Howard Rutledge's Inspiring Account of His Loneliest Christmas
by Moody Adams "Pacing my 4 x 8 foot cell at the Hanoi Hilton... I suddenly remembered this was Christmas Day. My memory flashed to our home in San Diego... It had been six years since our family had gathered together around a tree loaded with gifts," recalled Captain Howard Rutledge.
The Captain's freedom had ended on November 28, 1965. He was the Executive Officer of Fighter Squadron 191 aboard the, attack Carrier USS "Bon Homme Richard" which was conducting round-the-clock missions over North Vietnam. That day Rutledge was leading an attack of a strategic bridge. As he broke through the clouds at 5,000 feet antiaircraft fire exploded all around him. He was not afraid. Two hundred safe missions had eliminated any thoughts of being shot down. Suddenly two shells exploded by his tail section. The plane plummeted toward the ground spinning out of control. Howard jerked the ejection curtain and was hurled into the air just as another shell hit.
As his plane exploded into a ball of flame, he cried, "Thank You, God!" For the first time in twenty years, Howard prayed. As bullets came ripping through his parachute he went limp, pretending to be dead.
He landed in merciful mud as fifty captors converged on the Captain. The vengeful crowd began beating him, cursing him and kicking him. All that saved Howard's life was an old man who intervened just as he was loosing consciousness. He said, "I had no idea what my fate would be, but the Lord has made Himself abundantly clear. He was there with me in the presence of my enemies, and I breathed my second prayer of thanks that day."
His first prison was nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the prisoners. When they threw him in his closet-size-cell Howard said, "I had no clothes. I was freezing cold. I had eaten nothing for twenty-four exhausting hours. My body ached. My leg and wrist were sprained and swelling badly. I was covered with caked blood and filth." So began Howard Rutledge's seven year odyssey through the valley of death. Temperature in the concrete cell would rise to 110 in the summer. In the filth of the prison Howard counted up to sixty boils about one inch in diameter spread over his entire body. It was like the suffering of Job. The prison menu seldom varied. There were two meals a day. One was rice or hard bread with a liter of boiled water. The second was a bowl of soup made with rotten cabbage, seaweed, or the greens that grew around sewers. On top of the soup there would be a piece or two of sowbelly, a fish head, hamster, or dog meat. Diarrhea, dysentery, or flu were his constant companions. They would eat charcoal to try and help.
The only treatment for skin infectious or cuts was lye soap with its painful irritation. To counter the worms that worked through their intestines and sometimes crawled out their mouth, they would eat peppers or steal a drink of kerosene from a lantern. Rutledge's first torture session brought thanks to God. His dislocated left leg was so badly swollen he could not obey his captor's command to straighten it. A guard jumped on it and it popped back in place. He went though hours of suffering with his hands tied so tight the rope cut to the bone and his arms and hands turned a deep shade of blue. Then it got worse. They shackled Howard's hands behind his back and stuck his neck through ropes tying his ankles together. If he moved from this pretzel-like position he choked. A guard struck him repeatedly with a pole. Another jumped up and down on the ropes making them cut though his flesh.
Rutledge prayed for unconsciousness, on August 31, after a twenty-eight day trial by torture, Howard could remember he had children but not now many. He began saying his wife's name, Phyllis, over and over so he would not forget it. on Howard's first Christmas in captivity the ice cold misery was interrupted by a radio playing "Silent Night." As soon as it ended Hanoe Hanna came on with an assault of propaganda aimed at mentally torturing the homesick Americans. By May of 1967 Howard had memorized over one hundred hyms and portious of scripture. Howard told me, "I made it though by repeating over and over all day, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.'"
Rutledge relates, "I made God a promise. If I survived this ordeal, the first Sunday back in freedom I would take Phyllis and my family to their church and at the close of the service confess my faith in Christ and join the church. It took prison and hours of painful reflection to realize how much I needed God and the community of believers." On Sunday, February 11, 1973 Howard was freed and reunited with Phyllis who had waited five ears to confirm her husband was alive He united with the Clairemont Flrst Southern Baptist Church of San Diego.
His story was made into a movie and book--"In the Presence of Mine Enemies." The seven years of lonely hell transformed both Howard Rutledge and his concept of Christmas. He recalls, "I was astounded to realize how unaware I had been of the real meaning of Christmas on those days so long ago. Oh, I knew it was Christ's birthday and I knew He was God's Son—Someone very special. That was nice, but it took prison to help me to see what Christmas really meant.
"All the world was a prison, and every man a prisoner until He came. On that night two thousand years ago, God had invaded my world... God came down to search and and rescue prisoners. Baby Jesus, lying in filthy manger, surrounded by the smells and sounds of the barn yard, was more than a cute, cuddly kid, as Christmas cards portray Him. He died to set men free."