Jerry Gleesing, a World War II bomber pilot who survived German prison camps to return to his childhood sweetheart, died Sunday at age 85.
Gleesing was commander of the Spokane Inland Empire Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, a group that has remained prominent at local veterans’ events despite its diminished membership in recent years.
“He held this chapter together,” said Ruth Cunningham, the group’s adjutant. “He told us we would keep going as long as we can.”
Gleesing also served as state commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War in 1996-97 and 2003-04, Cunningham said.
In 2001, The Spokesman-Review reported that the chapter, made up of ex-POWS and their spouses, had 140 members. Today, 60 members remain, including 26 ex-POWS, most of them veterans of World War II, Cunningham said.
“Jerry is irreplaceable,” said senior vice-commander Don Head, a former infantryman who was captured by the German army at the Battle of the Bulge. “We are just going to miss him.”
In 1942, Gleesing enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age 18. After completing basic training and flight school, he returned to his hometown of LaMoure, N.D. and in 1944 married Nancy, the girl he couldn’t leave behind.
Gleesing soon was deployed to Italy as a flight officer with the 15th Air Force, 459th Bomb Group.
On Jan. 15, 1945, Gleesing’s B-24 was shot down and the crew bailed out over Yugoslavia and was taken prisoner. It was only his second mission.
While he starved in a German prison camp, his wife gave birth to their first child, Mary Jean.
Gleesing was liberated at Moosburg, Germany, on April 29, 1945, and returned to the U.S. in time for his first wedding anniversary.
After graduating from North Dakota University, he taught agricultural education at the high school level until going to work in commercial agriculture. The family moved to Spokane in 1971.
Jerry and Nancy Gleesing, who had seven children, were to celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary on June 1.
Head said Gleesing had been looking forward to the dedication of the state’s new Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake on Memorial Day. The ex-POWs have been invited to participate in the ceremony.
“It will be the last hurrah, I think,” Head said.