Minden Press-Herald

Thursday
Oct 02nd

The Barbed-wire Preacher

We all have special "heroes" , many who served our country in times of war or conflict.

A former pastor has been 'surfacing in my thoughts' recently as Memorial Day approached.

Dr. William Rittenhouse was the son of a Baptist minister in North Carolina when World War II began. "Bill" was a student at Duke University headed for a career in medicine.

But duty called and he responded, joining the Army in 1942.  He soon applied for training in the Army Air Corps, hoping to become a pilot, a dream of his from youth.

After winning wings and the commissions, Bill, along with the other officers, began training for combat flying.

As they stood before their commanding officer, he reminded them how important it was to choose their crew members carefully:

"Tthe success of your own airplane in combat will depend upon the men who will man it. So be careful to choose men that you believe you can depend upon".

Bill related in his book (Barbed-wire Preacher) that as he stood before his commander, he decided to ask this question.

"Sir, I would like to ask ever man if he is a Christian, because I would like to take a Christian crew overseas with me."

Bill was surprised at the commander's reply:

"I would like that too for I believe they would be the most faithful group to be found anywhere."

And so it was!

His first assignment was in North Africa, fighting the Nazis.

On his twenty-sixth mission, while flying over their target, "a piece of flak no larger than a man's thumb nail cut through the pexiglass in the nose of the plane and struck me in head."

After several days in the hospital, getting repaired, they were given leave to rest before being transferred to Europe.

Soon they were flying bombing missions over Romania - Ploesti oil fields.

One of those gray days "when when the birds had enough sense o stay on the ground", they headed out on a bombing raid.

The 38 planes in the bomb squadron hit the targets, but as they began to make their return flight, a swarm of over 100 German fighter planes surrounded them.

Only eighteen planes were able to survive and escape the attack.

Bill Rittenhouse's plane went down over a Romanian farm. As he parachuted to the ground, both legs were broken, his back was broken and he sustained several other injuries.

Soon he was surrounded by farmers who "rescued him and several fellow crewmen", only to be taken as prisoner of war the next day.

He stayed in the hospital for several months before being placed in a prison camp near Bucharest.

The camp was divided into several sections.

"We were to have no contact outside our immediate zone."

Borrowing a Gideon New Testament from one of the men, Bill began to read to the men.

Being a preacher's son, he knew various sections that would be of help and comfort to share with the men.

As news of "the preacher in the other camp spread" through the pipe-line, requests began to made to smuggle him from one camp to another to minister to the men.

Over the next months, Bill was able to administer the Lord's Supper, pray over dying men, baptized some in a borrowed bath tub, and to encourage others to "hold on and don't give up". .

In June 1944, the American and Russian planes began to fly over this area.

Soon news came that the war was ending. Germany surrendered, the prisoners were released and were on their way home.

Bill settled back in North Carolina, but instead of returning to Duke for medical training, he entered their Divinity School there and ultimately entered the ministry.

It was while he pastor of Nassau Bay Baptist Church (near NASSAU Space Center-Houston), he met many of the astronauts.

He ultimately joined the High Flight Foundation as president, and toured the world with Jim Irwin, Bill Pogue and others.

Over a period of time, he felt strongly about returning to the pastorate.

In time, he came to First Baptist Church, Tupelo, MS, where I was serving as Associate Pastor. I had the privilege of serving with Bill for two plus years.

An inspirational film was made of his 'war days' based on his autobiography -Barbed-wire Preacher.

Having celebrated Memorial Day this week, no doubt many of us have been reminded of special heroes who fought for us.

Consider writing a page about a special hero, if only to share with your family!


 

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