Military history

Chapter 1

We’ll Get Them Out

Yugoslavia, August 1944

This village seemed just like every other village Clare Musgrove had been through in the last four days, simple stone and thatch houses with minimal furnishings and even less food, occupied by people who welcomed him even though he had no idea who they were or what they intended to do with him. The smoke of a long-smoldering fireplace mixed with the earthy aroma of wet hay and livestock, the same pungent smells that permeated every one of these villages. Following the gesture of his armed escort, he entered the small house and looked nervously around, trying to assess what might happen. For all he knew, this was it; this was where they were bringing him. Was it some sort of safe house where he could hide from the Germans without running all the time? He had wondered that at every village where he and the other American airmen stopped in the past days, but each one turned out to be just a waypoint on a journey to . . . somewhere. Musgrove and the other bomber crewmen had no idea where they were being taken by these local escorts with guns. Hell, they weren’t even sure they were being taken anywhere. As far as he could tell, they were just being passed around from one village to the next in search of a few bits of goat cheese and scraps of bread so stale that Musgrove thought he might be better off eating his shoes.

They had no idea what fate awaited them, but they were fairly confident that they wouldn’t be turned over to the Germans. Though the Americans and the local Serb people couldn’t communicate in anything but gestures and facial expressions, the airmen got the idea that these swarthy people were on their side. The women had nursed their wounds and fed them as best they could, and the men had provided protection from the Nazi patrols that were always on the lookout for Allied airmen whose planes crashed before they could get back to safe territory.

Though it seemed these locals were trustworthy, Musgrove still was apprehensive. The bomber crews had been warned that some of the Yugoslav people were Nazi sympathizers and might turn them over to the Germans who had occupied their country since 1941. In fact, they’d been warned that the people in this area would cut off the downed airmen’s ears and then turn the men over to the Germans. But the burly men escorting the Americans seemed friendly enough. Then again, they were the ones with the rifles. Could they be taking Musgrove and the others somewhere else before handing them over? Possibly to a German unit that offered rewards for American airmen? It didn’t seem likely, but Musgrove couldn’t help worrying that this curious trip would not end well. He was at the mercy of people he couldn’t understand, and they were moving him around from one place to another instead of just letting the Americans hide out. Musgrove also wondered if anyone was looking for them. He hoped he and the other downed airmen hadn’t been forgotten, left for dead in Nazi territory.

Musgrove had been on this mysterious journey for four days, since bailing out of his B-24 bomber over northern Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines. His eighth mission—to bomb the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, a critical source of fuel for the German war machine—turned out to be his last. All in all, Musgrove felt lucky to be alive and without serious injuries, unlike some of the Americans in his group. One of the men broke his leg badly on landing in his parachute, and every time he grimaced in pain during the all-day hikes Musgrove was grateful that all he could complain about was hunger, the occasional thirst, and being tired. Knowing how narrowly he had escaped his crippled bomber, Musgrove was happy to be walking around anywhere instead of dead in the wreckage. And with all the German patrols in this area, he was also glad that he could walk along without a German shoving the muzzle of his rifle in his back. Musgrove had gotten out of the bomber so late, just before it crashed into the mountains of Yugoslavia, that he had become separated from the other nine crew members, whose earlier exit put them down a few miles before him. He suspected they had made it to the ground okay, but he worried that they had been captured by Germans. It would be a long time before he found out his worries were justified and he was the only one of his crew not taken prisoner right away. Getting trapped in his ball turret and the agonizing minutes it took to extricate himself while everyone else bailed out of the rapidly descending bomber, as terrifying as that was, turned out to be the saving grace for Musgrove. He wasn’t in the clear, of course, and he was joining the hundreds of other airmen who escaped their planes and capture by the Nazis only to find themselves in limbo, unsure of what would come next.

It was getting dark when Musgrove entered the home with three other Americans, the group having been split up among several houses in the village. A rather robust woman, obviously the wife and mother, gestured for them to sit at the rough-hewn and well-worn wooden table and then she started putting out some meager food rations for them—the same goat cheese, hard bread, and bits of rotting potatoes that they had seen in other villages. Though they were ravenous, the men tried not to rush as they ate. They knew already that it was a hardship for these people to feed them and that their meal probably meant the couple, maybe even some children, would not eat tonight. They tried to eat with some decorum out of respect for the family’s generosity, smiling and nodding thanks to the woman as she sat and watched.

Just as Musgrove was choking down a last bit of dry bread, the door opened and a man entered, saying something to the woman, who responded and then stood up, leaving the room to the men. Musgrove and the other Americans nodded to the man as he entered and hung up his hat on a wooden peg, but they didn’t say anything. They had gotten out of the habit of speaking to the locals in the past few days because no one could understand them. The man sat at the table with them and smiled in return as a couple of the Americans nodded and smiled a gesture of thanks for the food, lifting a piece of bread or a cup of milk.

“You are American?” he asked.

The Americans were stunned, and thrilled. They looked at one another and then back at the only Yugoslav they had met who could speak English.

“Yes, yes, we’re American,” all three of them said together.

The man introduced himself, but the name was a mash of consonants and vowels that the Americans could not catch. He asked if the men needed more food, but Musgrove and the other two men knew better than to say yes. Though they were still hungry, they could not ask this man to spare more of what little food he might have for his own family.

In all their excitement to find someone who spoke English, the Americans were momentarily dumbfounded about what to say. The man across the table spoke instead.

“I am principal of school,” he said. “I study English.”

“A principal, oh, okay,” Musgrove said, nodding his head. After a pause, he continued. “Your English is very good.” He spoke slowly in case the man’s English actually wasn’t so good. “Where are we?”

The man responded with something in Yugoslav that, like his name, sounded like a jumble of consonants and vowels to the men. Besides, they weren’t really concerned with the name of the village. They wanted to know what would happen to them.

One of the other Americans spoke up. “Are we staying here? Did they bring us to you because you speak English?”

“No,” the man said, “you go to other place. You go to place with more Americans. They help you.”

Musgrove looked at the other Americans, puzzled. He turned back to the man.

“They’re taking us to Allied territory? Across the border?” he asked. The Americans knew that was unlikely. How could a bunch of hungry, injured, unarmed airmen get across the border and out of enemy territory?

“No, no. You go to place where more Americans. Here, Yugoslavia.”

Musgrove was still unsure what he meant. “You mean they’re putting us all in one place? We’re meeting up with more American airmen?”

“Yes, yes, more like you. You go there. More Americans. You go there.”

Musgrove looked at the other two airmen and all three slowly cracked smiles. There was a point to all this hiking from one village to another, after all. But they still didn’t know exactly where “there” was, how long it would take, or what would happen when they got there. All efforts to pry more information out of the principal resulted only in him smiling and shrugging his shoulders to indicate that was the extent of what he could convey in English. “You go there. More Americans” was the most he could explain.

Well, anything was better than just wandering like this, they thought. Let’s hope there’s a plan once we get there. Wherever there is.

The villagers helping Musgrove and the other Americans get to their destination were risking their lives. If caught helping the downed American airmen, they would be killed just as the Germans had already killed thousands for resisting the Nazi invasion. German troops had been vicious when they overtook the country in 1941, brutalizing anyone seen as resisting the invasion and bombing the country into submission virtually overnight.

In 1944 the country was firmly controlled by Germany. But as soon as the Nazi bombs had begun to fall three years earlier, those who had resisted the German invasion from the start had begun to fight back. The Germans may have rolled into Yugoslavia with little difficulty, but the Yugoslav people would not let them stay without a fight.

These poor people in the Yugoslavian countryside were resisting in every way possible, from acts of sabotage and the occasional Nazi soldier who never returned from a visit to the hills to aiding every American airman they could find.

After another week of walking through the Yugoslav countryside, sleeping in whatever village they could find or curled up in the bushes off the side of the road, Musgrove and the band of Americans were following their two armed escorts up yet another dirt road when they saw someone on horseback up ahead. They looked to the Yugoslav escorts for a reaction, ready to dive into the brush off the roadway and hide out until it was safe again, but the escorts were not concerned to see someone ahead and kept walking. The Americans assumed that the man on horseback was not German and might be someone the escorts knew, maybe an officer in their resistance. The group trudged along slowly. The fellow on horseback seemed to be waiting for them, and Musgrove grew more curious as they moved closer. Maybe this guy can speak some English, he thought. Sure would be good to find out where we are and where we’re going.

As they came closer, Musgrove could see that the man on horseback seemed to be a local, a brawny guy with a bushy beard, similar to many of the other men they had encountered along the way. The Americans looked to their escorts expectantly, thinking they would say something to the man, but instead they just stopped when the group approached him. Then the man on horseback spoke and once again Musgrove was pleasantly surprised to hear English.

“Hi, boys,” the man said in a deep voice, using perfect English. “Welcome to Pranjane.” It sounded like pran-yan-ay.

The Americans didn’t know what to make of this. The man looked Yugoslav but spoke clear English, and . . . was that a New York accent?

The rider was George Musulin, a special agent with the OSS—the elite group of spies and covert operatives that would later become the CIA—who had been dropped behind enemy lines to help the downed airmen. He and his team had been on the ground for a few weeks already, about as long as Musgrove, and they had news for the tired and hungry Americans.

“You made it. You’re here,” he said. He looked down at the Americans as if he expected them to be happy with that, but Musgrove and his companions still didn’t know where “here” was.

“Where are we?” he asked. “What are we going to do here?”

It was then that Musulin realized the new arrivals hadn’t been clued in yet. Some of the airmen arriving in Pranjane found out along the way about the plan, and others like this group showed up with no knowledge at all.

“We’re going to get you out of here, boys,” Musulin said, a smile showing through his bushy black beard. “There’s going to be a rescue. There are already about two hundred Americans here. They’ve been assembling since January.”

A rescue! Finally some good news. Musgrove and the other airmen rejoiced, finding the energy to raise their arms and shout, clapping their Yugoslav escorts on the back and hugging one another. They would be rescued! They could go home!

But how?

“C-47s,” Musulin said, referring to the workhorse cargo planes that every airman knew well. “They’re going to land in a field right over there.” Musulin gestured off in the distance. “We’ve been working on a big plan that will get you boys out of here before long. Gotta build a landing strip, though.”

And with that, Musulin turned his horse and trotted off.

Musgrove and the others stood there in the road, joyous but a little puzzled too. To be sure they understood, one of their Yugoslav escorts raised his flat hand and moved it along like an airplane, making a buzzing sound. Musgrove and the other two Americans nodded at him. They understood the plan.

But it sounded a little crazy to them. Build a landing strip? They certainly wanted to be rescued, but how could planes land in this mountainous region where they couldn’t even walk down a country road without ducking into the bushes every time a vehicle passed, hoping they wouldn’t be found by the Germans?

The same questions were going through the mind of George Vujnovich, the OSS control agent in Bari, Italy, with responsibility for sending secret agents on missions throughout much of Europe, including Yugoslavia. When Vujnovich heard that there were American fliers waiting for help in Yugoslavia, he knew they had to come up with a plan to get them out. He also knew right away that this would be no ordinary rescue.

Could they really pull this off? Could they go right into German territory and snatch these men out of harm’s way? He had discussed the risks at length with Musulin before sending him behind enemy lines, but even with Musulin on the ground in Yugoslavia the questions remained.

It was more than his job duties that motivated Vujnovich. He was driven by his own memories of being trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia a few years earlier; he felt a kindred spirit with the Americans stranded in the country where his parents had grown up. The Pittsburgh native was attending college in Yugoslavia when his studies—and his fledgling relationship with a beautiful local girl—were interrupted by the rapidly advancing German army. Two years of running from the Nazis, trying to find a way out of Yugoslavia and back to freedom, gave him a real appreciation for what these young airmen were going through. Vujnovich was determined to get them out of their limbo.

Could he make it happen? It hadn’t been too difficult to send in Musulin and the rest of his team, but getting more than a hundred airmen out was a totally different matter. The plan, which the British were fighting vigorously, was to send in C-47 cargo planes to pick up the downed airmen and whisk them back to Italy. That was the plan: Just send in planes to pick them up. Allied planes flew over Yugoslavia all the time on the way to bomb targets in German territory, so it wasn’t farfetched to think that one could drop down and pick up a few airmen. It sounded simple until Vujnovich started trying to work out the details. Already Musulin’s team had radioed back that there were far more airmen to rescue than the one hundred and fifty that they’d expected when they parachuted in to coordinate the pickup. Musulin’s last message had informed Vujnovich that there were at least two hundred men there already, and more were coming in every day, sometimes a dozen or more at a time.

That meant the mission was growing exponentially harder every day, Vujnovich realized. It was not simply a matter of sending in a few planes to swoop down and snatch the men in a hurry; rescuing that many airmen would require a series of planes landing one after another. More planes meant more of a spectacle for the Germans to notice and much more time when the planes and the airmen would be easy targets for German fighters or ground troops. And the more he thought about it, the more Vujnovich worried that sending in any planes, even one, to this area was extremely risky. He knew the area was rugged and mountainous, with no airstrip nearby, and not even a clear field that could serve as a runway in a pinch. That was why all the bomber crews bailed out when their planes were dying in this area; there was nowhere to even attempt a crash landing. The best they could hope for was to jump out and hang under a parachute as they watched the plane crash into a mountainside.

Now Vujnovich was trying to organize not just one but a whole series of cargo planes to land in that rugged countryside, right under the Germans’ noses. It was an audacious plan, and some in the office weren’t shy about telling Vujnovich that it was more than that, that it was just plain crazy. But Vujnovich kept thinking about all the young men trapped in Nazi territory, struggling to get through another day without being captured and hoping that someone was working on a way to get them out. He could identify with them. He could remember the cold terror that gripped his whole body as he held his breath and hoped a German patrol would pass by the young American and the girl he loved, the desperation of wanting to just get out of danger, to just get over the border, to get back home.

We’ll have to make it work. We’ll get them out.

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