An enraged Nazi interrogator held a pistol up against Leon Stawasz’ temple, and the 20-year-old American soldier thought his life was over.
Stawasz had up until that point stonewalled the German officer by answering questions by only repeating his name, rank and serial number — as he was taught to do if ever captured by an enemy. But the interrogator finally managed to get the young soldier to break.
“I sh*t on Roosevelt,” the frustrated Nazi said.
Stawasz, ever defiant, told his questioner that if their positions were reversed, he’d say, “I sh*t on Hitler.” Of course, by phrasing it that way, he effectively said it without their positions being reversed, a point that was not lost on the interrogator, who boiled over, drew his gun and pressed it against the American’s head.
This was 70 years ago. On Tuesday, Stawasz, now 91, was the grand marshal of Portland’s Veterans Day parade.
“I got away with it,” he recalled of his insult to Hitler.
Not every American service member has been so lucky over the decades. At University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, just a few hours before the city’s parade, a black POW/MIA flag was raised on a school flag pole for the first time.
It took almost a year for Stawasz to get free of German captivity. It took a group of USM students almost two to get a flag raised to honor him and others like him.
“I’d look at the flag pole and it was my motivation,” recalled USM student Brandon Sodergren, 27, a Marine Corps veteran of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s the least we can do to remember our POWs and those who didn’t come back.”
Sodergren worked with Christopher Wagner, president of the school’s Veterans Student Organization, to get university approval to fly the POW/MIA flag over the Portland campus. But he said administrative and faculty turnover in recent years at the school — caused by an ongoing budget crisis there — made it difficult to gain traction for what might otherwise seem like a simple request.
Sodergren said interim USM President David Flanagan, whose brother is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and whose father and uncles served in World War II, finally gave the flag his enthusiastic approval once he settled into the position.
“For those of us old enough to have lived through the Vietnam era, that black flag represents one of the greatest tragedies of our country’s history,” Flanagan said during a Tuesday morning ceremony to raise it.
According to the Department of Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office, there are some 83,000 Americans still missing from the 1991 Gulf War, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Korean War and, yes, World War II.
Last month, the office announced that seven once-lost American service members have now been accounted for, making nearly 40 such discoveries this year.
Bar Harbor native and U.S. Army Cpl. Robert Tait was 19 on Dec. 6, 1950, when he disappeared following a battle near the Chosin Reservoir in what is now North Korea. His remains, found among others during an excavation near the reservoir just within the last two decades, were finally positively identified and transported back to Maine for burial with full military honors 14 months ago.
But even with Tait crossed off the list there are 45 Mainers who went missing between 1950-1953 in Korea and remain unaccounted for.
Another 12 of Maine’s sons went off to fight in Vietnam, went missing and remain unaccounted for.
Lawasz was a tail gunner in a B-17 that had flown 12 successful combat missions before being shot out of the sky by Germans in Nazi-occupied France on July 8, 1944.
His interrogator never pulled the trigger. A fellow Nazi officer jumped in to stop the execution, and Lawasz was transported to German prison-of-war camp Stalug Luft IV in what is now Poland. On Feb. 6, 1945, during one of Europe’s coldest winters ever, the guards caught wind of the looming arrival of Russian soldiers who might liberate the camp, and took Lawasz and his fellow prisoners out on what Ernest Shorey called a “death march.”
Shorey, Portland’s Veterans Day master of ceremonies from Harold T. Andrews American Legion Post 17, said the prisoners walked an average of 20 kilometers each day with little protection against the weather or food to eat.
Stawasz, now a York County resident, later admitted in a brief interview with me that his toes were stricken with frostbite, and he dropped down from about 150 pounds to about 95 during the ordeal. The march ended a full three months later, on May 5, 1945, when British soldiers found and liberated the prisoners, who by then had walked circuitously to France.
Elsewhere in the world, but during the same war, with about a month left in Stawasz’ death march, a B-25J Mitchell bomber took off from Palawan Field, Philippines. The bomber, carrying 2nd Lt. Robert Emerson of Norway, Maine, and four others, crashed that same day.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that Emerson’s remains were positively identified and he was given a burial in Maine with full military honors.
“I never go a day without thinking about those who have fallen,” said Sodergren at USM. “Especially with all the pilots who were shot down and were just never found. So many of those families never received closure. They’re finding remains all the time.”
Said Stawasz: “Prisoners of war were a different group of people.”
This Veterans Day in Portland, Stawasz told a tale of perseverance on behalf of dozens of Maine natives — and tens of thousands of Americans — who went to war and never came back to tell theirs. Over at the University of Southern Maine, Sodergren, Wagner and Flanagan raised a flag to show they were listening.
In full disclosure, I am an officer with the U.S. Navy Reserve.