by Tom Clavin
78 years ago Joe Moser was shot down during his 44th mission. Joe is the main character in my most recent solo book, Lightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival. It was published in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press in November 2021, and the paperback edition hits shelves today (9/20/22).
The question that has been most frequently asked of me since the book’s publication is: How did I find this story? It would be satisfying to claim that I used all my investigative skills to ferret it out, and I was so on top of my game as an experienced journalist . . .but the truth is, I stumbled across it.
In early December 2015, I was doing some last-minute fact-checking for Lucky 666, a book written with Bob Drury about a heroic B-17 crew in the Pacific Theater during World War II. A random keystroke caused the appearance on my screen of an obituary just published in The Bellingham Herald, a daily newspaper in Washington State. The headline was “Ferndale WWII Hero Joe Moser Dies at 94.” Like most writers, I have a healthy dose of curiosity and could not help taking a glance. What jumped out at me was a mention that Moser was one of 168 Allied flyers imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp during the war.
To many of you—and this would be especially true of members of the “Greatest Generation” who are still with us—this information had to be a mistake. The official position of the U.S. military for decades had been no Americans were held in Nazi concentration camps. Maybe there was a mix-up. Thankfully, this “error” kept bothering me. I was able to find other articles about Joe Moser in The Bellingham Herald and I called one of the daily’s staffers who had met him. I contacted members of Moser’s family and was the beneficiary of their courtesy as well as that of Gerald Baron, a friend of Moser’s who had collaborated with him on a locally published memoir of his experiences.
I realized that there was much more to be explored and written about, not just Joe Moser’s story but that of all 168 Allied flyers, most of whom had survived hell on earth and suffered in silence for decades afterward. Fortunately, there were a few other written accounts, which I cite in the Bibliography, as well as the Gerald Baron and Michael Dorsey documentary, Lost Airmen of Buchenwald, which had originated as an investigation the latter did into his grandfather’s experiences as one of those prisoners.
In other words, I got lucky—happening upon an obituary published 3000 miles away and then the tumblers fell into place.
When I have given talks about Lightning Down, another question always asked is, “What surprised you the most about this story?” I must beg your indulgence here because at any given moment the answer is different. Certainly, one response is that any of these Allied airmen survived, let alone most of them. And not just the nightmare of Buchenwald—the story includes a “death march” in the most brutal winter conditions, facing starvation in the POW camp as the war waned and the Nazi guards hoarded food for themselves, and other daunting, death-defying challenges.
What also surprised me was the significant roles played by two colonels, Phillip Lamason and Hannes Trautloft. The former was a fearless New Zealand pilot who insisted that discipline and brotherhood would keep his command alive, and he was right. Colonel Trautloft was a Luftwaffe hero who valued honor and could not abide other airmen, whatever uniform they wore, being brutalized and starved, or worse. Joe Moser is clearly the main character in Lightning Down but the story is much enriched by their powerful presence of these two officers.
One other surprise—that Moser survived after the war. Yes, we’ve all heard about how the soldiers of World War II came home, found jobs, got married, and got on with it. Joe was no different in that respect. But think about the extra burdens he carried, especially having endured the sadistic cruelty of a Nazi concentration camp and then to be unable to share those excruciating memories with anyone, including his wife and children. No wonder the former pilot had nightmares. Yet as the last pages of Lightning Down report, Joe and his wife, Jean, raised their children, were active in the community, attended church services, and he had a seemingly satisfying career as an oil burner repairman. The resiliency of such a man is astonishing.
Another question often asked: “Was this book hard to write?” Yes and no. Yes, because during the time I was working on Lightning Down—from encountering that obituary in December 2015 to publication in November 2021—the story was filled with terrible events and terrible people. Spend years researching and writing about Nazi depravities and see how cheerful your world view is. I thought of the line by the poet John Donne, “Any man’s death diminishes me,” and here I was immersed in a story in which millions die. So, in that respect, Lightning Down was hard labor.
However, it may have been the easiest of the solo projects I have written because it is—to me, at least—very uplifting. The book is more about peace than about war. Joe Moser and other soldiers are doing their duty not to earn bragging rights or because they like violence but to end the war with tyranny having been defeated. It is no coincidence that the very last word in Lightning Down is “peace.”
And the book is about home. Throughout this story, Joe Moser yearns to have done his best and then return to his mother and siblings. Of all the scenes in the book that had tears plopping on my keyboard, taking the cake is the one where Joe is at the train station and his mother arrives to pick him up. Now he knew for sure he was home. It was at that moment the young man who had endured and witnessed the worst of human behavior finally broke down: Joe “cried in her arms like a baby,” as he put it.
Ultimately, Lightning Down is about love. Voltaire’s Candide was an inspiration to me when writing this book. It is about a gentle young man who travels far and wide, experiencing one travail after another, and comes to realize that home is the place for him. In case the connection is not clear enough, I give it way with the Epilogue’s opening epigram from Candide: “It is love, the comfort of the human species, the preserver of the universe, the soul of all sentient beings, love, tender love.”
Okay, forget Voltaire, maybe Joe Moser said it best, reflecting on his return to Buchenwald 55 years after he left the camp of nightmares: “Life is worth living. I’m glad I went through all this, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”
If you have not read Lightning Down already, please keep an eye out for the paperback edition wherever you like to buy books.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.Tags: Aviation History, Joe Moser, Lightning Down, The Overlook, Tom Clavin, World War II