Local World War II fighter pilot’s heart-racing story of survival

Nov 11, 2012, 6:44 PM | Updated: Nov 12, 2012, 11:26 am
World War II fighter pilot Joe Moser, from Ferndale, raised the 12th man flag at Sunday’s Sea...
World War II fighter pilot Joe Moser, from Ferndale, raised the 12th man flag at Sunday's Seahawks game. He was one of the few airmen who were held in the Nazi's Buchenwald concentration camp. (Moser photo)
(Moser photo)

The Seattle Seahawks salute to veterans included a special honor for a World War II fighter pilot who raised the 12th man flag.

Joe Moser is rare among veterans. He was one of the few airmen who were held in the Nazi’s Buchenwald concentration camp. He told me his story, in the living room of his Ferndale home, and only cried once.

Moser was a farm kid from Ferndale, about 100 miles north of Seattle. It was clear he would be sent to fight in World War II, so he signed up for the U.S. Air Force.

“I saw a picture of a P-38 and oh, I just fell in love with it,” Moser says. “It was a good plane.

The 22-year-old first lieutenant flew 43 missions in his fighter plane. On his 44th attack over France, something went wrong on August 13th 1944.

“They had set a trap for us. My left engine was hit,” says Moser. “I was only about 200 feet off the ground when I was hit. I had enough speed to climb to about 3,200 feet.”

Moser holds a scale model Lockheed P-38 Lightning as he describes flames spreading from the engine to the cockpit, which was breaking up with hot shards of class hitting his flight suit.

“It was time to get out,” he says.

While ejecting from the plane, his shoe got caught. He was dangling upside down and going down rapidly with the plane.

“I had been talking to the plane, ‘Come on, leave me. Go,’ and it wouldn’t,” Moser recalled as if it happened yesterday.

Finally free, he deployed his parachute and landed in a wheat field, quickly gathering it up, and hiding it under the wheat. He tried to blend in with the French farmers.

Nazis drove by on motorcycles to the crash site. A couple of farmers planned to hide him, but a second set of Germans on motorcycles caught him.

Moser was interrogated and locked in a wine cellar for the night with two others. In the morning, the two with him were pulled out of the cellar. He heard two shots.

It gets worse.

Afraid every minute, and trying to recover from the plane crash, Moser was put on a boxcar with others and sent to what he thought would be a prisoner of war camp.

The destination – Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

At the time, most of the world didn’t know about the atrocities going on inside the Nazi concentration camps against the Jews and anyone deemed an enemy of Adolf Hitler.

Moser was confused by what he saw.

“Hundreds and hundreds of inmates that were skin and bones. Just skin over bones. There was nothing left to them,” he says.

He didn’t know what to make of the camp’s tall black smokestack and its unceasing noxious black plume of smoke.

A guard who spoke English told Moser and 167 other allied airmen the only way they’d leave was as smoke up the chimney.

“Life didn’t mean anything to them,” Moser says referring to the Nazi leaders.

In the weeks to come, he’d watch corpses pile up near him, with most of the poeple starving to death. He remembers eating grass soup.

“It had worms floating around in the soup. The first time I couldn’t eat it. It just wouldn’t go down,” he says. “After that you’ll learn to eat anything when you’re hungry.”

Eventually, the German Air Force got word that Allied Airmen were in Buchenwald.

“Two German officers come in and they interrogated us, and then they said ‘This is no place for fellow officers,'” says Moser. We had been there two months.

The Nazi pilots ordered that the airmen be sent to POW camps, two days before Moser was scheduled to be executed.

Saved again, but it wasn’t over.

They had to walk to various POW camps through the snow in what he called “death marches.”

“After Buchenwald where I’d probably lost 35 pounds in the two months we were there, I still hadn’t recovered much,” says Moser. “That first day we walked about 31 miles.”

Finally, April 29th, 1945 – eight months and two weeks after he was captured – a battle-scarred U.S. tank rolled into Moser’s POW camp.

It’s a sight he’ll never forget.

“The American tank came right up to gates and I was maybe 20 yards away. He run right over the gates and we were free then. Free. Free,” he whispers. “American bodies climbing all over it just to see the stars and stripes.”

If Joe Moser’s story ended there, you would think, what an incredible war story. What a remarkable man.

There’s more.

Freed from the camp and released from the Air Force, the U.S. government told Moser not to talk about what happened. In fact, they told him it never happened.

“When I was discharged the officer told me, ‘You didn’t go through that. No Americans were in Buchenwald.’ You can say what you want, I went through it,” says Moser.

He tried to tell the story a couple of times, once at an American Legion hall when he was back home in Ferndale.

“There were four gentlemen walking in front of me and I heard one of them say, ‘I don’t believe a word he said.’ That hurt,” Moser says. “After that I thought well, why bother saying anything nobody’s going to believe me.”

Moser lived a quiet life as a furnace repairman, with nightmares almost every night. He would scream out and try to run away in his dreams.

His wife, his kids didn’t even know he was imprisoned in Nazi death camps until 1982, when he talked with the Lynden newspaper editor about his ordeal, and later in greater detail with a local author who wrote a book called “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald.”

Today Moser occasionally talks with students about his experience in World War II.

The only time this 91-year-old veteran cried in telling his story to me, was when he talked about the U.S. flag, and what it represents.

“Freedom,” he says, pausing through the kind of crying that doesn’t make a sound as tears roll down the cheeks, “means everything to me.”

By LINDA THOMAS

View a photo gallery of Joe Moser including the image of prisoners of war climbing onto the U.S. tank that broke down the fence of their camp.

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Local World War II fighter pilot’s heart-racing story of survival