Army POW’s life of service in and out of uniform

Air Force veteran Tillman Rutledge served the nation in and out of uniform. Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs

As the nation honored its Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action on Sept. 15, South Texas reflects on one of its own who continued to serve other veterans once he returned home.

Tillman Rutledge enlisted in the Army to go overseas during World War II and fight for his country. He was 17. He was captured in the Philippines in 1942, where he was a POW for 3 1/2 years.

Rutledge survived the brutal 65-mile Bataan death march, where thousands of troops died due to the brutality of their captors. Prisoners were forced to walk for five days without food, water or rest. POWs were beaten along the trail and killed if too weak to walk.

Daniel Rutledge, Tillman’s son, reflected on how his father did not share many details and stories about his time as a POW, but the ones he did share stick with Daniel to this day. He recalled how prisoners were given just one canteen cup of water at a time.

“They had to figure out how to utilize it, filter it and drink it. It’s amazing he made it through there. It really is,” Daniel said.

Tillman released an autobiography in 1997, “My Japanese POW Diary Story,” in which he shares lessons he carried throughout his life.

“One thing we learned quickly as Japanese prisoners of war was to adapt quickly to situations where you had no say. I have known ex-POWs who are still bitter, still hate. I’ve told them they are only hurting themselves to no avail. Hate can tear a person apart and that’s sad,” Tillman wrote.

After being shuffled from camp to camp and forced to work in coal mines, Tillman and other survivors were liberated in September 1945.

The experience did not deter Tillman from continuing to serve. He reenlisted and continued to serve in the Air Force for another two decades. For his service, he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, the POW medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.

After Tillman retired with 26 years of service, he continued to serve in a new capacity: as a volunteer at the Audie L. Murphy VA in San Antonio, from when opened its doors in 1973.

Providing more than 37 years of service as a volunteer, Tillman accrued over 41,000 volunteer hours. Daniel, an employee at South Texas VA, fondly remembers the time he spent alongside his father in serving veterans as volunteers: “He was a great helping hand and never said no.” His mother, Joyce Ann, also served as a volunteer at Audie L. Murphy VA, where she gave more than 24 years and 15,000 hours of service.

Daniel, a veteran, remembers his father and mother leading by example and guiding him into volunteering as a young man. He believes the time serving veterans assisted him in gaining a better understanding of the men and women who selflessly gave to their country.

While his mother was in hospice care at Wilford Hall in San Antonio, Daniel remembered how his father volunteered there. After her passing in 1997,

Tillman continued to serve until his passing on Oct. 25, 2014, at Audie L. Murphy VA.

“Volunteers made his last days very comfortable and honorable. He’s probably up in heaven, still giving.” Daniel fondly remembers one of his father’s favorite songs … Happy Trails by Roy Rogers. Rather than saying goodbye, Tillman would usually say “Happy trails.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs