The Longest Mission
By John Rucigay
- Pilot – Tom MacDonald
- Copilot – John Rucigay
- Bombardier – Bob Denison
- Navigator – Joe Lidiak
- Flight Engineer – Bob Garin
- Radio Man – Guy Howard
- Nose Gunner – Bob Marcum
- Top Turret Gunner – Merle Weik
- Ball Turret Gunner – Charles Cartmille
- Tail Turret Gunner – John Lewis
Only after the skirmish was over did the Partisans inspect the wreckage. The free-swivel machine guns normally mounted in the waist had been thrown clear as had the life raft which is normally stowed above the wing. One gun was undamaged, and the Partisans used it as a light cannon; the other gun had a bent barrel and was used for spare parts. The Charm candies we enjoyed that evening were part of a survival kit included in the life raft.
The next evening as we sat around the fireplace where the Partisans cooked, one of them proceeded to stir-fry chunks of beef in a large pan. By the aroma steaming from the saucepan, this particular evening the meal promised to be the best since we parachuted. Portions consisting of small chunks of beef in a greasy gravy were given to each of us. It was delicious, and we quickly ate everything, sopping up the gravy with chunks of bread. Later, a bottle of slivovitz appeared and each of us took a mouthful. It burned our throats on the way down to our stomachs, but it tasted very good – the few occasions that I drank slivovitz in later years never tasted as good as the drink we had that evening. The next morning each of us experienced diarrhea; was it the richness, the grease or the slivovitz? I concluded that our system was not used to the fat in the stew and relished once again the thought of the good meal we had the previous evening.
We had been wearing the same cotton underwear for a week without any opportunity to wash it. Consequently, the dirt and sweat stiffened the cloth, with the result the material appeared to crack instead of tearing. In addition, the stitches were unraveling. Even so, it was better than not having any underwear. Our experience with diarrhea soon resolved the issue, and we threw our underpants away.
Each one of us, had a history of “gas” problems since we landed in Yugoslavia due to the change in diet, exercise, etc. and consequently there was much flatulence while we walked in single file, causing unpleasant odors to waft thru the column behind the offender. We finally passed a rule anyone passing wind would have to step out of line to the side of the column in order to show mercy on those behind. The degree of gas accumulation was soon obvious – someone was always walking alongside the column!
As we walked near the old Italian/Yugoslavian border we noticed that some of the roads had been in very poor condition from rain, warfare, etc. and the Partisans repaired them with logs by laying them across the roadway alongside one another. The “corduroy” effect was very similar to that employed by the Union troops in the US Civil War, in the area called “The Wilderness”.
We had journeyed down from the mountains north of Fiume (Rijeka) and were about to encounter one of the greatest hazards in our odyssey to date: crossing the main highway and railroad leading north from Italy. We waited until everything appeared safe one evening and, under cover of darkness, ran from west to east in pairs, not stopping until we were under cover of the bordering trees. The entire episode required only fifteen minutes, however, it seemed longer. We continued walking east into the surrounding mountains and finally stopped when we heard some shots in the distance followed by the appearance of some Partisans with a prisoner between them. His hands were tied behind his back and he had a dark sullen look on his face accented by a large black handlebar mustache. They told us they had a skirmish with some Ustashi and had captured one of the them. He was led away within a few minutes and we never saw him again. Our Partisans escorts also brought in two Italian civilians a short while later. They stated that they were not in the military and as Italians, were trying to return to Italy. Although they claimed innocence, they were suspected of possible Fascist collaboration, and as such were eventually led away for further interrogation. We never saw them again either.
The rest of the next hour was spent enjoying the beautiful view of the Fiume harbor on this beautiful, sunny morning before we rested for some well-needed sleep. We were now in a more secure area since we traveled in the daylight hours on dirt roads rather than footpaths. We knew we were now inside the old Yugoslav border by the railroad crossing sign which read: “Kader svounce svonej ___” or some similar printing. Suddenly a shout of “Stop!” and my heart stood still as I saw a German soldier with rifle in hand blocking our progress ahead. However, the Partisan guides didn’t seem concerned, so we continued forward. It was then that I noticed that, although, in full German army uniform, this cap displayed a small red star. We later learned that he had deserted the German army after returning wounded from the Russian front. Prior to that, he had been torpedoed as a merchant seaman and had also been part of an aircrew that had flown over England.
There were many pastures observed from the roadway as we walked down the mountainside near the Village of Geroval. We noticed a teenage girl carrying a huge bale of hay on an improvised shoulder rack to the valley below. It was soon evident who did most of the manual labor in this area; the women. Maybe it was because of the shortage of men. It was not evident by a large number of males sitting around the square as we entered the village.
Entering the liberated territory in the vicinity of Delnice offered us another opportunity – we saw a movie. I don’t remember the details of the movie, but I believe it was shown somewhere between Delnice and Skrad and dealt with the Communist cause.
Our stay in the Skrad area was highlighted by meeting our first Allied Military contact: lst Lt. John Goodwin, US Army Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Goodwin served as the military liaison officer between the local Partisans and the Allied base in Bari, Italy. He was assisted by some Yugoslavs who in order to increase their position with the local population, and with Goodwin’s concurrence, posed as Americans in the US Army. I remember the one-day stayover because we received some chocolates and long underwear and slept in a soft bed with covers in a private room for the first time in weeks.
From this point on we were transported over the roadways in a woodboring truck as the entire area had been liberated from the enemy. A few kilometers from our final destination. Nadlesk, we stopped in Kozarce and were sprayed with a de-lousing agent which offered temporary relief.
As we approached our final destination, we came into a lush valley with the villages spaced approximately one kilometer apart. We noticed a medieval castle on the left which we wanted to visit but never did get too. The third village in the valley was Nadlesk, our home for the next two weeks.
The village consisted of about two dozen buildings – of which 30% were barns. There was one main street running through the village and it was intersected by one cross street near the center of the village. We were to learn that one of the buildings at the intersection was to become our mess hall. The buildings were of smooth walled, plastered construction (brick and limestone plaster), one or two stories in height with large tile roofs. Windows with window boxes pierced the thick walls.
We stayed in a hayloft which was part of the building (sharing a common roof and separated by a driveway) which was the property of a woman with two small children, Marija Bencina. Her husband was a member of one of the splinter groups fighting against the Partisans (White Guard). Her assessment for this unsympathetic attitude of her husband was that she donates her hayloft for Partisan use (our bedroom).
The Germans occupied the land at the head of the valley, which was about one mile away. This area had recently been liberated by the Partisans due to its strategic value as an embarkation point for wounded and a receiving point for supplies by air. To maintain control of the valley required substantially higher losses on the Partisan’s part than normal under guerilla tactics.
A thirty feet wide shallow stream paralleled the road at perhaps 400 meters the length of the valley. An airstrip paralleled the stream and consisted of 500 meters of grass. Oddly enough an area adjacent to the strip appeared to be more suitable as a landing strip from the air and consequently, the Germans occasionally came over and bombed this more likely target. On one or two occasions while we were there a Fiesler-Storch observation plane came over the area at about 3000 feet to reconnoiter.
Our meals were usually taken in the small mess hall and consisted of ersatz coffee and bread for breakfast, a plate of watery soup and bread for lunch, and some stew and bread for supper. We sat down to supper one evening soon after our arrival and during the meal the forty-cycle light went out. We were informed that this was no cause for alarm as the Germans who controlled the powerhouse had shut off our electricity. Shortly, someone lit a candle and we continued with our meal while it was explained to us that the Germans occasionally indulged in this discourteous practice until such time as the Partisans, who controlled the dam, shut off the water to the hydrogenators whereupon the Germans would experience a change of heart and restore power to the village. Sure enough, two evenings later as we were struggling through a meal by candlelight suddenly the lights came on.
The village was not only a staging area so far as wounded and supplies but also served as a liaison post between Allied personnel and the Partisans. A stuffy middle-aged British Army major and an unscrupulous American Army buck sergeant comprised the liaison personnel. It appears their function was more of a front than practical help. They avoided us, and we returned their courtesy by doing likewise.
There were about ten other American airmen evades plus six British Army escapees in the village. Some of these characters had escaped from northern Italy the previous year when they were still under Italian supervision.
There wasn’t much to read and any time we laid our hands on something written in English we would devour every word. I can still recall one British crime thriller – it was an English conception of an American gangster. One sunny day while was sitting in front of the house reading, I looked up and saw two of the Britishers struggling to pick up a log which they intended for firewood. They obviously were having some difficulty. A blonde girl aged about seventeen appeared noticed their plight and immediately walked over and picked up the log by herself. The two Englishmen looked at her in amazement.
Our hostess’s two children were an eleven-year-old girl and a boy of about eight. As boys will be, this one had a knack of getting into trouble. His mother had her own system of punishment. She would lock him in the pig-pen behind the barn where there was no light. His sole companions until his sentence was served were two large hogs. This occurred about twice a week.
Except for a pail full of water in the morning to wash our faces, we relied on the creek during the warm sunny afternoons for cleaning ourselves. Any time we were near a stream we always took advantage of the water to drown the lice with which we had become infested. After getting out of the water we would occupy ourselves while drying by picking off the survivors. The Partisans had other habits – they would not bring themselves to remove their trousers – always rolling the pant-legs up as far as possible, removing their shirts, shoes, and socks and strolling out into the water. This was the farthest they ever strayed from their weapons which were left on the banks. Even when nature called, they took their weapons with them to the outhouse.
Among the commodities which the Partisans lacked were sugar, butter, yeast, and most important, salt. The lack of this last-mentioned substance led to micturition (urination) on our part. This interrupted our sleeping habits as each one of us was compelled to get up every two hours or so, scamper down the ladder, and bolt for the outhouse. This was bad enough, but it was far worse if one of us happened to have diarrhea. Witness the case of the unfortunate Guy Howard. It was our custom to sleep with all the clothes we owned on our bodies, for there were no blankets available. One night when Guy was in extreme haste to descend the ladder, he forgot that third rung from the bottom was missing. Scurrying down as fast as he could he experienced a temporary lapse of memory causing him to put his weight where there was no rung. This led to an inevitable chain reaction which ended up with a considerable amount of cursing. The hostess was assured that if she washed his pants, she could keep them.
Both of my parents belonged to choral groups as did their Slovene friends and relatives, staging concerts, operettas, and other musical activities. I had always taken my mother’s and father’s singing at family and social occasions for granted until I left home and found that other grownups outside of my relatives did not engage in this activity as heartily and as often—until one night in Nadlesk. It was early evening and dark as we were seated outside of our sleeping quarters when I heard some sounds a few hundred feet distant. Sounds of singing appeared to be coming from one of the corners of the main intersection in the village. Walking closer, I made out the silhouette of two Partisans singing a duet a cappella. The blending voices struck a respondent “chord” and I felt an immediate kinship with the natives, for this was part of my heritage being reenacted in my very presence as if ordered by my parents.
We were really blessed with good weather for the entire six weeks that we were in Yugoslavia. I recall on one sunny day, approximately mid-morning, sitting outside of our sleeping quarters in Nadlesk and being aware of an unusual sensation, something in the air. I didn’t know what it was at first and stopped whatever I was doing so that I could concentrate. Within a minute I heard a distant rumble and the ground vibrate ever so slightly. Gradually the rumble grew louder, and I finally recognized the sound of distant aircraft approaching us from the south. It was at least 5-10 minutes later that I caught the first glimpse of something in the air as the sun reflected off the silver bodies flying overhead. It was the entire 15th Air Force of the USA flying directly overhead en route to some enemy target. It required forty-five minutes for the entire air armada to pass overhead, as if in review, and I felt mighty proud of this aerial strength displayed to the civilian population on the ground behind enemy lines.
Three of our crew were Roman Catholics and the second weekend in Nadlesk we sought out the church in a neighboring village to attend services. The church was filled with people, including a few Partisans. Despite the fact that some of the local populace had relatives in the “Bela Garda”, a paramilitary group opposed to the Partisans.
My acquaintance with the Slovene language permitted me to follow the sermon after reading the gospel, and I was surprised that the priest was denouncing the communist Partisans from the pulpit. This was first attendance at a Mass in a month and I had a deep conviction that something good was going to happen. This was justified when our first contact with the Allied personnel in Italy came that evening: an American C-47 aircraft landed in the field next to Nadlesk during a moonless night. It arrived loaded with supplies and weapons for the resistance and departed with an hour, its cargo comprised of half Partisan wounded and the other half repatriated Allied Personnel.
Another C-47 landed the following Saturday evening. This time it included two passengers: Captain James Goodwin, US Army Offices of Strategic Services, and a LIFE magazine reporter/photographer John Phillips. They were to accompany the Partisans on a typical raid into enemy-held territory. I went to church the next morning, Sunday, August 26th, and that evening two C-47’s landed with supplies and weapons. Again, they both departed with a cargo of Partisan wounded and repatriated Allied airmen, including our entire crew. I conclude that it was a miracle and attributed it to my recent church attendance.
Thank you again to John Rucigay for sharing his story of a day in the life of a WWII soldier and his crew behind enemy lines.
To all men and women serving our country in the past, in the present or in the future we salute you on this Veteran’s Day.