As terrifying as a B-24 bomber could be when the enemy was lobbing antiaircraft shells, fighters were zooming to strafe you with large-caliber machine guns, and the plane was dying a slow but steady death, Clare Musgrove found it even more frightening to be hanging in the calm air over a land he knew nothing about, with no idea what awaited him on the ground.
Descending from thousands of feet, Musgrove had time to pray.
Dear God, I ask you to watch over me and protect me in this place. Please guide me, Lord, and direct me to someone who can help me. Please watch over me, God.
Having survived the terror of being trapped in his ball turret and having to dig his parachute out with his bare hands, Clare Musgrove did find relative peace in the near silence, hanging under his canopy and looking out over the rugged countryside below as he prayed. He couldn’t see any of the crew of his B-24 because they had bailed out of the plane much earlier, meaning they were probably miles behind Musgrove. The immediate danger seemed to be over, but he knew that his time in the air would be only a brief respite. It would take only moments to land, and then he had no idea what would happen to him. He had only a vague sense of where he was—somewhere in Yugoslavia—and all he could remember from his briefings was that there were some people in this area who would help you, and some who would kill you, or worse.
As the parachute drifted lower, Musgrove spotted a small flock of sheep grazing on a hillside, oblivious to the American airman descending nearby. He knew that he had to find help once he hit the ground, because a lone airman would never survive in rugged, enemy-occupied territory.
If I ever get on the ground, I’m going to head toward those sheep. I might as well find out who’s around here.
The parachutes worn by the bomber crews afforded very little ability to steer, so Musgrove was nearly helpless as he drifted into a stand of trees and hit the limbs hard. His parachute lines tangled in the tree, the chute draped over the top, leaving Musgrove dangling about fifteen feet off the ground. With some difficulty, he managed to get out of his parachute harness and scurry across a large limb, climbing down to others until he was low enough to jump down to the ground. Following his training, Musgrove snagged a dangling line from this parachute and worked hard to pull the rest of the chute down to the ground, bundling it up as small as he could and shoving it under some bushes to conceal the evidence of his landing. The exertion left him sweating in his heavy flight suit, which reminded him that the temperature on the ground was much warmer than it had been at several thousand feet. He peeled off the flight suit and hid it also.
Despite the rough landing in the tree, Musgrove was unhurt other than a few cuts and scratches. With his heart pounding from the exertion and the adrenaline coursing through his body, Musgrove scanned the area for any threats, or anyone who might help him. He saw no one. He had a general sense of the direction in which he had seen the flock of sheep, so he headed that way, planning to approach cautiously until he knew who was in this area.
Once he crossed a small ridge, he saw the sheep again. And then he saw people. From at least a half mile away, he thought he could make out two women and two young boys. They were staring back at him but didn’t seem to be making any movement toward him or away from him. Musgrove was relieved to see the seemingly harmless group, though he also suspected that they could summon men with weapons if they were so inclined. He almost would have rather seen men there instead, he thought, because they probably would be more helpful. The women and boys continued to watch Musgrove as he began walking toward them, with no specific plan other than going closer to see what they would do.
As he got within a few hundred yards of them, Musgrove slowed his pace and then sat down on the ground for a minute, primarily to rest but also to let the others know that he was not approaching in an aggressive way. He sat there for a few minutes, trying to think clearly about the situation. Was he doing the right thing? Should he just walk up and say hello?
Dear God, please help me through this. I don’t know what these people will do with me, but please look over me and protect me.
He rose again and walked slowly up the hill toward the group still watching him. He didn’t know what he would do or say when he got there, because he didn’t speak any local language. Musgrove kept going closer and closer, seeing no movement from the women and boys. As he got within a few yards, he stopped, his heart pounding, every sense heightened. They all stared at one another for a moment, and Musgrove could tell the others were apprehensive too.
Musgrove wanted to tell them he was American, one of the good guys. So he pointed to the unit patch on his uniform shirt and said, “U.S. . . . Air Force . . . American.” The sturdy, gray-haired woman nodded and seemed relieved, understanding Musgrove. The women nodded their heads and pointed to themselves, saying, “Yugoslavian.” The tension eased, but Musgrove still had no way to communicate with these people. Then he thought of the hard candy he had stashed in a pocket of his uniform. He reached in and brought out several pieces, then offered one to each of his new acquaintances. This broke the ice more, and the women said things that Musgrove assumed were thank-yous. The young boys smiled at him and seemed to be hoping for more to come from his pockets.
After that, Musgrove was out of ideas. The women seemed fine with him being there, but they didn’t offer anything or even try to talk to him, realizing the effort would be futile. They talked among themselves and continued tending the sheep, while Musgrove just sat nearby and watched. Apparently they were uninterested in changing their routine just because a sweaty airman dropped out of the sky and gave them candy, so all Musgrove could do was sit and wait while the afternoon passed and the sheep grazed. He knew they would go back to their village before dark, but he had no idea if they would take him along. He desperately wanted them to. The idea of staying out in this countryside on his own scared him to death. If he could have communicated with them, he would have been pleading with them to take him along. But he could only sit and wait to see what would happen.
The hours passed slowly and Musgrove watched the sun begin to dip lower. He followed the women’s movements intently, waiting for any sign that they were about to leave. Then they nonchalantly picked up their few belongings and started herding the sheep down a path. They had gone a few yards, with Musgrove watching and his heart racing, before one of them turned around and motioned for him to follow. She did it as if she was surprised he wasn’t already on their heels.
Musgrove was grateful. He sprinted to catch up with them and then walked in silence for more than an hour. As they approached a little village, no more than a dozen stone and thatch cottages, a burly man with a beard came out to greet them. Musgrove thought he must be the husband of one of the women from the way they spoke with each other, and he was pleased to see the big man walk right up and stick out his hand. Musgrove grabbed the man’s hand and shook it hard and tight, assured now that he was in friendly hands. He didn’t know yet that the man was a Chetnik, a follower of Yugoslavian General Draza Mihailovich, who was fiercely loyal to the Americans, but the warm handshake was a welcome sign for Musgrove. These people are going to help me, whoever they are.
The man spoke more to the women and the group went inside the modest home. Musgrove sat on a small wooden chair outside the front door, feeling uneasy about walking into the house without an explicit invitation. He watched as a few people came and went in the village, each one looking at Musgrove with a strong curiosity, especially the children. But everyone kept their distance. Musgrove sat for a long while, wondering if these people were going to help him find a way out of Yugoslavia or if they saw him more like a stray dog. His thoughts were interrupted when one of the women stepped outside and motioned for him to come in, then directed him to the wooden table near the fireplace. Musgrove could see that dinner was set on the table and he realized he was being invited to a dinner of mutton, potatoes, and bread. He was too upset and anxious to have much of an appetite, but he nodded a thank-you to the woman and sat down next to the man of the house, who nodded toward Musgrove and began eating. The rest of the family, two sons and a daughter, sat at the table but seemed more interested in staring at Musgrove than eating. The American was poking at a bit of tough mutton and eating a bit of potato when suddenly there was a hard rapping on the wooden door. Everyone looked at one another expectantly, and then the Serb man stood up and went to the door, opening it to find another bearded villager there. The two exchanged words that Musgrove could not understand, but he could tell that they were arguing about something and the frequent gestures and glances toward him made Musgrove think he must be the topic. His best guess was that the other villager was saying the American had to go or the Germans would come looking for him, and Musgrove’s host was saying he could stay. The two men argued harshly, with vigorous gesticulation and raised voices, but finally Musgrove’s host told the other man to leave and slammed the door in his face. Then he came back toward the table, muttering something to the women, who seemed alarmed by the argument. Musgrove didn’t quite know what to think. He was grateful that the man had defended him, but he was more worried than ever that the Germans were coming for him. When the man did not sit down at the table to finish his meal, Musgrove knew he was right. The big villager grabbed Musgrove by an arm and pulled him from the table, walking to a small bedroom in the back of the house and motioning for him to get under the bed. Musgrove didn’t know exactly what was happening, but he figured he had no choice but to follow the man’s instructions. He got down on the floor and slipped under the heavy wooden bed, his heart racing as he lay there waiting for something else to occur. He could see the man walk back into the main room and sit down at the table, resuming his meal and talking to his wife. Musgrove lay quietly, trying to slow his breathing, just waiting. From his vantage point under the bed, he could see only the floor in the bedroom and into the other room, nothing higher than knee level. Musgrove lay there for about two hours, alert and anxious, waiting for whatever was going to happen, and finally there was another hard knock at the door, more like a pounding.
Before the man of the house could get to the door, it was flung open so that it banged against the wall and caused the women to gasp with fright. There was a lengthy conversation between the visitor and the man of the house, but this time the visitor spoke with a German accent and clearly had the upper hand. Then the conversation stopped and the only sound was a pair of boots walking across the wooden floor. Musgrove was sweating and his heart was pounding so hard in his chest that he was sure it must be heard throughout the house now, and his eyes were frozen on the swath of floor that he could see from under the bed. He scooted back against the far wall another half inch, trying to hide himself as best he could.
His whole body tensed as he saw the big black boots, shined so bright that they stood out against everything in this drab village. They walked around the farmhouse, the heels clicking on the floor, and Musgrove was not surprised when they started walking right toward his hiding place. He knew without seeing anything more than the boots that this was a German officer looking for the downed airman. This is it. They’ve got me. God, please just don’t let them kill this family for helping me.
The boots walked right into the small bedroom and stopped, no more than a couple feet from Musgrove’s face. He couldn’t take his eyes off the shiny black leather. They remained motionless for a moment, the house totally quiet, Musgrove praying that he could remain perfectly still, perfectly silent. All the German officer had to do was bend down and look under the bed, where Musgrove had little room to hide himself from view, and the airman would be captured. But he didn’t.
After a long, long time, the boots turned and walked out of the room briskly, stomping through the main room and out the door. Musgrove breathed again.
The officer was looking for Musgrove because he was the only crewman missing from his bomber. The other nine had been captured already and were on their way to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Musgrove’s experience was typical of the airmen drifting down in Yugoslavia. On the ground, the local villagers were counting parachutes too. They wanted to send help to every American who made it out, before the Germans could find them, but the airmen didn’t know what to expect as they drifted down into the hills of Yugoslavia. They had been given only scant briefings about the conditions in this Nazi-occupied territory that they flew over on every bombing run, and all they really understood was that there were plenty of people to stay away from. There were Germans everywhere, and the local people were split into two warring groups—those who followed Mihailovich and wanted him to run the country after kicking out the Germans, and those who followed a man named Josip Broz Tito. Some of the airmen were told to seek out Tito’s forces if they went down in Yugoslavia and not to trust the Mihailovich army.
But it turned out that the airmen didn’t have much opportunity to seek out one side or the other. Wherever you landed, the locals found you quickly. Most of the airmen landing in the hills of northern Yugoslavia, like Musgrove, Orsini, and Wilson, were lucky to land in the hands of Mihailovich’s forces and the villagers who supported him.
Though most of the Americans didn’t know for a while if they were in good hands or bad, before long, a big, rough-looking, bearded man with a rifle—one of Mihailovich’s forces—would show up and say, “Americanski?” When the airman said yes, the scary fellow would embrace the flier in a bear hug and let him know that he was safe.
The airmen had time for the fear to build as they drifted down, sometimes taking as long as twenty minutes to reach the ground. As Tony Orsini was drifting down to an unknown fate, he saw a heavyset woman in a long dress racing toward him. He didn’t know what to think of this, other than to be glad that she was not a German soldier carrying a rifle. He kept his eyes on her as he drifted down and didn’t realize until the last moment that he was flying right into a tree. With little time to brace, Orsini hit the tree hard and broke his clavicle, falling hard to the ground and passing out.
When he awoke, his face was in the ample bosom of the woman he had seen racing toward him. She was cradling his head and wiping his face, wrapping her arms around to hug him and saying soothing things in a voice that was foreign to him yet still remarkably comforting. The pain from his shoulder was sharp and unyielding, but he immediately knew he had come down in the right place. After waiting for him to regain his strength a bit, the woman helped Orsini to his feet and then guided him down a rugged path toward her village. As he approached, Orsini could see that the bombardier from his crew also had been found and had arrived in the village only moments earlier. The residents of the village were pouring out of their homes to greet the two Americans, everyone excited and chattering among themselves as Orsini and the other man tried to take in this incredible scene. Only a short time earlier, they’d had no idea what they would find on the ground and here they were being greeted like heroes. One family even brought out a piece of red carpet for the Americans to sit on as the other villagers brought them water, goats’ milk, and bread.
After a few hours of socializing and eating, Orsini and the bombardier were sent off with several men, the rest of the village waving good bye and kissing them on the cheeks as if they were sons going off to war. The Americans had no idea where they were going, since they still had not met anyone who spoke English, but they felt assured by this point that the local people were looking out for them. After a hike of an hour or two, the Americans arrived at an encampment of Mihailovich’s guerilla fighters in a mountainous area. Unlike in the village, these were all tough-looking men, looking older than their years because of their bushy Old Testament beards and weather-worn faces. Their clothing varied somewhat, the officers wearing more complete uniforms, the lower ranks outfitted in bits and pieces of uniforms plus whatever else they could find. The better-dressed officers wore woolen jackets with leather belts, woolen breeches with leggings that wrapped from the ankle to the knee, and round caps with no bill and a crest on the front. The luckier guerillas had sturdy military boots, but many had to make do with simple felt slippers.
They were a formidable sight to leery fliers, but they greeted Orsini and the other Americans in the same way, with bear hugs and hearty claps on the back, accompanied by shouts of, “Americanski!”
There was still not much communication, other than a few simple words of English from some of the Yugoslav guerillas, but Orsini knew he was safe for the moment. He still didn’t know how he would get home, but he could trust these fierce-looking soldiers to protect him in the meantime.
As he lay down to sleep that night, Orsini found that one of Mihailovich’s soldiers had taken a particular liking to the good-looking young Italian-American boy. Drifting off to sleep after a long day, Orsini suddenly awoke when he felt the man sleeping next to him fumbling with the zipper on his uniform pants. Orsini pushed the man’s hands away, explaining that he wasn’t interested, but the man was insistent. The American had to keep fending off the brawny, hairy man’s advances for several minutes, finally pointing to his injured shoulder and explaining that it hurt too much. This seemed to convince the amorous Yugoslav, who nodded and smiled at Orsini before going back to his own blanket.
Orsini was relieved. After such an eventful day, the man’s advances were just one more unexpected problem that he had overcome. He was too tired to think much about it and soon went to sleep. The next morning, however, the same man approached Orsini with a smile and handed him a picture of himself. The Yugoslav knew Orsini would be moving on soon, and he wanted the American to remember him. On the back of the picture, he had written, “Remember your days in Ravna Gora.”
Orsini thanked the man and shook his hand. No hard feelings. He put the picture in his pocket and would end up keeping it for many years.
Still reeling from watching the tragic crash of the bomber flying alongside the one he had just bailed out of, Wilson had his eyes closed tight when he heard dogs barking. The sound caused him to open his eyes and look at the countryside he was dropping into. It was rugged terrain, but he could see that parts of it were farmland also, and the dogs seemed to be with a flock of sheep nearby. Though these dogs weren’t making a move toward Wilson, many of the airmen dropping into northern Yugoslavia had to contend immediately with angry dogs that the local shepherds used not just to herd the flock but also to keep the wolves away. The aggressive dogs looked even scarier with the large, spiked iron collars that many wore to help protect them in fights with wolves. Fortunately for most of the airmen, the barking of the dogs attracted the shepherds before any serious damage was done.
Wilson could see local people in the fields and realized immediately that he would not be able to hide after landing. Everyone saw him coming down, and he was sure they would be on him soon, friendly or not. He landed well and undid his parachute harness quickly, leaving the canopy snagged in a tree because there was no use trying to hide it. He walked out of the small clearing where he came down and saw a burly man in heavy woolen clothes walking toward him. In the July heat, Wilson thought it was a strange sight. The man’s appearance made Wilson feel like he had landed in the Middle Ages.
The man was walking toward Wilson briskly and when he got within earshot, Wilson could hear him yelling, “Americanski or Englaise?” Not knowing yet whether the man would help or hurt him, Wilson felt like he had no choice but to answer. “American!” he yelled back. “I’m American!”
That caused the man to break into a jog and then embrace Wilson in a tight bear hug, almost lifting the bewildered American off his feet. Wilson didn’t quite know how to respond as the man kissed him on both cheeks, his beard scratching the airman’s face. The Yugoslav was all smiles as he shook Wilson’s hand and slapped him on the back, saying, “Americanski!” over and over. Wilson could only manage a weak smile because he was exhausted from the ordeal on the plane, plus he didn’t really know what was going on. But when he saw the man gesture to a girl nearby who was carrying a wooden cask, he perked up at the sight. He was desperately thirsty and wanted nothing more at that moment than a drink of water.
The girl ran over and handed him the cask as the big man smiled and gestured for him to drink. Wilson pulled out the wooden plug and turned the cask up, drinking deep before he realized it wasn’t water but what the locals called rakija, a strong plum brandy. Wilson choked and coughed as the man laughed and the girl smiled at him.
The brandy helped quench Wilson’s thirst somewhat, and the resulting buzz took the edge off the rest of his discomfort for a while. He wasn’t at all sure what these people were going to do with him, but they did seem happy to help him so Wilson began to relax a bit after the terrible ordeal he’d been through. He sat and rested while the others talked excitedly, looking toward him often and gesturing in a way that made it clear they were discussing him. Before long, the burly man who had hugged him gestured toward a nearby path and helped Wilson stand up, saying something that Wilson understood to mean they were leaving. He walked with a small group of men for a short while, coming upon a building that Wilson took to be some sort of military site, east of a fairly large town called Jagodina and southeast of Belgrade, the national capital. There were several men with rifles standing guard, and Wilson could see boxes of ammunition and other supplies.
The group rested for a long time, the Yugoslavs talking but Wilson not understanding anything. Then he noticed another group approaching the building, and as they came closer he could see that one of the group was not like the others. He was wearing a flight suit. It didn’t take long for Wilson to recognize one of his crewmates from the B-17 and he rushed out to greet him. Over the next eight hours, several more groups straggled in with an airmen or two in tow, until eight of the B-17’s crew were gathered together again. Only the pilot and copilot were still missing, and Wilson suspected that was because they had bailed out much later and farther away than the other crew.
The plane’s radio operator, Norman Brooks, had broken his ankle on landing, but otherwise the crew were in pretty good shape considering the ordeal they had been through.
The same scenes were repeated all over northern Yugoslavia throughout much of 1944. Mike McKool, a Texas native, was a machine gunner on a B-17 when he bailed out over Yugoslavia on July 4, 1944. His story was similar to those of the other fliers: His bomber was on a mission from Manduria in southern Italy to the oil fields of Ploesti when two engines went out on the return flight over Yugoslavia. Two German fighters had been waiting in the area for damaged bombers and attacked, destroying a third engine and prompting the crew to bail out near Lapovo, about eighty miles south of Belgrade. On landing, McKool immediately found a hole to hide in but watched with trepidation as fifteen to twenty people came running toward him with pitchforks and sickles. McKool worried that he was about to be hacked to death by angry villagers, but they threw down their farming tools when they got to McKool and hugged him tightly, fighting one another for the chance to kiss him on the cheek. McKool was still bewildered by the warm welcome when two men with rifles came running up, shouting to the crowd urgently. Whatever he was saying, McKool understood that Germans were coming. They must have seen his parachute.
The two soldiers, members of Mihailovich’s forces, pushed the other locals away and one grabbed McKool’s parachute, quickly bundling it into a ball and carrying it away. The other one grabbed him by the arm and urged him to come along. For the next six hours, McKool was on the run with his escorts through thick woods and up steep hillsides. They kept moving because they could hear German soldiers chasing them, along with the occasional gunshot.
Thomas Oliver’s flight on May 6, 1944, started out badly because he was flying a borrowed plane. A B-24 pilot, he normally flew the Flying Mudcat, but the plane was being repaired that day so he and his crew had to take another. Oliver was a superstitious man and didn’t like it.
He had another little superstition for each flight. During the briefing for each mission, he would estimate his return time and write it on the briefing sheet, then stuff it in a pocket of his flight suit. The estimate didn’t serve any real purpose, but Oliver liked to have some written proof that he intended to come back. Having the time written down gave him some sense of confidence that he was going to make it back, and he never flew without the piece of paper on him. On May 6, he was taxiing the plane across the runway in preparation for takeoff when he reached for something in his pocket and the paper with his estimated return time flew out the open cockpit window. Not a good sign, he thought.
Hours later, Oliver’s B-24 was in the middle of a hell fight over Ploesti, flak rocking the plane and German fighters attacking with a vengeance. Soon after the call of “bombs away,” the number three engine was hit and started losing oil pressure. It wasn’t long before the engine seized up, followed soon by number four. The crew jettisoned anything that could be heaved overboard, but the plane could maintain only eight thousand feet of altitude, barely enough to clear the Dalmatian Alps near the Adriatic Sea. Maybe they could make it back to Italy. Maybe.
The navigator, John Thibadeau, was trying to keep the plane on a course that would avoid any antiaircraft batteries, but it turned out that one German battery near the Yugoslavian town of Bor was not on his maps. A direct hit of antiaircraft fire took out their number two engine and set the plane on fire. Oliver hit the bailout bell and told his crew over the intercom to abandon ship. He was the last to bail out, watching the bomber dive nose first into the ground and explode in a massive fireball as he hung under his parachute.
Oliver was alarmed at how slowly he was descending, figuring there would be plenty of time for a German patrol to spot him and meet him on the ground. As it turned out, he drifted directly down on top of a family of Yugoslavs who were having lunch at a wooden table outside their small farmhouse. Oliver immediately noticed from his high vantage point that there was an entire sheep’s head sitting on the table, staring up at him. The family looked up in time to see an American crashing down on them and were able to jump up and grab Oliver as he came closer. Like the other airmen, Oliver was greeted warmly with hugs and kisses and words he couldn’t understand. Though uninvited, he felt like an honored guest at their picnic, which was confirmed when they offered him the eyeballs right out of the sheep’s head. Oliver politely declined, but he eagerly accepted a glass of wine.
Oliver had been at the table for only ten minutes when two men approached with rifles over their shoulders, leading a horse. They talked briefly to the family and to Oliver, and he thought he heard them mention Draza Mihailovich. One of the men motioned for him to mount the horse, and after more bear hugs and kisses from the family, Oliver was off.
Another pilot blamed Dinah Shore when he found himself in trouble over Yugoslavia. In 1942 the New York native was full of patriotic fervor and envisioning a glorious military career as a pilot, and hearing the wholesome blond beauty sing “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings” was all it took to push Richard Felman over the edge. Humming the song the whole way, he immediately went out and volunteered for the air force. He soon found himself piloting a B-24 from a base in Lecce, Italy, leading a crew of ten men who had trained together and bonded like family.
In just over two months, the crew of the “Never a Dull Moment” had flown twenty-three missions and counted up 212 hits all over the plane. Yet not one of the crew had suffered even the slightest injury. But then came a mission in July 1944. At three a.m., the duty officer woke Felman and his crew and told them to report for a mission briefing. They found out they were flying that day to bomb Ostro Romano, the most well-defended oil refinery in Ploesti. After the usual briefings about the target, the bomb load, expected resistance and so forth, the crew was given one more bit of advice, with the now-common warning to protect their ears: “If you go down over Yugoslavia, look for the Partisan fighters, the supporters of Tito. They wear caps with a red star. Stay away from the Chetniks, the local peasants who support Mihailovich. They’ll cut your ears off and hand you over to the Germans.”
Felman thought that sounded odd. He didn’t know much about the warring factions in Yugoslavia, but he knew that Mihailovich had been on the cover of Time magazine not too much earlier, profiled as a heroic American ally. Now he’s going to cut off my ears?
The warning was curious but overshadowed by all the other dangers of the mission. At 5:13 a.m., Felman’s B-24 took flight and joined a wave of two hundred and fifty bombers headed to Ploesti. Felman and his crew had seen rough times over Romania before, but on this mission they saw hell open up before them when they were ten minutes away from their target. The antiaircraft fire was intense; Felman watched bombers explode in front of him and drop out of the air. He and his crew were scared and wanted so badly to just turn the plane around and run, but they knew they had to get to their target and drop their bombs. After what seemed an eternity, Felman finally heard the bombardier call, “Bombs away.” The plane jumped up abruptly as the five-thousand-pound payload was released, and Felman took the controls to turn the plane back toward home.
After escaping the target area, the crew was relieved to see that, once again, they had made it through Ploesti without any injuries, and the plane was still flying just fine. Then Felman heard one of the gunners call out, “Hey, look at that P-51 over there. What a beauty.” A P-51 was an American fighter plane, and bomber crews always welcomed the sight of one coming alongside to provide protection. The problem was that this gunner, known to the crew as Sergeant Carl, actually was a quartermaster sergeant the crew met in Italy who had never been trained to fly. The crew unofficially adopted him as a sometimes member because he had grown bored of his ground duties in Italy and wanted some air experience that might hasten his rotation out of the unit. They taught him how to man the fifty-caliber machine guns and were satisfied with his performance. Unfortunately, Sergeant Carl had never been trained to recognize enemy planes from the air, so the P-51 he thought he saw was actually a German Messerschmitt, a German fighter that could pounce on a bomber with little warning. And it wasn’t the only one eyeing them.
Within minutes, the Messerschmitts tore the bomber to bits from nose to tail. Fuel was pumping into the fuselage from broken lines and Felman could tell right away that the flight was doomed. It all happened so fast that there was no time for discussion, no time to warn anyone. Felman issued the command to abandon ship, hit the bailout button, and he was flying out the side hatch before he had time to think about how scared he should be. He waited as long as he could stand it before pulling the rip cord on his chute, not wanting to hang in the air and make himself a good target any longer than necessary. When he landed hard, he first thought he might have broken his leg. It took a moment to realize he had been shot in the leg. Until now, he’d been too focused on other matters to notice. He tried to stand but couldn’t.
Suddenly it seemed that villagers were coming out of every bush and from behind every tree. He looked all around him in shock, and with great trepidation, as at least twenty people came running toward him from all directions—men, women, and children. Before he could decide whether it was worth trying to defend himself, they were on him, hugging and kissing him fervently, smiling from ear to ear. More women and children stood at a distance, watching eagerly and trying to get a look at the American.
Felman realized immediately that these people were Chetniks, the locals he was supposed to avoid. But they weren’t making any moves to cut off his ears. In fact, they were actually lining up so they could each take a turn at hugging and kissing him.
After everyone was satisfied that they had greeted the airman sufficiently, several of the bigger men picked Felman up and carried him on their shoulders for about half a mile to a grouping of three small cottages, the rest of the group following and chattering excitedly. As they arrived, another thirty villagers started streaming in from the countryside, having heard that an American dropped out of the sky. With each new villager, Felman was greeted like a celebrity and accepted more hugs and kisses. He couldn’t understand exactly why they were treating him like royalty, but he wasn’t complaining.
The Chetniks were in a festive mood and brought out fruits, flowers, and a bottle of rajika, the plum brandy that could be found in most villages. Someone started playing music and children danced. After offering Felman a toast of rajika, a burly Chetnik man quickly poured the rest of his cup over Felman’s leg wound without warning. The American winced as the alcohol seared his open flesh, but the man offered another drink of brandy and Felman soon forgot the pain. When he next looked down at his leg, there was a clean bandage covering the wound.
The party continued for some time, and later Felman was resting in one of the cottages when an older villager approached him cautiously. The old man seemed as if he didn’t want to intrude on Felman, but he pointed outside the cottage, gesturing as if he were asking Felman to go with him. Felman wasn’t sure what he meant, and he was too tired to go outside for more festivities, so he only smiled in return. Then the meek man put his hands together as if praying and nodded toward the door. Felman understood and nodded yes.
The old man gave Felman a stick to use as a crutch and then helped him hobble over to the village’s small church. Felman knelt with the man and prayed, each of them speaking to the same God in a language the other could not understand. The American could not tell what the Chetnik was thanking God for, but he was thanking the Lord for delivering him into the hands of the very people he had been told to avoid.
Later that afternoon, Felman was introduced to Colonel Dragisâ Va sić, a senior officer under Mihailovich who had come to meet the downed American. Felman was immediately struck by Vasić’s appearance. Unlike the burly, rough-looking soldiers and villagers he had met so far, Vasić had a more refined, almost courtly air about him. He was in his mid-seventies, with snow-white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. Vasić was dressed in a clean, handsome uniform. His wife accompanied him, and Felman was relieved when she introduced herself and Vasić in English. She was the first English-speaking person he had met in Yugoslavia.
The three of them sat under a large tree, with soldiers standing guard nearby and the villagers watching with interest from a polite distance. With his wife acting as interpreter, Vasić explained that he had been a prominent writer before the Nazi invasion but had left his home in the city to join Mihailovich’s forces in the mountains. He was serving as a political counselor to Mihailovich himself.
Vasić was warm and cordial, explaining to Felman that Mihailovich would do everything in his power to protect the downed airmen. Felman expressed his gratitude and related that the villagers had been very kind to him already. The local people felt honored in his presence, Vasić explained, because they considered American airmen to be brave warriors who were risking their lives to help them beat back the German invaders. And for most of them, Felman was the first of these heroic fliers they had ever seen.
The colonel went on to explain how he and others had retreated into the mountains after Yugoslavia fell to the Germans in 1941, following Mihailovich, who had been minister of defense under King Peter the Second. Though the guerilla forces were poorly armed, they were determined to fight the Nazis with whatever they had. Felman was inspired by Vasić’s demeanor, the look of determination in his eyes when he spoke of beating back the German occupiers. As they wound up their discussion, Vasić’s wife explained that there was one more thing the colonel needed to tell Felman.
“Our soldiers found ten parachutes,” she said, translating Vasić’s quietly spoken words. Felman knew he was talking about the crash of his own plane, and that there had been eleven crew members onboard that day—the usual ten plus a photographer on a special assignment. “The Germans reached the plane first and the other man was dead. We do not know his name because the Germans took his identification tile. The Germans took everything valuable in the plane and then started looking for you and your friends.”
Vasić explained that Mihailovich’s orders were to protect the Americans at all costs, which Felman understood to have real meaning when the cost might include retaliation against the local villagers. He then called over a young soldier who had been standing nearby and introduced him as Miodrag Stefanovic.
“He will be your bodyguard,” Vasić’s wife explained. “He is one of the best fighters. He will protect you.”
From that day forward, Stefanovic stayed by Felman’s side day and night, never leaving him unguarded for a moment. The next morning, after a sound sleep on a straw mattress, Felman awoke to a hard pounding rain. When he looked outside the door of the little cottage where he had been put up, he saw Stefanovic huddled with nine other soldiers out under a nearby tree, shivering in the downpour. Felman called his guard over and asked, through hand gestures since Stefanovic understood no English, why the soldiers had not come inside. Stefanovic mimed the answer: They had been afraid of waking their special guest.
Later that morning, the rest of Felman’s crew started arriving in the village, brought in by soldiers a few at a time, and in one case, by two boys who led a couple of horses on which the flight engineer Leonard “Tex” Pritchett and radio operator Israel “Bronx” Mayer rode with flowers in their hair and stuck in their uniforms by the villagers they had met earlier. Another crew member abandoned his hideout in the woods, where he was following his training by laying low and waiting for rescue. Unable to stand the cold and hunger any longer, he just walked down to the nearest village and was shocked to see Felman and the rest of his crew there, being treated like royalty.
Eventually all of the surviving members of Felman’s crew made it to the village. After an initial celebration that included rolling around on the ground, wrestling one another, and laughing wildly with each new arrival, the crew soon came to realize who was missing. It was Tom P. Lovett, a nose gunner from Roxbury, Massachusetts. Once they saw he wasn’t among them, they remembered that he had delayed bailing out of the plane, staying at his position while the others bailed out, yelling that he wanted to stay just a moment longer to kill another Nazi fighter. Apparently he never left his post and went down with the plane.
The local villagers recovered Lovett’s body and held a formal funeral, attended by three hundred people, including Felman and his crewmates. The Serbs made a small headstone inscribed with Lovett’s name, military number, and hometown. Later they gave Felman some photographs of the grave and the funeral ceremony to take back to Lovett’s family.
Meanwhile, news of the airmen’s plight was reaching their relatives back home. All over the country, families were facing the moment that they feared as soon as a loved one left to join the service. They answered a doorbell in the midst of cooking a pie, or they crawled out from under a car they were working on when someone called from the driveway, or they went to the window to see what the dogs were barking at. Their hearts skipped and their throats grew dry in an instant as they saw the Western Union delivery boy standing there with a telegram in his hand.
Tony Orsini’s mother, Angiolina Orsini, was in the kitchen on August 3, 1944, when she heard the knock at the door. Unaccustomed to receiving visitors with no notice, she immediately tensed and wondered if anything was amiss. But it couldn’t be Tony, she thought. She had talked with him on the phone only two weeks earlier when he was in Manches ter, New Hampshire, preparing to go overseas. And she knew he had been in Europe for only about a week. She worried about him constantly, but she had not yet started dreading every knock at the door.
Looking every bit the part of the Italian immigrant mother in the kitchen, Mrs. Orsini wiped her hands on her apron before heading to the front door. As she opened the door, she saw a young boy in a Western Union hat standing there. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. She saw his bike leaning against the front steps. The boy stared down at the floor and mumbled, “Telegram for you, ma’am,” never making eye contact. He had done this many times before, and he wanted to just hand over the telegram and leave.
“Per me? Che cosa è esso?” she asked, not knowing what the telegram was or why he was handing it to her.
The boy thrust the envelope at her and she instinctively took it from him, freeing the boy to turn quickly and jump on his bike. He pedaled hard and raced away, leaving Orsini’s mother standing there with an envelope that said “Western Union Telegram” and “Mrs. Angiolina Orsini = 28 Beacon St, Jersey City, NJ.” She looked down at it and suddenly realized what it was. She gasped and put a hand to her mouth, then tore the envelope open. She fumbled with the paper folded inside but quickly saw that it was in English. She could not read a word of it, but she knew it was about her dear Anthony.
She began to cry as she stared at the telegram, fearing the worst. Then she looked next door and bolted down the front steps toward a neighbor who was an Italian immigrant like herself but who could read and write English. She went to the side door and pounded hard. When the woman appeared, she saw Orsini’s mother standing there in a panic, tears running down her face and clutching the telegram tightly in both hands.
“Colto esso a me! Prego colto esso a me!” she cried to the neighbor. Please read it to me!
Startled, the woman had no idea what the distraught woman was talking about. Then she saw that it was a telegram Angiolina Orsini was holding. She knew immediately that this would be terrible news. She didn’t want to read the telegram.
“No, no, non posso,” she replied, shaking her head, full of sympathy but not wanting to be the one to give this poor woman such bad news. No, I can’t.
“Per favore! Prego, dovete!” Orsini’s mother cried. “È circa il mio Anthony!” Please, you must. It’s about my Anthony.
The neighbor couldn’t resist the anguished woman’s pleas. She took the telegram and slowly read it aloud in Italian as Orsini’s mother began to sob into her apron.
“La Segretaria della Guerra lo vuole per esprimere il suo rincresci mento profondo che il vostro tenente Anthony J. Orsini del figlio in Sec- ondo Luogo è stato segnalato I missing nell’azione . . .” she read. “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Second Lieutenant Anthony J. Orsini has been reported missing in action . . .”
Her Anthony had been away such a short time and already he was gone. She prayed that he was still alive, but she knew that this telegram was often followed by another.