The Longest Mission
By John Rucigay
(This is a biography of one US Army Air Force flight crew’s experience with the Yugoslav Partisans during WWII)
- 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
Luckily, another American Fighter, a P-51 Mustang aircraft, realizing our plight, purposely flew over the city, going out over the Adriatic, another P-51 came alongside and flew off our right-wing. We communicated with the pilot by sign language and indicated by pointing to our earphones that our radio was out. He recorded our Group markings and departed.
We continued south and lost the #2 engine as we approached the vicinity of Pola (Pula). This resulted in a single-engine bomber which could not hold altitude. The shoreline was close by and we let the remaining #4 engine drive the airplane back toward the Istrian Peninsula.
We started at approximately 15,000 feet altitude and the plane was descending at a rate of 500 feet per minute. We knew we were going to have to bail out. The pilot and I, radio operator, nose gunner, and navigator left the aircraft via the front bomb bay; the bombardier, tail gunner, engineer, ball gunner, and top turret gunner left from the tail escape hatch. On my way out, I noticed that the navigator had left his watch on the radio table. I picked it up and put it in my overall pocket.
Then, at an altitude of 7,000 feet, I saw a cloud pass under the plane and decided to jump. We had previously been schooled to count to ten before pulling the rip-cord, but I never reached seven. The chute opened with a snap and I saw the plane leaving me about a hundred meters away. I don’t recall seeing the pilot leaving, but I watched the plane as it made a gradual turn to the right, giving me an eerie feeling. I was not prepared to accept the fact when the aircraft touched the ground since it appeared quite enormous in size as it completed 180 degrees turning. A ball of flame enveloped the aircraft as it slid about a few hundred meters.
It appeared as if I was nailed to the sky. I wasn’t conscious of any rate of descent, so to keep from getting bored, I decided to experiment for possible emergency maneuvers. We had been taught in school that if one grabs one of the parachute risers one can spill the air from the chute and thus control the direction of fall. Upon pulling the riser I experienced violent sideward oscillations and did no more experimenting. About half-way down the harness started to cut into my groin and to relieve the pressure, I had to pull myself up on both risers.
The thrill of a parachute jump cannot be duplicated. The silence is unearthly. Only during the last 1,000 feet of descent did I notice any downward sensation. When I got within a few hundred feet of the ground I looked down and saw that one of the crew was directly below me. I shouted at him. He looked up and waved. It was MERLE WEIK. I figured it would take me another minute or more to touch the ground and just as I looked down again the ground came up and hit me, causing me to hit my chin with my knee.
It was a nice afternoon and we congratulated one another as we were taking off our parachutes and looking for someplace to bury them beneath some shrubbery. Although the surrounding terrain was quite hilly, we, fortunately, landed in a soft, plowed field. We looked up and noticed that one of our casual observers was a tall, dark gent waving a big “horse pistol”.
We told him, “We are Americans”, whereupon he motioned for us to follow him. We talked along a country road for a few hundred meters and then down a path which led through a wooded area. Within fifteen minutes we heard the engines of an aircraft and our guide motioned us to hide in the brush. Glancing up we saw a trimotor Italian Breda bomber skimming over the countryside about 100 meters above the ground, apparently searching for survivors. After one or two passes it disappeared. Merle and I and our escort walked about twenty minutes after which time we came to a barn-like structure. Upon entering we sat down at a rough-hewn table with two others who were there when we arrived (Yugoslavs). We sat down for our first cigarette and passed the pack. It was now about 2:00 pm and since we might be hungry our hosts brought out two bowls of ersatz coffee and some black bread.
To be continued ——————————–
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