WWII bombardier recounts POW experience
BURLEY, Idaho — At nearly 92 years of age, Jesse Moses has been a husband, father, teacher, and bombardier in the U.S. Army’s 15th Air Force. He was also a prisoner of war for more than a year during World War II.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Moses, of Burley, his eyes holding unspoken knowledge of events he’s witnessed and places he’s been. “And I’m grateful for it. It was a job that had to be done and we did it.”
In 1942, Moses and his bride, Cherril, had been married six weeks went he went into the military — after his draft notice into the U.S. Army was misdirected to his uncle and he instead enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force sent Moses, who was a civilian ham radio operator, to radio school. For a short time he taught Morse code at a Texas gunnery school before shifting to pilot training. While in training, his first child was born and he asked for short leave, since he’d never had a furlough. He was denied the pass and he said, “I simply quit flying.”
He was sent to military separation camp and when his commanding officer questioned him about “washing out” he explained it had nothing to do with his skills as a pilot.
“After I explained what happened, he handed me a hundred dollars and a pass and told me to go on home,” Moses said.
When Moses returned, he was reassigned as a bombardier and when he graduated he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
He was assigned to the 461st Bomb group and the crew was given “a brand-spanking new” B-24 bomber, which they were suppose to fly to Italy. They took it for a test flight and crashed into a truck upon return — tearing one wing off.
“They sent us to Italy anyway on a slow boat packed with 2,000 people,” Moses said. “Everything we got to fly was shot up. We were sort of the black sheep.”
Moses flew with the crew on eight missions, three of the missions over Ploiesti, Romania – famous for claiming planes.
“Twenty-five to 50 percent of the planes that flew over the oil fields there were lost,” said Moses. “You just closed your eyes and flew over it.”
On the crew’s ninth mission, Moses contracted malaria and was hospitalized. The crew was shot down, but some, who he was able to reconnect with later during reunions after the war, survived.
“We were expendable,” said Moses about his experiences as a bombardier. “When we went out — we meant to finish the job — and from one day to the next, we didn’t know if we’d survive. Sometimes the flak was so thick you’d put your wheels down and ride on it.”
Moses completed 31 missions before his plane was shot down.
A bomb that didn’t explode went through his B-24’s wing taking out one gas tank and an engine.
“We continued to fly supposedly toward Italy,” he said. Later, they’d learn navigation was off and they were really over Romania. “We tossed out everything to keep us afloat and we’d already dropped our bombs.”
The plane became engulfed in gas fumes and caught fire before the crew parachuted out.
Moses came down in a little village outside Budapest, Romania, which was under German occupation.
“I was surrounded by a large group of people and a Hungarian soldier hit me across the head with his rifle and knocked me out,” Moses said. “When I came to I was in a wooden wheelbarrow being transported somewhere.”
The German soldiers took him to a POW camp in a hospital area and it was two weeks before he was able to walk again.
“They almost beat me to death,” he said.
Later, Moses was awarded the Purple Heart.
He was transferred to Frankfurt and taken by box car to the German-Polish border to a POW camp, where 13,000 officers were housed.
At home, Cherril heard from the military her husband was missing-in-action.
But, about a dozen ham radio operators from across the world sent letters and postcards informing her that they’d heard he was alive — precious notes she keeps tucked away today.
Conditions at the camp were stark. The only heat came from a stove – its heat blocked by ceramic tiles.
Moses spent 10 days in solitary confinement for taking some of the ceramic tiles off to make the stove more efficient.
“I was put on trial and accused of destroying their property, but eventually I was sent back to my room,” Moses said.
The once-a-week showers sometimes included washing their clothing, which would not be cleaned otherwise.
At the end of the war in April 1945, Moses and his fellow officers were liberated from the camp.
His once 160-pound frame shrunken to 120 pounds – nourished for more than a year by only by small portions of rutabagas, alfalfa and occasional frozen potatoes and a four to five pound loaf of bread — cut into carefully metered and shared slices.
It was June before he returned home. The military kept him several months to improve his poor health.
“They fed me lots of milkshakes trying to fatten me up,” he said.
Once home, Moses went back to school and five years later received his master’s degree. He taught high school math and vocational agriculture for 32 years.
Moses and Cherril raised five children and today they have 25 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren.
“Time softens some of it,” Moses said, looking out his window at his home perched on a hill. “We live in America with all the freedoms that we have. The people in America put so much effort into that. That’s how we were able to overcome those difficulties we experienced.”