Vincent DeLiso was surprised last month when he received a letter from a young man from halfway around the world.
In broken English, Jiri Sasek, a 24-year-old Prague resident, wrote that he thought there was a good chance that DeLiso was the tail gunner on a bomber who was taken prisoner after the plane was hit by Germans over Europe.
He found DeLiso through a missing air crew report and then looked him up using the internet.
Indeed, Sasek had found his man.
Never miss a local story.
DeLiso of Pasco was the only living member of the crew of a B-17 shot down Nov. 26, 1944.
Sasek wanted DeLiso to share his memories of that day, as well as some photos.
DeLiso has always been happy to tell his war stories, talking to schools and civic groups. So he was pleased to send Sasek renderings of the crash and photos of himself and other crewmen.
“I figure he wants to write history in a book,” DeLiso said. “I said to (my wife), ‘(expletive), don’t be surprised if we end up in the museum in Prague.’ ”
In an email to the Herald, Sasek said he long has been interested in air battles that took place over what is now the Czech Republic, and elsewhere in Europe. He is passionate about an exhibit on the missions that opened two years ago at a museum near his home.
Sasek has contacted many former U.S. Army Air Forces flyers who flew over Europe in 1944-45 and their relatives.
“I really greatly appreciate all the information that Mr. DeLiso sent to me,” Sasek said. “His story is really very interesting. On the contrary, some veterans are not very open about their war memories.”
Sasek said he is considering writing a book about four major air battles in November 1944.
DeLiso, now 88, sent Sasek a package, letting him know of his experience as one of two men of the 10-man crew who were captured as German prisoners of war. Three crewmen in the nose of the plane were blown away immediately and five survived after they crash landed at a liberated air base in Holland.
DeLiso was found in a tree after his parachute became tangled. He was turned over to two Gestapo, who beat him.
“He gave me a shot right in the eye,” said DeLiso, a Philadelphia native. “I was ready to hit ‘em in the eye, but the other guy had a Luger in my gut.”
DeLiso was relieved when a German soldier took him from the secret police.
DeLiso spent eight months as a prisoner of war, losing 65 pounds, spending time in the Stalag Luft 4 prison in Poland and being taken on an 87-day death march across northern Germany during the coldest winter on record in 1945.
He received two Purple Hearts after the soldiers were rescued by Canadians.
On Memorial Day, DeLiso has a lot of friends to think back on. He lost his fellow POW, Ray Leal, in 2011.
Not many World War II veterans survive, particularly those taken as prisoners.
“They’re all in their 90s,” he said of his fellow POWs. “There’s less than 5,000 of us left. I happen to be one of the youngest.”
His wife, Claudine, hopes people will remember their sacrifice.
“They were glad to do it for their country,” she said.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom