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Dramatic Escape from Albania

In November 1943, a C-53 transport plane loaded with 13 medics, 13 flight nurses, and four aircrew members left Sicily headed for Bari, Italy. Their mission was to transport wounded soldiers to hospitals farther away from the front lines. A storm, combined with a run-in with German fighter planes, forced them off course. The airplane crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania, and the survivors spent nine harrowing weeks trekking 800 miles across Albania. They encountered severe challenges and narrowly escaped death. The majority reached freedom on January 9, 1944. Three nurses who became separated from the group did not get rescued until March 21, 1944.

Aircrew of plane forced down in Albania

On the rainy morning of November 13, 1943, the crew, medics, and flight nurses from the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron boarded a C-53D for the two-hour flight from Sicily to Bari. Bad weather had grounded the flight for the three previous days, and the number of injured needing transport to areas with better medical care was increasing. When the plane left Sicily, the skies had cleared, and visibility was good.

As they neared Bari, the skies turned dark. Pilot Charles B. Thrasher saw ominous clouds ahead. They flew into a violent storm and lost all communications with the ground station at Bari. Thrasher decided to ascend above the clouds, but when they reached an altitude of about 8,000 feet, the wings began to ice up. He quickly descended.  Disoriented, he flew for three and a half hours before spotting a coastline through broken clouds. Assuming they had reached the western coast of Italy, Thrasher and co-pilot Lt. James Baggs began looking for a place to land. Spotting what appeared to be an abandoned airfield, he began an approach. Suddenly, tracer bullets began screaming past the aircraft window. Dodging German fighters, Thrasher ducked into a cloud and flew for another hour through overcast skies.  

With the plane’s fuel was running low, they began looking for a place to land. They eventually saw a flat spot and crash-landed the C-53. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured. As the group disembarked the aircraft, members of an Albanian resistance met them and informed them that they’d crossed the Adriatic Sea and were in Nazi-occupied Albania. The partisans led them to a nearby town, but they had to flee when a German detachment approached. While walking down a road, three Messerschmitt 109’s dive-bombed and strafed the group as they ran for cover. British officers were operating in the country, and the partisans let them know that Americans were in the area. One British officer was assigned to serve as a guide for the group. Later they were met by an American officer who had been sent into Albania to lead them out.

Group of ten of the nurses who escaped Albania recover after their ordeal

Early on, three nurses became separated during a chaotic German attack. A wealthy Albanian family in the town of Berat sheltered the nurses in the basement and later helped them escape disguised as civilians. It would take that trio nearly five months to reach Allied lines. They crossed the mountains on donkeys, and when they finally reached the coast, an Allied torpedo boat skirted them to safety.

For the next two months, the remaining group walked up to seven hours a day. Sometimes the snow was knee-deep. Their journey took them across Albania’s second-highest mountain peak during a raging blizzard. As they journeyed, kind Albanians shared their meager food and lodging with them. Several times military officials attempted to extract the group, but German forces intervened and made rescue impossible. As weeks passed, the nurses’ shoes wore thin. The group suffered frostbite, hunger, dysentery, jaundice, and pneumonia. The nurses demonstrated determination and grit and gained the admiration of all.

Nurses who escaped Albania show their worn shoes

On January 9, 1944, the group finally made it to the coast and rendezvoused with rescuers who rowed them out to a British launch, and they were transported to Bari, Italy. The trio of separated nurses arrived at Otranto, Italy, on March 21, 1944. All of those rescued were forbidden to talk about their experiences. Officials feared it would endanger the lives of those who helped them. The 800-mile hike proved the Army nurses’ ability to withstand hardships during the war.

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  1. Bernard Behrens says:

    re: Theron Snell says:
    “September 25, 2021 at 9:04 am
    WAs their mission to Bari connected to the release of mustard gas by a US ship that had been bombed and set on fire during a German air-raid?”

    No; the nurses on that C-53 (a modified version of a C-47, not to be confused with a 4-engine C-54) flew on their mission in November 1943 and the harbor at Bari was bombed by the Luftwaffe on December 2nd 1943.

    A long time ago I stumbled across a detailed account of the Luftwaffe bombing of Bari, the book DISASTER AT BARI

    and the resultant spill of mustard gas into the water of the Bari harbor. The book interested me because at the time, I was an NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical) warfare sergeant in the US Army Reserves. The disaster at Bari connected with a lot of what my uncle, a WWII vet, told me about his service in the US Army during WWII. He majored in chemistry and bacteriology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, so when he went thru OCS he was commissioned as an officer in the Chemical Corps. His duty was to escort shipments of mustard gas from the United States to North Africa during the North African campaign. He was stationed at Bone, (now renamed Annaba) on the Algerian coast near to Tunisia, at a joint American and British base, where he was OIC of a mustard gas ammo dump. All this of course was secret during WWII but de-classified later. The way he explained it to me was that the western Allies decided to stockpile mustard gas in case the Germans used any poison gases in combat; then we could retaliate in kind. These were 250-pound mustard gas bombs; they were not intended to be used directly on German soldiers; rather, they were intended to drop on the flanks between allied units to slow down or stop a German attack. After the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943, then my uncle’s next duty was to be one of the escorting officers aboard cargo ships that were put to use to carry German and Italian POWs to the United States. Somehow around that time he wangled a transfer to the Sanitary Corps, an adjunct of the Medical Corps, and was stationed at the base hospital at Camp Roberts in near Paso Robles in central California for the duration of the war. It’s darn lucky; otherwise he may have been at Bari when the Luftwaffe bombed it in December 1943.