Longest Mission Crew Part IV

blue sky with plane

The Longest Mission

By John Rucigay


(This is a biography of one US Army Air Force flight crew’s experience with the Yugoslav Partisans during WWII)

Crew Members:

  • Pilot – Tom MacDonald
  • Copilot – John Rucigay
  • Bombardier – Bob Denison
  • Navigator – Joe Lidiak
  • Flight Engineer – Bob Garin
  • Radio Man – Guy Howard
  • Nose Gunner – Bob Marcum
  • Top Turret Gunner – Merle Weik
  • Ball Turret Gunner – Charles Cartmille
  • Tail Turret Gunner – John Lewis

Sometime later, shortly after the sun had risen, there was a commotion at the other end of the barn which awakened me. I noticed the group with which we had shared our lodgings were being herded outside. There must have been a dozen of them and it was only then that I realized that we had been sharing quarters with some captured German soldiers! They were an elderly group in their forties and fifties, men who moved slowly with a resigned air. Later, during the day we learned that these captured men were reservists who had been pressed into military service to relieve younger troops for frontline duty.

I went back to sleep and woke up around eleven in the morning. Leaving the barn, I started to take stock of the countryside which heretofore had been shrouded in darkness. It seemed that we were on the slope of a hill that overlooked a broad plain through which meandered a creek. The thought occurred to us immediately that we should take advantage of the stream and wash both our bodies and our clothes. Having eaten, Garin Howard and I proceeded down the road to the bottom of the hill and then struck out directly toward the creek (the partisans permitted only 3 of us to go to the stream – any more would have caused too great an attraction). It was a matter of minutes before we were standing on the bank looking down about five feet into a foot or so of water which babbled in the center of the stream bed. We jumped down and immediately started undressing – eager for our first bath.

Revisiting the barn
The barn the “Little One” crew was held in and kept safe from the Germans by the Partisans in WWII

We washed our clothes and, after spreading them out over the warm rocks to dry, we splashed around the water using friction for soap. Half exhausted, we proceeded to sun ourselves until our clothes were dried. While we were sitting around in our underwear, I proceeded to mend the remnants of my socks and underwear using the needle and thread which had so thoughtfully been provided in our G.I. escape kit.

I happened to glance up and saw a girl about sixteen walking towards us with her hand’s thrust in the pockets of her skirt. She approached us and greeted us with “Dobar dan”. I answered her greeting in her language after which she inquired what we were doing. I replied that we were washing. Her next question was “Are there more of you?” to which I replied, “Ne” (No). Howard kept interrupting with “What did she say?” The conversation was rapidly getting out of hand for I felt my acquaintance with the Croatian language at that point had been all but spent. I wanted to convey to her that we could not continue the conversation because of the language barrier so I blurted out “Americans!” At that, her face broke into a broad smile and she informed us that her first reaction to our appearance was that we were Germans, since my two companions were blond. Simultaneously withdrawing her hands from her pockets, she showed us a small Italian Beretta automatic pistol neatly palmed in her right hand. She explained she would not have hesitated to shoot us if circumstances had so dictated.

It was about this time that the question of food assumed a paramount position in the majority of our discussions. Until this time, we had been eating the simple fare of the Partisans, but we now yearned for a meal with some seasoning. The diet of the Partisans, albeit varied, suffered from a lack of condiments, the most important of which was salt. The Partisans depended for food partly on the goodwill of the local inhabitants but to a greater extent on what they could glean from raids on German supplies and anti-Partisan groups. There was also a certain amount of requisitioning done from the local populace for which the donor received credit.

It was the custom of the Partisans that any young livestock that they captured would be traded to any sympathetic farmer who wanted to replace his old livestock. This was evident in the meals which consisted of beef: the flavor and texture left much to be desired, for it was tough and stringy.

Rucigary revisiting the barn
Rucigay revisiting the barn they were housed in by the Partisans in WWII.

The sparse evening meal having been eaten, we would sit around conjuring up visions of thick steaks smothered in mushrooms and onions, veal cutlets, roast beef with mashed potatoes and natural gravy – ad infinitum. We became quite interested in local cooking customs and watched with interest the baking of black bread. This was accomplished by placing the dough on a flat steel plate which doubled as a stove top. The wood coals were then removed from under the plate and heaped over the mound of dough. After a couple of hours – viola, a loaf of brown bread emerged. The size had not appreciably increased due to the lack of yeast, and the shape and weight approximated that of a brick.

The Partisan cook, George by name, was good-natured and affable, and almost always wore a smile on his face. On one occasion he produced a rare treat, a jar of strawberry jam which he immediately spread over some thick slices of bread and handed to us.

Early one evening a Partisan, armed to the teeth and then some, rode into our area on horseback. He had a bandolier of ammunition slung across one shoulder, a rifle on his back brace of pistols on his hips and hand grenades suspended from almost every part of his torso. He mounts, a substantial looking bay, looked as eager as his rider. Our curiosity was much aroused by the sight in this type of countryside. We inquired why he was so heavily armed and were informed to our amazement that he was bound for the marshaling yard in Fiume (Rijeka) where he intended to conduct a one-man raid. It was his intention to break into one of the boxcars and make off with as much booty as his horse could possibly carry.

Merle Otto Weik Service

To be continued —————————-

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Thank you to all men and women who serve the United States of America Armed Services in the past, in the present, and in the future.

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