Story by the Bellingham Herald’s Zoe Fraley. Photos by The News Tribune’s Janet Jensen:
For three months, Joe Moser lived a nightmare.
Shot down over France on Aug. 13, 1944, during his 44th mission of World War II, the fighter pilot was captured by the Germans and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp.
He was transferred to a prisoner of war camp Oct. 20, 1944, just four days before he was scheduled to be executed.
On Thursday, the 87-year-old Moser got to close the door on that painful chapter of his life as he accepted the Distinguished Flying Cross at McChord Air Force Base’s annual awards banquet. Two former members of his Army Air Corps squadron were to escort Moser on stage.
"I guess I’d say it fulfills my dreams," he said, "that all I went through has turned out really fantastic now."
Moser didn’t realize he was eligible for the award until 10 years ago at a reunion for his squadron. He just got word a week ago that he would finally receive the award for a bombing mission in his P-38 Lightning aircraft.
"It’s been a long wait, and I’m sure happy for him that he’s finally getting it, after 64 years," said his wife, Jean. "I thought he deserved it after all he went through."
Even though it took most of his lifetime to receive, the medal feels like vindication for the terrors he went through: the crush of the cattle car transport, the 35 pounds lost in two months, the day and night running of the crematory – and for the people who didn’t believe his harrowing story.
During an Air Force debriefing, the interviewer didn’t believe he had been in a concentration camp, and for some time after that Moser didn’t really talk about his experience. It wasn’t until 1982 that he told his story to the editor of the Lynden Tribune in Whatcom County.
"My wife knew I’d been a prisoner of war, and my kids, but that’s as far as they knew until that article came out," the Ferndale resident said. "It’s getting a lot easier" to talk about.
His story and photos are now out in a book by Gerald Baron called "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald."
"I think how lucky I was to get out of there," Moser said. "To see so many people, thousands were just skin and bones. I thought we wouldn’t leave there alive. The only way we would leave was as smoke coming out of the crematory."
The POW camps were an improvement, but not by much. The Germans marched the prisoners from camp to camp through frozen winter weather to evade the Allied forces, until April 29, 1945, when Moser and his camp were finally freed.
Between the book and the medal, the Mosers’ phone has been ringing off the hook the past week with family and friends offering congratulations.
Despite the joy of the occasion, the week before the award was filled with humility and nerves. Moser fiddled anxiously with his thumbs, wondering what he did to deserve such an honor.
"It’s kind of overwhelming, really," he said. "It’s such an important medal. When I walk up to get it my knees will probably" buckle.
Moser’s family knows he’s earned this honor, and many of them were to watch him receive it Thursday.
"I think I’m more proud that most of my family will be there," he said. "They’re quite proud of me."