Military history

Chapter 13

SOS ... Waiting for Rescue

In Pranjane, the Americans had no idea that the ACRU team was working so hard to rescue them. The plight of the downed airmen was getting worse every day and in every way. Food was in short supply even for the local people, who shared all they could with the downed Americans, and some of the fliers were in desperate need of medical care for the wounds they suffered on their ill-fated bombing runs. Richard Felman, the leader of the airmen who had watched the Germans burn a Serb village when the Chetniks would not give up the fliers, decided that it was only a matter of time before the Germans found the hidden Americans. When that time came, it would be a bloodbath. Not only would they probably kill all the Americans instead of taking them prisoner, but they would kill all of the innocent Serbs as well. Or the Germans might even do something worse than killing them as punishment for helping the airmen.

Felman met with some other ranking officers of the Americans in Pranjane and started debating whether to do something to facilitate their rescue. Up this point they had been just waiting, hoping that the Allies knew they were there and were planning some way to get them home. And they assumed that Mihailovich, who was protecting them so diligently, had made contact with the Americans. But nothing was happening. Weeks and months had passed with no word of any way they might get out of Yugoslavia.

Felman and the other airmen wanted to do something to help themselves, but what? Some of the airmen wanted to send a radio message telling the Allies where they were and that they needed rescue. It was possible, because the Chetniks routinely salvaged anything they could use from the crashed bombers, including radios. With a little repair work they probably could get a radio working well enough to broadcast a message back to Allied territory. But it would be a risky move. So far their survival depended on the Nazis not knowing exactly where they were. Though the Germans knew that American airmen were being hidden in the hills of Yugoslavia, they didn’t know that so many were concentrated in the small town of Pranjane. Even with Mihailovich’s forces surrounding them, the Germans could launch an air strike that would devastate the entire town, killing the Americans and all the local people as well. It was crucial that the Germans not find their hidden sanctuary.

A radio message could change all of that. Just as Jibilian and his team had found out earlier, a radio message could allow the enemy to zero in on your exact location. The longer the message, and the stronger the broadcast, the easier it was for the enemy to determine where you were hiding. If they got on the radio and started calling to their bases in Italy, the first response could be a fleet of German fighters and bombers unleashing hell on them.

Everyone agreed it was a huge risk, but it was one they had to take. Felman and other ranking officers in Pranjane decided they had to send a message to the Fifteenth Air Force base in Bari, Italy. They asked Mihailovich’s forces to send them a radio from one of the planes, and Mihailovich agreed, knowing that the risky message might be the only way to get help for the airmen. Thomas Oliver, the airman who parachuted down onto a family’s picnic, was part of the group pushing for the message to Italy and he worked closely with radio operators and others in the group to devise the right way to call Italy. Everyone knew they had to be cautious.

At first the group decided to just be quick about it. They would send short, simple radio messages to Italy in hopes that the Allies would pick up the transmission but that the Germans wouldn’t have time to zero in on where it was coming from. When it was time to send the first call for help, there were dozens of airmen gathered around the radio, set up on a farmhouse table. A radio operator took the controls and put his finger on the Morse code key. He looked at the other men and took a deep breath before sending the first message from the downed airmen. He began to tap.

SOS . . . SOS . . . One hundred fifty members of American crew have been waiting for rescue . . . There are many sick and wounded . . . Call back . . . SOS . . . SOS . . .

That was it. That was all they were willing to send out at first, lest they give the Germans plenty of time to trace the radio call. So they sat and waited, their eyes on the radio, hoping fervently to hear a message tapping in return. They waited for hours. There was no reply. Slowly the men left the room, a few at a time, dejected as they realized that no one had heard them.

As the radio sat silent, Felman and the other officers discussed the situation and decided to keep trying. They would send the same message every few hours and maintain a vigil by the radio, waiting for someone to call them back.

They waited two days and heard nothing.

Then they realized that, in all likelihood, the Fifteenth Air Force in Bari, Italy, was hearing them after all but just not replying. They probably suspected this was a trick, some sort of trap set by the Nazis to lure in a rescue mission. Of course, Felman thought, they’re not going to just get on the radio and arrange a rescue without knowing for sure that the message is legitimate. They had to develop a code that would convince the Allies their message was trustworthy, that it really was coming from the airmen and not some Nazi intelligence unit.

Oliver volunteered to work with some other airmen to develop a code. American slang would be a good idea, they thought, because it would confuse any Germans listening in. But more important, they had to code their message with information known only to those back at their air bases in Italy. That inside information would serve two purposes: It would show the Allies that the senders were really American airmen, and it would confound any Germans trying to break their code.

The airmen came up with two codes. The first was a simple letter transposition that required the receiver to know key information unknown to the Germans. Instead of the letter “A,” the code letter would be the third letter of the place of birth of a bartender at the Officers’ Club in Lecce, Italy. Instead of “B,” they would use the fourth letter of the name of the intelligence officer stationed in Brindisi, Italy. The airmen worked out an entire alphabet code with similar keys. Sending this much information would mean staying on the radio far longer than anyone had been comfortable with so far, but the airmen saw no other way to jump-start the communication process. They prayed for the best and transmitted the alphabet code to those listening in Italy. Once they were done, both parties had a code they could use to send specific information back and forth regarding a rescue without letting the Germans know what their plans were.

The alphabet code would be good for specific bits of information, but using it for all communication would be tedious and confusing. So Oliver and some of the other airmen came up with a slang-based code that could be used to quickly convey information that probably wouldn’t make much sense to any Germans listening in. Once all the senior officers approved the plan, Oliver used Morse code to tap out another plea for help.

Mudcat driver to CO APO520.

Oliver had piloted a bomber called the Fighting Mudcat, and CO APO520 was the command of the Fifteenth Air Force.

150 Yanks are in Yugo, some sick. Shoot us work-horses.

The workhorse of the American Air Force was the C-47 cargo plane, so the airmen were asking that some C-47s be sent to them.

Oliver then went on to provide the “challenge” and “authenticator” that both parties could use to verify identities if a rescue party were sent. The challenge—the signal that the rescuers would send to prove they were friendlies—would be the first letter of the Fighting Mudcat’s bombardier’s last name and the color of the scarf worn by Banana Nose, the nickname of Sam Benigno, an airman in Oliver’s squadron who always wore a white scarf. The authenticator—the signal the airmen would send to prove they were friendlies and in on the plan—would be the last letter of the “chief lug’s” last name and the color of “the fist on the wall.” Those items referred to the commander of the 459th Bomb Group, who referred to all his crews as lugs, as in lug nuts or key parts of the machinery. On a wall at the Officers’ Club at their base, the commander had written, “Each lug in the 459th sign here,” and signed it, “M. M. Munn, Chief Lug.” The fist on the wall referred to the Fifteenth Air Force emblem, with a red fist.

Oliver also transmitted the serial numbers of himself and crewmates from his plane and one other bomber from the same group, cleverly adding them to the numerical coordinates of their location in Pranjane so that the string of numbers seemed meaningless. But he hoped that someone on the other end would figure out that the serial numbers confirmed his crew’s identities, and the remaining numbers pointed the rescuers to their exact location.

To ensure that the message would get through to the right people who could understand that code, Oliver signed off by saying, Must refer to shark squadron, 459th Bomb Group, for decoding. His squadron had shark teeth painted on the noses of all its B-24 bombers. Then he said, Signed, TKO, Flat Rat 4 in lug order. TKO were his initials, and he had signed the wall under Munn’s signature with T. K. Oliver, Flat Rat 4, a reference to how he and his bunkmates called their tent “the poker flat” and numbered themselves as flat rats one through four.

That complex code might save their lives, the airmen thought. Or it might mean they were on the radio too long and the Germans had already zeroed in on them. Or the damn thing might be too complicated for anyone to figure out.

All they could do was wait and hope someone had heard it and was tracking down all the right information.

The messages were heard in Italy, where a Royal Air Force radio operator picked up the curiously coded pleas for help. He struggled for two hours to determine the location of the caller, finally recording them, and forwarded them on to the Fifteenth Air Force headquarters in Bari. There an intelligence officer locked himself in a room with the strange message and ordered that no one without a higher rank bother him. After a few hours of consternation, he started seeing patterns and bits of code that made sense. He was able to pull out the serial numbers and then he realized the remaining numbers must mean something. The longitude and latitude then became apparent. But he still couldn’t make sense of some of the more arcane references in Oliver’s code, and he understood the part that said, Must refer to shark squadron, 459th Bomb Group, for decoding. So he took the message to a Major Christi, commander of the 459th Bomber Group, from which Oliver’s crew flew. Christi was stymied for a while but intrigued by the unusual code and determined to figure out what it meant. The two officers sat for a long time, staring at the message, not saying much lest they interrupt each other’s thoughts. As he kept staring at the code, Christi had a sudden realization. “Mudcat Driver” and “Banana Nose Benigno” were his men.

“That’s Oliver’s crew and Buckler’s crew!” Christi yelled excitedly, standing up and looking at the intelligence officer with astonishment. “My God! Go get them!”

The code worked. With the help of crew at the air bases where the missing men had been stationed, air force officials decoded the rest of the message and understood that the men were asking for a rescue operation. The intricate code convinced them that the message could be trusted.

Only some of this information was a revelation. The air force leaders weren’t surprised to hear that American airmen were hiding in the hills of Yugoslavia, but they had not realized that the airmen were grouped together and organized enough to send a coded message requesting rescue.

The airmen in Pranjane continued sending their coded pleas—SOS . . . Call back . . .—and waited for a reply. There was nothing for days, and then the radio crackled with a Morse code message from Bari. It was brief, but it said everything they wanted to hear:

Prepare reception for 31 July or first clear night following.

They were going to be rescued! The Americans were coming to get them! The news kept the airmen jubilant for days, but they became quiet again as there was no more communication. They started to worry again that maybe a rescue wasn’t forthcoming, that maybe the message had been a trick by the Germans. While they held out hope that July 31 would bring good news, they fell back into their usual pattern of waiting, helping the villagers with their chores, and listening to the radio for any more word of an impending rescue. Despite the one encouraging message, the airmen were slowly getting used to the idea that maybe the air force couldn’t get them out. Maybe it just wasn’t possible to come into enemy territory and take home hundreds of weary, sick airmen. The men’s spirits sank lower and lower with each passing day. They played cards, swapped stories, anything to make the days pass.

Maybe July 31 would change everything. But they were wary about getting their hopes up. How could the Americans rescue so many of them? Even if some sort of rescue happened, what were the chances that you would be among those taken out before the Germans interrupted the operation? Not so great, many of the airmen thought. A big gamble.

As the airmen waited for help, they could at least be confident that they were relatively safe in Pranjane. Germans were garrisoned only thirty miles away, down in the valley, and Nazi patrols routinely rolled in villages all over the area. But unlike most of the countryside in the hills of Yugoslavia, this particular area was secured by almost ten thousand of Mihailovich’s forces. Their job was to protect not only the American airmen but also Mihailovich’s headquarters nearby. Within this area, Serb villagers could be assured that a German patrol would not cavalierly drive in and do as they pleased, but they also knew that the presence of Mihailovich and the airmen made the area a hot target if the Germans ever decided to launch a full assault. Until that day came, however, the day-to-day security was in the hands of young men like Nick Petrovich, a seventeen-year-old in Mihailovich’s army. He had grown up listening to the stories of his grandfather and father who fought in the Turkish wars and in World War I, so when the Nazis invaded his country Petrovich knew he had to fight. He had revered the Serbian medieval heroes Kraljevich Marko and Milosh Obilich since he was a child, and in 1940 when he was only fourteen he altered his birth certificate so he could enter the Yugoslav gliding school, while also putting himself through a rigorous physical development program of his own design. When the Germans showed up a few years later, Petrovich felt ready to fight.

Petrovich joined Mihailovich’s forces at about the time Mihailovich was abandoned by the Allies, starting first with underground work such as information gathering and stealing firearms from the Germans. One of Petrovich’s methods was organizing small groups of children around ten years old to play marbles around parked German vehicles, watching for the opportunity to pilfer hand guns, ammunition, binoculars, or any other valuable items. They stuffed the booty in a flour sack and dragged it along behind them playfully. Petrovich became so bold that he once swiped a 9-mm submachine gun from an SS officer who lived in his girl-friend’s family home. He was beaten and interrogated by the Gestapo for hours but would not confess, and they released him the same day. As he proved himself more to the Chetniks, Petrovich took on more and more responsibility, soon assigned to helping the American airmen falling out of the sky on a regular basis.

The duty was one of the most important that could be assigned to Mihailovich’s troops, and it carried a great responsibility. As more Allied airmen gathered in Pranjane to await rescue, Mihailovich issued this stern warning to the officers commanding the guard in Pranjane:

“Take good care that nothing happens to these men. You must defend them, if necessary, with your lives. If any one of you comes to me with news that anything has happened to a single one of these airmen, I shall have the man who bears this news executed on the spot.” Mihailovich may have been exaggerating to make clear his dedication to protecting the airmen, but no one could be sure.

A typical operation for Petrovich involved blocking a road leading to the area where the airmen had bailed out by placing large rocks or trees in the path, then waiting for the German patrol to stop and remove them. Once the Germans exited their vehicles, Petrovich and his colleagues opened fire. Their weapons of choice were the big fifty-caliber machine guns salvaged from downed American bombers, which they took to local blacksmiths who would secretly fashion metal stands so the guns could be used on the ground against German troops. Then they would take the deadly guns and hide in the trees, waiting for German patrols to come by. The machine guns designed to shoot down German fighter planes shredded the Nazi soldiers who dared try to get too close to Pranjane.

Knowing the price the villagers might pay for the deaths of German soldiers, Petrovich and the other guards conducted such attacks only when they had no choice but to engage, such as when a German patrol threatened Allied airmen or Mihailovich himself was in the area of Pranjane. Petrovich knew how to hold his fire and not provoke German retribution unnecessarily, but when he had to fire, he did so with gusto.

Like the Germans who would kill the American airmen rather than be bothered with capturing them, Petrovich had no time for prisoners.

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