Ruth Murtaugh: GI Widow

In our three-month tour of the United States, we spoke to over 60 surviving GI Brides, and heard a very wide range of stories, some joyful and others tinged with sorrow. But of all the women we spoke to, none told a sadder tale than Ruth Murtaugh.

Ruth grew up in Kentish Town, North London and her childhood home was not a happy one. Her father had died when she was five, and by the time Ruth was 17, her mother was on her third marriage. The new husband had already molested his own children, and soon Ruth found herself having to fight off unwanted approaches.

Before she had even turned 18, Ruth ran away from home. She went to live in Bournemouth, where she soon met a dashing young sailor who worked on a submarine, the HMS Tempest.  They fell in love, married and Ruth found herself with a little baby girl. It seemed like her life had turned a corner.

But there was a superstition among Navy wives that if the wife saw a submarine going out, it would spell bad news for her husband. Ruth ignored the old wives’ tale, and waved her husband off as he departed for the Mediterranean.

It wasn’t the only bad omen. On Friday 13 February 1942, the Tempest was patrolling the Gulf of Taranto when she was hit by a depth charge fired by the Italian destroyer Circe. With her battery tanks burst, the submarine began to fill with Chlorine gas and was forced to surface. The Italians fired on her, and the Tempest sank to the bottom of the ocean. Only one in three British sailors survived the incident.

When Ruth learned that her husband had perished in the attack, she was devastated. She felt like she was poised on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but rather than give in to it she decided to fight back. ‘I’m going to have a go at Hitler too,’ she announced, taking herself down to the nearest recruiting office.

Ruth’s preference was to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service in memory of her husband, but when they told her they had no position for her, she signed up with the WAAFs, the women’s equivalent of the Air Force, instead. She was assigned to Balloon Command and soon found herself travelling all over the country.

During one posting in London, Ruth met a handsome young American man, who told her he was going to marry her. She replied that she wasn’t ready to marry again, but when the GI proved persistent, Ruth’s mother convinced her to accept him – he was a good man and very fond of Ruth’s young daughter. In November 1943, Ruth was walking down the aisle for the second time.

When D-Day came around the following June, Ruth’s second husband was sent over to Europe. She waited anxiously for news, and was relieved to hear that he had survived the initial invasion. When he returned to Britain on leave, the couple conceived a child, but Ruth’s husband was soon sent back to Germany. Before long, she received notice that he had died there.

Heartbroken by a second bereavement, Ruth didn’t know what to do with herself and her children. But when her American in-laws began writing to her, and suggesting she come over to the States, she decided that a new life in the new world was worth a shot. ‘I had nothing in England except my children,’ she told us. ‘So I thought, well why not?’

Ruth crossed the Atlantic on the SS Argentina, the very first vessel to offer official passage to war brides. She travelled to Rio Grande City in Texas, a desolate place just north of the Mexican border. ‘I thought I’d come to the end of the earth,’ she recalls wistfully. ‘It was like the last place God ever made, and he forgot to finish it.’

Ruth found her in-laws were kind to her, at least at first. But when she began to move on from the loss of her husband, things deteriorated between her and the family. ‘They thought I should be sitting at home crying for their son,’ she recalls. ‘Well, I’d lost two husbands now – I said I can’t do that again.’

In 1947 Ruth met a disabled veteran in a bar, and they got talking. He had served as a radio operator in the Air Force and survived three plane crashes during the war, leaving him badly crippled. When they met he was playing the piano, and he berated Ruth angrily for putting a coin in the Juke Box while he was playing. But the two of them got talking and soon Ruth had fallen in love for a third time. Within a year, the couple had married, and Ruth once again hoped she had found her happily ever after.

But it wasn’t to be. Less than five years into her marriage, Ruth’s third husband died, leaving her widowed yet again – this time for good.

Now 90, she still lives at the ‘end of the earth’ in Rio Grande City, although these days it’s more of a metropolis than a desert.

Despite all that has happened to Ruth, she considers herself fortunate – she has four wonderful daughters who mean the world to her. And she hasn’t lost her sense of humour either. In the retirement home where she now lives she recently met a US Marine. ‘Well I’ve already married the navy, the army and the air force,’ she told him, ‘and I’ve been looking for a marine!’



  1. An interesting story written about my mother. Unfortunately, the last part of the story is very inaccurate. When she came to the U. S. she came to live in Mission, Tx. with my grandparents. She was VERY close to my grandmother, but did have problems with my grandfather when she began dating again. She married her third husband in 1947 and they were happily married for 27 years. This union produced three more children, a son and two more daughters. Her third husband did suffer for many years as a result of injuries sustained in WWII which probably led to his early death. She has never remarried, although she is still alive and very sharp at age 93, living alone in an assisted living facility in Pharr, Tx.

    • Hi Pat,

      I’m sorry to hear there are inacuracies in the story. Ruth told me that her third husband died in 1952, but perhaps she misremembered the date. If you can let me know more I will amend the article above. I’m really glad to hear that they were together for longer as she had such terrible luck with the first two husbands dying. She did say that both her in-laws objected to her remarrying, although she got on much better with her mother-in-law than her father-in-law.

      Do you have a picture of Ruth that I could add to the article, if she wouldn’t mind?

      Best wishes,

      • Duncan,

        Thank you for your response. I will included a more current photo of my mother, Ruth Murtaugh, if you will forward me your current email address. I could not figure out how to do an attachment here.

        • I was really moved by your moms story
          On Saturday, 11Feb I will be giving a section to the widows and widowers of our church
          I intend to include your moms story
          Could you share a picture or let me know about her spiritual life?
          I too was in the Army for 22 years, then a missionary to Germany and today I am a Baptist Pastor in North Carolina

          Pastor Dave Mros
          Also on face book

  2. Hi Ruth & Pat.
    Have just read this article on the PC.
    Your mum has had a good life,but does she remember her sister
    Frieda,who unfortunately passed away in 2004.
    Ruth stayed with Friedas family during the war,Bill Tubb,father,Michael Tubb and myself Janet.
    Pat was born in Belper,Derby road,in bills house with his children.

    Frieda your sister was also born in Birkenhead.

    Hope you read this and add to your memories.
    Love Janet

    • Janet,

      So wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for the additional information. Mother still frequently speaks of her sister, Frieda, with much fondness. Although she occasionally gets her dates confused, her mind is very sharp. She will be so pleased that I heard from you. Please contact me if you are on Facebook so that we can remain in touch.

      Love Pat