Bio: Heart, William Wallace (1920 - 1942/1943?)
Contact: Robert Lipprandt
Surnames: Fecker, Fritsche, Heart, Mook, Mueller, Schultz, Turnham
----Source: The Tribune - Phonograph (Abbotsford, Clark Co., WI), Wednesday, July 22 2009, Online Edition, By Ben Schultz
Heart, William Wallace "Billy" (May 29, 1920 - 1942/1943?)
Honoring a Soldier’s Sacrifice
Purple Heart given to sister 66 years later
"Anything I can say is scant consolation to you in your grief. It is my fervent hope that later, the knowledge that his courage and sacrifices contributed to the final victory may be of sustaining comfort to you."
—Elmer Mook, 1st Lieutenant, in a letter informing Gladys Fecker that her son, William, has died in World War II.
More than 66 years later William "Billy" or "Sunny" Heart has received a hero’s thanks for his service to America with a Purple Heart and Medal of Honor.
Billy Heart was born May 29, 1920. He attended Rusk and Riverside schools before going to Colby High School.
He was just 20 years old when he joined the armed forces. Though the U.S. wasn’t yet in World War II, its allies were fighting when Billy enlisted on June 14, 1940.
He initially wanted to join the Air Force but wound up in the Army. Billy’s sister, Kathleen Fritsche of Abbotsford, keeps a scrapbook of mementos from Billy’s life, including letters he sent home and photos of him as a serviceman.
A framed photo shows Billy in uniform with a widening grin and expectant eyes. He, like many men who later faced combat in World War II, shows no sign of fear or hesitation.
Surviving the march
Billy’s training took him to the West Coast before he was deployed in the Pacific Theater. While in the States, he wrote frequently, but the war soon cut off his letters home.
Amid the noble victories and brilliant campaigns of the Allies’ triumph in World War II are some retreats and defeats. The largest surrender suffered by a U.S.-led force was on the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942 as a combination of American and Filipino troops laid down their arms to the Japanese. Billy Heart was among the soldiers who held off their advance for more than four months.
But its aftermath was perhaps the most shocking event of the Pacific Theater.
Approximately 75,000 Allied troops were forced from the southern end of the peninsula on a merciless, 61-mile march to camps in the north. The Japanese, estimating they’d have about 25,000 prisoners, were unprepared for the extra men.
The tales of the Bataan Death March are gruesome and inhumane. Men were deprived of food and water for virtually the entire time. They were already disease-ridden and weakened from the tropical heat. Those who collapsed from exhaustion were left to die or were run over by Japanese trucks. Others were casually bayoneted or shot, often for no reason.
Heart withstood all these trials and more, ending up in a prison camp at Capanatuan in the Phillipines. Along the way approximately 21,000 prisoners died on the march.
While Billy survived the march, the camps were little better. Disease, starvation and lingering wounds claimed many of the survivors. Billy eventually succumbed to malaria. Death counts and dates from that time and place are unverifiable — his death occurred either on Nov. 9, 1942, or July 9, 1943.
"There is a lot of confusion on the exact date of his death," Kathleen said.
The family last heard from Heart in a letter marked Feb. 5, 1942. Japanese forces were repeatedly assaulting the Allied lines, and communication with the outside world was erratic. Even contact between units was becoming haphazard, with runners carrying messages more often than not.
For a long time the family had no idea of Billy’s whereabouts. It wasn’t until Jan. 29, 1943, that they received a telegram informing them he was a prisoner of war. Any information from the prison camps after May 1942 is unreliable.
Kathleen’s scrapbook speaks to the hope and frustration of the family not knowing where Billy was. Pages are full of letters that were returned, some marked with "deceased" written over Billy’s name.
Gladys Fecker had remarried after losing her husband. Billy and Kathleen have two more siblings, Marie Mueller, Colby, and Leone Turnham, Las Vegas. Gladys’ letters to her son expressed the family’s hopefulness in his return as the shackles of a POW camp prevented him from getting back to them.
"I have been patiently waiting for a letter from you, but none has come as yet," she wrote March 30, 1943.
Meanwhile the tide of war had turned in the Allies’ favor. An American and Filipino liberation force retook the Bataan Peninsula on Feb. 8, 1945.
The honored dead
The family did not receive closure until five years after the war’s end. Billy’s body finally came back home May 23, 1950.
Because so much time had elapsed and due to almost nonexistent records, Billy’s remains could not be identified with absolute certainty. The family, like so many others affected by the war, accepted the fallen hero just the same. Kathleen recalls Gladys stating it brought some finality to their long nightmare of losing Billy.
"My mother said it was some mother’s son so it doesn’t make any difference," she said.
Billy’s remains were brought back on a train that stopped in Spencer. Kathleen recalled how her mother, overwhelmed by grief, collapsed as soon as she saw the casket.
Eventually the sacrifices of the soldiers in the Philippines were honored. Billy’s family was given the Prisoner of War Medal in 1988. Kathleen, as the next oldest sibling, has also accepted a Medal of Honor on her brother’s behalf.
Recently, Billy Heart’s courage has been commemorated yet again. On May 28, 2009, Kathleen received a Purple Heart for him. It is awarded in the name of the president of the United States to any member of an armed force or any civilian national of the U.S. who has been wounded or killed in battle.
Kathleen also keeps a flag the family received after Billy’s death. She wishes to honor him by displaying it properly, folded and in a case, and asks for the assistance of the VFW to help honor Billy Heart’s sacrifice.
William Wallace Heart is interred at Abbotsford City Cemetery:
Heart, William W. | 29 May 1920 | 9 Nov 1942 | WWII-WI PFC 2 Chemical Co. | Single |
? Note: "Billy eventually succumbed to malaria. Death counts and dates from that time and place are unverifiable — his death occurred either on Nov. 9, 1942, or July 9, 1943."
Obituary of William Wallace Heart
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