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Originally published May 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 24, 2009 at 1:34 AM

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WWII fighter pilot tells story of heart-racing capture and unlikely rescue

Joe Moser, a soft-spoken furnace repairman in Whatcom County, bailed out of a flaming fighter plane over France in World War II and survived 60 days in a brutal Nazi concentration camp before being spared by German officers. He tells his story in a new book, "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald."

The Joe Moser story

For additional details on Joe Moser's experience, and locations selling "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald" by Moser and Gerald Baron, see

Co-authors to speak Monday

Joe Moser and Gerald Baron, co-authors of "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald," will speak at 3:30 p.m. Monday at a Memorial Day event at Ferndale's Hovander Park.

Other Memorial Day events

Seattle Veterans Museum

MON Displays to honor local military veterans, Remembrance Garden memorial, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, west side of Benaroya Hall on Second Avenue between Union and University Streets, Seattle; donations appreciated (

Memorial Day panel and program

SUN-MON World War II Tuskegee Airmen discuss their experiences, 2 p.m. Sunday; Memorial Day program with patriotic music by the Boeing Employees Concert Band, Museum President and CEO Dr. Bonnie J. Dunbar, special guests, noon Monday, Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle; $7.50-$14, free admission for veterans and active-duty military with ID on Memorial Day (206-764-5720 or

American Legion Memorial Day, Seattle

MON American Legion Cathay Post 186 services to honor members of the American armed services who have given their lives for our country, 4 p.m. Monday, Hing Hay Park, 409 Maynard Ave. S., Seattle (425-502-9225).

Memorial Day services at Magnolia

MON American Legion Post 123 Memorial Day services, 10 a.m. Monday at Magnolia Village, 32nd Avenue West and West McGraw Street, Seattle, and 11 a.m. at Fort Lawton Cemetery, Discovery Park, Seattle (206-909-6853).

Edmonds Memorial Day ceremony

MON Join in remembering those who died while in military service, special recognition to the Seabees, all current and former Seabees invited; bring a lawn chair, 11 a.m. Monday, Edmonds Memorial Cemetery, 820 15th St. S.W., Edmonds (425-771-4741 or

Paul G. Allen's Flying Heritage Collection Memorial Day forum

MON Members of the community, World War II bomber-crew members and other war veterans pay tribute to the men and women who sacrificed their lives for our country's freedom, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday, Paine Field, 3407 109th St. S.W., Everett; $8-$10 admission to Flying Heritage Collection, free for all veterans Monday (206-343-1543 or

Hillcrest Burial Park memorial ceremony

MON Ceremony conducted by American Legion Post 15 will honor the more than 1,100 veterans buried at Hillcrest, 11 a.m. Monday, 1005 Reiten Road, Kent.

Evergreen Washelli Memorial Day celebration

MON Marches, patriotic selections and other music provided by Seattle Pacific University Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Drum Corps, 1:30 p.m. Monday; service of remembrance, 2 p.m., Evergreen Washelli, 11111 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle (206-362-5200 or

Veterans Memorial Day Parade

MON 11:15 a.m. Monday, Main Street, Mill Creek (425-806-5285 or 425-337-9424).


It's hard to say which part of Joe Moser's story is most amazing:

Is it the fact that he bailed out of a flaming fighter plane over France in World War II and survived not only being shot down by Germans, but living 60 days in Buchenwald, a brutal Nazi concentration camp?

Or is it that he was spared from certain death by, of all people, officers of the German Luftwaffe, his sworn enemies?

And what about the fact that for most of his adult life, Moser, a soft-spoken furnace repairman in Whatcom County, seldom mentioned the details of his experience, hoping they would fade from memory?

Those details are now in the book "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald," cowritten by Bellingham author Gerald Baron. Baron also helped set in motion the process that led to Moser, 87, receiving — decades overdue — the Distinguished Flying Cross at a January ceremony at McChord Air Force Base.

Moser's ordeal dates to Aug. 13, 1944, when he flew his 44th mission in the cramped cockpit of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Flying over the French countryside, the 22-year-old first lieutenant from Ferndale was assigned to seek out any sign of the German occupiers, unload his plane's two heavy bombs on them, then strafe them with the plane's cannon and four machine guns.

"The French were lying low," Moser said. "Pretty much only the Germans were on the roads. So if it moved, we were supposed to shoot it."

Moser spotted a convoy of trucks parked in the open on a country road, an inviting target. "I didn't stop to think that it might be too obvious," Moser said. "It was a trap and I had fallen right into it."

As he swooped toward the convoy, anti-aircraft fire erupted from both sides of the road. His plane gave a sharp shudder as a shell ripped through the left engine, and it burst into flames.

Hit at 200 feet, Moser was able to climb back to about 3,000 feet, and he headed back toward the Allied lines. But within minutes the flames spread from the engine to the cockpit, bursting its glass cover and sending a hot shard down the back of Moser's flight suit.

Moser knew he needed to bail out, a particularly dangerous maneuver in a P-38 traveling at a low speed, because the pilot could get hit by the crosspiece of the plane's tail section. "More than one crashed P-38 was found with its pilot caught on the tail," Moser said.

He did what he was taught, releasing the canopy, then turning the plane over to fall out. But his shoe caught in a hinge, and he barely managed to get loose and open his parachute before he hit the ground. "The good Lord was riding with me, I'll tell ya," said Moser, a devout Catholic.

French farmers tried to hide Moser, but German soldiers who saw the crash soon caught up with him and demanded to know the whereabouts of his co-pilot, not realizing the P-38 was a one-man plane.

Moser was first taken to a French prison, but a week after his capture he and nearly 170 other captured Allied fliers were crammed into railroad boxcars for an five-day ride to Germany.

At Buchenwald, they were marched past rows of snarling dogs and armed guards, then were stripped, shaved from head to toe, swabbed with a stinging disinfectant and forced to sleep outside in a rocky field, with three men sharing a single blanket.

At the time, most the world hadn't yet learned of the atrocities Nazis were committing on a mass scale against Jews, political enemies and foreign prisoners, so Moser didn't initially know what to make of the camp's tall black smokestack and its noxious black plume.

But when a guard who spoke English "told us the only way we'd leave was as smoke up that chimney," the reality of the horror in front of Moser began to take shape.

In the weeks to come, he and his fellow prisoners would see corpses piled up outside the crematory. "People were dying faster than they could dispose of the bodies."

A typical day's "rations" consisted of a small dish of watery cabbage soup with cabbage worms still wriggling on top, and a hunk of bread laced with sawdust. Toilets were unsanitary trenches; dysentery was rampant.

Unlike "death camps" such as Auschwitz, developed for mass executions, Buchenwald was a sprawling compound of munitions factories, fields and barracks — built as a forced-labor camp for political prisoners.

But as the Nazi cause became increasingly desperate, conditions at Buchenwald grew more brutal. It's estimated that at one point, as many as 500 Russian prisoners a day were shot to death, and that over the course of the war, 56,000 of the camp's 250,000 inmates were either executed, starved, worked to death or died from illness.

Fortunately for Moser, conditions in the SS-run camp apparently shocked even some members of Germany's power elite, including high-ranking members of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force.

Luftwaffe officers had heard that Allied aviators were at the camp, and arranged a visit with the top officers among the prisoner group, a colonel from New Zealand and an American captain.

"The disgust they felt for their fellow German SS officers was clear," Moser said. "It was also certain that they did not approve of the way we were being treated."

An unusual sense of fraternity was at work: Although Allied and German pilots wouldn't hesitate to blast each other out of the sky in battle, they felt a kinship that predated World War II.

A week after the Luftwaffe visit, the Allied pilots at Buchenwald, which included about 60 Americans, were told to gather up their belongings. They were marched to a warehouse and handed back the clothes they had arrived in.

"There were smiles on our skeletal faces," said Moser. The fliers correctly surmised that they wouldn't be getting their belongings back if they were on their way to be cremated.

Moser, who weighed 155 pounds when he was shot down, had dropped nearly 40 pounds in his two months at Buchenwald.

Years later, after Allied forces examined camp records, Moser would learn Buchenwald's SS officers planned to execute the Allied fliers, and likely would have done so within days if the Luftwaffe hadn't intervened.

Even after he was transferred to a regular prisoner-of-war camp, life was not easy for Moser. As the Germans held less and less territory, he was twice relocated on wintertime "death marches," one of 60 miles and one of more than 100. But at the three POW camps where he was held, life seldom approached the hopelessness that pervaded Buchenwald.

On April 29, 1945 — eight months and two weeks after his capture — Allied forces finally burst into his camp. A battle-scarred U.S. tank appeared in front of him.

"A roar went up from the camp that rolled through the acres ... a roar of relief and joy and exhilaration that only the liberated can truly know."

Weeks later, after a lengthy ocean crossing, Moser was back on American soil. But he ran into skepticism regarding his story about Buchenwald, partly because there were no official records that Americans had been held there. Rather than defend his account, he opted to keep it to himself.

Even his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1946, didn't know about his Buchenwald experience until the early 1980s, when the editor of the Lynden Tribune, who'd heard Moser's story at a meeting of a local POW group, persuaded Moser to tell it to a reporter from the weekly newspaper.

Moser made a trip back to Germany and France in 1994, and seeing that the cremation ovens of Buchenwald were cold, open and had become a memorial site put an end to the nightmares he'd had in which he envisioned the fiery furnaces still devouring bodies.

In 2006, a cousin of Moser's introduced him to Baron, who had ghostwritten the story of another World War II veteran. Over dozens of sessions, Baron recorded Moser's recollections, supplementing them with other records of the POW experience.

The co-authors have had several speaking engagements together, and they have another at 3:30 p.m. Monday at a Memorial Day event at Ferndale's Hovander Park.

Moser said he hopes that telling his story will call attention to the fact that many who fought for this country never lived to see the happy homecoming he did, and that Americans should "never, ever forget the price that many have paid to protect our precious freedom."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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