On August 13, 1944, Joseph F. Moser, a 20-year-old farm boy from the little town of Lynden, Washington, found himself far from home. The battle for Europe was raging in the skies over occupied France. Joe was the new flight leader for his squadron of four P-38 Lightning fighter planes, each of which carried two 500-pound containers of high explosives beneath their wings. He had already flown nearly 40 missions, but this day Joe’s fight for survival would really begin. His story, as told by Gerald R. Baron, is found in his book, A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald.
The Allies were working hard to cut the Nazi supply lines across France, so when Joe saw German trucks stopped on the road below, he led his squadron in a dive to wipe them out. As flak erupted all around them, he realized they’d been lured into a trap. His twin boom fighter shuddered as the left engine took a direct hit and burst into flames just 200 feet above the ground.
Joe pulled the plane into a sharp climb, released his load of bombs where they’d not hurt any French citizens on the ground, and headed for his base in England. Fire crept up the wing as his crippled plane limped for home. When the cockpit glass exploded and he felt himself burning, he flipped the plane over and dropped out. But mysteriously, he didn’t seem to be falling away from the plane. He realized the toe of his boot was caught in the cockpit and the ground was coming up fast. At the last minute, the leather tore, releasing him to fall free. At 400 miles per hour, he pulled the rip cord and his parachute billowed, jerking him to a sudden stop moments before he hit the ground. His plane plunged into the ground next to a house nearby and exploded.
He found himself surrounded by French farmers who’d seen what happened. They cut off his parachute and hid it, his helmet, and other pilot’s equipment under shocks of grain and motioned for him to join them in picking up the harvested grain. Within minutes the field swarmed with German soldiers looking for the pilot of the crashed plane. When the soldiers left, two young French men motioned him to follow them across the fields toward some trees. They were running as fast as they could when they heard the German motorcycles coming back. Joe was captured, along with the young men, and tossed into a windowless stone building. After a while, the men were taken out and Joe heard shots.
Shortly thereafter, he was thrown into a prison in Fresnes, France. Within days, the French resistance forces (considered terrorists by the Germans) had begun to openly fight against the occupiers. On August 25, the Allies entered Paris, and the Germans were frantic to get their prisoners deep into German territory. They crammed them into cattle cars, 95 people in a space meant for eight cattle. For five nightmarish days and nights they rode, starving, sick, with only a bucket for a toilet, until they reached a German prison camp. It wasn’t a Prisoner of War camp, where, according to conventions of war they should have been held, but Buchenwald, one of Germany’s dread concentration camps where prisoners were worked and starved to death. Until he landed there, Joe didn’t know about these places and the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the world’s Jews and all others they hated. Neither did the rest of the world until Buchenwald and other camps were liberated eight months later.
Joe spent two months in Buchenwald, one of 168 captured Allied airmen among some 80,000 other prisoners. These 168 were marked for execution by the German SS, who considered them terrorists because the French resistance had helped them. Just days before their scheduled execution, they received a visit by high-ranking Luftwaffe officers, who made no secret of their disgust at the treatment their fellow pilots had received at the hands of the SS. Again the Allied pilots were loaded onto cattle cars, less crowded this time, and taken to the first of several POW camps. Although conditions were still miserable, they were given enough food to ward off starvation and their families finally received word of their whereabouts.
When the men at last were liberated, Joe couldn’t stop eating. He put on 60 pounds in a month, and when he got home, people couldn’t believe he’d been in Buchenwald. In fact, two weeks after returning home, he was asked to speak to a local Lion’s club and did his best to tell about his experiences. Walking out of the room afterward, he overheard one man tell another, “I didn’t believe a word of it.” That was the last time Joe spoke about his experiences, except for his debriefing by a young officer when his 60-day leave was up. This officer flatly denied there’d been any Americans held at Buchenwald, and Joe says that to this day, no American flag flies among those of the other nations whose citizens were held prisoner there.
Not only was Joe unable to share about his experiences with anyone, for over forty years, he had nightmares about what he thought had happened to the Frenchmen who tried to help him and also to the family he imagined had burned to death in the house where his plane had crashed. Then one day in 1988 he learned the truth. Everyone had miraculously escaped.
Joe says he’s proud to have served his country. “If there is one thing to leave you with, it is that common ordinary people just like you and just like me can once in a while be called upon to show extraordinary courage and strength…Never, ever forget the price that many have paid to protect our precious freedom.”
This Memorial Day as always we’ll take flowers to where my parents rest in our home town cemetery. We’ll note, as always, the small flags fluttering on the numerous graves of those who fought for America. Some of those veterans laid down their lives as far back as World War I, some only recently. I will lift up my heart in thanksgiving for Joe Moser and each military person, dead or still alive, who gave or is giving so much for my freedom.
May God make us, and our nation, worthy of their sacrifices.