In November 1943, 26 members of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron boarded a cargo plane meant to fly up the heel of Italy’s boot from their headquarters in Catania to Bari, where a large number of wounded soldiers waited to be evacuated to the main hospital. Little did they and their four-man flight crew know what lay ahead.
Rather than making it to Bari, the 30 men and women aboard would find themselves blown wildly off-course by unforeseen weather—even including two awe-inspiring waterspouts. After landing on the first dry ground they sighted, the crew found themselves lost, injured, wet, and hungry. Learning that they had found land in Albania, a country being torn apart both by World War II and an ongoing civil war, hardly soothed their wrecked nerves.
In The Secret Rescue, Cate Lineberry explores the two months of effort and travails that eventually brought the nurses, medics, and flight crew back to safety. This thrilling history book takes you inside the slog to discover the fear, the intrigue, and the people who made their rescue possible.
Read on for an excerpt of The Secret Rescue, then download the book!
They were getting closer to Bari, and the weather and visibility had not improved. At ten fifty and again at eleven twenty, the crew asked the station to activate its beacon to help guide them in landing, but without the codes the control tower at Bari again refused to assist. At approximately eleven thirty-five, with no airport in sight and poor visibility continuing, the flight crew again contacted Bari control and asked for a radio fix so they could determine the direction of the airport and fly toward it. This time Bari control replied that it did not have the equipment to provide a fix. At eleven forty-five, more than three hours after takeoff, the crew asked the control tower yet again to turn on the beacon. The tower finally agreed and turned the beacon on for about ten minutes. This was the last message they received from Bari control.
Soon after the approval was received, the plane lost all radio communication. Lebo tried desperately to reestablish it, while the pilots realized the apparently faulty magnetic compass was no longer functioning properly. The flight crew was now acutely aware of the difficult situation they faced. They had lost all radio communication, they had no beacon signal from the airport, they had a nonfunctioning magnetic compass, and they had poor visibility with little ground reference to navigate. They were flying blind.
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Someone from the cabin shouted, “Look out there!” and several turned to see two waterspouts about three hundred feet from the plane. Hayes had heard about waterspouts, powerful tornadoes that formed over water, and had even seen pictures, but he’d never imagined how violent they could be. He watched as the large columns of water rose up from the Adriatic Sea. They had appeared suddenly, and he began to worry that if another formed closer to the plane they would all be killed. Thrasher came back to the cabin to talk with the passengers, while Baggs flew the plane. He told them they were going to try to climb above the clouds and away from the immediate threat. Shortly after, the C-53D once again ascended as the passengers watched the wingtips appear and disappear in the thick clouds until they finally broke through. Bright sunlight suddenly lit up the cabin, and, for the moment, they were out of danger.
Their luck did not last for long. At the higher altitude the unheated cabin grew cold quickly, and some began to shiver in their seats. The crew all had flying jackets and all but three of the nurses wore thicker field coats with liners, but the medics only had their lighter field jackets. They were above eight thousand feet, but they couldn’t stay there for long. At this altitude, the outside temperature was about thirty degrees Fahrenheit. The wings were starting to ice. If too much ice formed and disrupted the flow of air, the plane wouldn’t be able to stay aloft. Transport planes were usually equipped with de-icing boots—rubber shoes on the leading edges of the wings. When turned on, the de-icing boots inflated and deflated to break up the ice. The plane’s de-icing boots, however, were lying in the back of the cabin along with the 807th’s medical and musette bags. The regular crew chief had removed them for the summer to make flying more efficient and had not yet reinstalled them, adding to the numerous problems those on board already faced.
The pilots found an opening in the clouds and managed to navigate down through it as the passengers braced themselves in their seats against the sudden descent and sharp bank made by the plane. After several minutes, the aircraft leveled out just under the ceiling. They were now flying over water and were about a quarter mile away from a rugged coastline of mountains that soared hundreds of feet in the air. In the middle of this endless expanse of cliffs stood a small strip of beach no bigger than the plane. Thrasher once again came back to the cabin and told the passengers that he suspected that they were somewhere off the western coast of Italy though he didn’t know which side of the combat line they were on. He thought they should try to make a water landing and head for the beach given the severe weather, the amount of fuel they had left, and his concerns over what they would face if they continued flying.
Parachuting out of the plane wasn’t an option; there were only a handful of parachutes on board in addition to an emergency parachute that could be used for dropping supplies to someone on the ground. Though each of the nurses and medics had been issued a parachute at Bowman Field, the chutes were among equipment that had been shipped to them in Italy but had never arrived. Only 20 out of 155 boxes had eventually turned up in Catania, and everything from flashlights to the parachutes had been lost or stolen.
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The passengers took an inventory of the life preservers hanging on a cable at the back of the cargo bay. There were twenty-eight Mae Wests. That wouldn’t be enough to help the thirty souls on board. Hayes and Owen, both experienced swimmers, volunteered to go without life jackets since they’d had the most water-survival training in Kentucky, while Shumway, the crew chief, moved to a seat by the passenger door to be in position to open it when they landed. They were as ready as they would ever be.
Just then, the pilots spotted an airfield, and Thrasher told the passengers they were going to try to land there instead. The field was about five miles inland and sandwiched between mountains. As they edged closer, the pilots flew over the runway to check the conditions. Some who peered out the window could see small buildings on the west side of the field and German fighter planes along the other side. “Having seen their fair share of abandoned German planes, they didn’t give them much thought. They were more anxious to get out of the severe weather. The pilots circled the field and decided to take their chances. They set up on final approach, lowered the landing gear, and locked it into position. When they neared the end of the runway and were about fifty feet from the ground, a bullet suddenly hit the tail of the plane as anti-aircraft fire erupted from below. Someone was shooting at them. At the same time, the once idle fighter planes came to life and scrambled on the runway.
Thrasher jammed the throttle forward and began a sharp climb in a desperate attempt to get out of firing range. In the excitement of preparing to land on the airfield, however, the pilots had forgotten to switch the fuel tanks. The main tank was running on the small amount of gas that remained, and the engines were stopping. The pilots quickly flipped the switch to change tanks, and the plane bucked at the demand before climbing back into the air.
As the plane gained altitude, a mountainside loomed ahead. The aircraft was within a few hundred feet of slamming into a rocky cliff, but Thrasher turned the plane steeply to the right so that its wings were parallel to the jagged bluff. It was a close call. As the pilots intentionally flew through more clouds, hoping to elude the fighter planes, mountains popped into their view, and they made several more steep turns just in time to avoid them.
When they thought they might be in the clear, they ascended high enough to regain their bearings and could see patches of blue sky. That’s when one of the passengers yelled, “What’s that plane doing?” A Focke-Wulf Fw190, a German fighter plane dubbed the “Butcher Bird,” flew toward them. Without any firepower, the American pilots’ only chance was to outmaneuver the other plane. Thrasher plunged the C-53D into the clouds again, where it remained for fifteen minutes, but when it emerged, the plane was once again in the direct path of a Focke-Wulf. Unsure whether it was the same one or another fighter, the pilots knew they were in trouble. They once again retreated to the clouds, but they couldn’t stay hidden forever. The landscape below had changed from rugged mountains to rolling hills, but there was only a clearance of roughly four hundred feet between the tops of the hills and the cloud ceiling. They passed another airfield but decided the chance of a German presence made it too risky to attempt another landing.
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Just when it seemed that their luck had run out, the pilots spotted a small lake. It appeared to have reached all the way to the surrounding hills when it was full, but at that time the water had retreated, which left a small patch of open ground. When Thrasher announced they were going to try to land, some of the passengers wondered whether the patch was large enough for a transport plane, but they had no choice but to put their confidence in the pilots. It was around one thirty p.m., and they’d been in the air for about five hours.
Shumway stashed away the de-icing boots and the passenger-loading ladder in the bathroom to prepare for the crash landing and remained in the back of the plane. The nurses and medics remained quiet as they tried to deal with the fears and uncertainties plaguing each of them and do as they had been trained. They braced themselves as best they could. Jens was among those who put her head on her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs, while the pilots lowered the landing gear.
The plane approached the lake and followed the contour of the hill to the landing site. When the wheels finally touched, the plane seemed less than a few hundred feet from the waterline. Both pilots stood on the brakes as the plane careened along the ground still saturated with water. The landing gear slowly sank in the mud until it was completely submerged, bringing the plane to a violent stop. The passengers felt like they’d hit a wall. The force embedded the plane’s nose in the marshy land, and as the tail flipped up, the medical and musette bags plummeted through the cabin. The fuselage hovered upright for a few seconds before falling back to the ground in a belly flop.
Though the seatbelts kept the other passengers buckled in, Shumway had buttressed himself against the fuselage frame toward the back of the plane, and the sudden stop loosened his grip. He flew through the air, hitting Watson in the face with his foot before landing in the front of the cabin while a toolbox weighing seventy pounds bounced down the center of the plane and narrowly missed him. Shumway lay on the floor against the bulkhead, disoriented and unable to move. His knee seemed to have taken the brunt of the collision. The impact of his foot left Watson with a split lower lip, a cut under her right eye, loose upper teeth, and the beginnings of a black eye.
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The other dazed passengers tried to get their bearings as the shock of the crash landing sank in. Fearing the possibility of a fire and following their training, some rushed to unbuckle their seatbelts and exit the plane. After they pushed the door open, they quickly stepped into the muddy ground, sinking with each step. Rain fell from a dark-gray sky as they moved away from the plane. Behind them lay the fuselage that was level with the ground and standing in several inches of water with no signs of smoke. The plane’s propellers were bent, its nose was smashed, and one hole from gunfire was visible in the vertical stabilizer. As more of the medics and nurses piled out, they could see the damage to the plane, and they silently marveled at the fact that they had survived the attack and the crash landing. Beyond the lake bed where the plane had come to rest were dense, forested hills, and beyond those was what looked like an endless expanse of mountains. The men and women had been in the air for so long and become so disoriented that none of them knew where they were.
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