Longest Mission Crew Chapter 8

Skrad, Croatia

By John Rucigay

Crew Members:

  • 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

Entering the liberated territory near Delnice offered us another opportunity – we saw a movie. I do not remember the details of the movie, but 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 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 destination. Nadlesk, we stopped in Kozarce and were sprayed with a de-lousing agent which offered temporary relief. As we approached our 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 to. 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 of this unsympathetic attitude of her husband was that she donated 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 the wounded and a receiving point for supplies by air. Maintaining control of the valley required higher losses on the Partisan’s part than normal under guerilla tactics.

A thirty feet wide shallow stream paralleled the road at four hundred meters the length of the valley. An airstrip paralleled the stream and consisted of five hundred 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 there was a Fiesler-Storch observation plane came over the area at about three thousand 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 as 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. Their function was more of a front than practical help. They avoided us, and we returned their courtesy by doing likewise. There was about ten other American flight crew 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 was not much to read and any time we laid our firsthand 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 Britishers struggling to pick up a log that they intended for firewood. They obviously were having some difficulty. A blonde girl aged about seventeen appeared to notice 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 for getting into trouble. His mother had her own system of punishment. She would lock him in the pigpen 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 bucket full of water in the morning to wash our faces, we relied on the creek during the warm sunny afternoons to clean 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 their 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 would be 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 the 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 host 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 pleasant weather for the entire six weeks that we were in Yugoslavia. I recall one sunny day, mid-morning, sitting outside of our sleeping quarters in Nadlesk and being aware of an unusual sensation, something in the air. I did not 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 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. Even though 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 my 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 within 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 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 flight crew, 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. The wives of these crew members always stayed connected with each other, and Christmas cards were sent yearly for decades. As one by one passed away they always notified one another. There were reunions over the years, some went some did not want to relive their war days, common of soldiers. My mother Nancy Brumley Weik was always vigilant in sending those Christmas cards. The greatest generation was good at keeping the stories alive as John Rucigay was and I will be forever grateful for his efforts. My father did not talk about this story very much so when the book came out my brothers and I got a copy. I will pass it down to my daughter and she will do the same for her children.

To all people serving our country in the past, in the present, or in the future we salute you on this Veteran’s Day.

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