William Cartwright stood beside his son at his dining room table in Yakima’s West Valley looking over photographs, documents and dozens of envelopes filled with letters to and from his late wife.
They were from his time in World War II, and some of them were unopened. Those had been returned to his wife indicating that now-95-year-old Cartwright couldn’t be found. He was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, and for five months of his service and their early marriage, he was out of reach.
He pulled the box of archives out to share with U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside. Newhouse and two staffers arrived at Cartwright’s house on a morning earlier this month to listen to Cartwright’s story, recording it with audio and video to be archived in D.C. as part of the U.S. Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
The project began in 2000 as an effort to preserve the stories of veterans dating back to World War I. Two years ago, Newhouse’s staff began conducting interviews with veterans from Central Washington to add their stories to the collection.
Seventeen wars are catalogued in the national project, from the start of World War I in 1914 to the now-concluding war in Afghanistan.
The National WWII Museum estimates that 348 World War II veterans die each day nationwide, often taking their stories with them. Congress’ Veterans History Project aims to capture these histories. In Central Washington, 38 veterans’ stories had been documented in the project before Cartwright’s, according to Newhouse’s office.
Unlike some veterans who find it difficult to revisit their histories, Cartwright said it was hard for him to stop talking about his time in the Army once he got started. He wrote up nearly 20 pages detailing his journey. Newhouse had read the documents, and was meeting with him to tie the pieces together and gain further detail for the archives.
“I wasn’t what you call a hero, but I did my part,” Cartwright said.
Leaving for war
It was the December following his high school graduation in Indiana when Cartwright was drafted into the war. Given the option between joining the Army, Air Force or Navy, he chose the Army solely based on a later departure for training, determined to spend as much time with his high school sweetheart and fiancée, Marcella Evans. After months of training in Mississippi, he returned home on furlough for nine days and the two were married. She was able to join him for about three months in Mississippi. He later spent some months training in Indiana before being shipped overseas. He was first sent to Scotland for a week, then six weeks in England before reaching northern France in pouring rain.
Cartwright’s company spent weeks in muddy fields, then boarded trucks to cross snowy mountains. They relieved other troops from dugouts, where direct hits from the enemy or attacks by German patrols were their greatest threats. After about 10 days posted at the dugouts, they were ordered to leave and destroy anything they couldn’t carry.
Walking all day through the woods, the company came to a large open area where they came across a German command car, which they “were able to knock out.” But the event attracted German artillery fire, and the group had only small arms. They set up camp for the night, digging shelters in the cold ground while keeping their bodies low to avoid machine gun fire.
In the morning, their captain ordered them to advance on a town about a half mile away. On their way, Cartwright spotted a tank in the distance and alerted the captain, who said it was an American tank. But soon smoke rings appeared and Germans opened fire on the company with plenty of artillery, leading his captain to pull back up a hill, back into the forest to dig in.
Soldiers had fallen, and Cartwright was busy fighting off German soldiers and gathering guns from fallen Americans. Not having eaten in a day and a half, he eventually went looking for food. He and a fellow soldier found a trailer of C-rations.
While rifling through the food items, a Jeep with three Americans sitting on the front drove up to them. Cartwright then realized German soldiers were driving the vehicle. With a machine gun mounted, a German soldier told the two soldiers to surrender. Moving swiftly, Cartwright managed to skirt the enemy and find his captain, who asked why he hadn’t thrown a grenade at the car. He told him that American soldiers were on it. The captain aimed a machine gun at the Jeep and made radio contact with their colonel, who informed him the company was surrounded and could easily be killed in their foxholes. The colonel told them to surrender, and Cartwright followed his captain out of the woods to surrender to the German troops.
Prisoner of war
It was Dec. 19, 1944. They were marched to a village that the Germans had just overtaken and searched. A German soldier found a photo of Marcella and asked it if was Cartwright’s mother. He said yes, and was able to hang on to the image of his wife.
The soldiers were kept in groups of about 60 and loaded into boxcars. They were crammed close together and received no food or water for three days, which Cartwright said was agonizing. One day the boxcars were bombed, with fire so close they felt the cars lifted off the tracks.
They eventually arrived in Bad Orb, a town in Germany that had been a ski resort before the war, he said. They were questioned about their military duties and put in barracks, with only their overcoats for warmth. They were fed small, unappetizing rations, he recalled. At times he would participate in wood cutting expeditions.
Soon he was selected to be moved to another prisoner camp, as one of 350 soldiers. He was sent near Berga am Elster, which was occupied by Jewish prisoners, and given a tag with an identifying number: 25942. The conditions of their new camp were slightly better. But unlike in Bad Orb, where Cartwright and his fellow prisoners were able to write and receive postcards once a week, enabling him to keep in contact with Marcella, they were not able to do so at the new site. In fact, he said, the prisoner camp was not listed with the Red Cross. So for months, Marcella’s letters were returned to her unopened, with writing indicating that Cartwright was missing in action.
At the camp they were underfed and put to work on tasks like helping German miners. The prisoners made attempts to escape, and some were successful. Others were killed after being caught.
Months later, Cartwright was part of a group of soldiers marched to a small village by a guard to dig graves for other soldiers who had died. After they buried and prayed over the bodies, villagers offered the soldiers food.
On the march back to the prison camp, the nine soldiers and their guard came to a fork in the road. Although it was clear which direction they had come from, they told the guard they should go the other direction. Cartwright said the guard realized he was outnumbered and agreed. They eventually came to a small village, where they asked to stay the night. American troops were just a few dozen kilometers away, they realized. Defeated, the German guard threw down his gun. “All is kaput,” Cartwright recalled him saying.
A return to life
It was April of 1945, and Cartwright was no longer a prisoner of war. A German family they took refuge with, the Bayer family, fed them and got them cleaned up. Cartwright said the family, not the German soldiers, instilled in him the true nature of the German people, which was of kindness and generosity.
“I don’t have any animosity against the Germans,” he told Newhouse.
Soon the survivors were reunited with the American troops. From there, Cartwright was sent to France, where he filled up on doughnuts and coffee, having survived starvation that killed many of his fellow soldiers. From France he was sent to a town in Canada, then to Maine, where the Army then “turned me loose.” Cartwright was given $7 by the Red Cross, which he used to buy a pack of cigarettes, each one so valuable he was able to bus and hitchhike his way back to Indiana to his wife and firstborn child.
They would go on to grow a family with three children, and Cartwright would spend over 27 years working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They moved west to Spokane and then to Yakima in 1991 after Cartwright retired, to be closer to their daughter Suzanne Russel, who lived in Union Gap. They lived there together until 2011, when Marcella died of pancreatic cancer. Cartwright carries his story with him, passing it on to Newhouse and the American people through his participation in the Veterans History Project.
“Thank you for helping preserve the history of World War II,” Newhouse told Cartwright as their meeting concluded. He commended Cartwright’s detailed storytelling. “People want to hear your story. ... I felt like I was there with you.”