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A soldiers story
Killed in WWII, fathers letters to Statesboro woman bring him to life
Ginger in Holland Web
Ginger Rutledge Gregory visited the gravesite of her father this past spring at the U.S. Military Cemetery in Margraten, Holland. Gregory last saw Private Robert Lee Rutledge when she was four-years-old, just before he was sent overseas to fight in World War II. - photo by Photo courtesy Ginger Rutledge Gregory

When 4-year-old Ginger Rutledge saluted Private Robert Lee Rutledge, wrapped her small fingers around his neck for a lingering hug and said goodbye, she didn’t know she would never see her daddy again.

That was September 1944. While fighting against a brutal attack by two German Divisions in the vicinity of Meijel, Holland, Pvt. Rutledge was killed in action on Oct. 29, 1944, yet another casualty of World War II. But, 60 years later, words Pvt. Rutledge wrote to his daughter would be immortalized in a speech by the president of the United States.

Rutledge enlisted in the United States Army in April 1944 and was stationed in Fort McClellan, Ala., for 17 weeks, leaving his wife, Marguerite, 4-year-old Ginger, and 2-year-old Robert “Bubba” Leron Rutledge, in his hometown of Lumpkin, Ga., which is just south of Columbus.

“I remember my mother, my brother, my gram-mama and my Uncle Jay driving from Lumpkin to Fort McClellan to see him,” said Ginger Rutledge Gregory, who has lived in Statesboro for many years.

Sometimes other family members would make the journey, but they would always pack food to take with them and sometimes slept in the car because the few motels available had no vacancies.

“I learned later that gas was rationed and some other family members would give my family their gas tickets, so we could make the trips to see Daddy if we’d used all of ours,” Gregory said.

“My brother and I wanted to be soldiers like our daddy so my mother ordered us Army suits from Sears, Roebuck and Company.”

 

Shipping out     

Pvt. Rutledge was sent to Fort Meade, Md., for a short time before being shipped overseas.

“The last time Daddy was home, he asked my mother and grandparents not to worry about him, that he’d be back soon.”

Pvt. Rutledge’s family wrote him every day after he shipped out in September. Ginger remembers that her mother and grandmothers anxiously waited for the mailman to come each day. When a letter from her dad came, the whole family gathered around to hear his news.

Gregory remembers, “I loved taking a letter to the mailbox and raising the flag and later running to the mailbox to see if we got a letter to bring to my mother because it would make her so happy.”

Soon, however, the letters would stop coming.

“I remember when a man came to our house to deliver a telegram. The man looked so sad when he handed it to my mom. When she read it, she began to cry. Then my gram-mama read it and began to cry. My granddaddy and Uncle Jay were so sad; I couldn’t understand. They didn’t tell my brother and me that our daddy was missing in action.”

It wasn’t until March 1945 that another telegram arrived. “

My mother and grandmother cried and my granddaddy and Uncle Jay sat by the fireplace with their heads propped in their hands. All my cousins came and my mother’s family and friends and neighbors. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t realize the severity of it.”

Rutledge’s family received very little information at that time about his death.

 

Pvt. Rutledge’s death

Five months after the final telegram, Rutledge’s commanding officer explained the battle in a letter.

“Naturally, in the face of such an assault, we were forced to give some ground. The company of which your husband was a member was almost completely encircled for 48 hours. The escape of those who survived seemed miraculous. Since they had to withdraw through swamps and peat bogs, they were forced to leave their dead and the more seriously wounded behind.”

He continued, “The bodies of those who passed on were, when the territory in which they lay was taken and held by the enemy, buried by the Germans. After the area was retaken by the British, these graves were carefully searched out and the bodies exhumed for internment in an American Military cemetery with full rites and honors, both religious and military.”

The letter ended with, “I wish that I could give you more detailed information regarding your husband’s death, but none is available. I hope, however, that my brief explanation of the circumstances occasioning your delay and suspense has helped you to realize how difficult it sometimes is, despite the Army’s most conscientious efforts, to give true information as to status from the exact date on which a man becomes a casualty.”

Months passed again before the Rutledges found out exactly where he was buried.

“My dad requested that if he fell, leave him there,” Gregory said. “He wanted to leave good memories at home.”

Rutledge is buried in the United States Military Cemetery in Margraten, Holland, Plot D, Row 7, Grave 21. He also has a memorial stone in his family’s cemetery plot in Lumpkin, Ga.

 

Treasure trove of letters

For years and years, Gregory had very few memories of her dad, other than that military time and snippets, like, running to meet him at the end of the driveway when he came home from work and standing on the running board of the car for the rest of the drive with her dad’s arm holding onto her from the window as he parked the car.

Decades later, Gregory had the opportunity to learn so much more about her father. She and her brother, Bubba, were visiting their Uncle Jay, who was declining in health.

“He left the room and returned with an old brown duffle bag that I remembered seeing in my gram-mama’s closet years ago. He told Bubba and me that he was putting the bag in our care and asked us to take good care of it just as gram-mama had asked him to take care of it.”

In the bag were more than 200 letters. The first letter Gregory pulled out contained a picture of her mother, brother and herself that her mother had sent. It was returned unopened because her father was missing in action and never received the letter.

Gregory gave her brother the privilege of reading the letters first. When she took her turn with the letters in September 2001, Gregory read and cried and laughed and cried and treasured every word.

“I learned so much by reading all of those letters,” she said.

But the one that brought her the greatest joy was the one she found at the bottom of the bag, a letter he wrote Gregory on her 5th birthday.

The letter said, in part:

“My Darling Baby. What sweet memories I have today. It carries me back five years ago. We thought we were as happy as could be until God sent you down to us. You’ll never know how proud I am of you. I’ve always, since that day, done everything possible for your benefit. I never dreamed of being away from you as I am now. You are too young to understand it now, but you will later. It’s all for your benefit.”

Gregory wept with pride and admiration for the man who loved her dearly. She treasured the words of that letter and others so much that she shared them with a website devoted to World War II veterans.

 

A call from the White House

Others took note of her words online, too.

“My husband John answered the phone one day and I heard him say, ‘I’m sorry, but we didn’t order anything from lighthouse,’ but he said the caller asked to speak to me.”

When Gregory took the phone, the speaker said he was calling from the White House and asked permission for President George W. Bush to read an excerpt of her letter at the 60th anniversary of the May 1945 signing of the Berlin armistice that ended the war in Europe at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

In May 2005, President Bush, surrounded by white crosses marking the graves of American soldiers, said:

 “There is no power like the power of freedom, and no soldier as strong as a soldier who fights for that freedom. Private Robert Lee Rutledge was one of those soldiers. He gave his life fighting against a brutal attack by two Nazi divisions. Weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter on her fifth birthday. He told his daughter, ‘You came into a free world, and I want you to finish in one.’

“Sixty years later, Ginger is still free, and she does understand. And so do her children and grandchildren. Private Rutledge did his job well, and the men who fought and bled and died here with him accomplished what they came for.”

This past spring, Gregory stood in the country where President Bush spoke those words and where her father uttered his last words.

At 75, Gregory and her sister-in-law made the trip to Holland.

“I was right there. I planted an American flag. I went to where he fought and died. I saw what he described in his letters. I saw the peat bogs.”

Gregory also met the Dutch man who adopted her father’s grave and has placed flowers on it for years.

For Gregory, it was closure.

“Saying goodbye to my daddy was not easy. It took me years to get there, and I was not ready to leave. I felt a peace in my heart that I had not felt before. Now I know what a beautiful and peaceful place he is resting in with his other 8,301 comrades buried there.”  

 

 

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