The future P-38 Lightning pilot Joseph Frank Moser was born in Ferndale, Washington, on September 13, 1921. Ferndale was at that time a community of 750 people surrounded by farms 16 miles south of the Canadian border, 85 miles north of Seattle, and east of Puget Sound. If a world war had not intervened two decades later, young Joe may well have spent his entire life in the Ferndale area as a farmer, raising corn, onions, asparagus, and dairy cows.
His father, Joseph Melchior Moser, was twenty-seven years old when he emigrated from Switzerland in 1911. Born into a Catholic farming family, he had grown up in a town called Sattel. His misfortune was that he was not a firstborn son. In fact, there were six siblings ahead of him. Because his turn at running the farm would probably never come and with few other jobs available, Joseph Moser chose to leave Sattel and explore the possibilities America offered. He was drawn to the Seattle area because of its Swiss immigrant population. He settled in Kent, south of Seattle, and found work on a dairy farm.
It took some years, but he eventually found a wife too. Her name was Mary Imhof. She was only fifteen when she met Joseph Moser, who by then was thirty-eight. Mary’s father, Frank Imhof, had grown up in the same region in Switzerland as Joseph Moser but had emigrated not to America but to New Zealand. It was not quite to his liking, so he crossed the Pacific and wound up, with a family, in Ferndale. The Imhof farmhouse became well known in the region’s Swiss-Catholic communities for hosting dances. When news of it reached Moser’s ears, and being still a bachelor, he traveled north to the next dance.
His son described the elder Moser as “a small and lean man with dark hair and a dark moustache who smoked a pipe incessantly, wearing down the teeth he used to clamp down on the pipe, and was fond of homemade whiskey. He also loved to dance.” Noticing him at his first dance in Ferndale was young Mary Imhof. Despite the twenty-three-year age difference, the two became immediately smitten with each other. Joseph Moser lost no time in relocating to Ferndale.
The couple must have found other places besides the dance floor to meet because when they married in June 1921, Mary was six months’ pregnant. About his parents’ situation, Joe Moser reflected, “I’ve always explained that the reason I am so short is that my mom had only a three-month pregnancy.”* He added that “such happenings,” even in the small, religious community, “were more frequent than most adults of that time talked openly about.”
Joseph Moser rented a farm known as the 101 Ranch that was on the Lummi Indian Reservation. He did not work that land long because Frank Imhof, soon after his grandson, Joseph Jr., was born, decided to move to another house, and he invited the Mosers to move into the Imhof house and take over the farming work there. As soon as he was able, young Joe was out in the field with his father: “I can tell you that I started very early.”
Those early experiences included hunting for eggs and milking his pet twin cows. After a rainstorm, Joe would jump in puddles on one side of the Nooksack River, on the path that led to Grandpa Imhof’s home. And as soon as he could handle a pitchfork, he was piling up stacks of hay.
Over the years the family expanded to include Louise, Josephine, Frank, and Rosalee, the latter born in 1935. Joe recalled that even in the Depression the Moser family had “an almost idyllic farm life in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
The “almost” refers to a tragedy: One day, the fifteen-month old Josephine carried apples to the water trough used by the horse, and with no one noticing, she managed to climb in. The child drowned.
The family persevered, and there was plenty of work to keep them occupied. A robust Joseph Moser led and supervised it all. “In addition to being short and very strong,” Joe remembered about his father, “he was exceptionally quiet and a no-nonsense father. We definitely had to toe the mark when dad was around.”
Despite the nation’s economic woes, the farm prospered. The family had not only forty-five cows to milk but also “some of the most advanced farming technology in the region,” Joe recalled. “We already had the latest and greatest milking machines, powered by a generator.” The Mosers also raised calves, chickens, pigs, horses, and other animals, all requiring care every day of the year, good weather and bad. Sundays, though, the family made time to faithfully attend services at the nearest Catholic church, St. Joseph’s, in Ferndale.
Family life and hard work had not persuaded Joseph Moser to give up liquor. He was one of many Swiss farmers around Ferndale who made their own “schnapps,” which was really whiskey. “Any get-together was an occasion to break out this powerful stuff, and I did not enjoy seeing what it did to my uncles, cousins and other family members and friends,” Joe reported. “Particularly, I hated what it did to my dad.” As a result, Joe vowed to abstain from alcohol, and would later find himself one of the very few pilots to refrain from drinking it, even when on leave.
For young Joe, the only break from chores on the farm, aside from Mass on Sunday mornings, came from attending school. In August 1935, he began at Ferndale High School. Soon after completing his freshman year, tragedy again struck the family. The incessant pipe smoker Joseph Moser developed a cough that rapidly grew worse, to the point that he began throwing up blood. By the time that he was diagnosed with pneumonia, it was too late to do anything about it. He died during the summer of 1936, at fifty-three years old.
The responsibility of running the farm now fell on Joe, just turning fifteen, and his mother. Mary Moser had buried a child and husband and was only thirty-one years old with two sons and two daughters—one just a year old—to feed and clothe. She first reduced the number of cows and other animals, then hired a worker to take over many of the chores. This meant the family made less money, but she was determined that Joe continue at Ferndale High.
There, in addition to his academic labors, Joe was drawn to football. This presented two challenges: one, he was then all of five foot two and 120 pounds and likely the least formidable player on the field, and two, to go home every evening after football practice he had to run almost five miles down the country road past Frank Imhof’s farm on the Imhof and Slater roads to the Moser farm off the Slater road. Then he had to help with the chores, eat dinner, squeeze in a few hours of sleep, 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.
Joe played baseball too but it was football that actually offered the opportunity to excel. By his senior year he had “bulked up” to five foot three and 130 pounds and was the starting halfback on the Ferndale High team. He did not slack on the academics, earning a listing on the honor roll every year, and in his senior year he was elected the student body treasurer.
Somehow, Joe found time for a new interest, one that quickly grabbed ahold of him—airplanes. Whenever he was working out in the field on the family farm and one flew overhead, he had to pause and stare up at the sky. Joe could not explain the fascination. “There was no history of flying in my family and no great tradition of recklessness or risk taking,” he reflected. “Just dairy farmers who loved the land, family, dancing, and our own unique way of life.”
Joe devoted a few dollars to a subscription for a magazine on airplanes. In one, he saw a photograph of a prototype of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a fighter plane the Army Air Corps was developing. It had engines and twin booms and a slender metal fuselage. “Somehow it conveyed both beauty and menace, and I was hooked,” Joe recalled. “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.”
However, in the spring of 1940, he might as well have vowed to fly a rocket to the moon. Even with his younger sisters and brother able to take on more of the work on the farm, the family was barely getting by, and running off to become a pilot was a totally farfetched notion. Joe looked into it anyway, and learned of another obstacle—two years of college was necessary to even begin training to become a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. Given that, his nine-year-old brother Frank had as much chance to fly a P-38 as he did. As Joe acknowledged, “My life direction seemed all too inevitable: farm work and more farm work.”
Like millions of other Americans, life changed significantly for Joe Moser on December 7, 1941. He was cleaning the barn late that Sunday morning when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was broadcast on the radio. One consequence of the United States entering the wars raging in Europe and Asia was an expansion of the Army Air Corps. The production of planes shifted into high gear, and America needed men to fly them. Gone was the college education requirement. It was replaced by a test that had a passing score of 82, plus the remaining requirement of passing the physical exam.
Fortunately, Joe was not then put into the position of choosing between his dream of being a pilot and the family farm. Mary Moser had been thinking that the running of the farm was too much of a burden, and she decided this was the best time to put it up for sale. (Her father, Frank Imhof, had died in 1940.) Before long, it sold, and she found a job in Ferndale. Joe was on his way to war.…
But not so fast. The pilot training entrance exam proved to be quite a tough test. Even so, the score of 74 he received was lower than he expected. Yet there was nothing he could do about it. Deeply disappointed, Joe began to consider enlisting in the navy, and perhaps that would offer a chance of becoming a pilot. While Joe pondered this, the window of opportunity closed—his army draft notice arrived: “I felt my fate as a foot soldier was sealed.”
Arriving immediately afterward, though, was another notice, this one containing miraculous news. The Army Air Corps informed him that because a grading error had been corrected, his true score was 84, and Joe was invited to reapply for pilot training. He could not get to Seattle fast enough. When Mary Moser bid farewell to her oldest son, like so many other mothers in the new world war, she had to be gripped with fear that she would never see him again.
In May 1942, Joe enlisted. Though undersized, his athlete body easily passed the physical. If he had been an army infantryman, it was possible that a rifle-carrying Joe would have been sent overseas before the end of the year. However, to become a fighter pilot, and especially one qualified to fly a P-38, he had to expect twenty-one months of training.
That was okay, whatever it took. “Oh man, my dreams were coming true,” Joe thought. He was ready for the challenge.
Joe Moser’s first stop as a fledgling Army Air Corps aviator was Santa Ana, California, where he completed a program of physical training and classroom work that seemed like just another three months of high school. He graduated to primary flight training at Sequoia Field in Visalia. Advanced training was given at Minter Field in Bakersfield. After two months of that, Joe left California to undergo additional training at Chandler Field outside Phoenix.
Along the way, perhaps the most discombobulating lesson was conducted in a device called a Link Trainer. Pilots flying in the Pacific Theater or European Theater had to know how to do so in terrible weather conditions or under a cloud-filled sky at night, when little or nothing was visible to the naked eye. That meant flying on instruments alone. The Link Trainer was an enclosed box simulating a cockpit with only the flight instruments visible. Instructions were provided by a voice piped into the device, and Joe, like many trainees, had no idea to whom the voice belonged.
It was at Chandler Field, in the final phase of that training program, that Joe was finally introduced to the P-38. Flying that plane was one dream come true. The other came on October 1, 1943—when he received his wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. Finally, Joe thought, it was time to go overseas and take the fight to the enemy.
Well, again, not so fast. U.S. commanders in Europe and the Pacific were desperate for pilots because of staggering and unprecedented losses. During the war over 43,000 American aircraft were lost overseas. Two months before Joe earned his wings, in August 1943, 60 B-17s were shot down in a single mission over Europe. In the theaters of war combined, more than 121,000 airmen were killed, wounded, or captured in less than four years of combat. Depleted American units in England and in the southwest Pacific anxiously awaited shipments of fresh pilots.
However, the military top brass also knew that inexperienced pilots would also be fresh kills if not trained extensively. An equal or greater concern was that pilot loss usually meant the loss of the expensive machines they flew in. Joe Moser and his fellow newly commissioned colleagues were not shipping out just yet. Joe was, at least, allowed to recharge his batteries with ten days of liberty in Los Angeles. Then, on October 14, he reported to the Van Nuys airfield north of the Hollywood Hills. There he was assigned to the 429th Fighter Squadron, which was part of the 474th Fighter Group.
The squadron had been activated in Southern California in August 1943 specifically as a P-38 fighter unit under the IV Fighter Command. If Joe Moser wanted to see combat in Europe, this was the squadron to be in, since before too long it would be assigned to the Ninth Air Force in England.
It certainly would not lack confidence. A memo about the 429th prepared in fall 1943 by one of its officers regarding its chain of command and operations stated that “it appears as if the future of this squadron is already assured.” The memo concluded: “Our history has not been one of outstanding accomplishment because it has been too brief, but we earnestly believe the future will find the 429th unfurling as good a record in combat as any squadron that has already gone across to meet the enemy.”
Joe found himself surrounded by Lockheed P-38 Lightnings—those fantasies from high school had become a reality: “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.”
He was fortunate in another way—his commanding officers. The squadron commander was Captain Burl Glass Jr., and Joe’s flight leader was Lieutenant Merle Larson.
Glass, only twenty-four years old, had been born in Gray County, Texas, and graduated from West Texas State with a degree in agriculture. He had worked as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1941. He’d already received almost ten months of training when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place that December. This experience enabled him to rise up the ranks quickly during that first year of the war, being promoted to captain in December 1942.
The comprehensive history report on the 429th Squadron—which sported the nickname the “Retail Gang” because the word “retail” had been its code name in radio transmissions—included a sketch about Captain Glass. It confided that he had “a pleasing smile, a gentle disposition, and countless other admirable characteristics, but he can be firm when the occasion demands. To state it simply, Capt. Glass is a man’s man.” He also already had some overseas experience, having ferried a P-38 to Casablanca in Morocco.
Merle Larson had the advantage of having combat experience—and, of course, surviving it. The South Dakota native was still in training in the summer of 1942 when the desperate plight of the thin U.S. forces resulted in his unit being hurried overseas. Larson and his fellow pilots went by ship to Scotland, then were trucked to Northern Ireland, where they were stationed on a Royal Air Force field. In December 1942, Larson was transferred to Africa. On the way there, his formation was attacked by German fighters but arrived safely in Oran. Larson spent Christmas Day again in the air, this time as a pilot protecting a convoy in the Mediterranean Sea. After that, on almost all of his missions he was a fighter escort on bomber runs over North Africa.
He did get into the occasional dogfight, and he gave at least as good as he got. But he took little pleasure in it. “There is no glorious feeling in knocking an enemy plane out of the sky,” Larson said. “The thrill you would normally expect just isn’t there because you’re too tense yourself not knowing when you’re going to get yours. My biggest thrill was coming in from a mission and seeing the rest of the fellows in my flight come home safely.”
Larson spent ten months overseas and met the required numbers of combat. Back in the United States he enjoyed some R&R, but the Army Air Corps was not finished with him. With the 429th, he would become an important figure in Joe Moser’s life.
Joe did not think it was possible, but the training at the Van Nuys airfield—which had once been an orchard—was even more intense than what had previously been doled out. But it was a joyful experience for Joe because the training focused exclusively on P-38 Lightnings, their capabilities and design intricacies down to the last bolt. At times, though, that joy was tempered: “The seriousness of the business we were in was brought home 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.”
Such tragedies brought home to young pilots the kinship they shared. Joe Moser was by far not the only one to go through such a demanding training regimen and witness losses along the way. A similar experience was had by Levitt Clinton Beck, a native of Houston who was twenty-three in 1943. A big difference, though, between Beck and his fellow flyers was that he wrote about being a young pilot while he was becoming one. When published, his book was simply and aptly titled Fighter Pilot.
Beck enlisted in the Army Air Corps in March 1942 and, like Joe Moser, was sent to Santa Ana. When his basic training was complete, “Our parents came over to see us graduate and our mothers pinned on our wings. It was a day never to be forgotten by them or us. As we stood up to take our oath, I don’t suppose I ever felt anything more deeply impressive in my whole life, than I did, as I repeated those words. I don’t suppose the words ‘I do,’ would have as much of a hold on me.”
He was assigned to Luke Field in Phoenix. After that, it was off to Drew Field near Tampa, then on to Sarasota. In August 1943, Beck was still training, this time at Randolph Field in Texas. On November 9, he was promoted to first lieutenant, yet like Joe Moser he was still waiting to confront the real enemy. Finally, Beck and his fellow trainees were on a train to New York. He would cross paths with Joe Moser on the other side of the world, on the ground as well as in the air.
For the pilots of the 429th Squadron, the end-of-year holidays held poignancy. As the Retail Gang log and history report—compiled by the squadron’s intelligence officer, Karl Swindt—stated, “The Christmas season was pressing hard and we all wanted to make the most of it knowing it would be our last on home soil for perhaps some time to come. Red Cross women in Van Nuys went all out to brighten our diggings with decorated trees. Candy-filled stockings and peppermint canes gave a warmer touch to walls covered with war charts, gun racks and security posters. Everyone was trying for a few days leave to get home and see the folks. A few actually made it.” Joe, alas, was not one of them, with Christmas 1943 spent at the Van Nuys base.
However, the first day of the new year, 1944, offered a welcome break from the rigors of training exercises. In the Rose Bowl that day the University of Washington was taking on the University of Southern California. Joe had not made it as far as college, but this was his home team anyway and he managed to score a ticket. He scored more than the Huskies did, however, as the Trojans humbled them 29–0. One highlight of the game for Joe was that one of his fellow pilots flew over the stadium in Pasadena and dropped a practice bomb onto the field. The perpetrator with a mischievous sense of humor was never found.
Training continued at a new base, Lomita Field, near Redondo Beach, and after that Palmdale in the Mojave Desert. There, pilots assisted in testing a new system of radar being installed at nearby. Joe was one of the pilots assigned to get his plane in the air fast when approaching “enemy” aircraft was detected. It was during one of these exercises that he came closest to crashing.
His P-38 was hurtling down the runway at an increasing speed but just wouldn’t lift into the air. Joe cut the throttles and slammed the brakes, but he still ran out of runway. He hit the field beyond it at 90 mph. The plane kept going through a fence and across a ditch before finally coming to rest. Although uninjured, Joe said, “My legs were shaking so badly that it took 10 minutes for them to settle down to allow me the strength to crawl out of the plane.”
However, still filled with “piss and vinegar,” only a week later Joe came even closer to death. During yet another training mission, and on his own in the sky, he took his P-38 up past 31,000 feet. He was not being foolhardy—he needed to know the edges of his plane’s durability in case he found himself in an extreme situation, such as eluding enemy fighters by going higher than they could. Joe leveled off at 31,600 feet and cruised for some time, “enjoying the astounding view.” It then occurred to Joe to see how fast a dive he could do from that altitude.
This, he soon learned, was foolhardy—taking a plane of at least 20,000 pounds propelled by V-12 engines down into a dive. Soon, he was going at 575 mph … 161 mph more than the P-38 was built to withstand. “She started to shake like crazy and I knew I had pushed her too far.”
Almost drowning in his own sweat, Joe pulled the throttles and the stick back with every ounce of strength he had. His dangerous problem was made much worse when his windshield and the canopy side glass frosted over. He was not only diving out of control but also doing it blind.
Then there was hope for surviving: “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.” At ten thousand feet, the windshield began to clear. Thankfully, the first thing Joe saw was not a mountain directly in front of him but clear sky. By this time he was in a shallow dive and was able to level off for a peaceful return to Palmdale.
The 429th lost another one of its trainees, Lieutenant Merle Ogden, on January 17. Approaching the Lomita runway, Ogden’s plane began having a mechanical problem exacerbated by his being unable to get his landing gear down. The last moments of the twenty-three-year-old pilot from Iowa were reported by the Los Angeles Times: “Heroically guiding his disabled plane away from a crowded high school playground, [Ogden] rode a P-38 to his death as it crashed in a victory garden adjacent to 1925 254th St., Lomita. One wing of the plane crashed into the home of Mrs. J Wilson Jones, wife of a Navy chief warrant officer, just as she and her seven-year-old son raced from the house. Mrs. Jones and her son were in Pearl Harbor when the Japs attacked on December 7th, 1941, and narrowly escaped death there.”
At last, the seemingly endless training exercises were finished. “By the last of January ’44, we were in pretty good shape,” according to the official 429th Fighter Squadron history. “Our records were all up, reports in, Squadron to full strength with qualified personnel, and equipment complete. Captains Glass and Heiser took the gang on an overnight bivouac to round out the program and then we were ready.” A formal send-off dinner and dance for the members of the squadron was held at the Redondo Beach Country Club.
On February 15, Joe and the rest of the squadron—279 enlisted men and 37 officers—as ready as they would ever be, boarded a train bound for Boston. The journey overseas to confront the enemy had begun.
Copyright © 2021 by Tom Clavin