The Office of Secretary of State is launching a series of online profiles of World War II veterans, and the first person profiled is a familiar figure in Whatcom County — Ferndale pilot Joe Moser, who was captured and narrowly avoided death in a German concentration camp.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII approaches, the profiles are designed to retell the stories of the war’s aging veterans.
The profiles are the prelude to a new Legacy Washington exhibit, called “Washington Remembers: Their Sacrifice, Our Freedom,” that will open this summer in the lobby of the Office of Secretary of State, at the state Capitol in Olympia. The exhibit will feature photographs and artifacts shared by Washington’s WWII veterans or their families.
“Most of the Washingtonians who served in World War II have passed away, so it’s important to capture and share stories of those soldiers still alive so current and future generations have a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who fought in this pivotal war,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
She said Moser’s story was “as dramatic, heartbreaking and, in the end, triumphant as any you’ll read or see in a movie.”
In August 1944, Moser was a fighter pilot who was shot down during his 44th mission over France. After German guns positioned near decoy trucks downed his plane, one of his boots snagged when he tried to bail out. He barely escaped before the plane crashed near a farmhouse.
Moser was sent to a prison near Paris, where he joined other Allied airmen. The Germans called them “terror fliers” and shipped them in cattle cars to Buchenwald. Altogether, he and 167 other Allied airmen, including 82 Americans, spent two months in Buchenwald rather than in a humane POW camp, as called for by the rules of war.
Buchenwald was a brutal place. The airmen slept outdoors on rocky ground. Prisoners shriveled on a meager diet of foul food. Those too weak to work were killed and burned. More than 50,000 people died there.
Moser and the other airmen survived, in part, because they were soldiers under the command of their ranking officer, a flier from New Zealand. They marched and exercised together, and watched each other’s backs.
Surprisingly, German air force officers — perhaps from mutual respect for airmen, perhaps because of their disdain for the Gestapo and SS members who ran Buchenwald — moved the airmen to another POW camp just four days before they were scheduled to be executed at Buchenwald.
Then, in early 1945, the airmen were marched west through frigid winter weather because Russian troops were advancing from the east. Moser collapsed and nearly died, but two other prisoners carried him to the next village and he revived. Three months later, U.S. troops liberated Moser and other prisoners at a camp.
Moser’s story is featured in the documentary “Lost Airmen of Buchenwald,” and in the gripping book “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald, “ written with the help of author and businessman Gerald Baron.
Now 93, Moser is scheduled to receive the French Legion of Honor award Thursday, April 2, at the World Trade Center in Seattle.
“We owe these veterans our utmost respect,” Wyman said. “For years, many of our service members did not speak of the war. In many cases, they were simply humble. But in other cases, they kept silent because people accused them of exaggerating their claims or making up stories.”