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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.

To learn more about this and other World War II stories of heroism, search Fold3® today.

79 Comments

  1. Fantastic story. Shows bravery, and determination by all

  2. What happened to the wounded?

    • susan Brewer says:

      In the book, “the secret rescue” one serviceman was injured during the crash landing. He was carried on a stretcher for a few days. He quickly recovered and was able to walk on his own.
      The Albanians that sheltered them are very impressive taking such risks and sharing what little food available.
      My father was involved in WWII I have been unable to get his service history.

    • Theron Snell says:

      Hi…

      1. If you know the unit in which he served, see if the National Archives holds the unit records. You can purchase which months you want. Contact them on line at NARA.gov
      2. Try the V.A. As a daughter, you are next of kin. These files may have all sorts of things including records of physicals at each place he was stationed. You can trace his service that way.
      3. Try the county clerk of the county in which he lives at the time of his discharge. They most likely have a copy of his discharge records that list most recent unit, personal info like age, educational levels; and also dates of overseas service, list of awards and of service schools.

  3. Harry D. West says:

    I was extremely lucky to have met two of these nurses, and got them to sign my copy of “Albania Escape”, and listen to their stories. Awesome ladies!! America was blessed with great people like these! They have both passed away, but I think of them, and other WW2 veterans, often.
    GOD bless them all!!

  4. Kathy says:

    Never heard of this story. As a nurse myself, I enjoy reading books about military nurses who have gone above and beyond in fulfilling their mission. I found two non-fiction books about is mission:
    * The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry.
    and
    * Albanian Escape: The True Story of U.S. Army Nurses Behind Enemy Lines
    by Agnes Jensen Mangerich.
    I’m also a big fan of “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan” by Elizabeth M. Norman. My mother knew one of these nurses.

    • Karen Dumke says:

      Thanks for this information. I’m also a nurse and will look up these titles.

    • Vicki Lee says:

      One of the nurses spoken of in We Band Of Angels is from Mulvane Kansas! Her name is Laura Cobb! We have a display of her items from the war at our Mulvane Historical Museum! Pictures, medals etc. Her niece gave the items to us! There were some medals given posthumously! Many residents of our town knew her! The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC wanted these items, but her niece felt they should be kept local! The book says she is from Wichita, but she was a Mulvane resident growing up! It is a wonderful book!

    • Lynn says:

      You may also enjoy “And if I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II” by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. It’s more of an overview of nurses in the European campaign.

  5. Ken says:

    Fantastic story, I didn’t hear of any medals for bravery!

    • Sue says:

      And this would be the reason for the secrecy. Our military was not set up nor wanted to award medals for bravery or valor under fire or in combat positions to women. The Forgotten 500 about air crews who crashed or were shot down in the Balkans during WW2 returning from bombing raids to the Ploesti oil fields were not forgotten when it came to medals.

  6. Paul Stewart says:

    Outstanding testimony regarding these people, their toughness and the kindness of the Albanians they met along the way.
    Where are they now? This story begs a follow up story.
    Paul Stewart

  7. Donald H Crum says:

    Absolutely Amazing! Love these stories. I thank all who served, as my father did in WWII. We owe so much to these unsung heroes!

  8. Carol says:

    Doubt our snowflake woke kids would survive!!!!

    • John says:

      Don’t know about your kids, but my fear would be that the so-called adults of today would doubt that a war was actually going on, and fantasize that the draft would never end… that it was a ticket to universal permanent slavery.

    • Barbara Barkemeyer says:

      Beautiful story we both read. Your sorrowful response diminshes not the youth you mention but you.

    • Lynn says:

      I agree 100%. Some of them are so out of reality they wouldn’t think of reading a history book. Do they even teach extensive American history anymore. Or real history for that matter.

    • andrew wood says:

      You never know until people are faced with such adversity. I suspect that you would be surprised by what people can tolerate when it happens.

  9. In those days American, men and women, had true grit, dedication to duty and bravery. Everyone, even those in the home front displayed these qualities in various ways. We were all dedicated to winning that war. I say we because I remember it well as a kid living in Hatch New Mexico at that time just across the mountains from Alamogordo flats where the 1st Atomic bomb was tested on my birthday July 16th of that year 1945. We kids participated in metal, paper, tin-foil and rubber drives; and other drives for the war effort. Unfortunately, My step-father who fought in Europe in General George Patton’s 13th Armored Division, fondly known as the “Black Cat” division came home after the war with post traumatic stress syndrome that took years to heal.

    • Donald H Crum says:

      My father served at the Battle of the Bulge, as well. It was found that he was confused with another fellow who was a private, by the same name. My dad came into the army as a Staff Sargeant, but the time he spent there gave him PTSD as well. He fought that affliction until his death. He wouldn’t talk about it to anyone…ever. Our children have no idea….we have no idea.

  10. John says:

    Odd to talk about the “survivors” of the crash landing… then later say that nobody was seriously injured. So all 30 people on the plane eventually got out OK?

    • Jacki Case says:

      Yes. Read the whole story. The plane was running out of fuel in flight. They had to land. It wasn’t an air strip

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      John, they did crash-land but everyone survived. One was injured during the landing and was often carried during the trek to freedom.

  11. Larry Roberts says:

    They were truly the greatest generation. I believe that we have in our midst young folks who would step up and answer the call given the challenge.

  12. Raymond C Ashley says:

    That’s another reason they were called The Greatest Generation. Bless them all!

  13. Brian says:

    I was a navy corpsman and now a registered nurse . I have always felt that the brave women who served in all services, never have gotten the recognition they deserve. I am looking at raising funds to hire a metal sculpture to place bronze statues to represent the various brave women in our armed forces . We can place them at all the va hospitals and facilities . My life was saved by a gutsy female f18 pilot. She was out of ordinance but she put her life at risk to fly 500 fr off the deck and unleash her cannons on the enemy until we were safe . Thank you my brave pilot . I owe you my life .

  14. Nicholas Palmer says:

    How come it was 800 miles? Albania is too small for that. Did they trek all over the Balkans?

    • John says:

      right – Albania is only about 100 miles wide and 300 miles long – they would have to have walked right the way around twice to make 800 miles. Misprint maybe? 80 mile?

    • Nick Palmer says:

      Yes, possibly. 80 miles in that terrain would still have been quite a feat.

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Hi John, the 800 miles is correct according to military records. They didn’t walk straight to the coast but scaled the second-highest mountain peak in the country (something that locals were amazed they could do that late in the season).

  15. John Applegate says:

    Names of those heroes are needed.

  16. Dean Huseby says:

    Great story. They should make a movie about this.

  17. Gerald W. HOOPER says:

    Wowsome! Great story..! The scent of freedom..and the hand of God guided these
    women to freedom . This story should have
    been made into a’movie of the week’

  18. Lynne Woolley says:

    My father was a British Commando who spent 9 months in Yugoslavia with Tito. Some of that time was spent infiltrating Albania. He only ever spoke generally of the experience.
    He was always very complimentary of the actions of both the Yugoslav and Albanian partisans.

  19. Kathryn I Vecchio says:

    Wonderful story. Brave people. This would be a fantastic documentary or movie. Thank you for this information. We never knew.

  20. Harlan M. Zeinstra says:

    Great story but we would like names.

  21. Barbara Fuller says:

    Wonderful story! My Uncle Buddy was a Marine in WW2. He was killed. I’m 86 and still think about him nearly every day.

  22. Adrianne Carr says:

    My father volunteered before WWII and was married in uniform. He was sent off before I was born and didn’t hear of my birth until about a month later. Apparently, the unit decided to celebrate with home brewed booze. No one, including my Dad died from the celebration, for which my mother was grateful.
    He came back with PTSD. I was too young to realize his pain and never understood why tears would set him off. I did not know until much later that he was the Sargent in charge of an ambulance corps. One night when I was around 4, I fell out of bed and broke my shoulder. My screams woke both parents up. My Dad came in and found me on the floor. Still half asleep, he responded to my crying by hitting me while yelling at me to stop crying. My mother pulled him off me and sent him back to bed. The next morning she took me to the doctor and learned about the shoulder.
    Much later on, my dad told the story of being under heavy fire. One of his men was severely wounded and unable to be brought to the relatively safety of the platoon. My dad would not sacrifice anyone else to enemy bullets to attempt to bring the wounded man in. They all listened to the young man calling for his mother as he died. Forever after, my father hated tears; thus his response to my fall our of bed.

    • Rose Ellis says:

      My Dad was an Army Air Corp communications radio man from 1943 to end of war 1945 in Europe. He was stationed in Dyce, Scotland. I found all his records including his study sheets depicting diagrams of RAF planes and German planes. He had to know the difference. Dyce which is still a US airbase is across the North Sea from Germany. He had to be perfect about it, no errors. He knew Morse code. When he came home he met my Mom and married in 1946. I was born a year later. My Dad had anger and I felt it growing up; however, he got a job at a brewery as a machinist and did his best to be there for his family of eventually 7 kids. He knew history of the US and gave me the same interest. I have to say thanks for that. As Tom Brokaw wrote, they are the greatest generation. They didn’t say much about their experiences. I have his photos, letters, and orders. I will preserve all lovingly. They saved us.

    • John R Domingo says:

      My sister-in-law’s (Aradine June Carr -rip) father was killed at the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in 1945. It would be quite a coincidence if there were family connections:

      Staff Sgt Byron Wilson Carr
      B: 31 Jul 1918, Ida Grove, Ida, Iowa, USA
      D: 06 Mar 1945, Germany, Military and Naval Forces, USA; Battle of the Bulge

  23. Shirley Blauser Pearce says:

    WOW. We really don’t know what our service people went through. Thank you for This. My Brother survied being in the Phillipine in WW2

  24. WOW. We really don’t know what our service people went through. Thank you for This.

  25. Theron Snell says:

    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?

  26. Martha says:

    I was born in January 1944 as my Dad, my uncles and other family members were serving in WWII. For this reason, I am a WWII history buff as none of my returning family members shared their memories. This story is just one of a multitude of experiences that the brave and amazing men and women endured. Thank you for sharing and keeping these facts out there for all to know.

  27. Janet says:

    I am first generation American born of Albanian parents who emigrated here in 1925. Albanians have a code of “besa” which is welcoming hospitality. I am proud of my heritage and especially thankful and proud to be an American.

    • Oma says:

      How brave of your parents to have come to the US. Thank you for sharing the word besa.it stands for what we should all extend to others.

  28. Sergio says:

    After reading dozens of stories about the uncommon valor of American soldiers as well as those who helped them when they found themselves in enemy territory during WWII, I can only write about my profound reverence, respect and admiration for their service and their resilience in the face of adversity.
    Thank God the United States and the Allied Powers won WWII; otherwise, we would be speaking German, Japanese and Italian.

  29. Linda Marrs says:

    Several other good reads are Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff, The Final Storm by Jeff Shaara and of course, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. My father also served in WWII. I wish I had asked more while he was living. I don’t think I knew enough to ask when I was younger. I’m 71 now and so interested. I recently learned that you can contact The National Personnel Records Service in St. Louis, MO, and get replacement medals as well as personnel and medical records. I’m in the midst of that process now. I understand it takes about three months from beginning to end to get the medals and/or records.

    • Theron Snell says:

      You can also contact the VA and ask for your father’s file. As next of kin, you are entitled to seeing it. The file should have all your father’s medical records from his time in the service, including records from every post where he was stationed. You can trace his path. I found the evacuation tag that was attached to my father when he was sent to the hospital from active duty with an AAA battery in the hills over Seattle…as well as data from when he was wounded in action later in the war.

    • Theron Snell says:

      ps: A large number of records at the National Center in St. Louis were lost during a 1973 fire. You are lucky they still have your father’s.

  30. Michael J Foran says:

    What are the women’s NAMES?

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Hi Michael, the 13 nurses were Helen Porter, Agnes Jensen, Gertrude Dawson, Elna Schwant, Lois Watson, Lillian Tacina, Ann Kopsco, Ann Markowitz, Frances Nelson, Eugene Rutkowski, Pauleen Kanable, Ava Maness, and Wilma Lytle.

  31. Brian Thompson says:

    Too big a story for a movie, it could make a 4-part series at least.

  32. Kim Lorton says:

    Wow. Nurses have true grit and determination. To this day, they still do.
    I was a nurse for 35 years, and saw many wonderful nurses in practice.
    Thank you, for all of the work and care every single one of you perform, because you care, and love being a nurse!

    • Rebecca Kline says:

      I have been a nurse for 45 years and also have seen the tenacity and sacrifice of my fellow nurses for other human beings. These 13 heroic nurses demonstrated the true heart of nursing and survival.

  33. Tom Moffatt says:

    The book about the circumstances of their landing, their time in Albania, and the escape to Italy is excellent. It is:
    The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines
    by Cate Lineberry. It is available on Amazon – Kindle, Audiobook, Hardcover and Softcover.
    I was quite amazed that several later Hollywood actors worked as agents there, most especially Sir Anthony Quayle.

  34. Carl says:

    Nurses are tough! I married one and don’t mess with her!

  35. Brahim Kikirik says:

    There are very few straight lines in Albanian terrain. Hence 800 miles over 5 months is very possible.

  36. Douglas Cavanaugh says:

    Purely coincidence, this true story in Albania reminds me of an entirely made-up flashback chapter in my spy-thriller ‘Into Hell’s Fire.’ As a young boy in hiding from the Axis powers, the main character discovers a downed American fighter pilot (a Tuskegee Airman)on one of the Croatian islands. Risking the lives of he and his mother, the three are aided by the Yugoslav Partisans who arrange for their rescue on the Adriatic Sea. Sorry for the plug, and a sincere thank you for letting me mention this similarity on your site.

  37. Christine says:

    Amazing story. Thankyou for sharing. I had no idea before I read about these brave people. Thanks to them all for their contribution.

  38. Dale Piper says:

    I was drawn to this historical event because of my military service. I was trained as an Albanian linguist and sent to Italy to intercept Albanian military communications. This was when Albania, under Enver Hoxha, was a member of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviets were in Albania. That training and assignment began a very rewarding career.

  39. Pam Germany says:

    Great Story. Heroes all the way.

  40. Patty deVille says:

    Why are only the men named in the story? Very insulting to the true heroes – the women.

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Patty, you are absolutely right! In an effort to maintain brevity, I excluded the names. These women deserve to be remembered for their service. The 13 nurses were Helen Porter, Agnes Jensen, Gertrude Dawson, Elna Schwant, Lois Watson, Lillian Tacina, Ann Kopsco, Ann Markowitz, Frances Nelson, Eugene Rutkowski, Pauleen Kanable, Ava Maness, and Wilma Lytle.

  41. E. June Luttrell says:

    I have read about these nurses previously. They were strong women, proving that our sex does have the fortitude to do what it takes when necessary. We are not a piece of fluff. We have backbone & stamina when it is needed. There have been others who have fought the good fight as well. Nurses in Korea, Viet Nam, & Afghanistan. I am currently on a marathon reading campaign to read as many books as I can about women in WWII. These ladies certainly had backbone, including the ones who ended up in Japanese POW camps.

  42. Marc says:

    The best scenario for an action movie, bravery saves many lives.

  43. I wonder if they received VA benefits for their injuries. So few women service members have been recognized so this is great to read about!

  44. R.Sgambati-Parillo says:

    They should make a movie or a documentary about the bravery of these men and women. They deserve to be recognized for their bravery. R

  45. Gloria Infinger says:

    Wow!

  46. Michael says:

    What an example of incredible grit and determination.

  47. Linda says:

    This story should be made into a movie!! The people of our country need to see know of the bravery of the nurses and a movie is the best way to spread the story.

  48. PB says:

    A tremendous story of bravery – surprised it hasn’t made it to the cinema screens . They certainly deserve recognition and also for those Albanians who helped them at considerable risk to themselves .

  49. Colleen says:

    It’s an inspiring story of strength and determination. There are so many Quiet Heroes from WWII (my father is one of them). While all deserve our admiration, it’s poignant to read a focus on women from WWII. Their experience showed their grit and determination. Someone should make a movie….