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
Our man with the horse pistol then informed us that he was a Partisan. We also encountered our first adventure with Yugoslav flies. We were scooping them out of the coffee between sips. I almost gave up when I pulled a “winged raisin” from between my teeth.
A half-hour after our arrival we were beckoned toward the door and followed two of the guides for about forty-five minutes before we came upon a camp in the woods. During the next few hours, six of the members of our crew trickled in. As the parachutes were of no use, we gave them to our hosts. Our host indicated that they did not necessarily want them as anyone caught with a parachute or part of one was immediately suspected. I, therefore, took the pilot chute plus a large panel of the main chute and some of the nylon cord for probable future use.
Two of the crew the pilot and the bombardier were missing from the group. The rest of us were in fair condition except for a few superficial flak wounds and the radio operator’s sprained ankle.
We sat around the camp until about 8:00 pm when our escorts rounded us up and motioned us to follow them. Within thirty minutes we came upon a small hamlet. The whole population turned out and surrounded us, but our guide seemed aloof to the whole ruckus and continued herding us to a house.
Stopping outside the house there was much conversation amongst the Yugoslavs. We occupied ourselves picking out the pretty girls in the crowd. Someone beckoned us to enter the house and we went inside. It was dark now and by lamplight, we made out two bare rooms-bare except for a large table at the end of one room. It was indicated that we seat ourselves around the table at which time large bowls of lettuce wine and bread were brought into us. The townspeople trooped into the house to gape at us. After the entrée, we braced ourselves for a large meal, but it turned out that we had it that was the end of the meal. Somebody brought in an accordion and soon we were dancing and making merry. Merle Weik was pinching derrieres.
At about midnight somebody made a speech-we were ready for the “sack” (bed) having been up since 5:00 am. When someone motioned for us to leave the building, we eagerly looked forward to some sleep. We noticed someone leading a donkey and it was indicated that Guy Howard, who had sprained his ankle while landing, should ride it. This should have alerted us, but little did we then realize that we were embarking on an eight-hour stroll.
That first night we initially headed south and during the march, we stuck to back trails. At one-point aerial flares, exploding bombs, and anti-aircraft fire were heard in the distance, and thus knew our heading as the British were bombing Pola. This raid occurred about 2-3:00 am.
We always walked in a single file with a guide at the head of the column and one at the rear. From time to time the “Stoj!” (stop) rang out and we all had to stand still while the lead guide identified himself as a Partisan.
We continued walking, cursing at the rough stones in the path. Eventually, about an hour or so after sunrise, we heard our last “Stoj” and entered a small clearing in the woods which served as a Partisan Camp. We washed up and gratefully plopped down on some blankets on the ground and went to sleep. That next day we met Tom MacDonald. He had been the last to leave the aircraft and drifted further away from us. Now there were nine of us out of the original ten. Only Denny was still missing.
The events of that day and evening set the pattern for the next few weeks, walk the back trails at night for at least eight hours and sleep during the daylight hours. Sleeping was always fulfilled in a wooded area, either outdoors or inside a lean-to. I still recall being pinched by the loose boards of the second level used for our bed in one lean-to. Fortunately, we were blessed with mild weather, and everything was dry.
We were bivouacked in a wooded area on the third or fourth day after our landing and had an opportunity to wash ourselves and our clothing, using the water quite liberally. We drastically reduced this health habit upon discovering that all the water used for drinking and sanitation was obtained “under fire,” the Partisans had to fight for the water by retrieving it from the enemy-held territory.
It was during this period that we exchanged some gifts with the Partisans. I do not recall exactly what we gave them, but I know that we left our Colt .45’s with them before leaving Yugoslavia. They, in turn, gave each of us a Partisan cap made of heavy felt, navy blue in color, with a red star at the peak in front—I still have mine.
A few days later as we skirted a ridge, we came to a road leading to a small hamlet. The road was lined with shrubbery and small trees on both sides. It ran for about one hundred meters before meeting with the first building, which was a barn on the left-hand side. We had been walking all night and since dawn was about one hour away our guide informed us by gestures that we were to sleep in the barn. We entered, finding our way by moonlight up the ramp through the double doors. Being well exhausted and having anticipated our rest for the past hour, we quickly made beds for ourselves on the straw-covered floor to the left of the door. The right side of the barn was occupied by another group of men whose presence was felt by snoring and heavy breathing.
To be continued ——————————–
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