By Joanna Bastian

This Memorial Day (May 28) would have been the 94th birthday of Pierre “Pete” Joseph. Pete led an astounding life, a portion of which was portrayed in the 1951 Broadway play and subsequent film, “Stalag 17.” The film is a comedy/thriller about American airmen in a German World War II prisoner of war camp, based on an award-winning play written by two survivors, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who were imprisoned at Stalag 17 with Pete.

The play and film were the inspiration for the much-loved television series, “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Pete was born to Susan and Ed Joseph at their home near Antoine Creek. He attended Pateros High School with his cousins Mary Marchand Miller and Lewis Miller. Pete lettered in every sport and was known as the fastest runner in Okanogan County. He could be seen running home after sports practices.

In December 1941, the United States entered World War II. The experience of a country at war was unlike what it is today. For the entirety of my own life, the United States has been actively involved in some conflict around the world, but I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t read the news. I pay low prices for gasoline, and there is no limit to the number of computers, bicycles, shoes, silks and nylons that I can purchase. When I walk into Hank’s Harvest Foods, there is always a wide selection of meat, cheese, butter, milk, jams and jellies. This was not the case during WWII. Every person in the country was affected by food and fuel rations and nightly blackout efforts.

It was during this time of uncertainty that Pete graduated in 1942 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He completed flight training and aerial gunnery practice before deploying to England as part of the massive buildup of troops for D-Day. 

But before D-Day arrived, Pete’s B-17 bomber was hit on March 8, 1944, over Berlin. From his gunner position in the ball turret, Pete bailed out and hurtled through the air with a force so great that his boots were ripped from his feet. After free-falling 3 miles, Pete’s chute deployed. As he drifted in the dark closer to ground, his chute tangled in a tree, and Pete hung 30 feet above ground where he was spotted by German civilians who cut him down and handed him over to the Gestapo.

Pete was held in solitary confinement for days while the Gestapo tried to guess his ancestry: Japanese, Filipino, Chinese or Mexican? The Native American refused to speak, giving only name, rank and serial number. He was transported to Luft Stalag 17B, near Krems, Austria. Food was scarce, guards were sadistic, and the overcrowded conditions forced the 30,000 prisoners to sleep three to a bunk.

Over a year after his capture, on April 8, 1945, Pete was gathered up with 4,000 other American soldiers in Stalag 17 and forced to march 281 miles to a prison camp near Bernau, Austria. It took them three weeks of marching to reach the campsite. Just days later, on May 3, 1945, Patton’s 13th Armored Division arrived and captured the guards. Pete and his fellow prisoners were evacuated to France. Many years later as Pete shared a conversation with his friend and fellow Paterosian, Ed Holbrook, the two were shocked to find that they were both at Stalag 17 at that same time, on the same march, and liberated the same day.

Pete was discharged with honors in October 1945. His outfit, the 379th Bombardment Group, took some of the heaviest losses in the war. Pete was one of the lucky ones who was able to return home. Pete married Lillian Dick, had six children, and worked as a supervisor on the Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and Wells Dams. Pete passed away in 1991 and buried with full military honors at St. Mary’s Mission on the Colville Reservation.


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