During their months-long ordeal, the group of men and women traversed more than 600 miles of brutal terrain, dodged German troops, faced desperate hunger and debilitating illnesses, survived blizzards, and were caught in crossfire. When they finally made it across Allied lines, they were forbidden by the military from discussing the details of the events with anyone, even their family members.
Now, almost 70 years later, Hayes, the only living member of the group, talks about his experiences with Cate Lineberry, author of the new book, The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines, published this month.
What was your role in the Army Air Forces, and where were you serving in early November 1943?
I was a medic and a member of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron in Catania, Sicily. We flew from our headquarters in Sicily to southern Italy on transport planes carrying equipment and men toward the front lines, helped load sick and wounded patients onto empty planes, and escorted the patients back to Sicily or North Africa where they could receive better medical treatment.
Who was traveling with you on the C-53D transport plane that November day?
There were 30 people on the plane: a pilot, a co-pilot, a radio operator, and a crew chief, plus 13 nurses and 13 medics. Rain had prevented any of us from leaving Catania for the previous three days, so our commanding officer decided to send half of the medical personnel in our squadron to help evacuate the many patients who were waiting. Only one passenger, besides the flight crew, was not part of the 807th. He was a medic from the 802nd who was catching a ride with us to Bari [on the southeastern coast of Italy].
Why did the pilots crash-land the plane?
There wasn't a cloud in the sky when we left the airfield, but the closer we got to Bari, the more clouds appeared. We were soon caught in a violent storm and lost all communication with the station at Bari. The pilots ascended above the clouds, but when the plane got up to about 8,000 feet, the wings started icing up, so we had to dive down through the clouds. We could see a coastline; the pilots thought we might have flown across Italy and were near Italy's western coast. They didn't realize we'd crossed the Adriatic. The pilots tried to land on what looked like an abandoned airfield, and that's when someone started shooting at us. The pilots immediately headed for the clouds. That was probably the scariest part—flying through a valley where the tops of the mountains were higher than the clouds. When we emerged from the clouds, our plane was very close to a German fighter plane and then to another. The pilots continued trying to dodge the enemy planes and eventually found a place near a lake where we crash-landed.
Who helped you after the crash?
Our first helpers were Albanian partisans, members of a resistance group fighting the Germans, who led us through the mountains. We were also helped by many Albanian villagers who let us stay with them at night and shared what little food they had with us. If they'd been caught, the Germans would likely have killed them. I'm certain that without the help of the Albanian people, we wouldn't have survived that winter. The British working in the country as well as an American officer sent in to help us eventually got us out.
What was your greatest concern while you were trapped behind enemy lines?
One of our biggest concerns was that the American military, as well as our families, didn't know where we were. They didn't even know we were in Albania; they only knew we were missing. Our other major concern was that our shoes were wearing out quickly because of the terrain, particularly those of the nurses. We hoped to get to the coast, and the only way there was to walk.
How did the group get along during those difficult months?
For the most part, we got along pretty well, but there were a few people who rubbed each other the wrong way. When you're hungry, cold, and tired, you forget about almost everything else and are only thinking about surviving. Watson, one of the nurses, said, "Anything a medic can do, I can do," and that's exactly what she did. That's how most of the nurses were. They didn't slow us down.
Why were you forbidden from discussing your experiences in Albania, even after the war was over?
When we returned to Allied lines, we were not allowed to tell anyone where we had been, who helped us, or how we escaped. The secrecy was to protect the people who had helped us and to protect the means of escape for future downed airmen. After the war, Enver Hoxha became the ruthless dictator of Albania, and we were concerned that if we named the Albanians who saved our lives, they would be killed. We later learned that one of the partisans who helped us was imprisoned shortly after the war and was eventually executed.
This Army Air Forces footage shows the return of many of the American nurses and medics to Italy after months stranded in Nazi-occupied Albania. While some of the information from the newsreel narrator is now known to be incorrect, the images speak for themselves.