Thrilling Rescue Revealed, of U.S. Medics & Nurses, During WW 2 in Albania

U.S. Medics at work during WW2;  Source: Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

 

Harold Hayes was a member of a band of airborne American medics and nurses who crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania in 1943 and trekked 600 miles to their rescue. All of these brave heroes were military trained army lieutenants. Harold Hayes, was the last surviving member of a band of airborne American medics and nurses who crashed-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania in 1943 and survived German attacks, blizzards and horrific privations on a 600-mile trek to their rescue on the Adriatic coast. He died last Sunday in Medford, Ore. He was 94. His death, at a hospital, followed an operation to remove a blood clot from his leg, his daughter Margaret Bleakley said.

 

The survival of the 30 noncombatants was a long-held secret of World War II: the story of 13 female nurses, 13 male medics and the four-man crew of a medical evacuation plane who were stranded behind enemy lines for nine weeks, hiding in villages and caves in wintry mountains, afflicted with lice and dysentery, often near starvation and hunted by German patrols. Their odyssey was classified during the war and for years afterward to protect partisan fighters, Allied agents and villagers who gave them food, shelter and guidance. Some were shot by the Germans for their acts of kindness, and after the war, as rumors became death sentences, those even suspected of helping the Americans were executed by Albania’s Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, whose rule ended with his death in 1985.

 

“For many years, I didn’t say anything about what happened in Albania,“ Mr. Hayes said in a 2015 telephone interview with The New York Times from his assisted-living home in Medford. “After the war was over, Hoxha was ruthless. If he discovered the names of anyone who had helped us, he had them and their families executed.“ Mr. Hayes had no special role in the group’s survival, but by outliving all his wartime comrades, he became a last conduit for their story, which was related in a 1999 memoir by one of the nurses, and more recently in several books, notably “The Secret Rescue“ (2013), by Cate Lineberry, whose account relied heavily on Mr. Hayes’s recollections.

 

Harold Hayes and the other medics and nurses were part of a Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron. The United States medical air evacuation program was an innovative new medical military program within the Army Air Forces that transported wounded and sick from hospitals near the frontlines to better-equipped facilities for additional care. It was started in 1942, and during the war transported more than one million troops, with only forty-six dying in flight. In 1945, General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower deemed air evacuation as important as other WWII medical innovations, including penicillin and sulfa drugs. At the time the air evacuation program was developed in 1942, most Americans had never been on an airplane before. In fact, on January 14, 1943, FDR became the first U.S. president to fly on official business while on his way to the Casablanca Conference. The perilous adventure began two months after Italy surrendered and Allied forces invaded Italy to begin pushing the Germans back across Europe. On Nov. 8, 1943, the nurses, medics and fliers of the Army Air Force’s 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron took off from Catania, Sicily, bound for Bari, on Italy’s east coast, where hundreds of wounded troops awaited air evacuation. Their twin-engine cargo plane carried no weapons, but the pilot, First Lt. Charles Thrasher, 22, anticipated no fighting. With him were a co-pilot, radio operator and crew chief. The nurses, all second lieutenants, were 22 to 32 years old. The medics, including Mr. Hayes, 21, from Indianola, Iowa, were all equivalent to staff sergeants and ranged in age from 21 to 36.

 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we left the airfield, but the closer we got to Bari, the more clouds appeared. We were soon caught in a violent storm and lost all communication with the station at Bari. The plane’s compass and communications failed. In addition, the plane was low on gas. The pilots ascended above the clouds, but when the plane got up to about 8,000 feet, the wings started icing up, so we had to dive down through the clouds. Blown 100 miles off course, our plane crossed over into Albania. We could see a coastline; the pilots thought we might have flown across Italy and were near Italy’s western coast. They didn’t realize we’d crossed the Adriatic. The pilots tried to land on what looked like an abandoned airfield, and that’s when someone started shooting at us. The pilots immediately headed for the clouds. That was probably the scariest part?flying through a valley where the tops of the mountains were higher than the clouds. When we emerged from the clouds, our plane was very close to a German fighter plane and then to another, which attacked with antiaircraft guns. The pilots continued trying to dodge the enemy planes and eventually found a place near a lake where we crash-landed, 25 miles inland. When they started landing, medic, Harold Hayes 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. The crew chief in the back of the plane was the only one not strapped in, and he went flying forward. Willis Shumway, 23, the crew chief, was the only casualty, with a knee injury that left him unable to walk. The disoriented Americans had no idea where they were. Fearing a fuel explosion, they scrambled out of the plane and encountered their first bit of luck. Striding out of a woods was a band of rugged-looking men with rifles and daggers. One spoke a little English. He was Hasan Gina, an anti-German partisan leader. He told the Americans they were in Albania. 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, and the Balli Kombetar, or BK, was the second group. The BK was a right-wing nationalist group, opposed to the communist-led National Liberation Movement. The two groups had formed when the Italians occupied Albania. Italy had surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, two months before 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. Later, they would learn that they were 150 miles east of Bari, on the wrong side of the Adriatic, surrounded by German forces that had occupied Albania for months, and were caught in a civil war between rival partisan groups. With only a general plan to reach the west coast and somehow cross the Adriatic to Italy, the group began walking in the wrong direction.

 

After five days, they rested at a partisan-controlled town called Berat, but their respite was brief. German forces entered the town and three nurses were separated. They hid in Berat for four months while the group continued.

Over the ensuing weeks, they trekked through mountains and valleys, battling starvation, parasites and diarrhea. Sometimes they had to cut back or travel in circles to avoid German patrols. Lt. Gavan Duffy, a British secret agent, found the group in eastern Albania and began leading them westward, intending to reach the coast. At Gjirokaster, German troops blocked the way, and the Americans were too sick and exhausted to go on. He radioed for an American air rescue. Two C-47 cargo planes flew in with fighter escorts. But the Germans disrupted the landing. On Jan. 9, after a 63-day ordeal, they finally boarded a British launch and crossed to Italy.

 

The Americans knew almost nothing of Albania, a small, mostly Muslim country that had changed little in centuries. The mountainous terrain was dotted with impoverished villages. There were no railroads and few roads. Mules and horses were the main transportation. There was little running water or electricity. Winters were brutal, food was scarce, and blood feuds were common among the ferociously proud peoples. With only a general plan to reach the west coast and somehow cross the Adriatic to Italy, the Americans began walking in the wrong direction. Over the ensuing weeks, guided by the partisans, they trekked through mountains and valleys, sometimes cutting back or traveling in circles to avoid German patrols, living in the open or sheltering in villages and sharing cornbread with peasants. The Americans were soon listed as missing in action, and War Department telegrams, beginning “regret to inform you,“ were sent to their families back home.

 

The survivors, meantime, carried Sergeant Shumway on a stretcher made of seats from the plane; they later found pack animals for him. After five days, they rested at a partisan-controlled town called Berat, where they were cheered, mistaken for the vanguard of an Allied invasion to liberate Albania. They also met other partisan leaders, and learned of a British agent who had recently parachuted into the country. Their respite lasted only a few days. Then, they awoke to gunfire and the explosion of artillery shells as German forces entered the town. In the ensuing confusion, German planes strafed a truck carrying some of the escaping Americans. Three nurses were separated from the main group and left behind in Berat; they took refuge in a farmhouse, and remained in hiding in the area for four months. The main group of Americans climbed on foot to a mountain village and were caught in a crossfire between partisan groups. “It was the first time the Americans had heard of the rival group, and they were beginning to realize they were in as much danger from the country’s internal battle as they were from the Germans,“ Ms. Lineberry wrote in “The Secret Rescue.“ They encountered other perils. “Some of the blankets offered to them to ward off the cold night air were infested with fleas and lice,“ the author wrote. “Since they’d crashed, most of them had been unable to bathe, aside from splashing some water on their faces and arms from mountain streams or an occasional basin, and they were all filthy and now battling fleas, lice and the GIs,“ Army slang for diarrhea. The Americans were often unable to find food. Facing starvation, they made tea by boiling straw and ate berries that worsened their diarrhea. Sharing with peasants was sometimes a culture shock. Mr. Hayes and another medic saw a sheep’s head roasted over coals, then split in half with an ax. “The Americans watched wide-eyed as two women each took one-half of the head and ate everything, including the eyeballs,“ Ms. Lineberry wrote. “Nothing was wasted.“

 

As autumn waned, blizzards enveloped the Americans. Their clothing was too thin. Their shoes were worn out. “Though all their feet soon felt like blocks of ice and their bodies shivered, they knew they had to keep going,“ Ms. Lineberry wrote. “The snow was coming down so fast they could barely see the person in front of them, but they had to stay together to avoid losing one another in the blinding white storm.“ On Nov. 27, British intelligence in Albania learned from partisans that the American plane had crashed and that the nurses, medics and crew were alive, trying to reach the coast. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the families of the missing were told. In December, an American rescue plan was developed, led by an Army captain, Lloyd G. Smith, 24, who was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Under cover of darkness, he slipped onto the heavily guarded Albanian coast by boat and set up a base camp in a cave in the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic. Others joined him, and they moved inland to find the Americans. The British, meantime, organized a second rescue effort under Lt. Gavan Duffy, a secret agent who with a small team had reached Albania months earlier by parachute and on foot. Through partisan contacts, he found the Americans in eastern Albania and began leading them westward, intending to reach the coast. But halfway there, at Gjirokaster, German troops blocked the way, and the Americans were too sick and exhausted to go on. He radioed for an American air rescue. Two C-47 cargo planes flew in with fighter escorts. But the Germans disrupted the landing, and Lieutenant Duffy called it off. The Americans, after the euphoria of nearly being rescued, were crushed. But they resumed their journey, and with American and British help reached the coast. On Jan. 9, after a 63-day ordeal, 27 Americans – 10 nurses and 17 medics and fliers – boarded a British launch and crossed to Italy.  Three nurses remained behind in German-occupied Berat. Captain Lloyd Smith brought them to safety in March 1944. They rode pack mules most of the way to the coast and were met by a torpedo boat, which took them across the Adriatic.

 

Kostaq Stefa was the main Albanian partisan leader, who led the Americans for several weeks. Sadly, when Kostaq returned from 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 the war, Mr. Hayes returned to civilian life, attended Iowa State College and became an aeronautical engineer for North American Aviation, designing military planes and conducting studies for the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration until he retired in 1984. He married the former Betty Allen in 1944. She and their daughter survive him, as does another daughter, Victoria Sprott; two brothers, Karl and James; a sister, Virginia McCall; two grandsons; and a great-granddaughter. Harold Lyle Hayes was born in Pekin, Iowa, on April 11, 1922, to Ralph and Jenella Van Gorp Hayes. He graduated from high school in Indianola in 1940. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was drafted, volunteered as a medic and by 1943 was in Sicily, flying evacuation missions. “When he first returned to Allied lines, he had nightmares of being chased,“ Ms. Lineberry wrote of Mr. Hayes. “Those faded with time, but as was true of many in the group, he rarely talked about his ordeal over the years.“ Source: The New York Times, by Robert D. McFadden

 

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