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.