Honor Flight: The Human Skeleton

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  • Left: Private First Class Joe Demler after being freed from a German prison in 1945. (Photo: Life Magazine) | Right: Demler on the November 2010 Honor Flight. (Photo: Jodi Becker)

On this Veterans Day, one of the most moving stories told on the recent November Honor Flight was that of a soldier from Port Washington who was known as "The Human Skeleton," Private First Class Joe Demler.

Before the trip, each veteran and guardian was given an Honor Flight jacket.  The duds feature the group’s slogan, "Every Day is a Bonus," across the back.
 
That slogan comes from a man who should know: Demler.

"I was in the 35th Division," said Demler.  "I was an infantry man in the Battle of the Bulge."
 
"He was in a farmhouse there and a tanker came through the side of that farmhouse, launched a shell and Joe all the way up to the second floor," said Stars and Stripes Honor Flight President Joe Dean.

Demler was crammed into a train car with men piled on top of men so deep they could not lie down. 

Audio:
Jodi Becker reports

More: 
The Search for Kilroy
The World War II Memorial and Thank You Back in Milwaukee

Honor Flight section

"We were stacked like cordwood.  For four days, we stood in this rail car without food or water or bathroom facilities," explained Demler.  "The guy next to me died."

It hauled the group to a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Some men around Joe gave up and passed away during the four-day trip.

They were not given food or water.

"When I got out of the prisoner camp, I weighed about 70 pounds," said Demler, who was a prisoner for three months.  "I got my health back.  That's the main thing."
 
A photographer for Life magazine snapped a shot of Joe in the hospital after he was freed on March 29th, 1945.

That photo shows Joe’s head on arms and legs that look like twigs surrounded by flesh. 

Click here to see the photo and article on him from 1945.

They called him "The Human Skeleton."

"When they rescued Joe, he said, 'I learned two things.  One is that I learned how to pray in a Nazi prison camp, and from now on, every day is a bonus.  We've taken that slogan and put it on the back of our jackets and shirts," said Dean.

After the war, he went back to live in Port Washington.
 
Now, Demler looks like any other healthy old guy with a sparkle in his eye, round cheeks and joy in his voice.

He could walk down the street next to you and you’d never know what he gave for this country, never asking to be thanked, just asking to make Honor Flights possible for more heroes.

Demler believes still that every day is a bonus.

"Otherwise I wouldn't be here."