A classified WWII story with happy ending that could be one best war rescue stories for decades, has been published in two wonderful books: “Savage Will” by Timothy M. Gay and “The Secret Rescue” by Cate Lineberry.
The ordeal began Nov. 8, 1943, when a cargo plane carrying 13 female nurses, 13 male medics and four airmen took off from Sicily and corkscrewed hundreds of miles off course in a storm.
Due to inclement conditions, the american plane crashed on the wrong side of the Adriatic Sea in German-occupied Albania. Rather than being rescuers, suddenly they were in need of rescue. For 60 days the group trekked through remote Albanian villages following local guides named Qani, Ismail, and Haki.
The stranded 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport fliers were repeatedly smuggled under Nazi noses and stashed in rural villages where residents shared their meager food and lived in smoky huts also occupied by goats and chickens.
The castaways struggled more than 700 miles through the Albanian Alps, enduring starvation and storms, dysentery, a German air strike and an aborted U.S. mission to evacuate them by plane.
“These poor kids … landed in the middle of anarchy,” Gay says during a phone interview from his home in Virginia. The Balkan underground was made up of seething factions in a political stew pot, explains Gay, who rediscovered the saga while researching “Assignment to Hell,” a 2012 book about World War II correspondents.
Albanians nevertheless risked their lives to spring the castaways with the teeth-grinding collaboration of American forces and the wily British saboteur “Garry” Duffy. Twenty-seven members of the party made it back to Italy on Jan. 9, 1944. The remaining three, who had become separated, hid all winter in a house and were retrieved after 4 1/2 months behind Nazi lines. None were lost or seriously injured.
Thanks to a War Department gag order and the ingrained reticence of the World War II generation, their spectacular exploit lay buried.