July 22, 2013 11:47:19 AM
The last survivors of the great conflict of World War II are now leaving us, but there are countless stories still left to tell. One of these is in the book The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines (Little, Brown), the first book by Cate Lineberry. The author was researching other aspects of WWII history when she came upon the story, a tough tale of quiet heroism and determination among people who were not warriors but were caught up in the worst of war. They were medical personnel and the pilots who carried them; they were not trained to use weapons in battle, or to live off the land, or to evade the enemies they were to face in Albania. Lineberry has done us all a great service in rescuing this story.
She learned about the rescue when she was researching other parts of WWII. She found out that part of the reason the story remained obscure is that although the rescue was a triumph, its account could not be told in its time. That there had been a rescue was part of the guarded account given to the press afterward, but the full story could not be released because there were Albanian villagers and British and American officers who were still in the territory, ready to rescue others or to do what they could to expel the Nazis from Albania. Families and friends wanted to know more about the adventures of the participants, but everyone who had been through the rescue was ordered to provide no information. Even after the war, revealing which Albanians had helped in the rescue might have imperiled them within the dictatorship, and the secrecy continued. As communism fell, these worries lightened. There were a couple of published and unpublished memoirs, and Lineberry had the good fortune to find one last living member of the original thirty in the rescued group in an Oregon retirement home. His memory was still sharp, and his unpublished memoir and his e-mails to the author confirmed and enlarged what Lineberry had already discovered about the rescue.
The medics were members of one of the Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadrons which had been formed in November 1942. Getting sick and injured personnel away from the battleground for treatment was not something warriors had seen as an obvious way to care for soldiers and get them to fight another day. Triaging and evacuating the wounded was instituted in the Civil War and refined in the Spanish-American War. Before WWI, only seven years after the flight of the Wright Brothers, fliers thought of designing a plane for the sole purpose of medical evacuation. The advantages of using an airplane for such a job were obvious to many, but one editorial in 1912 said "the hazard of being severely wounded is sufficient without the additional hazard of transportation by airplane." While European countries in WWI experimented successfully with air evacuation, the US military favored litter bearers, horse-drawn and motorized ambulances, and hospital trains. The philosophy changed at the start of WWII when C-47 cargo planes were modified to carry sick and injured soldiers, although there was a shortage of planes, and the Army Air Force was reluctant to give them up for anything but combat.
On 8 November 1943, thirteen Army nurses and thirteen Army sergeants who were medics boarded a C-53D Skytrooper, a modified C-47. They were supposed to fly from their US base in Sicily to Italy, which had recently fallen to the allies, to pick up patients and get them to more comprehensive care. They had fine weather on departure, but it quickly turned foul. The pilots tried to get a weather update from the target base in Italy, but the plane did not have the electronic signal system that would show it as an authorized recipient of such updates. The pilots tried to get out of the storms by flying over them, but there was ice at higher altitudes. They lost radio, their magnetic compass failed, but eventually they found an airfield and prepared to land. That plan was changed when Germans at the airfield fired on them. The pilots eventually crash-landed on a level area, and had no idea where they were; it was a shock to learn from a group of ragged looking men that they were behind German lines in Albania.
They were soon to learn that their situation was more complex than merely having to deal with the Nazis who had occupied Albania after Italy surrendered. Besides being part of the larger war, the Albanians were fighting among themselves in resistance groups, communists versus the National Front. Beyond this civil war were blood feuds that had gone on maybe for centuries, in a land where mules and horses were the main transportation, and villages barely got through periods of starvation. The medics were taken to a nearby town, where they were to experience their first instance of Besa, a code of Albanian honor to help anyone in need even if it meant risking your own self. The group did not understand this code originally, and they made many missteps in trying to get by in this strange land. For instance, a couple of them housed in a village were served cornbread (it seems that in their months of hiding, this was a constant staple) with a sort of gravy over it. The medics used sign language to ask for more and thanked their hostess; later, their main guide told them how ashamed he was for them, because to ask for more food was simply a type of insult in Albania.
Food was always a problem; the medics realized that whenever the Albanians fed them, even meager and unappetizing portions, it meant they had less for their own families. Shelter and warmth were also hard to come by, especially as the group wound their way up and around the mountains during winter, trying to bypass communists and Nazis both. Lice made everything worse. The group met up with British agents who attempted to set up a rendezvous with American rescue planes, but the plans were canceled due to German forces in the region. President Roosevelt took a special interest in the group, and ordered that he be briefed every day about their status. The group, counting on the generosity of Albanian villagers and the resourcefulness of British and American agents, eventually arrived on foot to an evacuation station on the Albanian coast. They were flown out after 135 days behind German lines.
The exciting and grueling story is unique, among other things, for the women who took part in it. One of the British forces who helped in the rescue did give an interview to the press shortly after the group was back home. He revealed no operational information, but said, "Those nurses were brave. They showed no sign of fear, even in the tightest spots." Someone asked if there were a "love interest" in the story, and he replied, "Listen, if you'd been on that trip, you'd have forgotten all about romance." Readers can forget that sort of human interest angle, and will be wince at pages describing all sorts of physical discomfort. All of the crew got home, though, and this is a welcome documentation, exciting and detailed, of a small but forgotten victory within the larger one.