Feb. 17, 1923 – Jan. 12, 2016
Leon Peter J. Stawasz, a World War II prisoner of war and a retired inspector for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, died Jan. 12 in Scarborough, Maine, where he had lived in the Veterans Home since August. He was 92.
Born in Syracuse, the son of Polish immigrants and the seventh of 10 children, he originally wanted to join the Polish army after he graduated from Blodgett Vocational High School in Syracuse in 1941. Instead, he spent a year as a sheet metal worker before he was drafted in 1943, assigned to the Army Air Forces and sent to gunnery school.
He was deployed to the Eighth Air Force in England, where he was a tail gunner in B-17 bombers and took part in the D-Day Invasion. A month later, on his 13th mission, his plane was shot down over France.
After his capture, all he would tell the interrogating officer was his name, rank and serial number. Frustrated, the Nazi made a derogatory remark about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Stawasz responded with a similar remark about German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
“The German pulled out his pistol and fiercely placed it on my temple,” he recalled in a memoir. “Luckily for me, a Luftwaffe officer was there, working on paperwork, and he said, ‘Nein, nein, nein.’ You could tell the guy really wanted to shoot me, but he had to listen to his officer. That’s how I got away with saying, ‘**** on Hitler,’ in the middle of the war. My only punishment was being locked in the latrine.”
He kept a diary, writing on cigarette paper, during his 10 months in captivity. Held primarily in a POW camp in what is now Poland, he suffered frostbitten toes and his weight dropped from 150 pounds to 95.
After a 90-day forced march through Germany, he was liberated by British soldiers in May 1945.
Returning from service, he attended Syracuse University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1953.
Mr. Stawasz became an inspector for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and moved to Buffalo in the late 1950s.
A longtime Cheektowaga resident, he retired in 1983 and moved to Maine in 2006. He was grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade in Portland, Maine, in 2014.
His wife of 26 years, the former Anne E. Zajac, died in 1982.
Survivors include two sons, John and Leon Peter; daughters, Carolyn Gandy, Anne Marie Kostecki, Rebecca Sparacino and Dr. Donna; six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 13 in Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, 263 Claremont Ave., Town of Tonawanda.