Members of the Association of Naval Aviators Whidbey Island Squadron 40 would likely have been delighted to hear any guest speaker who shared their passion for flying.
The guest at the group’s Nov. 8 meeting proved to be more than just a fellow aviator — but you would have been hard pressed to hear Capt. Joe Moser, USAAC (Ret.), describe himself as anyone extraordinary at all.
Following introductory remarks by ANA member Dave Weisbrod, ANA Whidbey president Scott Hornung welcomed the crowd at the Officers’ Club at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and introduced Capt. Moser to an audience whose honored guests included Rear Admiral Douglass Biesel, Commander, Navy Region Northwest; Rear Admiral Douglas Asbjornsen, Reserve Deputy Commander, Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command; Capt. Jay Johnston, Commanding Officer, NAS Whidbey Island; Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik; Kate Simmons of the Heritage Flight Museum in Bellingham and many others.
Gerald Baron, author of the book “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald,” which tells Moser’s story, said he would give “hints and highlights” of that story to the crowd, but openly invited them to ask questions of their guest.
“Joe would love to take your questions,” said Baron. “He loves to talk with pilots.”
Fighter pilot Moser flew 43 successful missions during the war. In August, 1944, during his 44th combat mission, his P-38 Lightning was shot down in France. With an estimated 100 feet to spare, he bailed out, and once on the ground, was assisted by French farmers and resistance fighters.
That is, until the Germans discovered them.
For 40 years, Moser’s family, friends, and neighbors in Ferndale knew very little of what he and others in his group of 168 World War II allied flyers were subjected to, said Baron.
“Picture more than six months’ internment in a German POW (Prisoner of War) camp — but then picture the weeks that preceded that with imprisonment at Buchenwald, the Nazi work camp where tens of thousands died a cruel death,” he said.
It may be somewhat of a revelation to learn why an American soldier would have ended up in a concentration camp. The inscriptions on their registration cards were key, said Moser.
“Our cards read ‘police prisoner,’ not ‘prisoner of war,’” he said. “We were being held as terrorfliegers, terror aviators.”
The ordeal at Buchenwald began with a German guard’s words to them on their arrival: “You will not leave here except as smoke through that chimney,” the guard said, referring to the crematorium building on site.
Two months of inhumane conditions later, Moser’s weight dropped from around 155 to 113 pounds. Four days before their scheduled execution, he and others were shipped to the first of several POW camps in Germany. Once, they were forced to march 65 miles in a blizzard. Many did not make it, said Baron.
But after experiencing the horrors of Buchenwald, even a POW camp seemed better, said Moser.
“It’s possible that few people looked more forward to a POW camp than our group did,” he said.
As it turns out, one camp, Stalag Luft III, particularly block 104, became famous, where a true story of an allied prisoner escape was later immortalized by the movie “The Great Escape.”
Moser said he owes much to his fellow aviators, to the French people who assisted him on the ground, to New Zealand Air Force Col. Philip Lamason, (who as a fellow allied prisoner, led and advocated for them), and even to some of the German Luftwaffe leadership who were instrumental in effecting their transfer out of Buchenwald. To this day, he does not bear a grudge toward those who mistreated him.
After listening with rapt attention to his experience, the ANA members and other guests seemed somewhat at a loss for the questions Moser encouraged them to ask. Someone asked what he liked most about the P-38 Lightning aircraft.
“Well, the P-38 is a wonderful plane to fly — except when you have to bail out,” answered Moser.
One Navy officer asked how he managed to keep his spirits up and what motivated him to stay alive while in a POW camp. It was a question that Moser appeared to ponder deeply.
Answering for him, Baron said, “Joe’s faith and family are very central to him — those are what he credits for helping him make it through it all.”
For November’s meeting, marked by Veterans Day ceremonies, Moser’s life story could not have been more relevant, said Capt. Gordon Smith, Navy Region Northwest Chief of Staff.
“What an honor for us to hear this man,” said Smith. “This was something not to be missed.”
In other business, ANA members also welcomed an intelligence briefing delivered by CTT2 James Henry of VAQ-142. Henry described Operation Odyssey Dawn, a joint effort involving the French, Canadians, and British the objective of which was to prevent further attacks by Libya’s Moammar Khadafi on Libyan citizens and opposition groups.
Hornung reminded ANA members that their next meeting will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at the CPO Club, and will be held jointly with the PBY Memorial Foundation. The joint meeting will be a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.