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The Secret Rescue
An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines
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When 26 Army nurses and medics-part of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron-boarded a cargo plane for transport in November 1943, they never anticipated the crash landing in Nazi-occupied Albania that would lead to their months-long struggle for survival. A drama that captured the attention of the American public, the group and its flight crew dodged bullets and battled blinding winter storms as they climbed mountains and fought to survive, aided by courageous villagers who risked death at Nazi hands to help them.
A mesmerizing tale of the courage and heroism of ordinary people, The Secret Rescue tells not only a new story of struggle and endurance, but also one of the daring rescue attempts by clandestine American and British organizations amid the tumultuous landscape of the war.
Table of Contents
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A Note to the Reader
When survivors of an American transport plane that crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania in November 1943 returned to the United States after months trapped behind enemy lines, they were forbidden from sharing details of their harrowing ordeal with anyone outside the military. On February 15, 1944, however, British Lieutenant Gavan "Garry" Duffy, who helped save the party, gave a guarded account to the press. Two days later, Allied headquarters finally released Associated Press correspondent Hal Boyle's story on the grueling journey of the thirteen female nurses, thirteen medics, and four-man flight crew. The story had been delayed by the military for weeks.
Though the piece mistakenly declared that all in the party had been rescued and offered enough details to capture the public's imagination, it could not reveal the full story in order to protect those left behind, future downed airmen needing assistance, and the heroic people who helped the Americans escape—including Albanian partisans, villagers, and British and American officers working for clandestine organizations. The media and even friends and family of the survivors wanted to know more, but the men and women who had lived through the nightmare refused to provide any additional information, as they had been ordered. One nurse told a reporter, "Too many lives might be taken, too much is at stake to reveal our benefactors or the terrible happenings of those terrible weeks."
When the war ended, Albania fell under the power of the ruthless dictator Enver Hoxha, and the Americans who had escaped from Albania knew that sharing the full story with the public could still jeopardize the brave men and women who had helped them and who now lived in terror. Over the many decades that followed, the survivors continued to keep the specifics of their journey private, sharing their memories only with each other, mostly when they reunited twice in the 1980s, sent cards in the mail, or visited one another.
Those concerns changed after communism in Albania began to crumble in late 1990. In 1999, former nurse Agnes Jensen Mangerich, at almost eighty-five years old, published her memories of the ordeal. Eleven years later, the son of Lawrence Abbott, one of the deceased medics, self-published his father's long-lost memoir.
I stumbled across an old newspaper story about this event in 2011 while doing other research on World War II and was intrigued by many aspects of it. I read the two books and began thinking of telling the larger story. Though the memoirs, along with other materials I collected—including declassified American, British, and German documents, photos, letters, stories passed on to family members, and even military footage of the group returning from Albania—helped tell the story, only someone who had experienced it firsthand could answer the many questions I still had. I then learned that Harold Hayes, the only living member of the original thirty on board the plane, was living in a retirement community in Oregon. At eighty-nine, his memory was as sharp as ever, and he was interested in helping me capture the vivid details he remembered and had collected from the others in the years since their fateful journey. Most important, all of the information and leads he provided that could be corroborated proved accurate. (If significant details from sources differ and could not be confirmed, I have noted them in the back of the book.) Hayes shared with me his own unpublished memoir, invited me to spend a week with him and his wife at his home, and invited me back again when I still had more questions.
For the next year and a half, we communicated almost daily by phone and e-mail, and I shared with him my photos and experiences from when I traveled to Albania in early 2012 to see the places relevant to the story, including the crash site and villages that seemed to have changed very little over the years. While there, I presented a letter to Albanian President Bamir Topi from Hayes thanking the Albanian people for risking their lives to save the group and interviewed some village men who had been just boys when they met the Americans.
With the extraordinary help of Hayes and so many others, here is the untold story, seventy years later, of a band of ordinary Americans facing a series of nearly unbelievable but true challenges and the heroes who helped them along the way.
Those On Board Army Air Forces Aircraft 42-68809 on November 8, 1943
|Flight Crew, 61st Troop Carrier Squadron|
1st Lt. Charles Thrasher
|22||Daytona Beach, FL|
2nd Lt. James "Jim" Baggs
Sgt. Willis Shumway
Sgt. Richard "Dick" Lebo
|Nurses, 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS)|
|2nd Lt. Gertrude "Tooie" Dawson||29||Vandergrift, PA|
|2nd Lt. Agnes "Jens" Jensen||28||Stanwood, MI|
|2nd Lt. Pauleen Kanable||26||Richland Center, WI|
|2nd Lt. Ann Kopsco||30||Hammond, LA|
|2nd Lt. Wilma Lytle||31||Butler, KY|
|2nd Lt. Ann Maness||32||Paris, TX|
|2nd Lt. Ann "Marky" Markowitz||27||Chicago, IL|
|2nd Lt. Frances Nelson||25||Princeton, WV|
|2nd Lt. Helen Porter||30||Hanksville, UT|
|2nd Lt. Eugenie "Jean" Rutkowski||27||Detroit, MI|
|2nd Lt. Elna Schwant||26||Winner, SD|
|2nd Lt. Lillian "Tassy" Tacina||22||Hamtramck, MI|
|2nd Lt. Lois Watson||23||Chicago, IL|
|Medics, 807th MAETS|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Lawrence "Larry" Abbott||23||Newaygo, MI|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Charles Adams||21||Niles, MI|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Paul Allen||19||Greenville, KY|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Robert Cranson||36||New Haven, NY|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) James "Jim" Cruise||28||Brockton, MA|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Raymond Ebers||25||Steeleville, IL|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) William Eldridge||24||Eldridge, KY|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Harold Hayes||21||Indianola, IA|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Gordon MacKinnon||32||Los Angeles, CA|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Robert "Bob" Owen||20||Walden, NY|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) John Wolf||21||Glidden, WI|
|T/3 (S/Sgt.) Charles Zeiber||26||Reading, PA|
|Medic, 802nd MAETS|
|Cpl. Gilbert Hornsby||21||Manchester, KY|
|*Age at the time of the crash landing.|
The Nurses and Medics of the 807th
More than ninety personnel of the newly formed 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS) piled into two railroad cars in Louisville, Kentucky, on a sweltering afternoon in the second week of August 1943. As sweat soaked through their summer uniforms, the group, including twenty-five female nurses, stashed their heavy field packs and settled into their assigned seats. The officers, including the nurses, sat in one car, while the enlisted men were assigned to another. Both groups talked with the new friends they'd made over the last few months in Louisville; but with officers and enlisted men prohibited from fraternizing, many in the squadron were almost strangers as they started their journey to uncertain fates overseas.
As new members of the Army Air Forces' MAETS, the men and women were part of an innovative program that transported the wounded and sick from hospitals near the frontlines to better-equipped medical facilities for additional care. In the course of the war, the MAETS would move more than one million troops, with only forty-six patients dying in flight. It was so successful that in 1945, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed air evacuation as important as other World War II medical innovations, including sulfa drugs, penicillin, blood plasma, and whole blood, and credited it with saving thousands of lives.
Among those on board was the 807th's commanding officer, thirty-six-year-old Capt. William P. McKnight. A medical doctor just over six feet tall with a shock of sandy-red hair and a mustache, McKnight was known for quietly but effectively enforcing his authority and was well-respected by the men and women of his squadron. McKnight and the four other doctors in the 807th had been trained as flight surgeons at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas, before arriving at Bowman Field Air Base in Louisville and joining the new 807th just a few months before. Despite their titles as flight surgeons, their primary duty when they arrived overseas would be to serve as liaisons between airfields and forward hospitals and to screen patients brought for transport to make sure it was medically safe for them to travel.
First Lt. Grace Stakeman, a thirty-year-old blonde from Terre Haute, Indiana, nicknamed "Teach" by the young women who reported to her, was also finding her seat on the stifling train. As the 807th's head nurse, Stakeman was in charge of the squadron's twenty-four other flight nurses, all second lieutenants who were trained as nurses before joining the military. Like Stakeman, the nurses were allotted relative rank, which, since 1920, had given nurses the status of officers and allowed them to wear insignia but at half the pay of their male counterparts, though as flight nurses they earned an extra sixty dollars per month. Military nurses would be awarded full but temporary rank in 1944 and permanent rank in 1947. Though Stakeman's delicate features gave her a somewhat fragile appearance, she, like the other nurses drawn to volunteer for the Army, was far from frail. After recovering from a car accident in her early twenties that broke six of her vertebrae and required her to wear a full-body cast, she had joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) more determined than ever to help others.
The squadron also included twenty-four enlisted men who had just been trained as medics and been promoted to the rank of technician third grade, or T/3. The medics came from a variety of backgrounds and places, with some just out of high school and others with a host of jobs under their belts. While some had enlisted, others had been drafted. The rest of the 807th was made up of a medical administrative corps officer in charge of supplies and dozens of enlisted men who would serve as the squadron's cooks, clerks, and drivers and held ranks between private and master sergeant.
Twenty-one-year-old Harold Hayes, a reserved but inquisitive medic with wire-rimmed glasses, dark hair, and a deep voice that rivaled any radio announcer's, sat in the enlisted men's car and was as anxious as the rest of the squadron to learn of their destination overseas. They were now headed to their port of embarkation, where they would undergo last-minute preparations before shipping out.
Hayes had volunteered for the 807th after working under McKnight at a dispensary at Bowman Field Air Base and was one of the first four medics to join the squadron. He and the three other young men sitting in the car that morning had become fast friends. Twenty-year-old Robert "Bob" Owen from Walden, New York, was a tall, lean, and handsome young man with hazel eyes who still looked like the star high school football player he'd been only a few years before and whose favorite topic of conversation was "Red," the beautiful woman he'd recently met at a USO club in Louisville and would eventually marry. John Wolf from Glidden, Wisconsin, twenty-one years old, was a quiet outdoorsman and avid hunter who had married at seventeen. The oldest at twenty-three and the shortest at just five foot six was Lawrence "Larry" Abbott from Newaygo, Michigan, whose childhood nickname was "Windy" because he liked to talk so much. The four had been nearly inseparable at Bowman and spent their free time swimming, watching movies, drinking beer at Louisville bars, and attending USO dances. These new friends referred to one another fondly as Brother Owen, Brother Wolf, and Brother Hayes, while Owen dubbed Abbott "Little Orville," a reference to his middle name and short stature.
Agnes Jensen, a twenty-eight-year-old brunette with blue eyes and high cheekbones, from Stanwood, Michigan, took her place in the car reserved for the 807th's officers. Nicknamed "Jens," she and Helen Porter, another fresh-faced nurse who was two months shy of turning thirty, from Hanksville, Utah, had been last-minute additions to the 807th after being reassigned from another squadron just ten days earlier. The two considered it a lucky break that they would get to travel overseas earlier than expected.
Also among the nurses was twenty-seven-year-old Eugenie "Jean" Rutkowski, a former airline stewardess raised in Detroit, who had joined the military in May after her fiancé went missing while ferrying a plane to England. Nearby was newly married twenty-three-year-old Lois Watson, a blonde with hazel eyes from Chicago, Illinois. Watson had been a senior in nursing school with plans to become a stewardess when hundreds of Japanese planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, trying to destroy the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet. She and the rest of the country had reeled from the shock and horror of the assault, which left thousands dead, including one of the residents she used to go with on double dates. When she and her father had stopped in an enlistment center in downtown Chicago only to inquire about her joining the Army, she signed up.
By the following December, Watson had found herself at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and away from home for the first time. Within days of arriving, she met Nolan McKenzie, the young man she would marry just a few months later. Both were interested in flying, and he left in April for training to become a B-24 pilot, while she joined the MAETS in May.
All of the 807th's nurses and medics had just completed a six-week training course in air evacuation at Bowman Field Air Base and were ready to put their skills into practice. The air evacuation program—the first of its kind anywhere in the world—was only months old. The first two MAETS squadrons, the 801st and 802nd, had been activated in early December 1942 and were in demand before they could even finish the training the Army Air Forces (AAF) had rushed to put together. The 802nd had begun its journey to North Africa on Christmas Day, while the 801st left for New Caledonia in the South Pacific in January.
By the time the 807th started its training, the nurses' program included everything from aeromedical physiology and enemy plane identification to chemical warfare and religious procedures in an emergency. They were taught survival skills for the arctic, the jungle, and the desert to prepare them for wherever the war might take them and learned how to unload patients in the event of a water landing. To give them experience in the air, the nurses were flown over the Ohio River. Watson kept telling herself "I won't get airsick" as one flight twisted and turned so much that one of the nurses became ill. To learn what happened to the body without oxygen at ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet, they were put into a low-pressure chamber and watched the dizzying effects on one brave volunteer who went in without an oxygen mask. These training procedures were powerful reminders of the challenges they would face in the air as the unpressurized transport planes traveled at a range of heights and in a variety of weather conditions.
Physical training was as important as the lectures and demonstrations, and the nurses performed daily exercises and long marches, where they were sometimes pelted with flour bombs in simulated air attacks to teach them to take cover. Military drills included navigating obstacle courses that required them to crawl under barbed wire with live machine-gun fire overhead, first on their stomachs and then on their backs. As they practiced on one particularly hot and humid Kentucky day, Watson watched as several of the nurses struggled to finish and passed out on the course after completing it.
Unlike the very first flight nurses, the women of the 807th didn't have to fight to be able to wear pants rather than skirts as part of their uniforms. Months earlier, Col. Florence Blanchfield, the assistant superintendent of the ANC, had ordered flight nurses who were wearing the more practical men's one-piece flight suits without authorization back into their regulation skirts. That policy changed after Blanchfield showed up at Bowman Field wearing the popular "pinks and greens" dress uniform, an olive-drab jacket with a taupe skirt. Having never flown before, the colonel accepted the offer of a demonstration flight. As she awkwardly tried to put on the required parachute while wearing a skirt, the nurses on board explained to her that she would only need to lace it into position in an emergency. Soon after takeoff, the plane experienced engine trouble and the pilot announced that all on board should prepare to jump. Blanchfield fumbled with fastening her parachute until the pilot was able to restart the engine. Shortly after, flight nurses were allowed to forgo their skirts and were given slate-blue uniforms consisting of short Eisenhower jackets with waistbands and matching pants and caps.
Unlike the nurses, the medics, all enlisted men, had received basic military training before volunteering for the air evacuation program. Their specialized instruction in air evacuation covered some of the same material the nurses' program did, including survival skills and additional physical conditioning; but their medical experience, which included working with the nurses for a few weeks in local hospitals, was limited mostly to first aid. Their main focus was learning how to quickly and smoothly load and unload patients, which would be one of their primary tasks. To test their skills and to have a little fun, the medics in the various squadrons often challenged one another to see who could load and unload planes the fastest on practice runs. The 807th couldn't be beat.
Though air evacuation was still new in 1943, medical evacuation itself had only been around since the Civil War. In 1862, the medical director of the Union Army of the Potomac, Maj. Jonathan Letterman, created a system to manage mass casualties, which included first-aid stations on battlefields, mobile field hospitals, and ambulance services. In late August 1862, it took a week to remove injured soldiers from the battlefield at Second Manassas, with many young men succumbing to their injuries as they waited alone and in pain for help to come. Less than a month later, the Battle of Antietam left twenty-three thousand casualties after twelve hours of bloody combat. With Letterman's new triage system in place, medical personnel were able to remove all injured soldiers from the field within twenty-four hours. Though the lifesaving system was refined during the Spanish-American War, it remained virtually unchanged until the age of the airplane.
In 1910, seven years after the Wright brothers made the world's first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk and one year after the Army received its first plane, Capt. George H. R. Gosman and Lt. Albert L. Rhoades built an aircraft for the sole purpose of transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the hospital. Though the plane they built crashed during its test flight and the War Department turned down Gosman's pleas for financial assistance, the idea of an air ambulance had been born.
Despite the advantages of rapid evacuation that air ambulances could offer, concerns regarding the safety of planes, a technology still in its infancy, would linger for years to come. When Col. A. W. Williams, a retired Army officer, recommended at a meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons in November 1912 that the airplane be used to evacuate patients, the Baltimore Sun responded with an editorial stating, "the hazard of being severely wounded is sufficient without the additional hazard of transportation by airplane."
Undaunted by the risks, French physicians and aviation enthusiasts began exploring the use of air ambulances, even proposing a monoplane that carried patients in a box under the fuselage. When French military surgeon Dr. Eugene Chassaing asked for government funds to develop a modified plane, one critic responded, "Are there not enough dead in France today without killing the wounded in airplanes?" Chassaing persevered, however, and using a Dorand AR.2, a French observation biplane, he designed a side opening that allowed room for two stretchers to be placed in the fuselage behind the pilot. In April 1918, two of his planes helped evacuate wounded from Flanders, marking the first successful use of air evacuation on specially equipped aircraft, a victory that helped ensure air evacuation's future.
Though most of the world had been at war since 1914, the United States didn't officially enter the fray until April 1917. With the rush to train thousands of new pilots at temporary flying fields in the States, the inexperienced flyboys crashed regularly, and getting medical care to the injured proved difficult because of poor roads. A surgeon was typically flown to the accident scene and provided medical care on site before transporting the flier to a base hospital in a motor ambulance over bumpy and unpaved roads. It took hours to deliver a patient, and many died along the way.
By 1918, Capt. William C. Ocker, the officer in charge of flight training at Gerstner Field in Louisiana, and reserve medical officer Maj. Wilson E. Driver modified a standard Curtiss JN-4, a biplane called a "Jenny," to allow the craft to carry a patient in a litter, or stretcher, in the rear cockpit. That same year, they transported the first patient to be flown by plane in the United States. News of their success traveled, and air service personnel at nearby Texas airfields replicated their efforts and made their own modifications. On July 23, the Director of the Air Service ordered all flying fields in the United States to employ air ambulances.
Overseas, however, the U.S. Army Medical Department continued to evacuate troops using litter bearers, horse-drawn and motor ambulances, and hospital trains. Many patients, who frequently couldn't be moved from trenches until dark, suffered long and difficult journeys over war-torn roads to get to a hospital.
- "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." -- Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
- "Cate Lineberry has unearthed a little-known episode of World War II that has all the elements of a classic escape adventure. Carefully researched and compellingly told, The Secret Rescue is a suspenseful story of courage, audacity, and endurance behind enemy lines. I couldn't stop reading it." -- Gary Krist, author of City of Scoundrels
- "American nurses and medics, trapped behind enemy lines, hungry and haggard, dodging Nazis, hope dimming as winter gains strength. In Cate Lineberry's gifted hands, the true story of The Secret Rescue is a gripping and suspenseful tale, alive with rich details that carry readers along every step of this remarkable journey." -- Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time
- "The Secret Rescue is narrative history at its best. Cate Lineberry uncovers a fascinating, long-forgotten drama that captured the world's attention during the darkest days of World War II and transforms it into a gripping story of courage under fire." -- Daniel Stashower, author of The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War
- "Cate Lineberry's The Secret Rescue is the kind of great story that makes you wonder, 'How come I didn't know about this?' A thrilling story of courage behind enemy lines." -- Christopher S. Stewart, author of Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure
- "Lineberry takes us into a part of World War II often neglected in war histories - the vantage point of nurses and medics. The medical air evacuations were as dangerous as they were heroic, and after this group of men and women crash lands in Nazi-held Albania, they face daunting physical and cultural challenges. Their story is a courageous journey across not only a foreign landscape, but the topography of the human spirit as well." -- Molly Caldwell Crosby, author of The Great Pearl Heist and The American Plague
- "The Secret Rescue is an intriguing and spellbinding story. Cate Lineberry has created an amazing piece of work and research that highlights the critical role played by the British clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in these dramatic events." -- Art Reinhardt, OSS Veteran (China) and OSS Society, Treasurer
- On Sale
- May 7, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company