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Cpl Peter Graves US Army Air Force (Served 1944-1945)

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James Arness Peter Graves WWII uniforms Fall 1944Cpl Peter Graves

US Army Air Force

(Served 1944-1945)
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Short Bio: Peter Graves was a familiar face from decades of assorted TV shows, best remembered as the mysterious Jim Phelps, commander of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) on TV’s Mission: Impossible. And yes, that’s his big brother James Arness in the photo with him.


Cpl Edgar Harrell U.S. Marine Corps (Served 1943-1946)

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profileCpl Edgar Harrell

US Marine Corps

(Served 1943-1946)

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I am sure that in many ways my background is no different than hundreds of thousands of other folks who grew up in our great country during the years of the depression and survived the horrors of World War II. I suppose we all developed a survivor mindset in those days of adversity. As I reflect upon those bittersweet years of blood, sweat and tears mingled with the joys of family, friends and faith, I must confess that I wish our country could go back to those times and recapture the core values upon which our nation was founded. Obviously that will never happen, but perhaps my humble story will remind readers of the eternal truths found in the Bible that once shaped our nation.

I was born in a small house near the banks of the Tennessee River on October 10, 1924 in a little western Kentucky community called Turkey Creek. I was the oldest son of a family of two sisters and six younger brothers. Life was simple back then, you either work or you starved and we had faith deeply rooted in the God of the Bible. My mom and dad did all they knew to raise their children for the glory of God.

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, my family and thousands of others across our great nation had no way of knowing that wicked men across the sea had our great country in their crosshairs. warWe never thought that they even considered our safe little Kentucky farm a spoil of war. I’m sure we took our freedom for granted in many ways; after all, freedom was all we had ever known. But by the time I was a junior in high school the war in the Pacific was in full swing. With the decisive battle at Midway proving to be a turning point for the Allied Forces in the Pacific, and with the full realization that my home and family were in imminent danger, I felt compelled to do my part by volunteering for the Marine Corps.

I remember well those days of duty and honor and I felt proud to be able to serve my country. As I listened to our old Silvertone radio, it sounded as though the Japanese were ready to storm the beaches of California. All of those Pacific islands seemed much closer in my limited and naive comprehension and I told myself “the Japanese must be stopped” and I was eager to volunteer for the task. This was a fight for freedom and for survival; it was a war where evil must be vanquished so justice and freedom could prevail. So with the soul of a patriot and the heart of a warrior, I committed myself to the Marines. Joining the service, or even being drafted, was an honorable undertaking. We never heard of protesters, draft dodgers, or flag burners. When the war broke out, patriotism swelled in America.


In the fall of 1943 I found myself enduring the rigors of boot camp in San Diego, California. Boot camp was tough and demanding, but I knew that if I kept my nose clean I would come out with flying colors. When I completed boot camp, I was sent to Sea School where I was later told that I would soon be assigned to a large combat ship. Somehow I knew then in my heart that God was up to something in my life far beyond my understanding. Far from the safety of my beloved Kentucky, I found myself alone in a world filled with dangerous unknowns, relieved only by the comforting truth of God’s promise, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”

indyIn March of 1944 I was assigned to the USS Indianapolis, and this was to be my home until her sinking on July 30, 1945. I still remember my first impressions when I boarded the Indy. My initial thought was, “This thing is big, real big!” It was like a floating city. It was an absolutely overwhelming experience for a country boy from Kentucky. My first sight of the massive guns gave me goose bumps. Having never seen guns larger than a double-barreled shotgun, I remember laughing to myself thinking, “My, my, my. We can win the war just by ourselves with these monsters!” I later learned to operate both the 40 mm and the 5 inch guns. Since we had no foxholes in which to hide I soon realized that our training and our ability were our only protection.


My first combat experience was at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Island chain. Our ultimate sights, however, were on Guam, Saipan and Tinian, crucial islands for providing a staging area for our new Boeing B-29 Super-fortress bombers to be able to attack the mainland of Japan.

From the Marshalls we moved on to attack the Western Caroline’s. There our carrier planes struck the enemy at the Palau Islands where they bombed enemy airfields, sank 3 destroyers, 17 freighters, 5 oilers and damaged another 17 enemy ships. The Japanese lost 160 planes during these battles, with another 46 destroyed on the ground.
On the 13th of June 1944 we moved on to the Marianas where the Indianapolis joined the pre-invasion bombardment group off Saipan. The Japanese were dug in deep on Saipan with their massive gun installations camouflaged and concealed behind trap doors on concrete bunkers. With the landing attack scheduled for June 15, Admiral Spruance maneuvered the Indianapolis in close enough to effectively superintend the attack. We were so close, in fact, that we experienced many near misses from the Japanese batteries. Fortunately, we were hit only one time by a defective shell that did not explode and caused only minor damage.

Under the cover of ferocious American bombardment, the 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions launched their amphibious assault and met with stiff resistance when they came ashore. The well fortified Japanese bunkers were high above the beaches, capable of suddenly opening their massive trap doors, blasting our vulnerable boys below, and quickly concealing themselves again. Upon hearing the reports we knew the casualties of our Marines were high. However we dared not let our emotions rule us and the crew of the Indy fought on with great discipline, doing all we could do to support our vulnerable troops storming the beaches.

Desperate to relieve their beleaguered forces to the south in the Marianas, the Japanese launched a large fleet of battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers. Contrary to the “Tokyo Rose” propaganda that the Americans were running away from the massive flotilla of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Spruance ordered a fast carrier force to make haste to meet them head-on. gunsAdmiral Spruance was confident of victory knowing that the U.S. had 104 ships of various kinds and 819 carrier-based planes available in the theater of operation. On the other hand, estimates indicated that the Japanese had met with serious losses in the Pacific leaving them with only 55 ships and 430 planes. By then, the U.S. fleet had twice as many destroyers as the Japanese.

Our fleet met the enemy on June 19 in what was called the ‘Battle of the Philippine Sea.’ The Navy Department Naval History Division described it as follows:

“Enemy carrier planes, which hoped to use the airfields of Guam and Tinian to refuel and rearm and attack our off-shore shipping, were met by carrier planes and the guns of the escorting ships. That day the Navy destroyed 402 enemy planes while losing only 17 of her own. (The) Indianapolis, which had operated with the force which struck Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima, shot down one torpedo plane. This famous day’s work became known throughout the fleet as the Marianas Turkey Shoot. With enemy air opposition wiped out, the U.S. carrier planes pursued and sank two enemy carriers, two destroyers, and one tanker and inflicted severe damage on other ships.”

After the Marianas Turkey Shoot, the Indianapolis returned to Saipan in June to resume fire support for six days, we then moved on to Tinian to blast shore installations. Meanwhile, Guam had been taken, and the Indianapolis was the first ship to enter Apra Harbor since that American base had fallen early in the war.

For the next few weeks we operated in the Marianas area and then proceeded to the Western Caroline’s where further landing assaults were planned.

turkey shoot3From September 12 through 29, both before and after our landings, we bombarded the Island of Peleliu in the Palau Group. We then went on to operate for 10 days around the island of Manus in the Admiralty Islands before returning back to San Francisco to the Mare Island Navy Yard for repairs and maintenance.

In Dec. 1944 we welcomed our new Skipper, Capt. Charles B. McVay III. Unlike Captain Johnson who was all business in his military demeanor, Capt. McVay was more personable and enjoyed interacting with the men on a relational level. Johnson ran a very tight ship requiring many drills and General Quarters early in the morning. McVay, on the other hand, ran a looser ship, not requiring us to be “battle ready” all the time nor did he expect us to keep watertight doors closed and dogged when we were in forward areas. However, I never thought of him as being lax in any way. I served as a marine orderly for both of these fine captains and had a bit of firsthand experience with them.

With Capt. McVay now at the helm of the Indy, and our overhaul at Mare Island complete, we joined Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher’s carrier task force on the 14th of February 1945. There we played a vital support role as our forces attacked the installations in the “Home Islands” of Japan itself. The Indy gave support to the first air strikes on Tokyo since General Doolittle’s invasion in April of 1942 preparing the way for the bloody struggles at the landings on Iwo Jima.

The campaign around the Home Islands stands out in my mind. It was crucial for us to gain tactical surprise and we did so by traversing the Aleutian Island chains in terrible weather. I remember several occasions where I was at watch on the bridge during high seas. As the ship forged ahead, the bow would descend into the great valleys of water then plow into the banks of the frigid waves causing sleet-like sea spray to strike me with stinging force. Our mission was successful in the Home Islands campaign. Between February 14 and 17, the beach landing3Navy lost 49 carrier planes while shooting down or destroying 499 enemy planes. Our task force sank one Japanese carrier, nine coastal ships, two Destroyer Escorts and a cargo ship. While this was going on, Japan was being systematically devastated every day by our Air Force.

With their homeland under attack and their war machine gradually being diminished, desperation fueled the beleaguered Japanese. They fiercely defended Iwo Jima, proving to be one of the toughest of all the islands for the United States to secure. It was estimated that approximately 21,000 Japanese troops inhabited the labyrinth of coral tunnels on the volcanic island. The Indy’s mission was simple – bombard them. We had the ability to fire over 500 rounds of 5-inch gun ammunition in less than six minutes, sending massive amounts of destructive flak as far as eight miles. The big 8-inch guns could lob 250-pound shells up to eighteen miles. The concussion from the 8-inchers was staggering. In fact, their enormous recoil would actually move the massive ship sideways in the water. We were also well equipped for close range warfare, such as kamikaze planes, with the firepower of our 40 mm and 20 mm deck guns.

Torpedo suicide planes were always a threat to our ships. I will never forget the day when one of these planes flew in low and horizontal trying to make its way across our bow. Like always, our mission was to shoot him before he could get to us. That particular day I was a fuse box loader on one of the 5-inch guns. I would place a 75-pound shell into a fuse box hitched up to what was called “sky aft radar.” This radar system would then relay the actual coordinates of the incoming enemy plane to the shell itself, instructing it to explode its flak precisely in front of the plane.

As the plane came roaring by from left to right, the 5-inch gun immediately to the left of my gun continued firing in its left to right range of motion until its rotation was complete. With its muzzle now approximately sixteen feet from where I stood, pointed as far forward as possible towards the bow of the ship, it fired again. The concussion of the blast was so powerful that it knocked me to the deck while I was still holding the 75-pound shell. It also dislodged my cotton earplugs causing them to fall out and quickly blow away in the Pacific wind. Though dazed by the explosion, turkey shoot 5God enabled me to get to my feet and load the shell. As it fired, the percussion of the blasts further damaged my unprotected ears causing temporary deafness and blood to run out of my left ear. While our efforts averted the enemy plane and our lives were spared, I permanently suffered a fifty percent loss of hearing in that ear which has advanced to nearly 90%.

By March 4 we joined the pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa where we fired 8-inch shells into the Japanese beach defenses. We soon discovered that our 8-inch projectiles were glancing off the concrete pill-boxes like ricocheting bullets requiring us to move out further and thus lob the shells over and down on our targets – a strategy that proved most successful. In the seven days of fighting at Okinawa, the crew of the Indy shot down six planes and assisted in splashing two others.

One of those mornings in particular stands out to me. The ship’s lookouts spotted a single-engine Japanese kamikaze fighter plane diving vertically directly at the ship’s bridge. We immediately opened fire with our 20-millimeter guns. Although we hit the plane and caused it to swerve, the pilot was still able to release his bomb at the last second and crash his plane on the port side of the after main deck. The plane toppled off the ship and fell into the sea causing little damage to the surface of the ship. The bomb, on the other hand, tore through the deck armor, the mess hall, the berthing compartment below and the fuel tanks in the lowest chambers before crashing through the bottom of the ship and exploding in the water underneath us. It was a miracle that we only suffered moderate damage. The official Naval report indicated “the concussion blew two gaping holes in the ship bottom and flooded compartments in the area, killing nine crewmen.” Although the Indianapolis settled slightly by the stern and listed to port, there was no progressive flooding; and the plucky cruiser steamed to a salvage ship for emergency repairs. There, inspection revealed that her propeller shafts were damaged, her fuel tanks ruptured and her water-distilling equipment ruined; nevertheless, the battle-proud cruiser made the long trip across the Pacific to the Mare Island Navy Yard under her own power.

It was a relief to come back to Mare Island and leave the Pacific front. The break from combat was welcomed but short-lived. Suddenly, while at Hunters Point in San Francisco, we received word that all leaves were cancelled. Despite the fact that the Indy was not fully repaired and tested, we were ordered to get underway immediately. Not knowing what was going on, we boarded and quickly followed orders as we loaded last-minute provisions. My curiosity was fueled even more when my Marine Captain Parks ordered me to station guards around the mysterious cargo that had been brought aboard. A large crate, measuring Shot 4 Fat Manabout five feet high, five feet wide, and perhaps fifteen feet in length was hoisted onto the port hangar off the quarter deck. After stationing guards around the mysterious container, I immediately proceeded to obey my orders and do the same for another curious piece of cargo brought aboard and placed in a compartment on the upper deck reserved strictly for Officers. Inside the room was an ominous-looking black metal canister that a couple of sailors had brought on board dangling from a metal pole hoisted upon their shoulders. The cylinder was about two feet long and maybe eighteen inches wide and was padlocked in a steel cage that had been welded securely to the deck floor. I later discovered that when the black canister was aboard the transport plane, it had its own parachute. We also later learned that our cargo consisted of the integral components of the atomic bombs that would be dropped twenty-one days later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, code named, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” After delivering our secret cargo to its destination at Tinian Island, we picked up our sailing orders at CINPAC in Guam, which were to take us from Guam to the Philippine Islands in preparation for the main invasion of Japan that was to have been in November 1945.

Three days out of Guam we encountered a Japanese submarine by the name of I-58. LT Commander Hashimoto fired a spread of 6 torpedoes, hitting us with two. The ship went down in 12 minutes resulting in only about 900 of the 1197 crew managing to abandon ship, leaving some 300 to go down with the ship. After 5 days only 317 would be found alive. This would be the largest casualty at sea in the history of the U S Navy.

[Editors note: Additional information on the history of the USS Indianapolis disaster and the court-martial/exoneration of Captain McVay is available at this link;]


survivorAs I abandoned ship that night I joined a group of about 80 men to experience a hellish nightmare of swimming for 4-1/2 days in a kapok life jacket with the sharks. By the third day at noon there were only 17 still alive. Knowing the horrors of being plagued by sharks, hypothermia, fatigue and salt-water hallucination, and the crew’s heart wrenching struggle to survive the greatest catastrophe at sea in the history of the U S Navy, plus the loss of 880 of my shipmates, leaves me with lasting, horrible memories.


I knew Captain McVay only as any non-com might know his superior officer. Even so, I saw him up close as his orderly and thus saw a man that was in command yet kind, down to earth, humble and very patient. To then see the gross miscarriage of justice and the cover-up that led to the bizarre court-martial and the eventual exoneration of a distinguished Navy Officer leaves me with sadness but still so respectful of the man.


For 35 years I was a Distributor for the Pella Window Co. in Rock Island Illinois covering Eastern Iowa, Southwestern Wisconsin and Western Illinois. I sold the business in 1985 and retired somewhat until my book “Out of the Depths” came out in 2005. Since then I have been in some 26 states telling the USS Indianapolis story, proving the miscarriage of justice on the part of the Navy, plus telling of the Providence of God that brought me through those terrible days. I thank the Lord each and every day for that experience and for these extended 85 years to tell of His Providence in my life.

[Editors note; Information about Cpl Harrell’s book “Out of the Depths” is available at this link:]


Shot 14 Last ShotThe one thing that was confirmed and made a part and parcel of my life was the love of my Country and my fellow man. Today I recognize the futility and the necessity of war, yet I have a strong desire for peace. However I dare not be complacent and let my guard down because there are those who do not sympathize with my views so I stand ready to defend them.


Through TWS I have made many friends of both WWII and the much younger generation that have so faithfully followed. It’s sad to say however, that my generation is just about gone so I can only pay my respect and praise to the present torchbearers.

Hear Edgar’s story in his own words here: TWS Member LCpl Edgar Harrell Video



Operation Judgement – Post War Death Squads

Paul von Hindenburg, the ailing second president of the Weimar Republic (successor to the German Empire) died on Aug. 2, 1934. Following Hindenburg’s death, Adolf Hitler, political leader of Germany and the head of the Federal Government, declared himself dictatorial head of Germany and with that declaration, the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled. Adolf Hitler was now the sole master of a nation intent on war and genocide.

Shortly after coming to power, he ordered a bloody purge of his own political party, assassinating hundreds of Nazis whom he believed had the potential to become political enemies in the future. Another thousand perceived political opponents of the regime were sent to Dachau, a concentration camp opened in Bavaria in March 1933. But it wasn’t long before other groups that the Nazis deemed “undesirable” were rounded up and sent away. Foremost among them were the Jews.

Hitler had hated the Jews since 1907, when his mother died of cancer while under the care of a Jewish doctor, whom he blamed for her death. His hatred grew during his service as a soldier in World War I. When the armistice was called, he assumed that Germany had lost the war because of a back room deal, and he blamed Jews for the capitulation. In his mind, Germany’s humiliation was the fault of the Jews and he wanted them to pay for it.

At the time, Jews made up less than 1% of the German population, yet they controlled Germany’s manufacturing, banking and a large share of small businesses. Since they wielded such economic clout, Hitler also blamed them for Germany’s Great Depression following WW I. There was also the issue of race: Hitler believed that the “Aryan race” was the best and strongest race. Jews were considered to be of such an inferior race, that they were not even considered to be “people” by the Nazis and, for that reason, Europe had to be rid of this “threat to German racial purity.”

After a decade of increasingly severe discriminatory measures against the Jews and other “undesirables,” Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime came up with a plan to annihilate the European Jewish population and “solve” the so-called “Jewish Problem.” They euphemistically called it the “Final Solution.” Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the planning and execution of the mass-killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland as part of the “solution.”

Six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust – fully two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before World War II. Other victims of Nazi crimes included Romanis (gypsies), ethnic Poles and other Slavs, communists, homosexuals, priests, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, the mentally and physically disabled, and resistance fighters. If you add in the 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war killed in German camps the total is 16.3 million. Some history books place the total as high as 19.3 million.

Although Adolf Hitler was the murderous madman responsible for the extermination of countless millions, he wasn’t alone. In fact, Hitler’s henchmen – his inner circle of fanatical and ruthless subordinates – were often just as evil as he was, and sometimes even more evil.

One of the most evil and sinister men in the world was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the cold-blooded SS and the madman in charge of the brutal Eastern death camps. After being captured by the Allies, Himmler committed suicide by biting a vial of cyanide that he had hidden in his mouth.

Other cold-blooded “exterminators” responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent victims were the high ranking SS officers shown in this rare photograph. From left to right are Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau), Dr Josef Mengele (the Angel of Death), Josef Kramer (Commandant of Bergen-Belsen), Rudolf Hoess (Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Anton Thumann (Commandant of Majdanek). Kramer, Hoess and Thumann were hanged. Baer escaped but was caught later and died in prison awaiting execution. Dr. Mengele escaped to South America, where he died in Brazil on February 7, 1979.

Although these men and others like them ordered the killings, German soldiers were more directly involved in the extermination that Hitler set into motion. In retaliation for sabotage, German soldiers would round up and execute all the men in a village, burn it to the ground, and send all the women and children off to concentration camps. They routinely shot dozens and even hundreds of hostages.

With the defeat of Hitler and his Nazi regime, a series of military tribunals, known as the Nuremberg Trials, were held by the Allied forces. The first tribunal was given the task of trying 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich who had planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes.

The second set of trials was for the lesser war criminals and included the Doctors’ Trial and the Judges’ Trial. The Doctors’ Trial was for the 20 medical doctors and 3 Nazi officials accused of involvement in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder under the guise of euthanasia, while the Judges’ Trial was for the 16 German jurists and lawyers accused of implementing and furthering the Nazi “racial purity” program through eugenic and racial laws.

Many of the war criminals that were tried were found guilty and sentenced to death either by hanging or by firing squads. For one reason or another, selected Nazi war criminals were tried and acquitted. Others managed to get away with murder, but most of those were minor members of the Nazi party whose roles weren’t as significant. Since they were less important and less involved, it was easier to find ways to completely deny their involvement.

Although the Allied forces considered the trials over, and the most deserving were executed or imprisoned, the Jewish people now living in Israel felt strongly that justice had not been served. They pointed to the many Nazi war criminals who were allowed to go unpunished or were never hunted down by authorities. These were the Gestapo agents and SS guards who’d broken into homes, dragged terrified citizens into the streets, crammed them into cattle cars, and carried them off to concentration camps to be slaughtered or starved to death. As a result, the Israelis formed death or revenge squads to track down and kill these former SS and Wehrmacht officers who had participated in the atrocities and eluded serious punishment.

Working under the code name “Operation Judgment,” those who volunteered for the killings had lost their families and communities in the Holocaust and were burning with hatred. Others were previously members of the Jewish Brigade, part of the British Eighth Army, which fought with distinction in northern Italy in the latter stages of the war. Most members of the death squads believed their people would never forgive them if they did not exploit the opportunity to kill the Nazis who were guilty of crimes against humanity.

Among themselves, they were referred to as “Din” squads, a Hebrew word meaning “revenge.” They operated in teams of three or four. One “Din” unit, acting on intelligence, raided a house in Austria where it was thought a Nazi Party official was living. The team of three found the house littered with jewelry and clothes. The lady of the house told the three revenge squad men that it had all once belonged to Jews. The “Din” men told the man and his wife that they would be executed on the spot for crimes against humanity. In a plea bargain, the former Nazi Party official gave a list of the current names and addresses of senior SS officers to the revenge squad.

Probably the most infamous person killed by the revenge squads was Dr. Ernst-Robert Grawitz. He was the chief medical officer of the SS and he is credited with creating the gas chambers used in the death camps. Surviving Nazis believed that he had committed suicide but a “Din” unit claimed responsibility, reporting that they had activated a grenade, killing Grawitz, his wife, and his children.

Other senior Nazis executed by the revenge squads included SS Colonel Dr. Hans Geschke and SS Lieutenant Kurt Mussfeld, who oversaw the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The last person killed by the revenge squads was Aleksander Laak, who had run the Jagala concentration camp in Estonia, where 100,000 were murdered under his rule. In 1960 Laak must have thought he was safe in Winnipeg, Canada but a revenge squad found him, confronted him with his crimes and talked him into hanging himself.

As well as the execution of 1,500 suspected SS and Gestapo war criminals, the Brigade also assisted tens of thousands of concentration camp survivors to reach Palestine, despite the fact that the British government was firmly opposed to Jewish immigration at the time and the country was the subject of a naval blockade.

While the Foreign Office, under the arch anti-Zionist Ernest Bevin, was hostile to the Jewish Brigade and wanted it to be stopped, the British military command refused to act and turned a blind eye to the brigade’s clandestine activities.

When the death squads disbanded in 1960, its members went their separate ways, taking with them their stories – grisly tales that add a unique dimension to the Holocaust, a dimension which poses several complex questions: Were they right to be judge, jury and executioner? At what point had they become just as bad as the evil they wanted to destroy? Did they start out as righteous warriors only to prove that hatred isn’t a quality exclusive to Nazis?

Many of the assassins became founders of Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Within Mossad is Kidon, an elite group of expert assassins who operate under the Caesarea branch of the espionage organization. Not much is known about this mysterious unit, details of which are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the Israeli intelligence community, except that they are an anchoring part of the philosophy of the Jewish people in Israel that they will do whatever it takes to prevent another Holocaust.


GM1 Ernest Borgnine US Navy (Served 1935-1945)

borgnineView the military history of Actor:

GM1 Ernest Borgnine US Navy (Served 1935-1945)

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Short Bio: It was while he was pondering his future as a vegetable salesman in the midst of the depression that Borgnine’s gaze fell upon a U.S. Navy recruiting poster. Not long thereafter he was in the Navy, an experience that he still credits with making a man out of him. It also provided a fertile atmosphere for the development of his future character in television’s McHale’s Navy.


Battle Chronicles:The A Shau Valley

The A Shau Valley is a rugged, remote passageway near the border of Laos and the Ho Chi Ming Trail in Thua Thien province. It runs north and south for twenty-five miles. It’s low, mile-wide, flat bottomland is covered with tall elephant grass and flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Because of its forbidden terrain and remoteness – and the fact it was usually hidden from the air by thick canopy jungle and fog and clouds – it was a key entry point during the Vietnam War for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) for bringing men and materials in support of military actions around Hue to the northeast and Da Nang to the southwest.

To stop the flow of hardware, food and soldiers coming through the A Shau Valley, a number of bitter battles were waged by the American Army and Marines. So fierce was the fighting that any veteran who fought thereearned a mark of distinction among other combat veterans. But once the Americans achieved their objective, they did not remain in the valley for very long. U.S. strategy for fighting the enemy did not include occupying remote and sparsely populated areas.

That enabled enemy survivors to flee back to their safe haven across the Laotian border where they waited until the Americans deserted the battlefield. Satisfied the Americans were gone, they infiltrated back into the valley, picked up where they left off, and relaunched their vital resupply mission.

Dominating the western end of the valley next to Laos and the Ho Chin Ming trail loomed a solitary ridge named Dong Ap Bia, towering some 937 meters above sea level. Snaking down from its highest peak were a series of ridges and fingers, one of the largest extending southeast to a height of 900 meters. The entire mountain was a rugged, uninviting wilderness blanketed in double-and triple-canopy jungle, dense thickets of bamboo, and waist-high elephant grass.

In May 1969, Operation Apache Snow was launched and like previous allied operations, its goal was to limit enemy infiltration from Laos that threatened Hue and Da Nang. The ensuring bloody battle was the infamous ten-day Battle of Hill 937, or for those who fought there, cynically dubbed Hill 937 “Hamburger Hill” because it reminded them of a meat grinder.

The operation kicked off on May 10, 1969 with a heavy concentrations of pre-assault firepower, including heavy artillery, napalm, and B-52 “Arc Light” air strikes of suspected enemy positions. But this time was different.Rather than retreat from the area, the enemy chose to defend his dug-in positions, which meant eventually his positions had to be assaulted by infantry with the inevitable high casualties.

When the fires were lifted, elements of Colonel John Conmey’s 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne landed by helicopter in varies predesignated landing zones scattered throughout the valley.

Among his forces were the 3rd Battalion 187th Infantry (3/187) commanded by Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt and 1st Battalion 506th Infantry (1/506) under the command of Lt. Col. John Bowers. Supporting them was the 9th Marines Regiment and the 3rd Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment, as well as elements of the Army of Vietnam (ARVN).

Describing the operation as a reconnaissance in force, Conmey’s strategy was for his five battalion to search their assigned sectors for PAVN troops and supplies. The 9th Marines and the 3/5th Cavalry were to conduct reconnaissance in force toward the Laotian border while the ARVN units cut the highway through the base of the valley. The 501st and the 506th were to destroy the enemy in their own operating areas and block escape routes into Laos. As his troops were airmobile, Conmey planned to shift units rapidly should one encounter strong resistance. In this way, Conmey could reposition his forces quickly enough to keep the PAVN from massing against any one unit.

Contact on the first day Americans and ARVN were in A Shau Valley was light but intensified the following day, May 11, when the 3/187th approached the base of Hill 937. Sending two companies to search the north and northwest ridges of the hill, Honeycutt ordered Bravo and Charlie companies to move towards the summit by different routes. Late in the day, Bravo met stiff PAVN resistance and were forced to fall back.

Helicopter gunships were brought in for support but the gunships mistook the 3/18 7th’s staging area for a PAVN camp and opened fire killing two and wounding thirty-five. This was the first of several friendly fire incidents during the battle as the thick jungle made identifying targets difficult. Following this incident, the 3/187th retreated into defensive positions for the night.

Over the next two days, Honeycutt attempted to push his battalion into positions where they could launch a coordinated assault. This was hampered by difficult terrain and fierce PAVN resistance. As they moved around the hill, they found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches. Seeing the focus of the battle shifting to Hill 937, Conmey moved Bowers’ 1/506th to the south side of the hill. Bravo Company was airlifted to the area, but the remainder of the battalion traveled by foot and did not arrive in force until May 19.

On May 14 and 15, Honeycutt launched attacks against PAVN positions with little success. The next two days, elements of the 1/506th probed the southern slope. American efforts were frequently hindered by the thick jungle which made air-lifting forces around the hill impractical. As the battle raged, much of the foliage aroundthe summit of the hill was eliminated by napalm and artillery fire which was used to reduce the PAVN bunkers. On May 18, Conmey ordered a coordinated assault with the 3/187th attacking from the north and the 1/506th attacking from the south.

Storming forward, Delta Company of the 3/187th almost took the summit but was beaten back with heavy casualties. The 1/506th was able to take the southern crest, Hill 900, but met heavy resistance during the fighting.

Later that day, the division commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General Melvin Zais, arrived and decided to commit three addition battalions to the battle as well as ordered that the 3/187th, which had suffered 60% casualties, be relieved. Protesting, Honeycutt was able to keep his men in the field for the final assault.

Landing two battalions on the northeast and southeast slopes, Zais and Conmey launched an all-out assault on the hill at 10 am on May 20. Overwhelming the defenders, the 3/187th took the summit around noon and operations began to reduce the remaining PAVN bunkers. By 5 pm, Hill 937 had been secured. Eleven days later on May 28, the Americans and ARVN left A Shau Valley.

American losses during the ten-day battle totaled 72 KIA and 372 WIA. Losses incurred by the 7th and 8th Battalions of the 29th NVA Regiment included 630 dead (discovered on and around the battlefield); including many found in makeshift mortuaries within the tunnel complex. Yet no one could count the NVA running off the mountain, those killed by artillery and air strikes, the wounded and dead carried into Laos or the dead buried in collapsed bunkers and tunnels.

The battle of Hamburger Hill was similar to other engagements during the war. Enemy losses were much higher than American casualties, the enemy retreated without pursuit by American or ARVN forces, and the battlefield was abandoned 11 days after the end of hostilities. Being the most sever and costly battle going on in Vietnam at the time, it also attracted significant media attention.

Much of the coverage pointed out the difficult and slowness the airborne troops were taking the enemy positions and the high number of casualties they took each time they assaulted the hill.

In its June 27 issue, Life Magazine published the photographs of 241 Americans killed in one week in Vietnam; this is now considered a watershed event of negative public opinion toward the Vietnam War. While only five of the 241 featured photos were of those killed in the battle, many Americans had the perception that all of the photos featured in the magazine were casualties of the battle.

The overall result was of Hamburger Hill was the frustration of achieving an overwhelming battlefield success without any indication that the war was being won. To many, this frustration suggested that such battles were isolated events which were unrelated to any eventual policy goal. Consequently, Hamburger Hill became the subject of passionate public debate, focusing on the decision to capture Dong Ap Bia regardless of the casualties and irrespective of its marginal significance in terms of the reasons why the United States was in Vietnam.

The United States Congress also spoke against the war. Several influential senators stood before their peers, severely criticizing the military leadership and calling the operation “senseless and irresponsible.” Their chorus of disapproval was seen as part of a growing public outcry over the U.S. military policy in Vietnam. This led to further outrage in America over what seemed a senseless loss of American lives.

The controversy of the conduct of the Battle of Hamburger Hill led to a reappraisal of U.S. strategy in South Vietnam. As a direct result, to hold down casualties, General Abrams discontinued a policy of “maximum pressure” against the North Vietnamese to one of “protective reaction” for troops threatened with combat action.

While the coverage by the media was highly critical of the tactics and the leadership, newspapers and television often applauded the honor and courage of the foot soldiers who bravely followed their orders knowing there was a very good change they could be killed or wounded every time they assaulted the hill.

In 1987, the movie Hamburger Hill directed by John Irvin hit the American theaters. In it the horrors – and futility – of the Vietnam War came brutally to life through the eyes of 14 American soldiers of 101st Airborne Division as they attempt to capture a heavily fortified Hill 937 under the PAVN control. In the opinion of most Vietnam combat veterans the movie was the most realistic depiction of deadly combat.

In the website below is an extraordinary 27-minute film on two desperate battles. One in the A Shau Valley early May 1969 which follows elements of the 101 Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade during the 10 day battle of Hill 937 (Hamburger Hill). It features Sgt. Arthur Wiknik. The other takes place two months earlier in Mach 1969 at the Rockpile. In it Company C, First Battalion Fourth Marines is attacking Hill 484. Featured is the company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Karl Marlantes, who earned a Navy Cross for his actions on Hill 484. Marlantes is the author of ‘Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War’ and ‘What It Is Like To Go To War.’


SFC Monica J Primus U.S. Army (1988-2010)

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monicaSFC Monica J Primus

U.S. Army


Shadow Box:



I had been working as a Certified Nursing Assistant and wanted to do something more with my life than just get a paycheck so I decided to join the military. I knew it would give me health and dental benefits, financial stability, training and an opportunity to travel so once I made up my mind to join I did not hesitate. There was no delayed entry program for me or reserve time. I went full force and enlisted for 5 years initially. I looked at all branches. I ultimately chose the Army. This was the branch of service of my father, Furlan Udine Primus, and offered the training I wanted.


I enlisted for 98GL, but that was not to be. During basic training, I received a Letter of Intent (LOI) to Deny Security Clearance so I was forced to change my military occupational specialty (MOS). It took some wheeling and dealing, but I finally got my choice, Pharmacy Specialist. After completing basic training at Fort Jackson, SC I moved onto Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Sam Houston, TX and then to my first duty station at Fort Sill, OK. While I was stationed there, I did receive my security clearance. I was that 1 in a 100 that receives an LOI to Deny but actually is not denied. If I had only held out longer, I would have been a Linguist. It actually turned out well though because I have come to love the Pharmacy and did well for myself in that career field. During my first tour at Fort Sill, I rotated through all areas of the pharmacy. After my rotation through all areas, I was assigned to work in the Outpatient Pharmacy. I worked with many wonderful civilians and soldiers there.

I next moved on to Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, Korea where I learned to love Kimchi. I then went back to Fort Sill. It was as if I had never left. I was now in charge of the Inpatient Pharmacy. Next up was instructor duty at Fort Sam Houston. I had begged for this and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. While I was there I not only taught pharmacy specialists, I also taught cardiovascular techs, ENT tech, eye techs, helped with PA program and Medic training. I guess my crowning glory there was incorporating the Sterile Products training program into the Pharmacy Specialist course so all techs were trained in this specialty area. I was then off to Fort Meade, MD followed by Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While there I ran the Inpatient Pharmacy, worked as the Training NCO (about 500 soldiers), and was the only enlisted person assigned to Clinical Pharmacy. I was also a member of a S.M.A.R.T. that deployed to Hurricane Katrina Relief. My last assignment was Senior Enlisted Advisor for Pharmacy, Bavaria Medical Department Activity (BMEDDAC), Germany. While there, I was the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of the Department of Pharmacy for Bavaria and got to travel to all the clinics on a weekly basis. This was not an undemanding final assignment. I had to work many long hours and travel a lot, but it was worth it. I retired from the Army in 2010 because I felt it was time to start a new chapter in my life.


I was part of a Special Medical Augmentation Response Team (SMART) that was deployed to Hurricane Katrina Relief in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was quite an experience to see all the devastation that was left behind due to the hurricane and I cannot imagine living through it. Other than that, I was not deployed anywhere else. At the end of my career I found out that someone had coded me as non-deployable. I guess whoever that was thought they were doing me a favor.


I guess I am quite lucky because I have very fond memories of almost all of my duty stations. My first duty station was at Reynolds Army Community Hospital’s (RACH) Outpatient Pharmacy and my first line supervisor was then SFC Juli Zugner (now MSG (r) Juli Tanzi). She was a dynamic NCO that set a wonderful example of what a Soldier should be, know, and do. I also worked with Mrs. Cyndi Bell, who treated all of us as equals and ensured we were “family”. While I was stationed there, I helped create the pharmacy at the then to be built, TMC #2, which was dedicated to SGT David B Bleak, Medal of Honor recipient, whom I was honored to meet.

My second duty assignment was Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. Although this was a difficult assignment because I had absolutely no overlap time with the specialist I replaced, it gave me an opportunity to enhance my skills as a pharmacy specialist and NCO. Because Pharmacy, Radiology, and Laboratory were all only one man deep, we were always on call and this did not allow for much true down time, but we managed to have fun. I remember one time we all were called in because there had been a single vehicle accident involving a Soldier. Under the guidance of CPT Uretzky, we were able to save the patient’s life. She unfortunately did lose one of her legs below the knee, but had we not been there working together as a team she would not have made it.

During my third duty assignment, I was stationed again at RACH at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It was wonderful going back there because they had just completed work on the new hospital. During this assignment, I was made the NCOIC of the Inpatient Pharmacy, something I had not done since my initial assignment at RACH and did a two-week rotation there. I was a bit nervous about having so much responsibility placed upon me. While I was there, I was able to computerize our crash cart inventory and inspection process and I created a medication location guide for the nurses so they would not have to call a technician in during the middle of the night for a medication that could be found readily available on another ward. I had 3 wonderful military technicians, one of whom I still stay in touch with.

Two of my least favorite moments occurred while I was stationed there. The first one is that my top-notch civilian technician quit without notice. This unfortunately had a lot to do with her spouse, but she never opened up to anyone other than to say he did not like the hours that she worked. The second incident that put a damper on my spirit and made me question whether I would re-enlist was that I was called on the carpet by the acting Sergeant Major because there had been a Soldier sleeping in the lobby near the command suite and in an authoritative voice, I told him to wake up! I was told by the acting Sergeant Major that it was not my place to tell that Soldier to wake up. I was incredulous. If it were not my duty to do this then whose was it?

I was next assigned to the Academy of Health Sciences where I was an instructor for almost 4 years. I had begged and pleaded to be assigned there and when I got my orders, I was ecstatic. I loved teaching and I loved pharmacy, so this was a dream job. I helped integrate the stand-alone Sterile Products course into the Pharmacy Technician course thereby allowing all those enrolled to receive the training. I was also the primary instructor for that portion of training, which is considered the most difficult portion. I have many cherished memories of students finally “getting it”, truly comprehending what the practice orders were, being able to do the complex calculations, and then being able to compound the required product. It really did seem as though a light would turn on over their heads. I really loved that assignment. I also had a great relationship with my fellow NCOs and still am in touch with one of them.

My fifth assignment was at Fort Meade and this was a dark time in my life. I suffered the loss of my husband followed by the loss of my dearest aunt followed by the loss of thousands of dollars worth of vaccinations due to a refrigerator malfunction and a civilian interim supervisor that blamed me and whom I bumped heads with every step of the way. Fortunately, I was reassigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and had a wonderful First Sergeant (now CSM Gregory Lott) who was also a Pharmacy Technician. I worked with a wonderful team of pharmacists in the Clinical Pharmacy section of the pharmacy. These were some very smart people and I had the privilege to be on their team. What an honor.

My last assignment took me to Bavaria, Germany where I was in charge of seven pharmacies. I spent many hours on the road going to and fro, but it was worth it because I was able to ensure that the pharmacies were in peak operating order and that the pharmacists and specialists were all well trained. I was able to pass on my knowledge, which helped ensure that my Soldiers performed well and that my Pharmacists stayed informed. This assignment took its toll on my TMP, but I would have driven around the world to ensure my pharmacies were at their optimum.

There are many memories that stand out for me. First is repelling down Victory Tower during Basic Training which allowed me to overcome my fear of heights and accomplish a task that I originally thought I would not be able to. My first duty assignment where I worked with some of the best trained and knowledgeable people I know. Teaching at Fort Sam Houston because I was able to pass on skills and knowledge to new Soldiers. Deploying to Hurricane Katrina Relief. Being the Training NCO for about 500 Soldiers. Working in Clinical Pharmacy and doing drug studies. My service in Germany. I know those are just brief statements but I could write volumes on those subjects.


There are two awards that I am most proud of. The first one is a Commendation I received while stationed at Camp Red Cloud. We had a trauma victim come in and I was part of the team that worked on her. Unfortunately, she did not make it, but I am proud of the fact that I know I and the team of health care providers did everything humanly possible to try to save her. There was nothing in my pharmacy technician training that even came close to preparing me for that situation, but I and the others handled it with great professionalism. This was in January 2004.

The next award that I am proud of is an Army Commendation Medal I received for rendering emergency medical treatment to a civilian who was having a grand mal epileptic seizure. This incident occurred while I was attending a pharmacy conference in Biloxi, Mississippi. The conference had ended for the day and I was on my way back to my room to change into civilian clothes. I just passed a pillar and caught a glimpse of someone. It looked as though they were hitting their head on the slot machine they were playing. I took another step forward toward my room, but something just didn’t seem right. I turned around and noticed this person was not just hitting their head on the slot machine, but was actually having a grand mal seizure. I rushed over to him, pulled him back from the machine so he would not injure himself further, got the attention of a security guard who helped me lower the man to the floor, directed him to call 911 and get the man’s player’s card from the machine so he could be identified and have his family or companions paged, ensured the man did not injure himself, and stayed with him until the ambulance arrived. Again, my pharmacy technician training did not prepare me for this, but I had prepared myself because I had been a Certified Nursing Assistant before joining the Army and by taking the Combat Lifesaver’s Course and attempting the EFMB twice. This was in April 2000


My second AAM (1993) is very meaningful to me because it validated my knowledge and skills.It was given to me because I went TDY to Fort Chaffee to replace the Pharmacist who had to be out for over a month and there was a JRTC rotation being held so it was critical that the pharmacy be manned.


My very first NCOIC, MSG(r) Juli Tanzi had the biggest impact on me. She set the standard of how an NCO should behave. Never once did I hear her complain about the long hours we worked or the changes that seemed to be constantly implemented. She made it happen. I
remember when I first arrived and met with her she cared about my whole person, not just the soldier side. She helped me enroll in correspondence courses and directed me to the Ed Center so I could enroll in college classes because that, too, was important. If there was training to be had, she would ensure we got to it. I never saw her back down from any challenge and that set a trend for me. She also never hesitated to lend a helping hand and she was always present. During our busiest times of day, she would be out on the front-line entering or filling prescriptions with the rest of us. She exuded competence and confidence and had an outstanding work ethic. I am so glad that she was my first NCOIC.

The other person that had a very positive impact on me is CSM Gregory Lott. After I had suffered the loss of my husband, my aunt, and had fallen into a deep depression, he supported me by ensuring there were no ramifications to me seeking mental health help, having confidence in my abilities as a pharmacy technician and NCO, and allowing me to perform my job as the NCOIC of Inpatient Pharmacy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and then as his training NCO. This changed my life for the better and without his support I don’t know if I would have been able to continue my career in the Army.


Yes, my first desk when I was assigned as the Training NCO for Alpha Company, WRAMC. You see, there were not enough desks to go around and the building was being renovated so I had a living room chair to sit in and a desk chair as my desk.


After I retired from the Army I attended Fayetteville Technical Community College (FTCC) where I earned a degree in Culinary Arts and graduated with honors. I currently am a Chef for hire for private occasions, am involved in the American Culinary Federation, and will begin teaching cooking classes at the Continuing Education Department of FTCC in July 2015.

I am involved in a four volunteer projects. I do data entry for both and This allows documents to be searchable. I also photograph, upload, and transcribe headstones for and

I was a member of Sigma Phi Psi Sorority, Inc. They were the first Greek letter sorority for Armed Forces women that required no college affiliation. This association provided a great feeling of sisterhood, support and camaraderie, but I got stationed in Germany for 4 years, retired from the Army, and then went to school for two and a half years. I found I did not have the time to dedicate to the sorority since I was no longer near a chapter therefore I resigned my position and left the sorority although I do still keep in contact with a couple of the sorors.

My sorority sisters and I would carry the flags for the DAV during parades on Memorial Day and Veterans Day at Arlington Cemetery and Quantico.


Actually, it hasn’t. My philosophy and that of the military were the same when I joined so I really fit in. I had a strong work ethic, a sense of being, and a sense of purpose when I joined and that fell right in with what I believe the military represent. I was also taught, before joining the Army, that if you are going to do something then do it right the first time and that is a philosophy I tried to follow and instill in my soldiers.


I would challenge them to better themselves and those around them. It really is a team effort and if you are in it for yourself then you are in the wrong profession and need to leave. For those that are in it to better themselves, their soldiers, and to stand up for what is right then I say to them continue what you are doing. You are an elite few that have chosen to take on this challenge and it is worth it. If more people had this mindset then we would all be better off. Regardless of your MOS, field time, or deployments you are important and what you do does make a difference. Whether you are a pill pusher as I was, a cook, or a tanker we all have our role to play and they all interlock so do the best you can because someone is counting on you.


It is a good forum to stay in touch with others that had served or are still serving. I was able to find a fellow soldier that I had served with while at Camp Red Cloud. Because we had different MOS’s we drifted apart, but because of we were able to reconnect.


Sgt Bill Blass US Army (Served 1942-1945)

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Sgt Bill Blass

US Army

(Served 1942-1945)

View his Service Profile on at
Short Bio: In 1942 Blass enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion (The Ghost Army) a classified division, its mission was to fool the Germans through the use of recordings, dummy tanks and other false materiel, into believing the Allies were positioned other than where they actually were.


Secret World War II Rescue

During Ancient times if a soldier was wounded, he laid in the field where he had fallen. There was no one to come to his aid.

It wasn’t until Napoleon’s army created a corps of trained and equipped soldiers to aid those on the battlefield. George Washington had a similar systems during the American Revolution. But too many warriors still died long before they could be evacuated to better-equipped medical facilities.

It wasn’t until the American Civil War that one man developed a timely and efficient evacuation system. In 1862, due to the unexpected size of casualty lists during the battle of Manassas, it took up to one week to remove all the wounded from the battlefield. In response, Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Head of Medical Services of the Army of the Potomac, overhauled the Army Medical Corps with the inclusion of badly needed medical evacuation. His contribution included staffing and training men to operate horse teams and wagons to pick up wounded soldiers from the field and to bring them back to field dressing stations for initial treatment. This system was further advanced during World War I with the advent of motorized ambulance.

But it was never enough to get the most severely wounded and sick back to the rear of the frontlines before they died. This changed dramatically in 1942 during World War II with an innovative new medical program:Army Air Force aircraft began transporting the seriously wounded and ill from field hospitals and aid-stations near the frontlines to better-equipped facilities staffed by trained doctors and nurses, using up-to-date medical equipment.

Throughout the war in Europe, dedicate nurses, medics and flight crews assigned to medical air evacuation squadron evacuate over one million patients. Only forty-nine died before reaching a better equipped hospital. Among the units engaged in this life-saving mission was the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron.

Following its training at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky, the 807th was sent to the Mediterranean in October 1943. From its base at Catania, Sicily, it flew many critical missions aboard transport planes carrying equipment and men toward the front lines, helped load sick and wounded patients onto empty planes, and escort the patients back to Sicily or North Africa where they could receive better medical treatment.

This is the story of one of those mission that resulted in a crash landing in German occupied territory; a rescue that was kept secret for many years long after the war ended in 1945.

It begins on the morning of November 8, 1943 when a persistent cold rain finally came to an end, allowing 30 people to board a C-53 airplane that was to take them 260 miles, to Bari, Italy, to pick up a growing population of wounded soldiers and take them to a more secure location where they could get the best medical help available.

On board was a pilot, a co-pilot, a radio operator, and a crew chief, plus 13 nurses and 13 medics. Heavy rain had prevented flights from leaving Catania for the previous three days. To make up for lost time, the 807th commanding officer decided to send half of the squadron’s medical personnel to evacuate the many patients who had been waiting for days in Bari, Italy, 260 miles away.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when the C-53D transport took off from the airfield, but several hours in the flight to Bari, it went into heavy, dark clouds. Within seconds, visibility was zero. After about 10-minutes of rough flying, the plane hit a severe storm, smashing the plane around like drift wood. Worse, all radio communications with the ground were lost. The pilots soon became disoriented.

To get out of the dangerous storm and to reestablish communications, the plane climbed up to 8,000 feet where the wings started icing over. Worried what the icy might do, the pilots made a decision to dive back down through the clouds.

Once out of the thick cloud cover, a coastlines came into view. The aircrew thought they may have flown across Italy and were near Italy’s western coast. What they didn’t realize was the fierce storm had blown them of course over eastern Italy and across the Adriatic Sea, a body of water separating the Italian Peninsula from the Balkan Peninsula.

Unsure of where he was, the pilot, 1st Lt. Charles Thrasher, tried to land on what looked like an abandoned airfield only to be greeted by black puffs of smoke and shrapnel from German anti-aircraft guns. Thrasher immediately headed the plane towards the clouds, flying through a valley where the tops of the mountains were higher than the clouds.

When it emerged from the clouds, the plane was very close to two German Messerschmitt fighters which began firing at them. The pilots dodged the enemy planes by returning to the clouds.

Less than an hour later, fuel running low, Thrasher aimed the plane toward an open field below next to a lake. When they started landing, many aboard thought the pilots wouldn’t be able to stop in time and that they would end up in the water. The pilots braked hard, and the landing gear sank in the mud. Just before the plane would have hit the water, it came to a violent stop. The force embedded the plane’s nose in the marshy ground, and the fuselage hovered upright for a few seconds before falling to the ground in a belly flop. When they crashed, only the crew chief was seriously injured.

When the Americans came out of the plane uncertain where they were, they only saw rugged mountains but a few minutes later, a band of armed men came out of the woods. Not knowing if these men were their enemies, a panic raised among the Americans.

Fortunately for them, Hasan Gina, one of the Albanian men who approached them, had learned English at the Albanian Vocational School, also known as the Red Cross School. He told the Americans that they were in Albania. He also told them the Germans weren’t that far away and offered to get them out of there. The Americans soon learned that these men were Albanian partisans, members of a resistance group.

At the time of the crash, Albania was in the middle of a civil war. Two resistance groups were essentially fighting to see who would control Albania after the war ended. The partisans who met the Americans were one group – a communist-led National Liberation Movement. The second group were the Balli Kombetar, or BK – a right-wing nationalist group. The two groups had formed when the Italians occupied Albania. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the Germans took control of the country. When the partisans led the Americans through the countryside they had to avoid not only the Germans but also the BK.

The main partisan leading the Americans for several weeks was Kostaq Stefa. But when he returned to his village after helping the Americans, he was tortured for several days by the BK. After the war, communist dictator Enver Hoxha had Stefa executed in 1948. He left behind a widow and five children.

After three weeks of walking in the rugged and often inaccessible Korab Mountains and facing German attacks and being in total culture shock, they learned that British agents were operating in the country. Why the partisans hadn’t made that clear isn’t apparent. There was some thought from the Americans that the Albanians were using them as propaganda because they wanted the villagers to side with them and help them fight for the partisan cause.

The partisans took the Americans to different villages where the Albanian people risked their own lives by giving them food and shelter. There were days when the Americans only had a bite of cornbread, so every little bit helped. If the villagers had been caught helping the Americans, the village likely would have been burned and many of its residents killed. It is almost certain that without the help of the Albanian people, the Americans wouldn’t have survived the cold winter.

The Americans had to be careful about how the women and men interacted in the stricter Muslim villages. In one instance, when the Americans had just crossed a mountain during a blizzard, a medic and nurse were seen talking to one another as they entered a village. Because of this interaction, some of the villagers were opposed to the Americans staying. They ultimately decided to let them stay that night as a reward for surviving the crossing that had killed people even in the warmer summer months.

Fortunately for the Americans, the Germans tended to stay on the roads in Albania while the partisans led the Americans mostly through the rugged mountains.

There was definitely still a risk that the Americans and the partisans would encounter when Germans were in the area. They had to be on their guard at all times.

After learning that British officers were operating in the country, they asked one of the partisans to get a message to them and he sent a runner. A few days later, they got word that a British officer was nearby and they received directions on where to meet him. His name was Lieutenant Gavan Duffy. He was only twenty-four himself, and he was a demolitions expert. It was extraordinary that he kept the group of thirty Americans together. After the group met up with him, they began their long march to the coast through rugged, German-occupied territory. Photo shows two of the rescued nurses giving Duffy a big kiss.

As the group traveled, the major concern was that their shoes were wearing out quickly because of the terrain, particularly those of the nurses. With a destination of getting to the coast, walking was the only option.

Hungry, cold, and tired, the only thought on their minds was about surviving. Shuffled by partisans from village to village, they hiked six or eight hours a day. Their bodies were thick with lice. They contracted dysentery. They were cold and wet. On one occasion, they barely escaped strafing by a pair of German fighter planes.
Over the following weeks, they traced a zigzag route over rivers and up the slopes, often one step ahead of the enemy. One of the nurses collapsed in the snow. She was urged onward, the storm broke and the group eventually reached another village hours later.

Each night the Americans were broken into small groups and each stayed with a different villager. One night they arrived in Berat, Albania and broke up into these group and settled down for the night. When they awoke to leave Berat, the Germans had arrived. When a head count was made at the rendezvous point, it was discovered three nurses were missing. Forced to leave Berat to avoid capture by the Germans, they had no choice but to leave after the three nurses did not show up. Since the group couldn’t go back to Berat, they had to keep hiking through the snow, narrowly surviving a blizzard not knowing the fate of the missing nurses not knowing the partisan family had hid the three in the basement until the Germans left.

A few days before Christmas, the group pushed toward the Adriatic Sea, hoping to reach the coast. Finally, on Jan. 9, 1944, the group did make it to the coast and the rescue boat operated by a team made up of American, British and Yugoslav forces was waiting for them. They paddled out in small groups by rubber raft and eagerly climbed aboard by rope ladder. Once aboard, all were given hot food and warm blankets.

Against all odd they all survived.

When the British in Albania learned the Americans were safe, they notified the American military and the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS (later the CIA). OSS agent Lloyd Smith, a twenty-four-year-old American, volunteered to go in and help get the three nurses out. He was all alone, did not know Albanian and did not know anything about the terrain but somehow managed to meet up with the three in Berat.

Dressed as Albanian civilians and supplied with Albanian identification cards, the nurses and Smith finally left Berat by car in March 1944. The four were taken deep into the countryside and rode pack mules to the coast where they met up with a torpedo boat that took them to Otranto, Italy, on March 21, 1944.

During their months-long ordeal, the group of men and women traversed somewhere between 600 and 800 miles of brutal terrain, dodged German troops, faced desperate hunger and debilitating illnesses, survived blizzards and were caught in crossfire.

In photo, six nurses show the wear and tear on their shoes following their rescue.

In a debriefing session, everyone in the group was ordered to tell no one – not even their families – where they had been, who helped them, or how they escaped. The secrecy was to protect the people who had helped them and to protect the means of escape for future downed airmen. After the war, Enver Hoxha became the ruthless dictator of Albania, and the Allies were concerned that if the names of the Albanians who saved the Americans lives were to get out, they most certainly would be killed.

All of the nurses, medics and air crewmen have passed away, except medic Harold Hayes, who is ninety-one now and lives in Oregon. Below is a video of Hayes promoting a book written about the group’s harrowing experience and a rare newsreel of the first group arriving by boat in Bali Italy.


1stSgt Barbara S. Wamsley U.S. Marine Corps (Ret) (1976-1996)

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1stSgt Barbara S. Wamsley

U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)


Shadow Box:


The desire to give back and travel. I couldn’t see myself continuing my life in Norfolk and my aunt, Connie Stokley Shortt, proposed the idea. I visited all the recruiters, except for the Navy, because I wanted to see another part of the country along with the fact that my experience as a civilian in a Navy town wasn’t the most flattering. The Army showed very little interest in me and the Air Force struck me as too easy for what I was looking for. I was surprised that there were women in the Marine Corps, and I wanted to see California before an earthquake leveled it. Additionally, having spent 12 years in Catholic school uniforms, I preferred the Marine Corps uniform over the others.

The other driving factor for me was I would be assured of equal pay for equal work no matter what branch I entered and I could learn new skills not offered in the private sector.


With California as my original goal, I enlisted under an open contract taking the chance that I would get a MOS that was a good fit for me and the Corps. It worked and I was fortunate to be one of the first 10 Women Marines in 1976 to go into Avionics. It still amazes me that women weren’t in that field until that time. I met my future husband, Don, during MOS schooling at NAS Millington, TN and then left for the west coast at MCAS El Toro. We married in December, 1976 so we would be stationed together in El Toro. In 1981, Don got orders to DI school in SC and I went to MCAS Beaufort. Once his DI tour was complete he was also stationed at MCAS Beaufort with VMFA-333.

I got out of the Marine Corps in 1980 for the birth of our second child, but came back eight months later. I really agonized over both the decision to leave and then the decision to re-enlist. Eventually we both went into Career Planning, working together at H&MS-31. In 1984 I went to the drill field. After my tour at Parris Island as a DI, SDI, CDI and with the Depot Inspector’s Office, I used my DI option for an accompanied tour overseas because Don was due for orders there. I never was due for overseas orders then, another surprise

We served three years in Okinawa as Career Planners, thoroughly enjoyed the experience with our family, but very glad to return stateside. We went back to our MOSs at MALS-32 (Don) and MALS-14 (me, obviously) at MCAS Cherry Point. In August,1990, Cherry Point was gearing up for Desert Shield and sending women Marines was on and off, finally resulting in WMs going due to the billets required. Additionally, Don was being told he was going and then he wasn’t. It worked out for us that Don stayed and I went.

When I returned, I was selected for First Sergeant and wasn’t too thrilled with my choices for duty stations, so I applied for the Army’s Sergeants Major Academy. I was one of only two Marines in an international class of over 400 students. It was a fantastic experience to be part of Class 39 of USASMA. With Don recently retired, I accepted the billet of I&I 1st Sgt. for Ammo company, Greenville, SC for the last four years of my Marine Corps career.


I was involved in Desert Shield/Desert Storm with Avionics at King Abdul Aziz. It was inspiring to see all of the pieces of training and squadrons coming together in such an awesome way. To meet and interact with troops from all over the country, not to mention Scots and Brits, was so educational and cemented the philosophy of everyone having their place for the greater good.

The Seabees were way beyond expectations. We had drawers made from MRE cases and they were anxious to keep improving our lives in the desert. Our CO organized night RECON appropriation missions which was spectacular, especially since the green camo netting didn’t especially blend well with the sand terrain, but we had such an awesome feeling of safety there. Didn’t have email or Skype then, and I was lucky to be able to talk to Don a couple of times on WATS line and went to the AT&T phone tents to talk with the kids.

Many funny stories, most not appropriate for public dissemination, but the camaraderie was phenomenal. I remember opening my Sunday missal, wondering when we would be home. It opened on the First Sunday before Easter and, by the Grace of God, I was at Mass that Sunday at home. Homecoming was wonderful. It was so good to smell the pine trees! We learned a lot of lessons and hopefully didn’t repeat too many mistakes on how to go to war.


It is a toss-up. Parris Island will always hold a special place for me, but so will MALS-14. I thoroughly enjoyed time with my Marine Corps brothers and sisters, especially since we supported Desert Shield/Desert Storm. This was a wonderful, tight unit of Marines. This picture is of the Women Marines of MALS-14 (I am far left). To be the senior WM from that unit was a true honor. I believe the leadership learned that we are all Marines who take our responsibilities seriously.

My least favorite was my final assignment, I&I Staff, Ammo Company. Working with reservists is a completely different experience and going from “Swinging with the Wing” to the ground side was also a new ball of wax. I was the first WM 1stSgt this group had experienced and both sides had some adjusting involved.


Don and I remain grateful that the Corps kept us together throughout our careers. We were both career planners at the same unit and that worked out better than the CO thought it would. So, for a short time, we only needed one car. We then both served in separate units as career planners in Okinawa.

Service on the drill field was outstanding. Personally, I preferred to work platoons back-to-back or overlap, mostly because I really enjoyed watching the transformation of women into Marines. I was on the street when women were finally allowed to qualify with the rifle. We DIs had a great time in the hot summer going through the PMI course. There was a Native American recruit who beat the range record in our first series to go through marksmanship-her name was Pvt. Killsplenty. Watching hundreds of women being fitted for their uniforms made me realize that God gave us all the same body parts, but we sure are arranged differently!

My most brutal discovery was the large percentage of women who are sexually and emotionally abused in their young lives. We desperately tried to keep and graduate these women, but some were just too fragile to complete training and had to return home. This still haunts me. Our daughter was in preschool and the teacher was alarmed that her favorite color was black until she heard the reason: “Because of Mom’s shiny shoes.” To be a part of making Marines from across the entire country and the bonds between Drill Instructors that remain so strong today are some of my most cherished memories.

Before deploying to Desert Shield, there was a woman Corporal in my unit who had remarried and was raising 6 children. She was giving her SNCO all kinds of grief, so I asked her if she signed the same contract that he and I did. I didn’t remember anything in my contract about disobeying orders due to the size of my family. I then went to my Major and asked him to make sure she didn’t deploy.

While in Saudi Arabia, I think the hardest conversation I had was when we had been issued vials of Valium. Most Marines were making jokes and excited until I explained that these were lethal and to be used only when all other methods of saving someone failed. Once we got passed that and the decontamination process should we be gassed, we had some great times watching all of our training kick into gear and getting to know each other and understanding how united we always were.


No, even though my Sergeant Major gave me a combat action ribbon when we returned from Desert Storm. It was a nice gesture.


They are all good, but I never got into all of the medal counting and impression stuff. If I had to name one it would be the DI ribbon, even though that came after I retired.

I am very proud to have worn the scarlet DI cord from the first time it was awarded and to see it retired.


There are three – first, my husband, for obvious reasons. He is my rock.

Second, Lt.Col. Shelley B. Mayer, CO of WRTC and an incredible leader. I had to report to her once because she had received a call from the Depot about her DIs playing grab-ass with film crews in the area. Another DI was laughing at the fact that I had left my girdle on under our camo PT gear and as we exited the van she decided to make sure. So I apologized to the Colonel and she just threatened to take my first born. She is so missed.

Third and by far not least – Captain Barbara Purvis, my series Commander for many recruit platoons and my dear friend who has always kept me going in the right direction. She not only gave us great professional guidance but phenomenal comfort and laughter for the past two decades.


There are so many! I guess it’s when I was with the Depot Inspector’s office and walking through Parris Island one morning between battalions when I saw one of our white trucks and thought it was a fellow Inspector, so I did the “Funky Chicken” in the road only to find out it was the Drill Master from DI School.


I am the office manager for Premier Physical Therapy and Premier Personal Training. I love this job and all the great people we meet every day. The work atmosphere is beyond motivating.


We are not currently involved in any military associations due to the polarizing political atmosphere and in one case, inappropriate dealings with women members.


By knowing who to surround ourselves with, to treat everyone with fairness and integrity. Through service in the Marine Corps we know who we really are as people and our love for this great country is beyond measure.


Thank you for choosing the military. Please know that your journey has a tremendous impact around the world. No matter how unpleasant your past or current billet, it will change a lot sooner than in the private sector. Your home is where you are and make the most of all you can. Your friends and family applaud ALL that you do and represent.


TWS has connected us with many past friends from all of our duty stations and we are thankful.

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