WWII pilot survived infamous prison camp
Rose Mary Gonda knew her future husband for several years before he mentioned he was a World War II fighter pilot and prisoner of war.
“I just did not know about that until he asked me to go to ‘a 325th reunion.’ I had no idea of what he meant by the 325th,” she said, referring to her husband’s gatherings with the Army’s 325th fighter group, the Checkertails Organization, which flew combat missions over Europe and North Africa.
John E. Gonda of New Alexandria died Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, in Excela Health Latrobe Hospital. He was 95.
Mr. Gonda, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, was taken prisoner by Germans in Italy in April 1944 when his single-engine plane was shot down over the Adriatic Sea.
His capture occurred after multiple flights during three years as a fighter pilot in North Africa and Europe.
For the next eight months, Mr. Gonda was held in the infamous Luft Stalag III prison, about 80 miles southeast of Berlin.
Luft Stalag III was the site of a mass escape of British and American prisoners in March 1944 that was documented in a book, “The Great Escape,” and in a 1963 film of the same name starring Steve McQueen and James Garner.
Mr. Gonda’s time in that prison ended in January 1945, when prisoners were forced to march in retreat because of Russian military advances. They marched in bitter cold and slept in barns.
He was later imprisoned near Nuremberg until American forces freed him, his wife said.
“He always felt he was very lucky to survive all that,” she said.
Mr. Gonda was born in New Alexandria and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in October 1940.
When the war ended, Mr. Gonda earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Miami and worked as an estimator for Koppers for more than 30 years.
He was a lifelong member of St. James Church in New Alexandria.
“He really exemplified that Greatest Generation. Even in his advanced age, he would come to church almost every day. I think he is our last parishioner who was a World War II veteran,” said Monsignor Larry J. Kulick, the church’s pastor.
In addition to his wife, Rose Mary, Mr. Gonda is survived by his sisters, Martha Euker of Chicago and Agnes Gonda of Oklahoma City. He was preceded in death by his brothers, Joseph, Albert and Thomas; and sisters, Mary, Irene and Betty.
Visitation is 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in P. David Newhouse Funeral Home in New Alexandria. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. James Church, New Alexandria. Burial will be in Calvary Hill Cemetery, Unity.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].