A man of grit and grace

Joe Demler, the subject of a Life magazine photo that illustrated the ravages of war, survived a Nazi prison camp to become a humble spokesman for Honor Flight

LONGTIME PORT WASHINGTON resident Joe Demler (above) held a copy of the Life magazine that featured a photo of him taken when Allied soldiers liberated the prisoner of war camp where he was held for three months during World War II. Press file photo
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Longtime Port Washington resident Joe Demler survived life in a Nazi prisoner of war camp through a mix of grit and grace, refusing to let the experience embitter him or break his spirit.

A famous photograph of an emaciated Mr. Demler lying on a cot in the Limburg, Germany, camp when Allied troops liberated it in 1945 that was published in Life magazine personified the cruelty of the war for many people. 

Mr. Demler, 94, who died of congestive heart failure at his Port Washington home Wednesday, Feb. 5, was a small-town boy from Fredonia who joined the Army just days after he graduated from Port Washington High School in 1944 and had been a prisoner of war for three months. His weight had dropped from 160 pounds to 70, and doctors told him he was three days away from death when the camp was liberated.

He had not only survived three months in a POW camp, he thrived afterward. Like many of his contemporaries, he built a life of calm after the war following the motto “Every day is a bonus.”

When the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight formed in 2008, providing veterans with a free flight to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials built in their honor, it adopted that motto. 

Mr. Demler was on the first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight and said at the time,  “it makes you feel like you’re finally appreciated after all these years. When we came back from the war, there were no parades or receptions. You just kind of came home and went on with your life.”

Mr. Demler found a passion with the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight and its mission, becoming the face of the organization, Joe Dean, who founded the group, said. “What a beautiful thing that he could use that experience and turn it into something beautiful.”

But, Mr. Dean added, while Mr. Demler was “an icon of the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, he was so much more. He was a man of deep faith. He was a family man, gentle and humble. He was an all-around good guy.”

His daughter Cathy Demler said her father lived a life of purpose.

“His legacy is how he lived his life,” she said. “He got the most out of every day. Who he was was shaped by his experiences in the war. But he didn’t want to dwell on it.”

Mr. Demler, who was born on Dec. 7, 1925, in Fredonia to John and Catherine Linden Demler, grew up in Fredonia. 

He graduated from Port High and was drafted into the Army, leaving for the war on June 6, 1944. A private with the 137th Infantry, he was among two companies of soldiers captured on Dec. 28 during the Battle of the Bulge.

“I was on the second floor of this farmhouse and up pulls a tank. It was a terrible feeling,” Mr. Demler told Ozaukee Press in 2015. 

The tank began shooting at the house, he said. “I flew from the floor up to the ceiling from the concussion. I’m lucky to be alive.”

As prisoners, he said the soldiers were forced to repair railroad tracks at night — treacherous work done during one of the coldest winters in European history.

When he and other soldiers were moved to Limburg, Germany, he said, they were locked in railroad cars.

“They were as full as they could stuff them,” he said. “All you could do for four days was stand up. We had no drinking water. We had no food for those three, four days.”

In the camp, he said, what helped lift the soldiers spirits was the arrival of new POWs who would update them on the progress of the Allies.

By the time the camp was liberated on March 29, 1945, Mr. Demler was a shadow of himself.

“You didn’t know how bad you were off,” he said. But when a 100-pound nurse lifted him off a gurney without a problem, he came to realize how weak he was.

  Mr. Demler said that what got him through the experience was his will to live as well as the fact he was young and fit.

“You couldn’t lose hope. You always had to think positive,” he said. “You learned how to pray.”

After months of recovery, Mr. Demler was discharged from the Army on Nov. 15, 1945. He found a job at the Post Office, initially working in Milwaukee but later in Port Washington, where he would become assistant postmaster.

“He worked at the window for most of that time,” his daughter said. “He knew everybody.”

It was at the window of the Post Office that he connected with Therese Schmit of Lake Church, a secretary at the Wisconsin Chair Co. who would pick up the mail each day.

The couple married at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lake Church on Sept. 1, 1951, and settled in Port Washington.

Mr. Demler worked at the Post Office for 37 years until retiring in 1982.

Mr. Demler, like many veterans, didn’t talk about his war experiences, his daughter said. But that changed when the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight began.

Mr. Demler, who quickly became one of the faces of the Honor Flight, represented the group at events large and small. 

Mr. Dean recalled the night Mr. Demler sat between President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara at their Kennebunkport, Maine, compound watching the Honor Flight movie. At the end, Mr. Dean said, the president leaned over to his wife and say, “Bar, that’s my story too.”

He and Mr. Demler laid wreaths at the various monuments in Washington, D.C., and attended a screening of the “Honor Flight: One Last Mission” film for Congress, where Mr. Demler received a standing ovation from the representatives and senators, Mr. Dean said.

“He would move a lot of people,” Mr. Dean said.

But Mr. Demler wasn’t most comfortable at these “celebrity” events, but at the smaller, more intimate gatherings, he said. Mr. Demler raised thousands of dollars for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, was a star of the 2012 documentary “Honor Flight,” Dean said. He signed copies of the book “Honor Flight” and talked to community groups and schools about his experiences.

Students were especially moved by his talks, Mr. Dean said.

“He would share his story, and you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “I think he did a lot to reinvigorate patriotism in young kids.”

Mr. Demler’s daughter said the Honor Flight organizers became a second family to him.

“He was so proud of what it did for the vets,” she said. “They have been like family to us.”

But there was more to Mr. Demler than the Honor Flight, his daughter said.

He was a “mild-mannered man” who loved to laugh, she said. 

“He wasn’t boastful,” his daughter said. “He was very quiet in the sense he didn’t like to draw attention to himself. The attention came to him.

“People enjoyed being around him.”

He was a spiritual man who was active at St. John XXIII Parish, St. Peter of Alcantara Catholic Church, where he was an usher for many years and a member of the Men’s Club, she said.

“He was always there when somebody needed a hand,” his daughter said. “He puttered a lot and enjoyed doing things around the house, fixing things.”

Mr. Demler enjoyed traveling with his family, visiting many of the 50 states, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico, his daughter said.

“They drove everywhere,” she said. “Until the Honor Flight, he had not been on a plane since World War II.”

Mr. Demler, who was a member of the Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Post 82 and the Ozaukee Memorial Post Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5373, was named to the Port Washington High School Wall of Honor.

He was also a past member of the Knights of Columbus.

Mr. Demler is survived by his wife Therese; children Tom (Mary) of West Bend, Steve (Jill Gaskell) of Blanchardville and Catherine Demler of Port Washington; and grandchildren Harlan, Cora and Kevin.

He was preceded in death by his sister Madeline Holland; brothers-in-law Jack Holland, Eugene Schmit, Clifford Schmit and Wilfred Schmit; and sisters-in-law Marie Schmit, Pauline Schmit, Pat Schmit, Marion Schmit and Helen Schmit.

A Mass of Christian burial was held Tuesday, Feb. 11, at St. John XXIII Parish, St. Peter of Alcantara Catholic Church, in Port Washington. Father Patrick Wendt officiated.

Entombment with military honors was at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Port Washington.

In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight or St. John XXIII Parish are suggested.

Funeral arrangements were handled through Poole Funeral Home and Crematory, Port Washington.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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