Chapter 17: Coming Home
Chapter 17 Coming Home
“Do you have any food?” was the question most urgently asked of our liberators. 130,000 or more starving men were in that camp. Their happiness to see the American tanks and GIs was matched by the unhappiness about their empty stomachs. Since I was near the main gate I was one of the first to greet the small contingent of infantry as they entered the camp. The soldiers handed out their own rations. We eagerly grabbed them and scarfed them down but those packages quickly ran out. Still, my stomach felt a little comfort and now I had the prospect of getting out of this place, I was in American hands, and for the first time could start thinking about getting home. So I considered myself among the happiest and luckiest men alive at that point.
We slept in the camp one more night. The Army guys had to figure out what to do with all of us. The enormous logistical task of getting hundreds of thousands of prisoners back home was just one of the jobs they had to do. Germany was still not defeated. The war was going on and we didn’t realize that the speed of attack of the Western Allies and the ground our troops captured would determine the post-war boundaries between freedom and the dark prison of the Communist iron curtain soon to descend on all the ground captured by the Red Army. By now it was increasingly clear to the American leaders, including brand-new president Harry Truman, the Stalin had no intention of keeping his promises about the post-war divisions that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed to at their Yalta conference. Whatever territory his Red Army held, he would not give up—so the race was on.
The geopolitics of the post-war era were of little concern to me at the time. The day after liberation we were directed out the open main gate and I put Hitler’s dreaded camps behind me once and for all. Walking through that main gate with my fellow prisoners and US troops all around was like walking through a dream I had never quite dared to allow myself. Not that we went into instant luxury. I was billeted with a large group of fellow ex-kriegies in a big barn just outside of Moosburg. I slept in the haymow and the hay smell brought me back to my days on the farm in Ferndale. It felt incredibly comfortable and comforting. Normally, if one sleeps in a barn, the main complaint is the odor from the farm animals. But I can tell you, the stench from myself and my fellow ex-prisoners overpowered any unpleasant odors from the animals which had been kept in the barn before us. We stunk to high heaven and it became much more obvious just how filthy and disgusting we were when we moved from the camp to the barn.
Food was still our major concern. We had essentially been starving since leaving Stalag Luft III and I don’t think I was down to my Buchenwald weight but it wasn’t too far behind. Fortunately, the troops had discovered in Moosburg a warehouse filled to the rafters with Red Cross packages which they quickly distributed and we even more quickly devoured. Only later did the anger come when we realized that the much vaunted German organization system had left all this food in the warehouses when nearby 130,000 men were slowly being starved to death. The cruelty and inhumanity of that still hits me as I recall the pain of extreme hunger.
We stayed in that barn for a week. Now that may not seem like much in the overall scheme of things because, after all, how could we complain, we were winning the war and we were out of German hands. But young men fresh out of prison camp are a little like tigers who had been kept caged and hungry for a long time. The food is bringing fresh energy, the relief from being out under the cloud of an uncertain future and instant death is strong, the desire to do something useful in the fight that was still going on was irresistible, and most of all, the longing to get home and once again see family and friends we had despaired of ever seeing again was more excruciating than ever. We had to get out of there! Now! What the heck is the holdup? This Army is FUBAR! What is going on? Nobody knows anything. What a bunch of no good clods! This is ridiculous. A barn full of some very pissed off and no longer very hungry men. We sat there for a whole week without a clue as to what was really going on, not even knowing if anyone was taking our lives and needs into consideration. The only thing we were told is to not wander off to far in case some transportation showed up for us. Of course, looking back on it now and even a little later, it sort of seems ridiculous to be so impatient and upset. But, we felt we were rotting away in some God forsaken little barn in the middle of a country we hated while everyone was simply going about their business.
Some guys did wander into town, which is likely when one young G.I. came across the POW records in the Gestapo office in town. As told earlier, he grabbed a handful of those and took them home with him as some kind of strange souvenir. Then, 45 years later he started reuniting those cards with their “owners,” including me. Imagine my complete shock and surprise to find my Stalag Luft III camp registration card, including gaunt picture taken the day I arrived from Buchenwald. For those doubters who would come later, that card which listed my previous destination as K.L (for Konzentration Lager or Concentration Camp) Buchenwald provided ultimate proof. It remains one of my most prized possessions and one that I hope my great-great-grandchildren treasure.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon of April 30, shortly after we were led from the camp to the barn, Adolph Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun shot themselves in the bunker underneath the Reichstag in Berlin. Their bodies were taken outside, doused with gasoline and cremated. The war was quickly winding down. The Soviet flag would soon fly over Berlin, on May 2 the German Army would give up in Italy, and the British, Canadians, French and American forces were pushing east toward Berlin, Austria, Bavaria and the Baltic. While we were hanging out in the barn, German troops were fighting there way from the east to the west, desperately preferring to surrender to the democratic forces rather than the Red Army. Meanwhile, the fight in the Far East against Japan was far from settled. On May 3, just a few hundred miles south of my home, a Japanese bomb landed in Lakeview, Oregon killing a mother and five children. It was one of hundreds Japan had sent on balloons hoping the winds would carry them over the Pacific and land in the US. It was the Japanese version of the “terror weapons” that Hitler had desperately hoped would turn the tide in Germany’s favor. However, this is the only one of the balloon bombs that would make it to US soil.
There was an airport near Moosburg and we were told that any day C-47s would be arriving to start taking us home. There was no mail coming in, no reliable news from anywhere and no way of sending mail out. From the day I was shot down I never received a single letter. It was not because none were written, but by the time the Red Cross and US Army found out where I was and communicated that to my family, the mail they sent arrived too late. I left Stalag Luft III just before some long-ago written letters arrived, and I was on the march essentially since then. I finally got to read some of those letters after I got home because that’s when they finally caught up with me. I was desperate by this time to talk to my family, to see if they were alright, just to reconnect and let them know that I, finally, was just fine.
About the second day of May, the C-47s starting arriving in dribs and drabs. With no apparent order, other than random chance, POWs starting being grabbed, loaded onto Jeeps and driven to the airport for the first part of the long ride home. It only made the rest of us crazy. A little planning and predictability would have helped our mood considerably. As it was, we didn’t know if our journey would start in an hour or a month. Enough to drive you crazy. We really didn’t understand the immensity of the task of trying to get 130,000 men out of there with the urgency of the final days of the war going on. But better communication and information would have helped us an awful lot.
Finally, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“Load up,” the young private told me.
“Yes sir!” I answered and in a minute I was on my way out.
We got to the airport and there was that big gooney bird. Happy guys with big smiles were piling into the plane. It had room for 27 troops and I’m not sure but I’m guessing there were that many and maybe a few more onboard. I had no idea where we were going but I knew it would be west, it would be to some safer and cleaner place than the barn. I’d be able at some point to finally take a shower, and maybe even get a meal that went just a bit beyond the condensed milk and spam of the Red Cross packages.
We got into the bumpy air and no sooner than we were airborne that a sharp pain starting growing quickly in my gum. I tried to ignore it but it grew rapidly in intensity until it started to color all my senses. It was the worst toothache of my life and all I could think about was getting on the ground and hunting down the first dentist I could find. That’s why finding out about the end of the war was less than a completely joyful experience for me. While in the air, we found out that last night, May 7, the Germans had signed an unconditional surrender—in Rheims at the Allied headquarters. The war was ending today! There was a celebration on that plane as the news broke that threatened to bounce us out of the air. And oh how I wanted to join in the whooping and hollering and slaps on the back. But my tooth was killing me! There was just something terribly unfair in this timing.
I was on that plane for two hours—two long and dreadfully painful hours. By the time we landed my jaw looked a little like John McCain’s, all swollen and tight. When we landed, much to our amazement, we discovered that we were in Rheims, the very place that was the focus of the entire world on the day the war ended. Again, my joy was circumvented by the urgent need to get my painful tooth to a dentist right now!
As soon as we landed, while everyone else was focused on celebrating and getting the bus to LeHavre, the port of the French coast where we would embark for the voyage home, I was trying desperately to find a dentist. Finally, someone told me about the base dentist and where to find him which I did as quickly as I could. He took one look at the abcessed lower molar and said that it was coming out. I don’t think he bothered with novacaine or anything else to dull the pain. It didn’t matter—nothing could have hurt worse than having that thing in there and a moment and a jerk later, it was gone. Immediately I felt better. He packed my empty socket with that gauzy stuff and sent me on my way. I headed back to where we were supposed to get on the bus only to discover the bus to LeHavre had left without me. Mad? Yes, but my relief at getting rid of that tooth was so great that it didn’t bother me too much.
I slept in a tent that night in Rheims and the next day caught the bus to LeHavre to Camp Lucky Strike. This was a vast, sprawling American camp and so much better than we had been used to. Rows and rows and rows of tents, but they were clean and in good shape. There were literally thousands if not tens of thousands of soldiers milling about ready to ship home. The impatience mixed with the anticipation and excitement of having survived and heading home created a kind of joyful tension. It seemed there were very few soldiers in charge of things. Probably because we were used to seeing lots of guards—here no guards were necessary—and also because most soldiers were in the field fighting the war. There was a kitchen tent with a long chow line and there was—unbelievably to me—plenty of food. Plenty of food! That’s the first time I could say that since August 13 the year before. Actually, I have to go back to Warmwell to say there was plenty of food. That’s a long time for an active young man. The latrines were clean—another first in nearly ten months. And I had my first shower since Stalag Luft III. Think about that for a minute. It is now May 10. I didn’t have a shower or bath or any opportunity to really wash up since January. OK, you get the picture. People actually smelled nice. The place smelled nice—well, OK at least. We got clean clothes, we got haircuts, and if it wasn’t for my still very sore mouth I would say that life in Camp Lucky Strike was pretty darn good.
I looked around but could not find a single person I knew. We all shared the anticipation of going home, but I felt quite alone and lonely. Now that getting back with my family started to seem like a real possibility, I felt the distance and separation with special pain. I couldn’t wait to get on the road, or on the ship as the case would be. And then I was told it would be May 19.
May 19 was my dad’s birthday. Dad would have been 62 had he lived. He had died nine years earlier. Strange as it seems, I left for home on my dad’s birthday and arrived in New York, finally back in the good old US of A on my mom’s birthday. It was a beautiful May sunshiny day when I loaded on the boat at LeHavre harbor. This was a much bigger boat than I had come across on. It had been a passenger liner and had much more of the comforts for civilian ocean crossings. Each cabin had two bunks and I had my own bunk all the way over, an incredible luxury.
We were told when we boarded that we were not going directly to New York but instead to Trinidad to unload some air transport command troops who were still in the war. We understood, but it meant our crossing would be three weeks long. We would stay on board in Trinidad and wait for two days before heading to New York. Interminable, but who could complain. We were heading home.
As I boarded the ship I was troubled by one thought: seasickness. I had been dreadfully sick on the trip over, the ship rocking like a cork in rough water. I didn’t want that experience again and the news about the extra long sailing filled me with dread. But, this was a much bigger ship, the sailing was during a better time of the year and I didn’t get sick at all.
I still wasn’t able to meet up with any of my buddies but I struck up a conversation with a soldier by the name of Foster Perry. Turns out he was from Sedro Woolley, Washington, another small town very similar to Ferndale and only about 25 miles away from my home. We struck up a friendship that lasted through the years, meeting up again at POW reunions until we buried him with a POW funeral in Sedro Woolley many years later. Perry became my crossing mate and we soon we had a favorite past time in common: eating.
This passenger liner filled with eager, tired and underweight young men was not like a cruise ship. But it was like a cruise in one important item: food. There was more than enough for everyone, and it was available night and day. When I tell you what happens next I want you to understand. I was very hungry. Very hungry. Been underfed and starved for almost ten months. Food is important me. I live on it. The lack of food, along with the lack of family, had been my greatest pain through all I had been in these months. Suddenly, there it was. Food, endless food. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Big piles of meat. Vegetables. Milk. And oh, the baked goodies. Cakes, cookies, muffins. Even pie! You didn’t even have to wait just for meal times. There was always a place on that ship where you could find some food. And really, what else was there to do? No letters to read or write. No buddies to swap lies with. Foster only was interested in hearing about farm life in Ferndale for so long, and frankly, Sedro Woolley was interesting mostly for the funny farm it hosted. So Foster and I shared our passion for food. And that is how I gained 60 pounds in three to four weeks. Yes, 60 pounds. Not proud of it of course, but there it is. When I got out of camp I weighed in at about 120 pounds. Maybe I had gained five pounds or so on Red Cross packages. But when I got off the boat, I weighed 182 pounds.
It was certainly not very healthy, but there was another problem with this sudden weight gain that would plague me for many years to come. It seemed to make a liar out of me. For the simple reason that at the very time I was putting on all that weight, the world was finding out for the first time about Buchenwald and all the other work and death camps in Hitler’s Germany. The famous pictures of striped prisoners with their empty eyes and skin and skeleton bodies were being seen around the world. Buchenwald, as one of the first and largest to be discovered, was making all the headlines, shocking the world with the news about horrible deaths, torture, medical experiments and systematic starvation. So when I quietly told people that I had been in Buchenwald, my suddenly overweight appearance made such a claim hard to believe.
Near the end of our cruise to New York, we came across a reporter on board the ship. He was doing a great service to families of returning POWs by taking their pictures, getting their names and then having them sent by way of his newspaper back to the hometown newspapers of the POWs. That way, the families and the whole town could get news of them, see that they were coming home, and actually see a photo. It was a more efficient system than the Army had for informing POW families. So Foster Perry and I had our pictures taken. And sure enough the Ferndale Record-Journal published the photo of Foster and me, along with the Sedro Woolley Courier. Two fat and happy ex-POWS coming home. One short and very fat and happy ex-Buchenwald prisoner. I can tell you I did not look like a recent inmate of that dreadful place. And even though my mom knew I wouldn’t lie about something like that, I believe to this day she had serious doubts about my claim, at least until I explained to her my over-eating on the ship.
Finally, we arrived in New York harbor and I watched the Statue of Liberty pass slowly by the ship. It is a beautiful sight and especially meaningful to those who understand what liberty really means and the high price that must be paid for it. It was my mom’s birthday and I so badly wanted to get to a phone finally and tell her I was coming home, I was fine and to wish her happy birthday. What a sweet present that would make for her! But there only 15 phones in the room where we could make our calls, and literally a hundred guys waiting in line for each phone. I figured I’d have a better chance in the middle of the night. I woke up at 4 am and sure enough, the lines were down to three or four. I got to the phone and with shaky hands and voice told the operator on the line to ring Mary Imhof in Bellingham, Washington. It rang and rang and rang and rang. Come on, mom, I whispered quietly, answer the phone. Certainly she could hear it. It was one o’clock in the morning. She couldn’t be gone. Answer, mom, answer!
“Joe? Is that you Joe?” It wasn’t mom’s voice, it was the operator.
“Yeah, it’s me.
“Joe, its Elsi Wood, your neighbor.”
“Elsie! I can’t wake up mom.”
“I know Joe, let me try your Aunt Alice.”
“OK, thanks Elsie.” I was so relieved and thankful for a familiar, friendly voice but almost in tears to not be able to talk to mom.
“Hello?” Aunt Alice came on the line, sleepily and frightened.
“Aunt Alice, it’s me, Joe.” I said.
“Joe! Joe! Is it you?” and she started to cry. I started to cry and could hardly talk.
“Aunt Alice, I tried to wake up mom, but she didn’t answer.”
“Joe, your mom had a big birthday party and I think she is pretty tired. I’ll see her first thing in the morning Joe and tell her you are coming home! Joe, you are coming home!”
The reality of that hit me right then more than at any other time. I was coming home. I didn’t get a chance to talk to my mom until June 10, when I got off the train outside of Seattle.
I got on the train in New York on June 6 and crossed this great land we call home and for which so many of my generation had paid the ultimate price. I have never looked at my country the same way. I paid a price, sure. But not like so many others. But I do think the small price that I paid has made me much more appreciative than perhaps most for the cost of our freedoms. It is a great privilege to live in the greatest country, the best country, the world has ever seen. I arrived in Auburn, a little south of Seattle on June 10.
I called my mom from the train station and this time she answered the phone.
“Mom, I’m in Auburn,” I told her. She was crying.
“I’m coming to pick you up,” she said, and in about three hours, there she was, that dear, sweet lady who meant the world to me. She was crying and looked like she had cried all the way from Bellingham to Auburn. Her tough son who had been through hell cried in her arms.
We didn’t make it all the way home without a stop. There was a wedding going on in the tiny town of Bow, about 20 miles south of home. It was a wedding for a distant relative but a lot of my family would be there. So we just popped in. I was in my Army Air Corp uniform, looking spiffy and quite overweight. There were shocked cries as I walked into the church basement and hugs all around. Then the many cries of, “I heard you were in Buchenwald, doesn’t look like they starved you after all. Maybe all we are hearing about those camps isn’t true.” I tried to explain, but how do explain putting on 60 pounds in a month. I regretted all those cookies and doughnuts.
I finally made it home and could see my sisters and brother. Louise was all grown up and 20 years old. She had gotten married while I was on leave and before I shipped to the war. Mom had sold the farm earlier and brother Frank had moved in with Uncle Frank Imhof to work on the farm—a farm he still runs to this day. Little sister Rosalee was now about seven years old and the only one still home with mom.
After spending a week or two just readjusting to life back home, I started to get a little restless. It wasn’t long after I was home that my Uncle John Imhof arranged for me to come and give a little talk to the Ferndale Lions Club about my war experiences. I’ve never been much for talking in front of a group but I figured what I had been through would be interesting to these folks and I was eager to share it with them. I told them as best I could about being a fighter pilot, getting shot down and then the horrors of Buchenwald. While I was losing some of that excess weight, I was still on the porky side. I walked out of the meeting after it was done and fell in behind a group of four men who had been in the audience. They didn’t know I was there.
“So, what did you think of that?” one asked the others.
“I didn’t believe a damn word he said,” one of the others said emphatically.
I fell behind them, feeling like someone had stuck a knife in me. That’s it, I said. I’m not talking about this stuff again. That decision was firmed by my encounter with an Air Corps lieutenant assigned to debrief me. I had traveled to Santa Monica, California because I was still in the Air Corps. My 60 days leave was up and there was still a war going on in the Pacific. The young officer asked me lots of questions about my experience as a fighter pilot, about getting shot down and what happened to me next. When I mentioned I was sent to Buchenwald, he stopped me.
“No Americans were in Buchenwald,” he said flatly.
“Well, I was and I’m an American,” I told him equally flatly.
“No, you weren’t. There is no record of any Americans being in Buchenwald and if there were we would know about it.”
“Well, apparently you don’t know about it because I was there and there was a bunch of other Americans with me.”
“I don’t know why you are insisting because it didn’t happen,” he said, closing the conversation.
Why talk about it any more?
They wanted me to continue flying and go to the Japanese theater. But as a POW I had the option of staying home so I joined up with the Army Air Corps reserves. That decision almost landed me in the Korean War. As a reserve member they had the right to call me up for active duty within five years. One month after my five years was up, they called me. I was promoted to Captain and the Air Force, now its own branch and separated from the Army, was looking for experienced fighter pilots. They offered to train me in the latest jet fighters—a very tempting offer. I would love to have flown a jet and it is the only regret I have in turning them down. But turn them down I did. My life had taken a different turn. I had become a family man.
Girls hadn’t played much of a role in my life—other than my mom and sisters. But on the way home from the war, it was inevitable that my thoughts, like those of most of us young men returning home, turned to life after the war. And girls definitely had a place in that picture—or a girl I should say. But who? And how would I find her?
When my mom and I stopped by the wedding in Bow on the way home, there was a girl I knew there who seemed very friendly and nice. We danced a little and after ward I asked her out. We went out a few times and then someone stopped me on the street in town and congratulated me.
“What? What for?” I asked, but somehow I had a sense of what they would say.
“I heard you were getting married. Everyone knows it.”
Seems my girlfriend was jumping to conclusions. A couple of dates and she had me tied down already. Or so she thought. This one’s going too fast for me, I thought. I called her up and told her we wouldn’t be going out any more.
It was OK, I thought. I needed a little time to adjust to life again. I was finding the adjustment a little harder than I expected. My mom like to cook bacon pretty crispy. But the smell of overcooked bacon caused me to be almost overcome with fear and dread. It was the crematory in Buchenwald. All my life and to this day, I can’t stand that smell. Some memories never fade and it is surprising how things can be triggered by certain smells.
It wasn’t long after I returned from Santa Monica with the question settled about going to Japan that I started working. I had been a farmer all life, but I found a job with the Holland Furnace Company in Bellingham. I was pretty mechanically oriented—as my first flight instructor noted—and fixing furnaces fit me pretty well. It wasn’t like the open fields and working with the animals, but I did enjoy the people and I could also kind of keep to myself when I wanted to.
In November of 1945, a few months after I returned home, my Uncle Frank married my Aunt Pat. I was actually close in age to my Uncle Frank and we were very good friends. I grew up with him and his brothers. At the dance after the wedding I spotted a friend of my sister Louise. Jean (Last Name) had been at my home several times visiting my sister. I always thought she was kind of cute and was certainly one of the liveliest girls I knew, but it wasn’t until at the dance that I noticed that she had turned into quite a lovely young woman. I was as shy as I could be but, my goodness after all, this was a friend of my sister. What could one dance hurt? I was a lousy dancer, just trying to learn but Jean seemed willing to help me out and tried to make me look less clumsy than I really was. We talked about sports a lot because she loved playing softball and was a catcher on a top-rated fastpitch women’s softball team (?). I loved sports too so it made it easy to talk to her. She was friendly, and warm and seemed to like helping me learn to dance. I asked if I could take her home. She said, “Yah!” And I drove her home after the wedding to her home on the Guide Meridian, just south of the Pole Road. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1946 we were at a dance at the Seven Cedars in Mount Vernon and I popped the question. Jean and I were married on June 26, almost exactly a year after I returned from the war.
After working at Holland Furnace for a while, I got offered a job at Van’s Sheet Metal in Lynden. This furnace company was owned by Chis and Jim Van Andel; Jim was the mayor of Lynden, a small town about ten miles north of Ferndale. In 1973, the company was bought by two of their bright, entrepreneurial employees, Gary Van Loo and Andy Mellema. The name changed to Andgar Corporation, and I worked for this company for forty years finally retiring in 1986. Actually, a little longer as I helped out once in a while when they needed a little extra help for a few years after I retired.
But my job was not the reason I declined the opportunity to fly jet fighters. In November 1947, my first daughter Janet was born. In 1949, we were blessed with another daughter, Joyce. It seemed a good idea to stick with the letter “j” in the names we chose, maybe in part because when my mom finally remarried in 1950, she chose to marry a guy by the name of Joe Moser. Just like my dad’s name—and mine–but no relation. We kind of stick to knitting in my family. Julie joined us in 1953, our son Joe in 1955 and Jaleen played in the cleanup spot in 1959.
We went to ballgames—endless ballgames by the time our grandkids were playing, did our work, went to church and lived a grateful if ordinary life. I never really shared much of my story with my family. My children did not know of my time in Buchenwald. They knew that I was a fighter pilot, had been shot down and had been a POW, but that was it. After my painful experiences of not being believed, plus the desire shared by so many of my fellow veterans just to get on with our lives, I kept the story you have read inside. There were times when the memories became painful. Like when the movie “Schindler’s List” came out I really wanted to see it. I made it through until I saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematory. I had to leave. In 1982 I went to my first POW meeting in Bellingham. That was when I met up with Jim Hastin, my buddy through those dark days of the Paris train ride and Buchenwald. He had returned to his hometown of Anacortes and we renewed a long lost friendship that was one of the great joys of my life until he died in )date).
At one of those first POW meetings I went to I was approached by Bill Lewis, the editor of the Lynden Tribune to tell my story. I hesitated. Did I want the old wounds to be opened? Did I want more people to say they didn’t believe a damn word I said? But I said yes and told my story, including my two months in Buchenwald. He wrote the story in the paper and that is how my wife Jean found out about what the war really was for me.
I’m proud to have served my country, proud to be part of the quickly diminishing group of former POWs. If there is one thing to leave you with is that common ordinary people just like you and just like me can once in a while be called upon to show courage and strength. And many in those circumstances will have to pay the final price to serve our country and protect our freedom. Do not forget these people. And never, ever forget the price that many have paid to protect our precious freedom.