The Longest Mission
By John Rucigay
- 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
Only after the skirmish was over did the Partisans inspect the wreckage. The free-swivel machine guns normally mounted in the waist had been thrown clear as had the life raft which is normally stowed above the wing. One gun was undamaged, and the Partisans used it as a light cannon; the other gun had a bent barrel and was used for spare parts. The Charm candies we enjoyed that evening was part of a survival kit included in the life raft.
The next evening as we sat around the fireplace where the Partisans cooked, one of them proceeded to stir-fry chunks of beef in a large pan. By the aroma steaming from the saucepan, this evening the meal promised to be the best since we parachuted. Portions consisting of small chunks of beef in a greasy gravy were given to each of us. It was delicious, and we quickly ate everything, sopping up the gravy with chunks of bread. Later, a bottle of slivovitz appeared and each of us took a mouthful. It burned our throats on the way down to our stomachs, but it tasted particularly good – the few occasions that I drank slivovitz in later years never tasted as good as the drink we had that evening. The next morning each of us experienced diarrhea; was it the richness, the grease, or the slivovitz? I concluded that our system was not used to the fat in the stew and relished once again the thought of the delicious meal we had had the previous evening.
We had been wearing the same cotton underwear for a week without any opportunity to wash it. Consequently, the dirt and sweat stiffened the cloth, with the result the material appeared to crack instead of tearing. In addition, the stitches were unraveling. Even so, it was better than not having any underwear. Our experience with diarrhea soon resolved the issue, and we threw our underpants away.
Each one of us had a history of “gas” problems since we landed in Yugoslavia due to the change in diet, exercise, etc. and there was much flatulence while we walked in single file, causing unpleasant odors to waft through the column behind the offender. We finally passed a rule that anyone passing wind would have to step out of line to the side of the column to show mercy on those people behind us. The degree of gas accumulation was soon obvious – someone was always walking alongside the column!
As we walked near the old Italian/Yugoslavian border we noticed that some of the roads had been in extremely poor condition from rain and warfare and the Partisans repaired them with logs by laying them across the roadway alongside one another. The “corduroy” effect was like that employed by the Union troops in the US Civil War, in the area called “The Wilderness.”
We had journeyed down from the mountains north of Fiume (Rijeka) and were about to encounter one of the greatest hazards in our odyssey to date: crossing the main highway and railroad leading north from Italy. We waited until everything appeared safe one evening and, under cover of darkness, ran from west to east in pairs, not stopping until we were under cover of the bordering trees. The entire episode took only fifteen minutes, however, it seemed longer. We continued walking east into the surrounding mountains and finally stopped when we heard some shots in the distance followed by the appearance of some Partisans with a prisoner between them. His hands were tied behind his back, and he had a dark sullen look on his face accented by a large black handlebar mustache. They told us they had a skirmish with some Ustashi and had captured one of them. He was taken away within a few minutes, and we never saw him again. Our Partisans escorts also brought in two Italian civilians a short while later. They stated that they were not in the military and as Italians, were trying to return to Italy. Although they claimed innocence, they were suspected of possible Fascist collaboration, and as such were led away for further interrogation. We never saw them again either.
The rest of the next hour was spent enjoying the beautiful view of Fiume harbor on this beautiful, sunny morning before we rested for some well-needed sleep. We were now in a more secure area since we traveled in the daylight hours on dirt roads rather than footpaths. We knew we were now inside the old Yugoslav border by the railroad crossing sign which read: “Kader svounce svonej ___” or some similar printing. Suddenly a shout of “Stop!” and my heart stood still as I saw a German soldier with a rifle in hand blocking our progress ahead. However, the Partisan guides did not seem concerned, so we continued forward. It was then that I noticed that, although, in full German army uniform, this cap displayed a small red star. We later learned that he had deserted the German army after returning wounded from the Russian front. Prior to that, he had been torpedoed as a merchant seaman and had also been part of an aircrew that had flown over England.
There were many pastures observed from the roadway as we walked down the mountainside near the Village of Geroval. We noticed a teenage girl carrying a huge bale of hay on an improvised shoulder rack to the valley below. It was soon evident who did most of the manual labor in this area, the women. It was because of the shortage of men. It was not evident by many males sitting around the square as we entered the village.
To be continued —-