My grandfather, Frank Cartwright, and Luther Meads, his cousin and best friend, both enlisted on the same day after the U.S. joined WWII. They were both paratroopers in Company A of the 508th Infantry Regiment. This history is based on his accounts of D-Day and the year that followed.
“It was suppose to have been a low drop, you know— so we wouldn’t be in the air that long and sitting duck targets for the Germans. The plane had become separated from the rest of the group, and there was intense antiaircraft fire coming from everywhere. When the green light went on and we started jumping I noticed immediately upon exiting we were way too high.— about 5,000 feet I would say. Looking down all I could see were flashes, explosions and tracers. I remember thinking, so much for surprise. This is not going to be good. I was right. To top it off, we were miles from our intended drop zone, it was a real mess. My worst fears were proven true, as I got closer to the ground. Those Air Force guys had dropped us smack dab on top of a German Panzer Tank regiment command post. Those German tanks were just sweeping the landing zone with nonstop machine gun fire, picking us off as we landed, while their infantry support was using us for target practice while we were in the air. How I managed to make it down without getting hit was a miracle.”
In the midst of the horrors surrounding him, he hit the ground alive, got himself out of his parachute harness and crawled over to a soldier who was laying only a few feet from him. The soldier didn’t respond to his touch, so he rolled him over only to find himself looking into the lifeless face of Luther. He’d lost his best friend. After lying there in grief for some time, he heard the sound of German soldiers nearby. He played dead for a while, trying to escape detection, but as dawn approached he knew he had to try to find cover, so he started a slow crawl towards a hedge.
“Never could figure out why that German let me get so close, the only thing I could figure was he was as scared and green as I was. I was crawling along with a grenade in one hand and dragging my carbine with the other hand and made it to the hedgerow when there was a tap on my helmet with a muzzle of a German rifle. I had just about crawled in the guy’s hole! I don’t think I would have let anybody get that close to my hole if that had been me, but one thing for sure, he had me.”
He was taken prisoner and transferred to a French monastery for holding for a few days before being taken by truck to a larger French town where he was kept along with some other prisoners in what had at one time been a French Army Cavalry barn. The night they arrived, the town was bombed and come morning the only building still standing was the barn. Once again the prisoners were loaded into trucks for transport, through Allied bombings. The convoy he was in was attacked, causing the German guards to run away, leaving the prisoners on the trucks.
“The trucks were burning, the guards were gone, and we began running. An American Major grabbed me and a bunch of fellow prisoners as we went by telling us we would be a lot more use to the Army helping save the wounded on these trucks than escaping right now.
We could hear the wounded screaming in the burning trucks. We agreed with the Major; we couldn’t just run off and let them burn, so we returned to the trucks and evacuated the wounded. Years later when I went to my unit’s reunion at Ft. Bragg, I ran into a guy that said he remembered my saving him off a burning truck. He was most appreciative, so I guess it was good.”
Without the escape, my grandfather remained a POW and was moved to a German Prisoner of War camp (Stalag XIII-B) where he remained until May 7, 1945, almost a full year later, when the camp was liberated.