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Steffen students learn about the price of freedom

World War II veteran discusses horrors as prisoner of war

Joe Demler recounts his experiences as a soldier, his capture during the Battle of the Bulge, and his three months as a prisoner during a Veterans Day assembly at Steffen Middle School in Mequon.

Joe Demler recounts his experiences as a soldier, his capture during the Battle of the Bulge, and his three months as a prisoner during a Veterans Day assembly at Steffen Middle School in Mequon. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Nov. 12, 2013

Mequon — There's no better way to teach students about the price of freedom and the importance of veterans than to show them.

Steffen Middle School students had a powerful lesson during a Veterans Day program last week when they watched the documentary "Honor Flight," which follows World War II veterans on their journey to see the Washington, D.C., memorial. World War II veteran Joe Demler was one of those veterans. The Port Washington resident discusses the traumatic events of his past as a prisoner of war in the film. He then spoke in greater detail about those events with Steffen students last week.

Demler was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was held captive in a Nazi prison camp for months. When he was finally freed, he weighed 70 pounds and had mere days left to live. An iconic photo showing Demler in the prison camp ran in an issue of Life magazine on April 16, 1945. That image of Demler has been called "the human skeleton."

"I had about three days left (to live)," he said of the day he was liberated. "When I was discharged, the doctor said, 'son, you can go home, you were born again.'"

Fast forward 60 years later and Demler's past has become a source of inspiration.

"Every day is a bonus," he said.

Demler has helped lead the fundraising for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, the nonprofit organization that flies Wisconsin veterans to the Washington, D.C., war memorials for one day, all expenses paid.

Barb Grossmeyer, ambassador for the Honor Flight program, said the bravery of the men and women who served in World War II turned the tides of the war. Their bravery was never properly honored, which is why the Honor Flight has become so important. So far, there have been 21 flights and approximately 3,100 veterans have participated in the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.

The journey of the organization's start in southeastern Wisconsin, of which Demler was an integral part, was captured in the documentary.

Following the movie showing at Steffen, Demler was asked questions about life as a POW and his miraculous survival.

An excerpt from the questions and answers session is below:

Question: How did you survive three months with very little food or water?

Answer: By the grace of God. The only water I ever had was from snow, we'd eat snow and this diet that we had — the German soldiers stole most of it — so there was little to eat.

Q: Were you allowed to keep any possessions at the POW camp? If so, what?

A: They stole everything I had. When I came back to the United States I came with a pair of pajamas, a razor and a toothbrush. That's all I had.

Q: What was a typical day like in the POW camp?

A: We worked mostly at night. We slept on the floor, no blankets, no straw. Later on when we were at the POW camp in the hospital section, then we had straw on the bed and what was in the straw? Lice. It just about drove you crazy.

Q: Did you ever consider trying to escape?

A: Escape. It was impossible. When there is snow up over your heads and the temperatures are way down below zero and you don't have the means or the strength. Those that tried to escape, they perished.

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