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The Thrilling Untold Saga of Rescue Behind the Lines in World War II Albania (INTERVIEW)

British SOE officer Lieutenant Gavan Duffy being thanked for his role in the rescue of twenty-six American nurses and medics trapped in German-occupied Albania. Courtesy Cate Lineberry.

November 8, 1943. War raged on the Italian peninsula. An American transport plane set out from Sicily for Bari, Italy. The sky was sunny and clear on take off.

The plane carried an Army medical air evacuation team of thirteen nurses and thirteen medics and a flight crew of four men. The medical team had been ordered to Bari to attend to a growing population of wounded GIs. But the weather changed that day, and fierce storms over eastern Italy and the Adriatic blew the flight off course and forced a crash landing that left the Americans stranded for months in German-occupied Albania.

Author Cate Lineberry recounts this ill-fated flight and the struggle of the young Americans to survive in hostile territory in the ensuing months in her new book The Secret Rescue: The Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines (Little, Brown and Company). Most details of the story remained untold by the military and by the survivors themselves who stayed silent after the mission initially to protect wartime operations and, after the war, to protect the identities of the Albanians who helped them.

In recounting this thrilling wartime survival story, Ms. Lineberry draws on interviews, diaries, and archival material. She traveled extensively in the United States and Europe to reconstruct the odyssey of the thirty American men and women who suffered hunger, thirst, and illness as they eluded the German army and traveled over rugged mountainous terrain during a bitter winter in an impoverished land torn by a world war and by internecine combat between local factions. The story of the nurses and how they shared hardships with their male counterparts adds a special dimension to this World War II account.

Historians and other critics have praised Ms. Lineberry’s research and vivid retelling of this tale of resilience and courage in extremely trying circumstances.

Candice Millard, the author of The River of Doubt, wrote: “Cate Lineberry has written a touching, thrilling, completely engrossing story of great courage under harrowing circumstances. This is a World War II story that few people have ever heard, but, after reading this book, no one will forget.” And, from a Publishers Weekly review: “Battling vermin, hunger, thirst, and Nazis, as meticulously recounted by Lineberry, they trudged more than 650 miles and miraculously made it home. Yet [most] members of the 807th kept mum until 2011 when the author interviewed the only living survivor, eighty-nine-year old Harold Hayes, at a retirement home in Oregon. With a cast of characters that includes British star Anthony Quayle as an undercover agent, survivalists and history buffs will relish the daily escapades of this heroic American contingent.”

Ms. Lineberry is a former staff writer and Europe editor for National Geographic Magazine and the web editor for Smithsonian Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times and other publications. Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, she now lives in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Ms. Lineberry recently talked about her book by telephone from her office.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in this story of wartime survival and rescue, and how did you find it?

Cate Lineberry: While I was researching a World War II piece for Smithsonian Magazine online, I found a short newspaper article on the event, which alluded to the fact that nurses were involved. I was intrigued because it was a story I’d never heard of and because a group of nurses was involved, which made the story very unique.

I was also intrigued because this was a story about everyday men and women in the war. These were not highly trained, sophisticated combat teams. They were medics and nurses who found themselves in unusual and difficult circumstances, and really rose to the challenge. That’s the story of most people in the war: everyday people who were just trying to make their contribution. Some were drafted, some volunteered, but the risks were there for everyone.

Once I started digging for more information, I learned that there had been two memoirs written about the event. One was written in 1999 by Agnes Jensen Mangerich when she was in her eighties, and a son of one of the medics found his father’s long-lost memoir and self-published it in 2010.

I then learned that Harold Hayes, who is ninety-one now and lives in Oregon, is still alive. He is the one remaining member of the group of thirty. Once I found that he was willing to be extensively interviewed, I thought the story could be a book. I was struck by Harold’s incredible recall and attention to detail. He even wrote about it for himself when he was about seventy years old.

It must have been a delight to find Harold Hayes, the only remaining member of the thirty Americans who were stranded in occupied Albania.

Yes, it was. He was only twenty-one at the time. The youngest medic was nineteen and the oldest was thirty-six. The nurses ranged in age from twenty-three to thirty-three years old.

Harold was one of the younger ones in the group and is still in good health. I was very fortunate to have him involved and we’ve become close. Unfortunately, we’re losing our World War II vets every day and, along with them, their important memories.

It shows the importance of capturing these stories now as you’ve done with your book.

I’m lucky that Harold loves email and sharing pictures. I spent a couple of weeks with him in Oregon on two separate trips, but we emailed almost daily for a year and a half. He was so patient and answered the most minute questions. His involvement helped make the story come to life for me.

Harold and the other medics and nurses were part of a Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron. What did you learn about these organizations and what this particular group was doing when they wound up in German-occupied Albania?

The 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 807th MAETS was sent out in the spring of 1943 after training at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky. The 807th didn’t know to which theater the nurses and medics would be sent, so they had to be trained for a variety of locations. They arrived in the Mediterranean and were stationed in Sicily in October 1943.

On the morning of the crash landing, they were headed to Bari, Italy, to evacuate patients near the front lines who had received some medical attention but needed to be taken to more equipped hospitals around the Mediterranean.

Normally, only one medic and one nurse would be on a flight together, but because there had been bad weather in the area for a few days, their commanding officer decided to send half of his squadron to help evacuate patients who had piled up in Bari. That’s why so many were together that day. He never sent so many out at once again. The pilots soon found themselves in a violent storm and became disoriented.

So, thirteen nurses, thirteen medics, and a flight crew of four, were off course and crash-landed in Albania.

Yes. The pilot was only twenty-two and, like many pilots of the time, had been rushed through training. There were frequent accidents.

In this case, they encountered a violent storm, and their navigational equipment was malfunctioning. They were in the air for about five hours and running low on gas and they had no idea where they were. The pilot thought he might have been on the western coast of Italy, when in fact he had crossed the Adriatic and was over Albania.

They tried to land at an airfield, not realizing it was Nazi-occupied. They were soon being shot at and had to take to the skies again to avoid enemy fire.

It was truly a miracle that they made it through these difficulties and, when they crashed, only the crew chief was seriously injured.

They had no idea where they were until a band of armed men arrived and one was able to tell them in broken English.

Didn’t they actually land on a lake?

On the outer edge of a lake. When they started landing, Harold 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.

And they were met by partisans almost immediately.

When the Americans came out of the plane, they only saw rugged mountains, but a few minutes later, a band of armed men came out of the woods. It must have been a scary sight for the Americans who didn’t know if these men were their enemies.

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.

Gina 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.

They crashed not only behind enemy lines but also in the middle of a civil war. What was the situation 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 [editor's note: 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 .

What happened with the Italians after they surrendered in Albania? Were they supporting the Allies or were they adrift?

They were adrift. Thousands of Italians were left behind to figure out how to get back to Italy on their own. Some made due with odd jobs in villages, but many didn’t make it. It’s estimated that one hundred Italians died per day that winter from the cold and hunger.

What did the base commanders know about the situation of the medical team and aircrew?

One of the biggest concerns of the group after they crash-landed was that the military didn’t know where they were. It was unlikely search planes would look in Albania.

After three weeks of walking in the 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 around to different villages and some Albanians thought they were the beginning of an invasion force, albeit an ill-equipped invasion force. Because females fought with the partisans, the Albanians weren’t surprised to see American women with the men.

Once the Americans discovered 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. After that, they began their long march to the coast.

When the British in Albania learned the Americans were safe, they notified the American military and the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the precursor of the CIA. While the British led the Americans to the coast, this twenty-four-year-old American sent in by the OSS was trying to find them.

It’s striking that this large group of Americans traveled together and villages often greeted them openly, but they still eluded the Germans. Did the Germans know of this large group of Americans in their midst?

The Americans were very fortunate. Thirty people is a large group when you’re trying to find housing and food in a country where a vast majority of the people have nothing: not enough food for themselves, no running water, no electricity.

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 the Germans. They had to be on their guard at all times.

The Americans were lucky that so many of 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.

Because of their sacrifices and risks, the Albanian partisans and the Albanian people are heroes of this story to me. When I went to Albania in March 2012, I delivered a letter from Harold to the president of Albania, which thanked the people of Albania for helping to save him and the others.

That must have been a moving experience. Can you talk about your research process -- including your work with Albanian sources?

I did a lot of archival research, but I knew going to Albania was critical to writing the book.

It was helpful for me to see what the Americans experienced when they were there. You can read about the rugged terrain, but when you’re there and you see it for yourself, you understand what they went through in a different way. Most of the group walked more than 600 miles in their efforts to escape.

I went to several of the villages with a translator and found that many had not changed much since the Americans had been there. The people were so hospitable, which is one of the threads that runs through the story: the Albanians’ tradition of hospitality. I saw that firsthand when I was there. It’s still alive and well. On several occasions, we were invited into people’s homes and served raki, a traditional Albanian liquor. The stranded Americans were often given raki in homes where they stayed.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting the family of Kostaq Stefa , the main partisan who led the Americans for several weeks. The family lives in Italy now, but one of his daughters came over with her son and met me in the town of Berat. Eleni Stefa, Kostaq’s wife, who met the Americans in ‘43, is still alive. I sent her a copy of the book, which arrived on her 101st birthday.

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. The family has told me how meaningful it is to have Kostaq’s story told to a wide audience.

Have you heard from many of the families of the Americans?

I was able to track down the families of almost everyone, which was critical to telling the story and offering details about the individuals. Some of the children knew a little bit of their parents’ stories but several expressed the wish that they had asked more questions while their parents were alive. Some of them only knew that their father or mother had been in Albania briefly. A few asked more questions of their parents after Agnes Jensen Mangerich’s book came out in the 1990s.

But most of [the children of the Americans] didn’t know the specifics. The thirty Americans took their oath of keeping the details of the experience secret during the war and even afterward. As the years went by and Albania remained under communism, the Americans still didn’t talk about it because they wanted to protect the Albanians who had helped them.

We are having a get together of the American and partisan families in Washington, D.C. in November, which I’m really looking forward to.

You vividly describe the ordeal of these Americans stranded behind enemy lines. The stories of the nurses are especially interesting because we don’t hear as much about that part of the war. And here, they went through the same difficulties as their male counterparts: hunger, lice, enemy action, and other torments.

The role of the women is one reason I was attracted to the story. You hear a lot about men who came back from behind enemy lines. Before working on this story, I didn’t know the history of women, particularly nurses, in the military, and that’s been fascinating to learn.

In their reports, the British officers were very complimentary of the women. The medics also spoke highly of the nurses, including Harold Hayes.

They were extraordinary women for their time. Not only did they volunteer to serve their country, they volunteered for medical air evacuation at a time when few people had ever flown. These women in so many ways were defying the stereotypes of the time and doing something that wasn’t expected of them and then proved themselves again during months behind enemy lines.

Were there a couple of the women who were particularly striking to you?

They were all striking to me, but I was able to find the most information on Agnes Jensen, who wrote the memoir, as well as Jean Rutkowski and Lois Watson. They were all brave and independent women who wanted to help their country and to see more of the world.

When I started my research, I was very curious see to how the women’s presence had affected the group as a whole. Of course 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.

You also have to keep in mind that the nurses were second lieutenants and all of the medics were enlisted men. When they got on the plane to go to Bari, many on board didn’t know each other. The nurses knew the other nurses and the medics knew the other medics, but the two groups were almost complete strangers to one another. None of the nurses or medics knew the flight crew.

Is there anything you’d like to add about how British intelligence and the OSS assisted the stranded Americans? It seemed that the British special operations officer, Lieutenant Gavan Duffy, had a crucial role in arranging for the rescue.

He did. In fact, there’s a shot in the book of two nurses giving him a kiss to thank him for all the help he gave them. He was only twenty-four himself, and he was a demolitions expert. He was due for a rest when the Americans dropped into Albania. He had been in the country for quite a while.

It was rough going for the British operators in Albania. Of the first fifty who went into the country, sixteen were captured or killed. They were constantly on their guard and living under incredibly difficult circumstances.

Duffy had been there about seven months and was ready to be evacuated when the Americans arrived. Instead was charged with taking thirty Americans to the coast through rugged, German-occupied territory. It was extraordinary that he kept the group together. He is definitely one of the heroes of the story.

Unfortunately, the Americans were under the impression that [Duffy] had passed away, so they didn’t look for him when they had the reunions in the 1980s. He actually passed away in 1990.

Lloyd Smith, a twenty-four-year-old American with the OSS, was sent over to search for the group, and he was on his own for a month while he looked for them. He did not know Albanian and did not know anything about the terrain. He was supposed to be doing something entirely different when this crisis occurred, and he volunteered to go in and help get them out.

He was sent into Albania twice because during a German attack, three nurses were separated from the larger group and were never reunited with them.

When FDR found out about [the lost Americans], he wanted daily updates on the status of the nurses. At the time, we didn’t have enough nurses to care for those who were sick and injured during the war and there was a shortage, even in civilian hospitals. The idea that thirty nurses had been lost behind enemy lines was something the government surely did not want. That heightened the rescue effort to get the whole group out. They were ultimately successful, but it took a lot of effort on the part of many to make that happen.

You have a background as a journalist and you’ve written on other historical themes. Can you talk about your interest in history and your influences in writing about history?

I worked for National Geographic magazine for eleven years and became a staff writer and Europe editor. It was a dream job in many ways. After National Geographic, I worked for Smithsonian Magazine as the web editor. Both publications helped further develop my passion for history, culture, and exploration.

As a narrative nonfiction writer, I believe my job is to make history come to life for readers. Working for these publications helped develop the skills I needed to be able to take vast amounts of information and weave them into an interesting and accurate story.

Thank you for your contribution to our understanding of the war. Is there anything you’d like to add about what you hope readers take from your book?

One thing that struck me was the idea that everyone has a story and so many of us are so busy with our lives that we don’t take time to interview people around us that may have these stories.

With the World War II generation passing away, I encourage people to interview their parents or grandparents -- to ask questions because, at some point in their lives, they won’t have that ability. They might be surprised what they learn.