I’ve mentioned before that I love a good survivor story. While scouring my library’s shelves for some writing research material, I came across Cate Lineberry’s The Secret Rescue.
I read the book’s description- an escape from behind enemy lines by a whole plane-full of nurses and medics- and was immediately hooked.
The story begins in the early days of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War.
The qualified nurses that the Army desperately needed were in short supply, and no wonder. Nursing wasn’t considered an entirely “nice” job in the first place, and the capture and imprisonment of nurses and the troops they served in the Philippines highlighted its dangers.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (who had four sons serving) voiced the need eloquently in her plea in the August 1942 edition of the American Journal of Nursing.
“I ask for my boys what every mother has the right to ask- that they be given full and adequate nursing care should the time come when they need it. Only you nurses who have not yet volunteered can give it…You must not forget that you have in your power to bring back some who otherwise surely will not return.” (Lineberry 20)
The call went out, and it was answered. Thousands of nurses signed up. Some served on land, like the first groups to be sent into a combat zone, who landed in North Africa with Operation Torch.
Others would serve in a brand-new capacity, as flight nurses.
The idea of using planes to evacuate wounded soldiers for medical treatment dated back to 1910, just seven years after the Wright brother’s successful flight.
However, the dangers of flight (the first evacuation plane built for the army crashed during testing) and other logistics slowed the full development of the idea.
In May of 1942, the U.S activated their first air evacuation unit, and by that summer the War Department had assigned the AAF (the predecessor of the Air Force) to set up a program for air evacuations.
Brigadier General David N.W. Grant took the program on. Initially, he wanted specialized air ambulances. However, the need for the U.S. to get up to speed on their aircraft manufacturing nixed that plan.
Instead, flight nurses would fly out on supply and troop planes. These could be unloaded, then converted to carry the wounded by folding up seats and fastening stretchers in place.
One group of these groups, 807th MAETS (Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron) was sent to Catania, Sicily, to aid in evacuating wounded troops from the Italian theater.
For 26 members of the squadron and their 4 man flight crew, their actual experience in Europe ended up being quite different than what they signed up for.
On November 8, 1943, 13 flight nurses and an equal number of medics from the 807th boarded a flight for Bari, Italy. Bari was in Allied hands, and would be their staging point to head out on evacuation flights.
Unfortunately, they never reached their destination.
A combination of bad weather, no visibility, and communications failures resulted in the plane going far off course.
When the flight crew finally saw a landing field and attempted to go down, they were attacked by German planes.
As they were obviously in enemy territory (and unarmed- their only hope was evasion) they returned to the clouds.
Eventually, they found a deserted lakeshore to crash land on.
Thirty American non-combatants exited the plane- one carried due to injury. They had only limited supplies- nothing for sustained survival. Some didn’t even have coats.
They also had no idea where they were…until, that is, the scouting party they assembled ran into a party of armed partisans, who informed them that they had landed in Albania.
Albania had been occupied by Italy. With Italy out of the war at this point, it was now occupied by Germany.
If that wasn’t enough trouble, it was also in the middle of a civil war between 3 partisan groups, struggling to see who would be in control when the World War ended.
The Secret Rescue follows the journey of these thirty Americans as they travelled from village to village all over Albania with partisan groups of questionable trustworthiness, evading patrols, subsisting on meager amounts of food in harsh winter conditions, and searching for escape.
Lineberry’s book is a fascinating read, giving details about Albania and her people, the involvement of the British SOE in the country (which ended up tremendously helping the stranded medical team) and telling the story of real people coping with a tremendously difficult situation.
On top of being an interesting read, I always appreciate a well-researched story. Lineberry delivers, not only having visited the sites she wrote about, but interviewing the last survivor of the fateful flight, and gaining access to diaries from other survivors, and recently declassified documents.
Overall, if you enjoy survivor stories too, The Secret Rescue is an excellent one to add to your reading list!
What have you been reading this summer, readers and writers? Any new titles to share?
Many thanks for visiting!
Also, if you’re still looking for summer reading and would like to know more about the conflict in Italy, I suppose this is where I put a plug in for the WWII historical fiction novel I just released…