Tom Clavin Interview: Why Were US Airmen in a Nazi Concentration Camp?
Image attributed to Gordon Grant
Bestselling author Tom Clavin has worked as a newspaper and website editor, magazine writer, television and radio commentator and a reporter for the New York Times covering entertainment, sports and the environment. His books include Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride, The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter, The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat and Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission.
Clavin’s latest work is Lightning Down: A World War II Story of Survival, which tells the riveting true story of Joe Moser who set off on his 44th combat mission over occupied France in 1944 and would soon join 170 other Allied airmen as prisoners at Buchenwald, one of the most notorious and deadly of Nazi concentration camps in Germany. Lightning Down was published November 2, 2021.
"I started reading this obituary, and it mentioned this pilot who was only 22 years old. He was shot down over France and had lived through the experience of being incarcerated in Buchenwald during the war."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The true story of 22-year-old Joe Moser who set off on his 44th combat mission over occupied France during World War II and found himself joining 170 Allied airmen in one of the deadliest Nazi concentration camps in Germany, has been largely untold until now. How did you find out about it?
Tom Clavin: Well, if I were a self-aggrandizing sort, which I don’t think I am, I’d say it’s the story I was searching for all my life. But it wasn’t (laughs). I’ve got to be honest, it was an accident. You know, Bob Drury and I have done a bunch of books together. This would’ve been the end of December 2015, and I was still doing some research. We were working on Lucky 666, which is about a B-17 crew in World War II. So I don’t know what I was specifically looking for, but obviously, I was doing some research in mentioning World War II pilots, and of all things, this obituary comes up that is from a state of Washington weekly newspaper. My eye caught it, and as often happens, I’m curious.
I started reading this obituary, and it mentioned this pilot who was only 22 years old. He was shot down over France and had lived through the experience of being incarcerated in Buchenwald during the war. I said, “Wait a minute! Is this a bureaucratic mistake, or are there others involved?” So I started doing some research, and I found out that there were as many as 170 Allied pilots who were sent to Buchenwald because they were considered terrorists. That’s how the Germans designated them, as terrorist leaders. So they were not given the protection of the Geneva Convention or the POW camps. They were sent to the death camps to die. That was their punishment, and Joe Moser was one of those pilots.
So once I had this other book sufficiently wrapped up, I started doing some research into the Joe Moser story. It was a larger story because of this tactic or program the Nazis had that nobody ever knew about. There was certainly no effort, even after the war, to reveal this by the United States government because it was a bit embarrassing like, did we know? And not just did we know, but what about the governments of France and Canada? Did they know that downed airmen were kept in a Nazi concentration camp? Why didn’t we know? If we did know, why didn’t we do anything about it? These were some uncomfortable questions.
Even the men who survived the experience would never discuss it. Joe Moser and a local businessman, Gerald Baron, decided they were going to write a memoir about his World War II experiences that would be self-published. It would be something to explain to family members and neighbors what he had gone through. I contacted Baron, and he sent me a copy. I read the book, and it was just an amazing chronicle of this young man’s experiences. I went to my editor and outlined the story apparently effectively enough that my publisher said, “Okay,” and gave me a contract for not much money (laughs). They weren’t sure how the story was going to turn out or if it would be worth it. But I wanted to do the story. This was in 2016 that I was given the contract, and I started to work on it. Then something happened that totally derailed the book that became known as Lightning Down. Aren’t you interested to know what that was?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, I am, as a matter of fact (laughs).
Tom Clavin: (laughs) Funny you should ask. It was a good thing that happened. I’d done about six months of research on Lightning Down. I was really into it. I may have written a draft of a couple of chapters here and there, and then I had to stop because in February of 2017, my book, Dodge City, was published. I had to go on a book tour that lasted about 10 days.
While I was on the tour, my editor called and said that Dodge City was selling like hotcakes and would make its debut at number 11 on the New York Times bestseller list where it remained for several weeks. So when I got back to New York, my editor, agent and I went out for a celebratory lunch. We were very happy at the way it was selling, and I said, “This bodes well for when I finish Lightning Down.” My editor said, “Well, I’ve got to talk to you about that.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Uh-oh.
Tom Clavin: I go, “Uh-oh.” (laughs) He said, “Given how successful and how well Dodge City is selling, would you consider putting Lightning Down on hold and doing another book about an iconic American West figure?” I didn’t want to necessarily, but I’m a good soldier. I really like my editor, and the company’s been very supportive. So we came up with a book about Wild Bill Hickok. And they offered me more money. I have to be honest about it. That was a factor in my decision. I had a son in college, so I took the money. I did Wild Bill, and when it was done, I was back working on Lightning Down. Wild Bill came out and sold very well. So both my editor and agent were saying, “Listen. Why don’t you complete a trilogy?” That’s how I wound up doing Tombstone.
Tombstone actually outsold Dodge City and Wild Bill. But by this time, I had grown a backbone (laughs). I said to the people at the publishing house, “You guys are great to me, but I can’t stop thinking about this story. It’s time to give birth to it.” So by this point also, I had not the power or the authority, but I had a little more of the stature having had several bestsellers in a row. They said, “Fine. Let him get it out of his system.” (laughs) So I went back to work on Lightning Down and became very immersed in it. It took another couple of years, and it was a very difficult book to write. When I turned the manuscript in, my editor and agent read it, passed it around to other executives in the company, and they were excited about it. They said, “Wow. This is a bigger story than we expected.” Of course, my editor said, “What took you so long?” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Did you reach out to any of Joe Moser’s relatives during your research?
Tom Clavin: I first reached out to Gerald Baron, as I said, and I told him his book would be a huge source for my story, but that I’m not writing a book that would be Moser-centered completely because I was expanding on the story to see the larger picture. He said he didn’t have any problems with that. He said they made the book for Joe’s family basically, but it’s also out there in case anybody wants to explore Joe’s story and see what a remarkable person he was.
When I did an early draft of the manuscript about a year ago, all five of Joe’s children were still alive. So I did contact the family and told them that I’d like to send a draft of the manuscript. I wasn’t asking for anyone to fact check anything because they weren’t there. But I just wanted to make sure there was no way I portrayed their father that would be inappropriate or wrong or be embarrassing to the family. It was actually kind of interesting because they basically said they designated one of them to read it (laughs). So one of his daughters was chosen. She said she didn’t have any problems with it, but it was a startling experience for her to read the book because she found out so many things her father experienced that he never spoke about. She said that even when she read her father’s memoir, there were a lot of things he’d never spoken about, but now she has found out that it’s a more expanded story about what was really happening in Buchenwald
You know, Buchenwald wasn’t the end of the story for Joe Moser. He had these experiences while being a German captive beyond Buchenwald. His daughter said she was still trying to wrap her head around all the things her father went though that until she read my book, she still didn’t know about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. In the book, you talk about Joe not wanting to tell his family everything that he went through, and also because it was so unbelievable that Allied airmen would end up in a concentration camp, even other military personnel didn’t believe it happened. That’s really horrible to not be believed when you’re telling the absolute truth.
Tom Clavin: Yeah. When Joe Moser came back from the war, and he was asked to give talks at American Legions and things like that about his being incarcerated at Buchenwald, it wasn’t believed. They said, “That’s ridiculous. There’s no way. We know that Americans were not kept in concentration camps. That didn’t happen. You’re trying to make yourself a hero by telling us that you were in a German concentration camp.” Joe was hurt by that. But I think what makes Joe a remarkable person is that another person would’ve become very angry and let that anger affect their feelings about themselves and their family relationships and just be an angry person the rest of their life. Joe, although he was hurt by the rejection, said, “Okay. I can’t control that. But I’ll work very hard at my job, and be the best that I can. I’ll be kind to everybody and love my wife and kids.” So he didn’t let that rejection determine the rest of his life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Joe also suffered from PTSD. Was that called “combat fatigue” in World War II?
Tom Clavin: Yeah, battle fatigue. They had a couple of different names for it including “shell shocked.” The idea of what they have now with the acronym for it is accurate, but it wasn’t even thought about in those terms in World War II. Actually, as difficult as those experiences were, Joe flew 44 missions. It wasn’t like he went up in the air a couple of times and then got shot down. He went into some risky and dangerous situations. But I think he was tolerating that pretty well it seemed like.
We don’t know for sure what his life would’ve been like when he got back to the States if he had not been shot down, but certainly with that horrific experience that nobody could be adequately prepared for, it’s not a surprise that the man didn’t have a decent night’s sleep in 40 years. He’d have the nightmares and the sweats and everything like that. But it seemed that he could put that in a compartment most of the time and still go out and be a furnace repairman, go to his children’s baseball and soccer games and be known as “friendly Joe Moser.” He was living as normal a life as he could with the exception of when all his defenses were down and his wife and kids were asleep. That’s when he’d have the nightmares that didn’t end for 40 years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I also don’t believe that many of the veterans of World War II rushed right home into therapy either.
Tom Clavin: They thought the best way to deal with it was not talk about it because when you talked about it, that just stirred all of it up from the bottom right up to the top, and then you were really in a fix.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Right. I’m fascinated by the war reporting during that time. Did Edward R. Murrow make a radio broadcast at Buchenwald the day after the prisoners were liberated by the United States Third Army?
Tom Clavin: Within a day or two, yes. There had been some marginal cleaning up around the rough edges and everything, but it was still pretty much what it had been like for years. I read some of his reporting from there, and he was appalled. You hear about these death camps, but most people’s imaginations just weren’t sharp enough to have an idea of the extent of the horror. Edward R. Murrow had war experience in London and being at battle sites those five years, but to come in and see these human skeletons of people dying before his eyes was just almost overwhelming. I heard his recording, and he’s trying not to break down because he’s supposed to be a professional American journalist. He’s trying to report on something, and his words are failing him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Murrow told another broadcaster that “the sight of hundreds of children’s shoes had unnerved him.” So children were at Buchenwald also?
Tom Clavin: Buchenwald was a labor camp. It wasn’t a death camp where the reason for its existence was to kill as many people as possible. There was a separate category for that like in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Buchenwald was a different category. It was a labor camp, and yes, tens of thousands of people died because of the terrible horrible conditions there and the cruelty of the guards. But the purpose of such a camp was to provide labor for different projects. So even children could provide labor. You could also use children as bargaining chips to make sure the parents were there. Instead of uprising, they were most likely going to work themselves to death, and by doing so, they’re saving the children. So that’s why children were there also.
I think even the more hardcore Nazis realized that if you’re doing the mass murder of children, as outrageous as what’s going on in those camps, this would be like outraged exponentially, and countries could no longer turn and look away like many of them did, if you were killing five year olds or nine or 10 year olds by the tens of thousands. Not that children weren’t killed because hundreds of children were exterminated basically to make room in the barracks, but there may have been a line that even the cruelest Nazis couldn’t cross.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Schutzstaffel (SS) was a major parliamentary organization under Hitler and the Nazi Party, and they established Buchenwald. Were these SS perpetrators tried before a US military tribunal?
Tom Clavin: Yeah. Actually, the first commander, who’s notorious, was named Karl Koch. His goose was cooked by the Nazis themselves. He was eventually executed, but the Germans executed him. He was so sadistic, so messed up, so corrupt that he was more than the Germans could stand. His wife was even more sick and psychotic than he was. But the second commandant, who was the commandant when the flyers were there, was eventually tried. I believe he was also executed, but I can’t remember specifically if he was. A lot of the camp commandants were eventually tried at Nuremberg and elsewhere, and a few of them were able to escape the noose or the firing squad.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have all of the Americans who suffered at Buchenwald been recognized?
Tom Clavin: No. You know what? That’s a really good question. In the book, I deal with the New Zealand colonel Phillip Lamason. He was a senior officer, so he became the person who took charge of the 170 Allied airmen in the camp. He kept advocating that they had to work together, stand at attention together and march together in columns. He said that kind of discipline would keep them alive. Remember The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Alec Guinness played the British commander? That’s what Phillip Lamason was like without the madness (laughs). He did survive Buchenwald. Decades after his heroism in helping these men survive the camp, the New Zealand government awarded him a pension of like $80 a month to recognize him for what he did.
But that’s a good point because in the United States, I think there have been cases. Joe Moser was at the end of his life, and it was okay to speak about his experiences. People were finally believing him because more of the story was coming out. So he was recognized. He didn’t get any special compensation from the government.
So I think, if any of these Americans were recognized, it was individually and locally. To my knowledge, there’s not been recognition, and it didn’t come up in any of my research where there was any type of effort to identify the American airmen who survived the experience at Buchenwald and get them some special recognition. You know, it hadn’t even occurred to me that maybe if a few people end up reading Lightning Down and talking about it, that would be something good to do. The airmen themselves are dead, but that might be something to look into for their children and grandchildren.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think something like this needs to be investigated for the families of the airmen.
Tom Clavin: It does. The recognition Joe got, like I said, was local. He got to be recognized for his service at Seattle Seahawks games (laughs). He liked sports. He got to be a Grand Marshal in a local veterans’ parade. But that is a very unique category of American pilots who survived being sent to a Nazi concentration camp presided over by the SS. Their hope was they’d conveniently die before too long, and no one would ever know they were there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tom, did your children follow dad’s journalistic path?
Tom Clavin: They went their own way actually. They both like writing, but they enjoy writing for their own pleasure. My daughter likes to write stories, but she really doesn’t have any interest in publishing anything. She just enjoys the process of writing. She’s a psychotherapist, and especially over the last couple of years, she’s had a lot of patients (laughs). It’s kind of funny. She’s a therapist, and her husband owns a wine business. So during the pandemic, the two of them were working harder than ever before providing different kinds of comfort to people. She finally said, “That’s it. I’ve got to have a baby.” So now, she’s due in December.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Congratulations, grandpa!
Tom Clavin: Yeah. Thanks. I don’t have any grandchildren. She knows it’s going to be a daughter.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very nice. What’s the next book about?
Tom Clavin: I am working on another book with Bob Drury that will come out in the fall of 2022. It’s a very different World War II story. It involves the 2nd Ranger Battalion in the fall of 1944. But my next, next, next book after Lightning Down is going to be a book called To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth, which will be out in April. You probably have some familiarity with the story. It’s a naval story about the battle between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama that took place in June 1864 off the coast of France. For three years, the Alabama had been sinking Union shipping, and every Yankee captain anywhere in the world was frightened if suddenly, the sails of the Alabama would appear in the horizon because they knew their ship would be caught and burned.
This went on for years, and then finally, the Union government designated the USS Kearsarge and its captain saying, “Your mission is to go to the uttermost ends of the earth and find and destroy the Alabama." The chase went all over the world until the two finally met off the coast of France. I did that one with my friend Phil Keith. We did a book together called All Blood Runs Red about the African American fighter pilot.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any final words about Lightning Down?
Tom Clavin: There’s one other thing I can add. The book can be a rough read because there’s some very unhappy things, to put it mildly, that Joe and his fellow pilots have to experience. It’s a daily effort to survive the most horrendous conditions. But to me, what’s really important about the book is that there’s really a lot of warmth to it because these guys are working together, sticking together and helping each other out. Joe survives his experiences because of the help of others. What keeps him going is that he is determined he’s going to get home to see his family again. He wasn’t married at the time, so he had his mother, two sisters and a brother. All he has in his mind is that he wants to get home, that he will see his family again and won’t let anything stop him.
I do have to say when the time came to write that passage where he’s working his way back to the state of Washington and his mother pulled into the train station where he was waiting, he sees her, and all his hopes and dreams have been realized in that moment. That is what he’s been waiting for during those years of incarceration, trauma and suffering. In that moment when he sees his mother, she represents not only his family but that he’s back home in the country he loves. He never wavered from that love. So I think people find that there’s a lot of warmth in the book, too, a lot of the positive, human feeling.
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