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Ferndale flier's WWII POW story coming to film

A documentary film is being made about Ferndale retiree Joe Moser, a P-38 pilot during World War II who was shot down over France and put in a German labor camp for several months. He recently went to Buchenwald for the anniversary of its liberation.
A documentary film is being made about Ferndale retiree Joe Moser, a P-38 pilot during World War II who was shot down over France and put in a German labor camp for several months. He recently went to Buchenwald for the anniversary of its liberation. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

FERNDALE - A U.S. flag was raised over Buchenwald in April, 65 years after Allied troops liberated the notorious German labor camp.

The flag symbolized that U.S. prisoners had been held at Buchenwald, something that Ferndale resident Joe Moser knew from personal experience, but a notion that many people once scoffed at.

For nearly four decades after World War II, Moser remained mum about his eight months as a prisoner of war in Germany. Then, in 1982, he agreed to a newspaper interview, and the floodgates of memory opened.

Since then, Moser, 88, has spoken at numerous schools, had a book written about him and is now the subject of a documentary that might be released as early as this summer.

"I held it in for a long time," Moser said at his home in north Ferndale. "I'm glad it's out."

Moser was one of just 168 Allied fliers imprisoned at Buchenwald. For a long time, it was a given that no U.S. troops were held there.

Soon after the war, Moser spoke to a local civic group and was surprised to hear people doubt his story. Even the officer who Moser spoke to when he was discharged from the service pooh-poohed his account of Buchenwald.

"He said, 'No, you weren't there, no Americans were there,'" Moser recalled the officer saying.

So Moser clammed up. He settled in Ferndale, raised a family and worked for a furnace company. He told his family he'd been a POW, but he left out the details.

Those details come alive in "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald," the 2009 book about Moser written by Bellingham businessman and author Gerald Baron. The book proved a revelation even to Moser's family.

"It made me realize who he was," said Jaleen Bacon of Ferndale, one of his daughters.

BURN AND CRASH

A Ferndale farm boy, Moser knew in high school that he wanted to fly a P-38, the Army Air Corp's one-man fighter. So he was overjoyed when he passed the pilot's test.

Moser completed 43 combat missions over Europe. On Aug. 13, 1944, he lifted off from a temporary airfield in Normandy for what was to be his 44th. He was 22 years old.

Moser saw a convoy of German trucks stopped on a road and dropped down to release his bombs. The convoy was a decoy, with anti-aircraft guns stationed close by.

Flak struck Moser's left engine. As flames raced up the wing to his cockpit, Moser tried to gain enough altitude to reach safe territory, but he had to bail out. To avoid being snagged by the plane's tail when he ejected, Moser turned the plane upside down and prepared to drop out.

But the toe of one of his boots became caught in the canopy. Moser was hanging under the plane as it plummeted toward a farm west of Paris. At the last moment, the leather tore free.

Moser barely had time to open his parachute before the plane crashed near a farmhouse and barn. Sympathetic farmers tried to help him escape, but German soldiers arrived and Moser was soon on his way to a prison in Paris, where other fliers were being held.

Captured Allied soldiers were usually held in POW camps. The camps were bad, but not as bad as slave-labor work camps like Buchenwald, or extermination camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka.

But the Germans deemed Moser and the other prisoners "terrorist fliers," because many of them had been sheltered by the French Resistance before falling into German hands. With the Allies nearing Paris, the 168 Allied fliers, including 82 Americans, were crammed into train cattle cars and taken to Buchenwald.

An estimated 56,000 people died at Buchenwald from disease, brutal conditions, executions and starvation. Moser, normally 153 pounds, dropped 40 pounds during his two months there.

"I was one of those empty human sacks, eyes staring out lifelessly behind deep sockets with sunken cheeks and the filthy striped uniform sagging over my skeleton," he recalls in his book.

Moser later learned the fliers were to be executed that Oct. 24. But a few weeks earlier, officers from the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force, inspected the fliers at Buchenwald, showed disgust at the way they were being treated, and arranged for them to be sent to a POW camp.

"There was the Nazi party and there was the regular military," said Mike Dorsey, the California filmmaker putting the final touches on his documentary about Moser. "The Luftwaffe were the regular military. The Luftwaffe still had some military honor."

NEAR DEATH, THEN LIBERATION

Moser and the other fliers were taken by train east to a POW camp, the same one where six months earlier 76 prisoners had tunneled out. All but three were captured, and 50 were executed, a story later told in the movie "The Great Escape."

In early February 1945, with the Russians advancing from the east, the Germans marched Moser and the other prisoners south through brutal winter weather toward a POW camp at Nuremberg. At one point, Moser felt oddly euphoric as he walked. He didn't realize he was near death.

He collapsed, unconscious. Left alone, he would have died, but two fellow prisoners carried him a quarter-mile to the next village, where he slept for 26 hours in a makeshift hospital, regaining the strength to carry on.

Moser spent two months at the Nuremberg stalag, surviving Allied bombings of war factories at the camp. With the Allies advancing, Moser and 15,000 other prisoners were marched 70 miles south to a camp near the town of Moosburg. Less than two weeks later, on April 29, U.S. troops liberated Moosburg's 130,000 prisoners. It was the largest POW camp in Germany.

FILMED IN EUROPE

Moser returned to Moosburg in April as part of his trip to mark the anniversary at Buchenwald. He made the trip courtesy of a foundation that works to ensure people never forget what happened there.

Joining Moser on the trip were his daughter Jaleen Bacon, daughter Julie Hanes of Winthrop, and nephew Garrett Moser of Bellingham.

Dorsey and his crew also came to film Moser at Buchenwald, Moosburg, the prison in Paris, and at the field where Moser's plane crashed.

Dorsey began the project to document the wartime experience of his grandfather, Elmer Freeman of Florida. Like Moser, Freeman was a flier shot down over France. And like Moser, he was sent to Buchenwald, marched to the other camps and liberated at Moosburg.

"This is part of my family history," Dorsey said. "My grandpa was pretty open with what he went through."

Dorsey's research led him to Baron's book about Moser, and he and Baron met in California. They agreed to expand the film to cover both Freeman and Moser, and Baron agreed to help write the film and raise money for it.

Despite his experiences, Moser said he harbors no hatred toward the Germans, though he does acknowledge lingering animosity toward the German SS guards who ran the camps.

"You didn't dare cross them," he said.

Surviving those eight months in captivity - thanks, in part, to the soldiers who carried him to the village hospital, to his faith, and to his love of family - left Moser a changed man, one filled with gratitude and perspective.

"Life is worth living," Moser said. "I'm glad I went through all this, but I wouldn't wish it on anyone else."


MOSER TALK

What: Joe Moser will discuss his World War II experiences, chronicled in the book "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald."

When: 3 p.m. Saturday, May 22.

Where: Everson McBeath Community Library, 104 Kirsch Drive.

Cost: free.

Online: joemoserstory.com.

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