Chapter 7 Farm Boy to Fighter
Someone standing on the platform at the train station in Buchenwald, someone from today’s time and world and not that time and world, would have observed a disturbing sight. Twenty five hundred human beings who somewhere along the way of that five-day journey had begun to lose their humanity. Without dignity one quickly loses the sense of being a member of the human race. It takes far less than most imagine to lose the sense of superiority that we typically experience of being far above the beasts of the field and the air. We are not bugs, or birds or dogs or cattle, and it seems instinctively clear to us, until we are treated as bugs or the lowest animals.
We emerged from that train stiff and sore from lack of exercise and traveling together crumpled together like so much garbage. Most of us, myself included, were suffering from diarrhea, and we all bore the evidence on much of our bodies not only of our own sickness but that of our fellow passengers. That was hardly an item of clothing that if seen today would not be instantly thrown into a landfill. We were wildly hungry and thirsty and completely and utterly exhausted. Cattle emerging from a long journey in such overcrowded and filthy conditions would hardly have looked, smelled or acted much different than we did we when clambered off the cars onto the tracks of the train station at Buchenwald.
It was the end of our journey, and while the initial impressions were anything but encouraging, at that point we could not imagine that anything could possibly be worse than continuing on that train. So we emerged, tentatively moving legs and arms, trying to work out the soreness that had accumulated over the past days, while following the barking orders to lineup. Once again, we were counted. I was a number and I felt like a number, a German number, that is all. Simply there to verify that the SS guards had done their job of delivering the load from Paris to this place.
But who was I really? And how did I find myself, a 22 year old farm boy from Ferndale, Washington, here at this horrible spot on the planet in the complete control of these people who valued my life less than the flies in the air. Like most of us on that train and standing here being counted, I had contemplated that question during the many uncomfortable hours of that agonizing journey.
My dad, Joseph Melchior Moser, came to Washington State from Switzerland in 1911 when he was about 27 years old. The Moser’s are a good Swiss Catholic family and my father left an extended family in the town of Sattel, an area about 50 miles east of Zurich.
He came first to Kent, Washington, just south of Seattle, where he worked as a farm hand on a dairy farm. He had come to America because there were too many children in the Moser family back in Sattel to inherit the farm. There were more opportunities to create a life in the US and he was drawn to the small Swiss immigrant communities scattered around the Seattle area. Besides people who shared his culture and background, the geography with the nearby snowcapped mountains, fields filled with dairy cattle, and mild if wet climate, appealed to the young Swiss farmer. One of the families from the same region in Switzerland as the Mosers was the Imhof family. After immigrating first to New Zealand, Frank Imhof took his family to Ferndale, Washington just eight miles south of the Canadian border and practically right on the cold waters of Northern Puget Sound.
The Imhof family had a big farmhouse and when the double doors from the parlor and the living room were opened up, the large room served as an excellent dance floor. The Swiss Catholics loved to dance and one day Joe Moser traveled about 90 miles north to participate in the dance at the Imhof farm.
My dad was 38 then. A small and lean man with dark hair and a dark moustache, he smoked a pipe incessantly, wearing down the tooth he used to clamp down on the pipe, and he was fond of homemade whisky. He also loved to dance. On that night he danced with a lively young lady named Mary Imhof. Young is right, because she was just fifteen and at age 38 he was into his middle years as measured then. But things happened fast to the unlikely couple and in June, 1921 they were married.
On September 13, 1921 they welcomed their first born son into the world, and in good Swiss tradition, named him after his father. Joseph Francis Moser, me. I’ve always explained that the reason I am so short is that my mom had only a three month pregnancy. While such events were no doubt scandalous in the small, religious community, and especially so because of the age difference, such happenings were more frequent than most adults of that time talked openly about.
Dad had moved up to Ferndale after meeting my mother and had started farming on his own, renting a farm on the Lummi Indian Reservation known as the 101 Ranch. After I was born, my grandfather Frank Imhof, decided to move to a new home about a mile from where he was farming and Dad and Mom took over his farm and we moved into my grandparent’s house. With his first son, dad had some help for the growing farm work and I can tell you that I started very early. I was joined by sister Louise in 1924, then by sister Josephine in 1927, brother Frank in 1931 and sister Rosalie in 1935. Tragedy struck early and hard in our family. At just 15 months of age, darling little sister Josephine carried some apples to the water trough used to feed the horses. Without anyone noticing, she climbed up into the trough and drowned. It is hard to say what affect this kind of grief has on a family, on relationships between husband and wife, and on the outlook of children who at the age we were saw only wonder and delight in the world we were discovering. But it cast a pall over what was otherwise an almost idyllic farm life in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Dad died in the summer of 1936 when he was just 53. I was about to be a sophomore in high school but I was already heavily involved in the dairy farming operation. By now we were milking 45 cows and had some of the most advanced farming technology in the region. We already had the latest and greatest milking machines powered by a generator and the year before my dad died we got electricity to run the machines and light the barn. The machines made the workload easier, but not much because we were always adding more calves, chickens, pigs, horses, geese and other animals to the farm. My dad was definitely of the old school. In addition to being short and very strong, he was exceptionally quiet and a no nonsense father. We definitely had to tow the mark when dad was around, but he worked hard all the time. We noticed he had started to cough and it got progressively worse until one day, while walking between the house and the barn, the coughing fit turned into throwing up blood. My dad had pneumonia and died a few days later.
I entered Ferndale High School August of 1935 before I turned fifteen. I was crazy about sports and was worried that with the pressure on my mom to keep up the farm with a houseful of small kids I would not be able to participate in sports. The burden of all the farm labor had fallen on my mom and myself, with sister Louise in the seventh grade helping out as much as she could. My mom hired a man by the name of Johnny Taylor to help with the milking and she reduced the herd to 35 cows. This helped with the long hours somewhat but also reduced the income needed to support the family.
I was all of five foot two and 120 pounds that fall of 1936 after my dad died, but I turned out for football. It meant every night after a hard turnout I had to run almost five miles down the country road past my Grandpa Frank Imhof’s farm on the Imhof and Slater roads, all the way back to our farm off the Slater Road. Then pitch into the chores, eat dinner and get up before five a.m. to help with the morning milking before catching the school bus at the end of the one third mile long driveway. Basketball was out of the question because the games were at night and I had to milk cows, but at 5’2” my basketball career was not likely to soar. I also played baseball all through high school and was pretty good at it moving up from second base to shortstop in my senior year. Football is a huge thing in our little town of Ferndale; a highlight of community life then as it is now. So playing starting halfback on the Ferndale football team my senior year, at a height of 5’3” and all of 130 pounds, was a really big thing to me. Despite the very busy schedule filled with lots of hard, physical labor, I kept up my grades pretty well and was on the honor roll almost every term through my high school years.
Tragedy was never far away from our household it seemed. We had lost my sister at just 15 months of age, and my dad when I was a freshman. My uncle Arnold, my mother’s brother, died of a tumor in 1937 at the age of about 20. In the summer of 1939, my mother lost two more of her brothers, Ed and Carl. They were killed in a car crash near Lake Samish coming back from a Swiss wrestling match in Portland. It was late at night coming back and a long drive from Portland, but they couldn’t get anyone to milk the cows for them so they pushed on despite being drowsy. I was supposed to go with them but couldn’t get away from all the work because by this time we had lost our hired man and all the farm work had to be done by my mom and myself. Although my uncles, they were more like cousins or brothers as they were only three and four years older than me. The week before I had gone with them to Tacoma to the match but couldn’t leave my mom with all the chores two weekends in a row.
Their older brother Joe was driving and fell asleep about ten miles from home. The car plowed into the back of flatbed truck and Ed and Carl were killed. Then, Grandpa Frank, Mom’s father, died in 1940. Sometimes, particularly when thinking of my mom back home and the telegrams she must be getting after I was shot down, I wondered how such a little lady could be so strong. How much grief can one woman bear? Yet, she did bear it with grace and strength. I saw her pray the Rosary and faithfully attend Mass and I knew that her trust in God was crucial to her bearing the heavy burdens placed on her. Knowing that and seeing her model this kind of faith, steadiness and strength was instrumental in dealing with my own torment while in German hands.
When 1939 turned to 1940, I was a senior in high school. I had been elected Student Body Treasurer, was a two year starter on the football team, the starting shortstop on the baseball team and life was pretty good. Despite the hard work and sorrows that hung over our farm like late fall mist, I was optimistic about life and eager to see what I might accomplish. I loved airplanes and subscribed to an airplane magazine and about this time I saw a picture of a new experimental fighter plane that the Army Air Corps was investigating. It had two engines, twin booms that swept back to a rounded tail. A canopy streamed sleekly above a smooth metal fuselage. Somehow it conveyed both beauty and menace and I was hooked. Some may find this hard to believe, but my interest in girls at that time was quite limited. But airplanes, that was another matter. I fell head over heels in love with the Lockheed P-38 and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew I had to fly that plane.
My love affair with the airplane grew until I found out that you had to have two years of college education in order to qualify for US Army Air Corps training to be a fighter pilot. With the farm left to Mom and me with some help from sister Louise, I had no opportunity to go to college. So I graduated and tried not to let my dreams of the wild blue yonder interfere. My life direction seemed all too inevitable: farm work and more farm work. Not that I hated it because I enjoyed the early mornings, the physical work and especially the more mechanical aspects of farming, particularly now that we had a tractor and had pretty much retired the work horses.
Those thoughts changed on December 7, 1941. When the Japanese launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, they thrust the US into the war in Europe as well as the Pacific. Suddenly, Uncle Sam wanted fighter pilots and dropped the college requirements for pilot training. Instead, they offered a test which if passed with an 82% grade you could enter pilot training, assuming you could pass the physical. By that time, Mom had also decided the farm was too much for her and perhaps she was also concerned about how she would manage if I had to go to war. The farm had been sold and mom had taken a job. So I was free from that obligation and traveled to Seattle to take the pilot examination.
I was heartsick when informed that I had only scored 74%. How could it be? My dreams at night had been filled with diving my P-38 into gaggles of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfes and now those dreams were dashed. Now the fact that we were no longer farming meant I didn’t have a job at home that would keep me out of the Army so I waited unhappily for the draft notice. I started checking into the Navy, hoping that while I probably couldn’t fly my favorite airplane with the Navy, I might at least still be a fighter pilot. The draft notice finally came and with heavy heart I felt my fate as a foot soldier was sealed. But the same day my draft notice arrived, I received a letter from the Army Air Corp recruiting office in Seattle informing me that they had made an error in grading my examination. I had actually gotten an 84% grade and they wanted to know if I was still interested in Army Air pilot training. I couldn’t believe it. I went from imagining myself slogging through the mud carrying a rifle through Europe or the Pacific islands to once again dreaming of getting into a P-38. On May 18, 1942 I went to Seattle, passed the physical and was sworn into the Army Air Corp the same day.
It would be twenty one months of intensive training before I was a full fledged fighter pilot assigned to my dream plane, the P-38. First, there were eleven weeks of intensive physical training and schooling in Santa Ana, California. Then, for primary flight training I was sent to Sequoia Field in Visalia, California. I didn’t know it until years later, but the Commandant of Cadets at Visalia Field while I was a cadet was a Lt. Ward L. Vander Griend, the head of a prominent family in Lynden, Washington right next to Ferndale. We started our flight training in a Ryan PT-22, an open cockpit taildragger. After about 10 hours of instruction, we were expected to be able to fly solo and I reached my 10 hours without soloing. My instructor, Mr. Bodily, told me that he was going to have to wash me out. I was simply flying too mechanically and didn’t seem to be getting the natural feel of the airplane that was needed to become an instinctive fighter pilot. I wrote my Mom that night, with sickening disappointment, that I was washed up as a pilot.
The next morning Mr. Bodily told me we were going up for one last try. But instead of taking off together, at the end of the taxiway he stopped me and got out. It was time to find out if I could fly this airplane alone. I took off with my heart pounding wildly. The first time you are up in the air looking back at the ground realizing that your only hope of getting back down safely is relying on your own skills is an amazingly frightening feeling. You either get a grip on your fears and focus on the job at hand, or you let fear take over with disastrous results. By the time I put that airplane down I think I could have flown without wings I was so excited. I took her around again now thinking I had this flying thing licked. Too mechanical? Hah, I’ll show them what flying is all about, I thought. But, I was too inexperienced to pay attention to the crosswind blowing across the runway and when I touched down the second time, the wind caught my wing and spun the low wing trainer around like a top. Somehow, the wings didn’t touch the ground or it would have been ugly, but this maneuver, called a ground loop, landed me my cadet nickname which stuck with me through the rest of training. Now I was known as “Ground Loop Joe.” It was a humbling reminder never to think that I have things all figured out.
The open cockpit of the P-22 provided an interesting highlight of my training days. One of my buddies had soloed his plane the day before so he and his instructor went up to start working on aerobatic maneuvers. When they reached altitude the instructor told Jack to do a roll which he did. He heard nothing from the instructor in the back seat, so he did another. Still no comment, so he did it once more. Finally he turned around to find out why the instructor was so silent. The back seat was empty. The instructor had neglected to fasten his shoulder harness and had fallen out when the plane went inverted. Fortunately, parachutes were part of our equipment so it all ended well for the very embarrassed instructor.
After two and half months, we were sent on to Minter Field in Bakersfield, California for more advanced training. It was brutally hot in Bakersfield with temperatures topping 100 degrees daily. But the trainer we were flying now, the BT-13 Vultee Valiant, nicknamed the Vibrator for obvious reasons, was a big step up in horsepower and navigation equipment. Fortunately for forgetful instructors, it even had an enclosed canopy. Two months later we were sent to Chandler Field, near Phoenix for more advanced training in an AT-6 and an AT-9. These were bigger, more powerful planes and the AT-9 was equipped with instruments for flying at night or in the clouds; this training would come in very handy flying in the clouds and fog of England and Europe. Finally we transitioned to early versions of the P-38 for our final phase of flight training. Now we were into gunnery practice and the reality of flying a powerful fighting machine with real firepower was dawning on me.
On October 1, 1943 I and my 47 fellow classmates of 43-I became commissioned officers in the Army Air Corps—2nd Lieutenants. We received our wings and were officially designated fighter pilots for the United States of America. After 10 days leave to Los Angeles, highlighted by lost luggage that was never found, I was assigned to Van Nuys field just over the Hollywood Hills from Hollywood. On October 14, we were assigned to the 474th Fighter Group, forming the 428th, 429th and 430th Fighter Squadrons. I was in the 429th. Our assigned aircraft, of course, was the P-38. Finally, the dream of my high school years, which now seemed so far in the distant past, had been realized. I felt fulfilled, that this was right, that my life was on track and I was in the place that destiny had meant for me. Captain Burl Glass was my squadron commander and Captain Merle Larson, a veteran of the air war over North Africa was my flight leader. I had these guys up on a pedestal and no one more than Captain Larson; he was an outstanding pilot and I knew from his exploits in North Africa that he was a great fighter, brave and resourceful. It would be easy following him into combat.
Van Nuys airfield was a converted orchard and while the fall weather was beautiful, the training was intense. We knew it was only a matter of time when it would be for real, that we would climb into our cockpits, fire up the powerful twin engines, and face the threat of skilled and experienced enemy fighters eager to end our brief careers. At the same time, being close to Hollywood meant there were interesting times when we were given leave. The seriousness of the business we were in was brought home in these days with the deaths of two of my roommates from training accidents. We were young, hotshot pilots and the reason they send 20 year old kids to war is because with youth comes a sense of invulnerability. But these deaths were like losing brothers. We were in training with these guys for almost two years and we became a very close-knit group. We knew them better than our own family in many ways. We knew their hopes and fears, knew what made them tick. And now they were gone. But with these deaths we also had a feeling that this sorrow we were experiencing would not be our last.
On January first, 1944 I took advantage of the fact that I was only a few miles away from Pasadena to go to the Rose Bowl. I was glad I went even though USC trounced our University of Washington Huskies by a score of 29-0. But I was glad because it kept me out of some trouble. One of the pilots of our group decided that the Rose Bowl would be a good event for some practice bombing and dropped a small practice bomb onto the field. Ten of our pilots were in the air that day and they came under some very serious questioning. Since I was at the game, I was cleared, but the guilty pilot never was identified so the consequences fell on the whole unit. We were young, and in some cases, stupid and incidences like this demonstrated in whose hands the fate of freedom rested.
After the ground loop the day of my solo flight, my training was pretty much without incident. Well, there was that time I made the foolish mistake of eating a big meal of wieners and sauerkraut for lunch before going up on a training flight. By this time we had been assigned to Lomita Field near Long Beach and three of us were assigned to fly to Palmdale, in the desert near Edwards Air Base. We were at about 18,000 feet flying over the San Bernardino mountains when the altitude and the sauerkraut combined in an unpleasant way. Despite being a big fighter, the P-38 cockpit is pretty cramped and the only place I had to deposit that unfortunate lunch was between my knees. I ripped off my oxygen mask, took my hands off the control stick which pitched the airplane forward and put my head between my legs. The plane, of course, went into a dive which I didn’t notice because I was, well, otherwise occupied. But I was the flight leader so my two wingmen dutifully followed my plane into a dive. When I could lift up my head, I saw that we were heading toward the mountains coming up at us fast and I pulled up with my wingmen following. Then another wave of sauerkraut hit, and the dive began again. We went into five dives before my lunch was completely deposited on the cockpit floor. All the while my wingmen were on the radio asking me what the heck was going on but I couldn’t stop to explain until I was done. When I told them, they were laughing like crazy.
However, flying with that kind of mess is hardly a laughing matter. And the two mechanics assigned to service my plane after landing in Palmdale did not seem particularly amused when I asked them if they would also clean my plane for me. It was 107 degrees in Palmdale and they rather impolitely refused after climbing up onto the wing and getting a whiff of that mess. So, I had to clean it myself, cursing my menu choice all the while.
Flying out of Palmdale was now part of our training regime and we were assigned to help test the radar installed at Edwards. This was a relatively new invention and it was installed to help detect the arrival of enemy aircraft. We were given the role of defenders of the sprawling air base and Marine fighters were the designated attackers. They would come in over the Pacific, the radar was supposed to pick them up and then we were scrambled to intercept them. The second day of these games I was determined to be the first in the air once the alarm sounded. So in my hurry I neglected one important part of the normal take-off routine. At the end of the taxiway and before rolling onto the active runway, we stopped, revved the engines and cleared the sparkplugs of carbon buildup. I taxied out fast, continued rolling and pushed those twin throttles forward. Instead of being airborne half way down the runway as would have been normal, the plane just didn’t seem to want to get in the air. The end of the runway was coming up and I still wasn’t up to flying speed. I watched it get closer and closer and finally decided that this bird just wasn’t going to fly that day so I cut the throttles and jumped on the brakes. But I hit the end of the runway at 80 or 90 miles an hour. I bounced through a field, plowed through a fence, went across a highway, jumped a ditch and came to rest in a field. I wanted out of that plane badly as I was afraid of fire, but my legs were shaking so badly that it took ten minutes for them to settle down enough to allow me the strength to crawl out of the plane. I still wonder why I wasn’t reprimanded or worse for that; I guess Uncle Sam needed pilots and they had a real investment in me by that time.
You would have thought that scare would have taken some of the piss and vinegar out of a young hotshot fighter pilot, but it was only a week or so later when I made an even worse mistake that nearly cost me my life. The P-38 was a fabulous flying machine, in fact, it was the airplane that Richard Bong used in the Pacific war to become the US’s all time leading fighter ace with 40 kills. But many pilots complained about it. The cockpit was unheated and it was dreadfully cold to fly, particularly at high altitudes and in the European theater with the cold winters. But a more serious problem, particularly with the earlier models, was something called compressibility. This was a flight characteristic that made it almost impossible to pull out of a steep dive at high speeds. The controls became frozen so that even the strongest pilot couldn’t get enough leverage to pull the plane out the dive. The speed build up would cause the tail to come apart and the plane would be lost—too often with the pilot. It cost a number of deaths in combat and training before the design flaw was finally fixed with dive flaps installed on planes in the field, and finally in production models shortly before the end of the war.
I discovered this problem for myself during one memorable training mission. I was flying alone and I wanted to find out just how high this plane would go so I took it all the way up to 31,600 feet. Today, with airliner travel routinely done at that altitude and higher it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But in those days, with a freezing unpressurized cockpit, leather flying gear, oxygen mask providing the needed oxygen above 10,000 feet, that was really up there. I tried, but I couldn’t coax the craft any higher. I flew at this altitude for awhile, enjoying the astounding view when I foolishly decided I would also try and find out today just how fast this thing could come down. We had been warned somewhat about the compressibility problem and advised against pushing the plane’s speed envelope. We were told if the plane started to vibrate violently, it was only a matter of seconds before she would break up in flight. Heedless, I tipped her down into a dive.
Empty weight of the 38 was almost 13,000 pounds and maximum takeoff weight is over 20,000 pounds. She is pushed by two 1475 horsepower V-12 engines, so it didn’t take long for the speed to build up. The spec sheet says maximum speed is 414 miles per hour, the fastest fighter in the European theater until the Germans introduced the Me-262, the first jet fighter late in the war. When my bird hit about 575 miles per hour, she started to shake like crazy and I knew I had pushed her too far. Now remembering the warnings of training, I started sweating like crazy and pulled the throttles all the way back and hauled back on the stick with all my strength to try and slow the dive. But my sweat and the high altitude caused the windshield and the side glass of the canopy to frost over and I was suddenly flying blind. Even though ground temperature in California at that time was about 70 degrees, at 30,000 feet it was 20 to 25 degrees below zero. And my fear and sweat resulted in me flying in a fog. I continued to haul back on the stick not knowing what my flying attitude was, if I was still diving, climbing, rolling, upside down or what. The plane finally stopped shaking so I knew I was not in immediate danger of the plane falling apart, but those mountains were high and I had no idea where they were. When I got down to almost 10,000 feet the glass started to clear off just a bit and I could see I was still in a shallow dive. I was very grateful to get back to Palmdale that day and while I never told my fellow pilots what happened, I did advise them to avoid steep dives.
The blissful, if sometimes frightening days of California training were finally concluded in February, 1944. We knew our time would come to be shipped to the front and that day came on February 15. We left California for Boston by train—a train ride that seemed anything other than luxurious at the time but seemed in retrospect a comfortable, carefree journey compared to the one that had just ended for those of us on that prison train from Fresnes.
The barking dogs, straining at the leashes of their handlers, lined both sides of the roadway that we marched down after we stiffly unloaded from the cattle train. They snarled at us viciously and the guards enjoyed our discomfort at their proximity. Beyond the dogs was a barbed wire fence and beyond that an endless row of dingy, grayish brown wood factory buildings. But along the fence we could also see the faces of those on the other side and what we saw shocked me and chilled me to my soul. They did not look like POWs, indeed, with their skulls practically showing through their paper thin skin, the dim, empty eyes, their meaningless stares, I hardly felt they were human. I was a cow coming off a dirty train, but these were ferrets, captured and awaiting a deadly fate. A Ferndale farm boy and hotshot fighter pilot no longer, like the pitiful creatures behind that fence I was just trash to be disposed of in the German system of waste management.