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For WWII vet 'Fritz' Jossi, 93, golf is therapy, camaraderie and more

TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Fred Jossi, World War II veteran and prisoner of war, grew up in Southeast Portland and keeps busy with regular golf at Heron Lakes in North Portland.The threesome of senior citizens arrives at the tee of the par-4 17th hole at the Heron Lakes Greenback Course on a recent Wednesday — regular men’s club partners Fred Jossi and Walt Garant with fill-in Roger Hong.

Jossi has some news for Hong:

“We usually play the 17th hole for a quarter.”

“OK,” Hong says. “Is there a lake over there?”

“Yeah, there’s an OB (out of bounds), too,” Jossi cracks.

Hong doesn’t hit his drive in the lake or out of bounds. He sinks a 12-foot putt for his par. Jossi takes a 6.

“Four,” Hong declares.

“Yeah, I know,” Jossi says sarcastically. “Here’s your quarter.”

“I was going to let you guys pay me in the clubhouse and collect some interest,” Hong says with a laugh.

Later, after Hong misses a par putt on the 18th, Jossi offers a final wisecrack:

“If we’d had a quarter on it, you’d have tried a little harder.”

Soon, Jossi is settled into a seat in the Heron Lakes clubhouse, beginning the process of adding up scores from the 40-some players participating in the men’s club event. Jossi serves as captain and treasurer of the group, comprised mostly of retired men who gather weekly to swap stories and play golf.

Jossi, 93, is the oldest of the 70 or so men’s club members. A charter member of Heron Lakes in 1971, Jossi has long been a regular with the men’s club, whose members call him “Fritz.”

“They call me Fritz because my dad was called Fritz,” Jossi explains. “Anybody who is named ‘Fred,’ they usually call him Fritz.”

“I thought it was because of your time in Germany,” Garant says.

Jossi falls silent. Perhaps memories of the time more than 70 years ago come rushing to his head. Memories a prisoner of World War II would just as soon forget.

• • •

Fred Jossi didn’t attend high school. He completed the eighth grade at Abernethy Elementary in Southeast Portland in 1935. Then, as the eldest of three boys, he went to work to help bring home some money for his family.

“It was a necessity,” he says now. “I let my brothers go to high school.”

Jossi worked in a blacksmith shop and at Willamette Iron and Steel Works helping to build liberty ships, felled trees for a fence line with the Civilian Conservation Corps and was a rivet inspector for Boeing. At age 21, he enlisted in the Army in 1942 in the midst of WWII.

He went through boot camp at Fort Lewis, Wash., was sent to Maryland for “parachute training,” then was shipped out from New York to England.

“From there, we went to Africa,” Jossi says, adding with a quick laugh, “I didn’t run fast enough, so I was captured.”

• • •

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Serving as captain and treasurer of the Heron Lakes mens club, Fred Jossi totals scores from 40-some golfers after a Wednesday morning round of golf.

Drawing details of Jossi’s capture by the Germans in Tunisia in February 1943 — and his 26-month imprisonment — is no simple task. He parcels out information in halting portions, the pain of his experience evident more than seven decades later.

Jossi — who rose to the rank of technician fourth grade (T/4) — was a member of the 168th Infantry Regiment of the 34th U.S. Infantry Division. Jossi’s regiment landed in Algiers, Algeria, in early 1943.

Algiers has its place in WWII history. It was the last city to be seized from the Germans by the Allied Forces during Operation Torch in 1945.

The Allied’s Eastern Task Force consisted of two brigades from the British 78th and the U.S. 34th Infantry divisions. The 34th had seen its first combat in Algeria in November of 1942. Jossi and the members of the 168th regiment — about 300 strong, to his recollection — were involved in the Battle of Faid Pass, Tunisia, a neighboring country to Algeria.

“We were put on top of a hill at Faid Pass,” Jossi says. “You don’t stop (German field marshal Erwin) Rommel and his tanks with rifles.”

Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, was a legendary commander who led his country’s “Afrika Korps.” The Germans had 140 tanks at Faid Pass. Jossi was serving as a scout for his regiment. Jossi’s unit was on the hill for four days. On the fifth day, a retreat was attempted.

“We tried to withdraw at nighttime,” Jossi says. “The Germans followed us all the way back. Daylight came, and I told the guys to wait up on the hill. I took off down to the country road. The next thing I knew, I heard a couple of shots. I stopped right there. They had us surrounded.

“I started back and looked up on the hill and there’s a big tank, an 88 (artillery gun) pointing right at me. I stuck my rifle in the ground and surrendered. And that was it.”

The 168th regiment suffered heavy casualties. “I can’t even guess how many,” Jossi says. “I don’t even want to guess.”

The survivors were imprisoned briefly in Africa.

“They flew us to Italy; then they shipped us in boxcars to Germany,” Jossi says.

The POW camp was brutal.

“I worked 10 hours a day shoveling cement and sand,” Jossi says.

The prisoners were fed, sort of.

“The bread had sawdust in it,” he says. “I tried all the soup there ever was.”

Was there physical punishment?

“Yeah,” Jossi says. “I was beat in the back with a rifle butt. Have something wrong with my neck today on account of it.”

The imprisonment lasted two years and two months. Jossi escaped in April 1945, a few days before Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, when he figured death was imminent.

“When I found out they were marching us to Berlin to be a bulwark (protective wall) in front of the American troops, I said, ‘To hell with this,’” Jossi says. “A couple of guys and I dropped over into a ditch. A couple of days later, we ran into an American tank and were rescued.”

And that’s all Jossi cares to say about the experience.

“I’d like to forget it,” he says. “It was a waste.”

• • •

After Jossi returned to the States, he settled back in Southeast Portland and married Mary, with whom he had six children — four boys and two girls. He worked for a while in a shipyard, owned a driving range for a while, then went into a business selling golf balls. He never worked any place for long.

“The stress level was too much,” says Teri Douglas, 64, his oldest daughter. “He couldn’t handle people talking loud or contradicting him. It was pretty much the same thing at home. He couldn’t handle a lot of action around him.”

“He could never work for somebody,” says his other daughter, Connie Kozlowski, 63. “He couldn’t stand somebody telling him what to do.”

The Jossi family was poor. The parents often went through Dumpsters outside of groceries “to find vegetables to feed us,” Douglas says.

“Dad didn’t make much money, but somehow he and Mom raised us kids,” says Kozlowski, who has lived with him at their Milwaukie home for the past 12 years, shortly after her mother died of cancer. “I remember my mom saying she hocked her wedding ring 11 times to have food on the table. She always went back and got it.”

“It was a hard life for him, because all the memories were still there,” Douglas says. “He wasn’t around us a lot. When he came back (from Germany), he couldn’t work for anybody. He couldn’t deal with orders. He said it was like a soldier with a rifle, aiming it at you.

“I remember all through my childhood, him screaming in bed at night. He’d stand out on the front porch, staring at the sky. He’d say, ‘I’m just waiting for them to come take me away.’ Every door and window in the house had to be locked. He was not going to let somebody get in there and kill him while he was sleeping.”

How was Jossi’s relationship with his children?

“We didn’t have one,” Douglas says. “He couldn’t handle it. He had no patience whatsoever. You have to have patience with six kids.”

The Jossi kids knew little of their father’s WWII imprisonment.

“He never talked about it,” Kozlowksi says. “When he was released, he had to sign a document promising to give no information. He was told if he ever told anybody, he’d be sent back to Germany.”

In 1974, Jossi learned of a POW organization that provided benefits. He filed a claim, with the help of Douglas.

“He got his papers together and brought them to my house,” she says. “We sat at the table and started going through them, so he could tell me what I needed to write down.

“He kept skipping through a lot of stuff. He was in tears a few times. When he walked out the door, he said, ‘I don’t ever want to think about this again.’ I dropped to the floor and fell apart.”

Douglas accompanied her father to the hearings.

“A lot of the POWs would file a claim, go through the first hearing, have to relive it, answer the questions, and never go back again,” she says.

Jossi, with the prodding of Douglas, stuck with it, and after “three or four years,” was granted 100 percent disability benefits. She says in later years, the Veterans Administration cut his percentage of benefits, ruling him employable.

“They say he has (post-traumatic stress) back to 1980,” Douglas says. “They say there’s no proof of it before 1980. He’s waiting for the VA to acknowledge he’s had PTS since 1945. He wants to be compensated. I want him to have peace in his life.”

That still hasn’t come.

“He still has nightmares in the middle of the night,” Kozlowski says. “I’m always jumping up to see if he’s still alive, if he had a heart attack or not. He’s always fighting in his dreams, screaming and yelling.”

Jossi’s relationship with his four surviving children is much improved.

“It’s a lot better,” Douglas says. “We’ve grown much closer. Since 1974, we’ve been in contact all the time.”

“He wasn’t the best father in the world, but he’s mellowed,” Kozlowski says. “But he cries a lot now. Before, he never showed any emotion. He’s worn out. He’s tired of what he had to fight for.”

Jossi has been well-recognized for service to his country. He is the recipient of a bronze star, a combat infantry badge, a POW medal, an expert submachine gunner medal, and honorable service while a POW.

For years, Jossi volunteered as the VA’s national service officer for ex-POWs and for Vietnam veterans in the area. Fred and Teri put together the monthly bulletin for the state’s VA chapter.

“That gave him a lot of pride,” Douglas says. “We put on banquets for the POWs. He was among the first people to get ex-POW medals.”

“Dad does a lot of volunteer work to this day at the VA, introducing himself to POWs when they’re admitted,” Kozlowski says. “He’s one heck of a man. Ask anybody at the Milwaukie American Legion, where he talks with the guys. They all respect him. They have the annual ‘Fred Jossi Golf Invitational’ in honor of him and other POWs.”

• • •

In a way, golf has been Jossi’s savior.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s 90 percent of what’s keeping him going,” Douglas says.

“It’s the No. 1 important thing to him,” Kozlowski says. “It’s his escape, a way to get away from the world, so he can have the peace he needs to survive.”

Jossi recently was hospitalized with a bout of pneumonia.

“He fought the doctors and nurses,” Douglas says. “All he wanted to do was golf. He had his golf clubs sitting in his chair with him. I walked in there and there was the golf club in his hand.”

“If it wasn’t for golf,” Jossi says, “you might as well shoot me. It’s the only thing that keeps me going, I tell you. I can’t play anymore hardly, but I love the game. And I like being with the guys. I started out with a 5-handicap; now I’m up there in the 30s.”

“We like his money,” someone in his playing group cracks.

Jossi laughs.

“I accept the bad game I play,” he says. “If my handicap gets to 40, they’re going to kick me out.”

Jossi has been a director of the men’s club at Heron Lakes for 41 years.

“I’m going to give it up at the end of this year,” he says. “I don’t like coming out and playing in the bad weather and getting wet and sloppy. But I’ll continue to play golf — if they’ll let me. They might not let me.”

In reality, the men’s club members might not let Jossi quit.

“We all love him,” says Jerry Sorensen, 80, one of his regular playing partners. “We kid him a lot about being grumpy once in a while, but the guys all respect his opinions on things.”

“What I like about Fred, he has amazing determination,” says Don Sevetson, 81. “He can be hard on you, but he’s always smiling. He loves to be out there with the guys on the golf course. He’s an amazingly alive person for his point in life. More of us are realizing how fortunate we are to know him.”

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