Former prisoner of war Joel D. Sollender, who was catapulted into unlikely fame in crucial swing states after starring in a pair of televised ads for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has died. He was 92.
The highly decorated World War II combat veteran died Tuesday of congestive heart failure, said his widow, Dorothy Sollender. A burial with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is pending.
“He had a great patriotic feeling about this country, and the war affected him in many profound ways,” Dorothy Sollender said.
Never having been a political man, he told the Union-Tribune in November that he was irked by remarks from presidential candidate Donald Trump during a GOP primary event in Ames, Iowa, last year.
Trump mocked John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona and a POW during the Vietnam War, as a Navy pilot who wasn’t “a war hero because he was captured.”
Reports of Sollender’s anger reached Clinton’s election headquarters in Brooklyn, and a camera team taped him soon afterward for two ads.
A 30-second piece showed him and other veterans reacting strongly to a string of Trump’s comments about the military. An 80-second ad featured Sollender alone, crying in his Poway, Calif., home as he reflected on his POW experience that was “70 years ago, and yesterday.”
Both ads debuted on Sept. 16 — National Prisoners of War Remembrance Day — and played in heavy rotation in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other battleground states.
“He was devastated that Trump won and worried about the future of the country,” Dorothy Sollender said.
Sollender was born in Manhattan on Nov. 11, 1924. The World War II draft tore him from his studies at the City College of New York and placed him in the 346th Regiment of the Army’s 87th Infantry Division, the “Golden Acorn.”
He was captured on Dec. 11, 1944, in France and imprisoned in Stalag 3A near Luckenwalde, Germany, according to military records kept by the National Archives.
A half-century later, he brought his wife to the French community of Gros-Réderching, near where he was captured. Villagers led them to the pillbox he had destroyed with a grenade, shortly before his trapped unit ran out of ammo and surrendered.
“We went to American cemeteries, but he wanted to visit a German one too — maybe because he killed German troops that day,” Dorothy Sollender said. “It came out of a sense of honor. He was very moved by Normandy and later very moved by those bunkers and all the barbed wire we climbed over to get there, and what he had to do there in 1944.”
His decorations included a Bronze Star for valor, the Combat Infantryman Badge and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.
Besides his wife, Sollender is survived by his son, Dr. Jonathan Lee Sollender, and six grandchildren.
Prine writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune