95-year-old WWII veteran from U.P. tells his story of being a prisoner of war

Local News

IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. (WJMN) – The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center honored three local veterans on Friday for National Prisoner of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) Recognition Day.

The men recognized: John Kusmitch, of Kingsford, Mich., served in the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division during the Korean War; Robert Smith, of Hartland, Wisc. served with the U.S Army’s, 4th Armored Division; and John Moddie of Quinnesec, Mich. served with the Army’s 590th Field Artillery during World War II.

Local 3 had the honor of speaking with Moddie on his experiences as a POW.

Moddie was drafted into the army after he graduated from Niagara High School. He was shipped to Germany with the artillery unit. He fought for three months.

The “big push” turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of the war, fought from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945. It would be the second-most lethal American battle with more than 19,000 Americans killed.

“They killed most of [the soldiers]. There were many living that got captured. I just got lucky that I got captured. Because most of them were fighting with the German Infantry with rifles and the German Infantry was waiting for us there when we came into that area. They started shooting,” said Moddie.

Moddie spent four and a half months as a POW. He and the other prisoners endured harsh conditions. Moddie lost over 60 pounds during that time.

“A lot of the prisoners died because of malnutrition and different things. And there were lice in there. They weren’t little fleas, they were big lice. And they bite! You could see them crawling on you, and everybody had a beard and long hair because we didn’t have any way of washing up or shaving or brushing teeth. You just had to pick the lice off in day time because they bite at night.”

There was one day during imprisonment that Moddie will never forget.

“There was a big open field there and we had to all line up there. There was Germans sitting there. They had their machine guns. We thought, ‘What are we going to do now? Kill us all?'”

Fortunately, no one was injured or killed that day.

Today John Moddie lives at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain. He just celebrated his 95th birthday this September. He said he feels good and enjoys getting his four mile walk in everyday.

According to the Iron Mountain VA, since the outbreak of World War I, more than 142,000 American service men and women were captured and held as POWs. Today, less than 20,000 are still living.

On Friday, a luncheon was held for the VA residents of its Community Living Center, as well as sending a care package to each of the three local surviving former POWs it serves.

Below are the biographies of the two other men recognized Friday:

John Kusmitch, U.S Army, 25th Infantry Division

Captured April 1951 during Korean Conflict, Spring Offensive

Karen Thekan (left), a former POW advocate at Iron Mountain VA and former POW John Kusmitch.

Mr. John Kusmitch, an 89-year-old veteran and native of Kingsford, MI, was only 20 years old when he was captured while fighting in the Korean Conflict. Kusmitch enlisted in the United States Army in August 1949 at the age of 18. He served in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division as a motor transport operator and was responsible for supervising and operating vehicles to transport personnel and cargo. The motor transport operators were the backbone of the Army’s support and sustainment structure, providing advanced mobility on and off the battlefield. He was only in the Army for two short years before he was taken prisoner of war.

Kusmitch was captured during the Spring Offensive of April 1951 when the 700,000-strong Chinese People’s Volunteer Army attacked UN forces in hopes of driving them off the Korean peninsula. He was captured, along with 15 to 20 others in his group, and spent over 27 months as a POW enduring harsh conditions. The POW camp that he stayed in was eight miles away from the Chinese border. After he left the Army, he worked as a construction worker in Chicago.

Robert Smith, U.S Army, 4th Armored Division

Captured April 1945 during a POW rescue mission

Mr. Robert Smith graduated from high school on June 5, 1944, and entered the service on August 23, 1944. He was assigned to Company C, 4th Armored Division as a tank crew member. His company was sent to free POWs in a German POW camp. When they crossed the Rhine River, the Germans were waiting for them and took out most of their tanks, including Smith’s. He ended up advancing on foot with the infantry soldiers. Smith was captured, along with others from his company, on Good Friday 1945. They were loaded on box cars Easter

Sunday for transport to Stalag 7A, Germany’s largest POW camp located in Moosburg, Germany. At the time of its liberation, the camp held 76,248 prisoners hailing from every allied nation. The trip to Stalag 7A took two weeks during which he lost 22 pounds. Smith was 18 at the time of his capture and spent 33 days as a POW before the camp was liberated.

Smith held multiple jobs after he left the Army including at local gas stations, an antique store, and a bank. He really enjoyed his job being a bank teller in Hartland, Wisconsin and stayed in finances for the rest of his career.

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