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
Four of us, Lidiak, Lewis, Garin, and I were Catholic, and when we saw a small church about 1500 meters distant, we decided to take a walk over there. It was a hot sunny day and the exercise brought beads of sweat to our brows.
When we came near the building nestled in a stand of massive trees atop a small hillock, we perceived that the church was a chapel. We welcomed the calm, quiet shade which greeted us as we entered the quaint old edifice. We knelt and said a prayer. This was my first visit to a church in over two weeks since I had missed Mass the Sunday before the unlucky mission.
The priest, a short, slim, youngish-looking man had come outside to welcome us. We exchanged greetings and after that continued an animated conversation using his limited knowledge of English and whatever linguistic tools we had at our disposal.
We gleaned that the Partisans had little to do with the clergy but allowed them to come and go unhindered amongst the communicants. During the beginning of our three-day sojourn in this small hill hamlet, we met “Joe.” “Joe” was a native in his late fifties, of medium height, grizzled features, and nondescript clothing. He was to function as our interpreter. “Joe” had once been to the United States prior to WWI, and this visit earned him a certain status amongst his countrymen. However, his prophecy in English was about as limited as our knowledge of Croatian. Furthermore, his recollections of Americana dated back to nickel beers, free lunches, and wooden cigar store Native Americans. “Joe’s” stock-in-trade reply to any conversational gambit on our part, whether it be a question or statement, would always be “yes.”
After we became aware that nine-tenths of our conversation went way over his head we purposely posed him loaded questions knowing full well that his answer would be in the affirmative. His answer of “yes” would provoke spasms of laughter on our part and his. Of course, his laughter was triggered by ours.
When Denny the bombardier bailed out of the B-24 – he was the first of the crew to jump from the escape hatch – he remembered that if one delayed opening his parachute until he was close to the ground it would minimize his chances of detection by enemy troops. In retrospect, considering that it was his first jump, he did an admirable job of escaping detection. Indeed, he fell over 10,000 feet before pulling the rip cord. The ensuing jolt caused by popping the chute set up a pendulum motion, the third swing of which brought him to earth. He landed in a wooded area and spraining both ankles realized that hearing German being spoken, he landed only fifty meters from a German anti-aircraft gun crew! As he could not walk, and there was still the possibility of capture by the Germans, he crawled dragging all his equipment to some dense shrubbery where he spends the next few days recuperating.
His first thought was to get back to Allied territory, so he started walking along the shore looking for some means of transport across the Adriatic Sea. He soon came upon a rowboat which he commandeered. He set out for the western shore but after a few hours of rowing, he found himself beached back near where he had started. Deciding that the water route was not feasible he determined to try something else. He walked south following the coastline and presently came to the city of Pola.
It was about 8:00 am and it was obvious the German troops had just had breakfast, for Denny saw them swinging their mess kits as they walked by him. The Germans paid no attention to him since he wore a nondisruptive outfit consisting of khaki pants and a sweatshirt. His black “butch” haircut and boyish appearance could easily have passed him off as a young Italian on his way to work.
About this time, he spotted a bicycle parked at the opposite curb. He started to cross the street intending to steal it, but the owner beat him to it, and he was never suspected. He continued strolling through the city observing many fuel depots, radar installations, gun emplacements, etc.
Before he knew it, he found himself on the outskirts of the city on the main road heading into the countryside. A German sentry stationed in his cubicle observed his approach and departure but said nothing. Denny turned around once and noticed the guard studying his shoes. Playing it cool, he continued walking.
After existing for five days on berries and water plus one meal from a peasant household he was getting desperate. He finally accosted a peasant woman and blurted out that he was an American and wanted help. She ran away from him. Turning around he saw a trio of rugged-looking peasants making threatening gestures at him. His immediate reaction was that these men were Quisling guerrillas, so he bolted. He ran up a long hill, the three men in hot pursuit. The chase ended when one of them tackled him. All four sat down to catch their breath. The trio turned out to be local Partisans who had been alerted to his presence by the peasant woman. A few days later we heard Denny’s story firsthand when he joined us. It had been a full week since we last saw him.
We wondered what had happened to our aircraft and what action the Germans had taken after inspecting the wreckage. Early one evening after finishing supper we were given some Charm candies, which was a welcome relief as the soup was made of flour with chunks of old beef thrown in. We wondered where the candies had come from and were then told the full story of the events following the crash.
The Partisans surrounded the whole area containing the wreckage concealing themselves. The Germans knew of the crash and its location and had sent out a patrol to examine the remains. They walked into a perfect ambush and were wiped out by a man. This was the usual method employed by the Partisans to replenish their supplies (stripping the Germans of everything they had – even the tires were used to re-sole shoes).
To be continued ———
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Thank you to all the people who serve in the United States of America Armed Services in the past, in the present, and in the future.