Demler, Joseph G. “Joe”, born 07-12-1925, Pearl Harbor Day, in Fredonia, Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, USA the son of Dr. John (DVM) and Catherine Linden Demler. Joe graduated from Port Washington High School. and shortly after left for the Army, Joe had one sister, Madeline G Demler Holland, who died 24-03-2000 (age 82), in Milwaukee. Demler was captured in December 1944 by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge. His unit, K Company, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, under command of Major General Paul William Baade was sent to fight in the Bulge the day after Christmas.
He attended Christmas services outdoors as a chaplain stood on a jeep hood for Mass, Demler’s thoughts drifting to his family and friends home in Port Washington celebrating the holiday. While the Germans proved to be a formidable foe, soldiers also fought brutal cold and heavy snow. Demler had only his clothing, rifle and ammunition. “We were moving, but the weather was so bad,” he said in 2015. “The snow was up to your hips. It was the coldest winter in Europe. I’m glad I had my overcoat.”
Demler used his overcoat as a blanket, sleeping on floors of buildings captured from the Germans. For Demler, the Battle of the Bulge came to an end on the night of Jan. 4 when a German Panzer IV tank fired a shot through a stone building where he was acting as a lookout on the second floor. The impact launched Demler from the floor into the ceiling. Two companies of American soldiers, more than 300 including Demler, were captured, interrogated and packed into train cars to a prisoner of war camp.
The Germans took Demler’s weapon, ammunition and rations. His overcoat, the one thing that had kept him alive during the bitter cold, was burned at his POW camp because of lice. Each day 10 men shared one pound of cheese and a loaf of German rye bread made mostly of sawdust. Demler rapidly lost weight. As more American POWs arrived, Demler learned the war would likely end soon. On the day he was liberated in April 1945, Demler weighed only 70 pounds.
The 137th fought here in Normandy from 7–13 August, and they suffered 23 killed, 140 wounded, and 40 missing in action. Casualities of the 35th Infantry Division during WW2 were: Total battle casualities 15.882, killied in action, 2.485, wounded in action 11.523, missing in action 340 and prisoner 1.471. Heavy fighting in Luxembourg and Belgium saw the 137th suffer heavy casualties, but they beat back the enemy wherever they met them. Fighting along the Dutch border of Germany saw the regiment cross the Rhine in March 1945. They advanced east through Germany encountering heavy resistance along the Autobahn superhighway, and they captured hundreds of German prisoners in the Ruhr region by the time the war ended. They assumed occupation duties in Germany until returning to the US, and were inactivated on 05-12-1945 at Camp Breckinridge
Few pictures published during the Second World War remain as striking, all these years later, as John Florea’s 1945 portrait of an American prisoner of war named Joe Demler. Photographed at the Nazi prison camp in Limburg, Germany, Stalag XIIA POW camp,
the figure in the photo is so emaciated that Demler was quickly dubbed “the human skeleton” when the photo ran in LIFE and other publications in the spring of that year.
When Florea and troops from the First Army’s Ninth Armored Division under command of Lieutenant General John William Leonard, came upon Stalag12-A in late March 1945, 19-year-old Private Joseph “Joe” Demler weighed about 70 pounds. “Skin and bones” is a generous way of describing his physique. His chances of surviving, everyone agreed, were far from good. (An indication of how close to death Demler and the other POWs in the camp’s makeshift hospital were: a soldier in a bunk next to Demler’s was alive when 12-A was liberated but died before he could get a bite to eat.) When he was liberated more than four months later, he had lost 90 pounds from his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame.
Against steep odds, Joe Demler did survive. Today, he lives in a small town in Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee, on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He’s retired now, of course, but for 37 years he worked for the United States Post Office. He’s been married to his wife, Loretta, for 63 years. They have two sons and a daughter, and three grandchildren. He’s 88 years old, and will turn 89 on Dec. 7: Pearl Harbor Day.
John Florea also made the famous photo of Hans-Georg Henke – 16 Year Old German soldier crying. .
Despite Demler’s emaciated condition, he was one of the lucky ones. American casualties during the five-week Battle of the Bulge numbered almost 90,000, including 19,000 killed. It took Demler months to regain his strength before he returned home to Port Washington, where he worked at the post office for 37 years, rising to assistant postmaster before retiring in 1982. He raised three children with his wife, Therese.
On 01-09-1951, Joe had married Therese Schmit of Lake Church at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lake Church. They built their home in Port Washington and raised their family. Joe took a job with the Postal Service in Milwaukee. He would soon transfer to work at the Port Washington Post Office working at the service window and eventually becoming its Assistant Postmaster until his retirement after 37 years in 1982.Joe enjoyed his retirement with his wife and family. They would take many trips together.
Death and burial ground of Demler, Joseph G. “Joe”.
Joe died 05-02-2020, age 94 in Port Washington, Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, USA and is buried with his wife Therese at Saint Marys Cemetery Port Washington, Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, VS.