An Untold Story of Heroism

A new World War II book features the heroic struggle of American nurses and medics trapped behind Nazi lines.

Most of the stranded Americans were part of the Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron, which carried wounded and sick soldiers from near the frontlines to more equipped hospitals for additional treatment.

The Secret Rescue describes the harrowing ordeal of thirty Americans, including thirteen nurses, who crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania during a brutal winter and their months-long efforts to escape. We talked to author Cate Lineberry to find out more about this little known story of heroism and bravery and what she learned from it.

This is such an amazing story of WWII. How did you find out about it?

I was researching another story when I stumbled on a short newspaper article about the event and was immediately intrigued by it. I wanted to know more about the courage and endurance it must have required for the Americans to survive.

What specifically drew you to it?

Well, in part it was because there were 13 nurses on the plane that crashed behind enemy lines. I’d heard so many stories of airmen escaping from deep in enemy territory but none about women doing so—particularly Americans. These weren’t highly trained combat teams that were fighting for survival – they were unarmed nurses and orderlies, thrust into the most dangerous situations possible. I was fascinated by that.

To me, this book reads like a primer on what different people do when faced with the extreme danger. What was it that surprised you when you started delving into the stories?

I was really amazed by the group’s courage to keep going no matter happened. They never lost hope of getting back to Allied lines despite constant setbacks, frustrations, and danger. They certainly had lots of very bleak moments when everything went wrong, but I think they got through so much because they bravely faced each challenge and continued to believe they would make it home and see their families again.

There are so many individual acts of bravery represented in the book, from the Americans who crash-landed, to the rescuers, to the Albanians who helped them all out. What were the specific stories that affected you the most?

I was most affected by the selflessness exhibited by so many of the Albanians. These were some of the poorest people in Europe, yet one village after another gave the Americans what little food they could while hiding them in their homes at night. This was Nazi-controlled territory —they didn’t have to risk their lives like that. Had they been caught, the Germans would almost certainly have retaliated by killing those involved.

You did extensive interviews with Harold Hayes, the only surviving member of the original 30 that went down in the plane, now 91. How did these events change his life?

Harold was a 21-year-old medic when they crash landed. He came away from the experience hugely grateful for the kindness and courage shown by the Albanian people and the Allied soldiers who helped rescue them. He also jokes that he came away with an extreme dislike of cornbread – a food the group lived off of for weeks while they were stranded. One bite sometimes was all they had for a day or two.

Harold Hayes, the one remaining member of the plane crash, shows author Cate Lineberry the harrowing route they took through Albania in their efforts to escape.

What are his perspectives on this ordeal so many years later?

Most of all, he realizes how lucky he was to have survived so many close calls, including shoot-outs and blizzards. But he doesn’t believe the group did anything heroic. In his mind, they simply did what they had to do to survive, which included walking more than 650 miles through incredibly rugged terrain.

What happened when everyone got back to the states? Did they keep in touch?

They did! They started out mostly as a group of strangers, but the experience bonded them forever. They continued to stay connected to one another for decades, holding two reunions in the 1980s.

One of the remarkable things about the story is how calm and even-handed most of the nurses and medics were during their long ordeal. What’s your take on this?

That was one of the more surprising aspects of the story. There were definitely moments when the stress of the situation impacted individuals, but overall the group remained focused on finding food, shelter, and a way out. My take is that they were operating in survival mode and didn’t always realize just how slim their chances were of escaping.

I love some of the small, unexpected details, such as when the nurses, deep behind enemy lines, would sometimes apply makeup before coming into a new village. Is that a form of courage, or is it something else?

Only a few of the nurses would stop to put on makeup, which surprised the rest of the group. My guess is that this was more about trying to gain a sense of control over a very chaotic environment. Perhaps there was a little vanity thrown in there as well.

What did you learn about courage from writing this book?

I learned that it comes in so many forms – the courage to survive something terrible, to risk everything to help others, to never give up hope. It also taught me that courage is a gift we all possess. We just have to tap into it.

Photo credits:
Group shot of nurses: Courtesy of Agnes Jensen Mangerich Family
Flight nurses in action: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force
Cate and Harold: Courtesy of Cate Lineberry