was getting off a different train at the same station Murray was at. As the train slowly pulled out of the station, Eisenhower looked back at the ex-prisoners to acknowledge them. Later that day, May 7, 1945, the general entered a small red schoolhouse in France where the Germans unconditionally surrendered to the western Allies and Russia, ending World War II.

"Sometimes I wonder if I should try forgetting about what happened to me all those years ago," said Murray. "As long as it's been, I'll always remember my experience as a POW. From the firefight at the abandoned house, to the grin on those German Shepherd dogs' faces before they attacked and, everything else ... it becomes a part of who you are."

"I had too many close calls," Murray continued, thinking back to his multiple brushes with death. "I saw men die. I was demoralized as a prisoner, stripped of my dignity and left feeling like anything I cherished meant nothing. Yet, when I came home on a ship and saw the Statue of Liberty, she never looked so good. Lady Liberty sure did remind me that my experience wasn't for nothing. It was a sacrifice made for freedom and a sacrifice worth remembering."