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A Ring For a Piece of Bread…

portrait of an elderly man wearing a button festooned vest

Charles “Rut” Murray

“The stories of our nation’s former prisoners of war are etched in our national conscience and their courage is enshrined in the tradition of honor and bravery that is the mark of our Armed Forces.”

— President Barack Obama
proclaiming April 9, 2011, National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day

South Carolina Vet among Hundreds Honored on April 9, “Former POW Recognition Day”

Charles Rutledge Murray was a Prisoner of War in World War II and today still wonders how someone could treat another human being as cruelly as he and his fellow prisoners were treated.

“During my interrogation, I was hung upside down until my nose bled, because I was from Headquarters Company and they thought I should have more information.”

Charles was captured in the small French village of Schillersdorf in 1944. Over the next three months, he and his fellow prisoners would walk 230 miles to Munich.

“To this day, I still shiver when I see a German shepherd dog. When we were prisoners, if we did not move fast enough, they would sic the dogs on us. You don’t forget that.”

Charles had never heard of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when he was processing out of the Army. “When we were getting ready to be shipped back home, they said whoever wants to go home, get in this line. Whoever has a medical problem they would like to have treated first, get in this line. I got in the going home line.”

Aware of the importance of his experiences, Charles participated in the Library of Congress “Veterans History Project.” His 90-minute video is among the many oral histories available to scholars and historians at the Library of Congress and on their website.

A Small Girl with a Piece of Bread

One of the most touching stories from his experiences was revealed when his son asked him a simple question: “Dad, you never wear any kind of jewelry. Why do you still wear that old worn out high school ring? You can’t even read what’s carved in it.”

Then his dad told this story.

While he was captured, a group of POWs were locked in some cattle cars in a railroad yard and were kept there overnight because the Germans thought the railyard would be bombed that night by allied planes.

While he was in the railcar, a young girl came up and said she had some bread and would trade it for anything of value. The only thing Charles had left was his high school ring. He handed the girl the ring through the cattle car slats and she gave him a piece of bread.

But a little later, the girl returned to the railcar. She handed him back his ring with tears in her eyes.

As Charles reflected, “No one will ever know why she did that.”

Staying in Touch with Other POWs

Today, at 85, Charles makes regular trips to the VA Medical Center in Charleston, SC, where he says the staff is “outstanding.”

“We are real fortunate to have the VA down here. They do a great job.” In spite of two bypass surgeries and “troubles with my knees and my feet,” Charles keeps active.

He stays in touch with fellow former POWs through the Low Country Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War veterans service organization. The organization, representing former prisoners of war and their families, was established April 14, 1942.

A website keeps POWs across the country up to date on activities and features a lengthy newsletter with first person articles and historical photos and diaries: www.axpow.org.

The Low Country Chapter meets once a month to share memories and relive their military days.

Although, as Dorothy, Charles’ wife of 57 years, notes, “There aren’t too many of the guys left.”

After his military service, Charles was a South Carolina Highway Patrolman before becoming a County Transportation Supervisor. He also taught auto mechanics.

Charles and Dorothy have a son and a daughter and five granddaughters. Their son, Charles Jr., is also a Veteran (Air Force 1978-1982), and very proud of his father, “My dad is such a great man!”

He was happy to share that pride with a stranger at the Charleston VA Medical Center where his dad’s photo hangs in a special exhibit of Veterans’ photos by famous military photographer, Stacy Pearsall. When another Vet commented on the emotional impact of a faded telegram posted next to his dad’s photo — a telegram from the government notifying his mother that her son was a prisoner of war — Charles Jr. proudly pointed out that, “That’s my dad.”

A man with his arm around an older man’s shoulders

Vet Buddies — Charles Murray and son, Charles Jr.

His son also remembers when his father was asked if he wanted people to remember anything special about his experience, he said, “I hope that if anything else is done for the POWs, it is for the wives. They have lived the same hard time as the POWs.”

For Charles Jr., “That always told me about his character. Of all the things he could have said, he was worried about his wife.”

Despite the flashbacks of machine guns pointed at him, despite being “very badly treated,” former Corporal and Prisoner of War Charles “Rut” Murray says, “It was worth it.”

As President Obama stated in his proclamation, “America’s former prisoners of war gave their freedom so that we can enjoy our own. We may never know the full extent of injuries received nor burdens borne by these heroes and their families, but neither shall we forget their selfless sacrifice and unshakeable resolve.”