On November 8, 1943, an Allied plane that was transporting 13 female nurses and 17 male medics—all members of the U.S. Army's 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron—on its way to an Italian location was forced to crash-land due to bad weather, a German plane, and loss of radio contact. The members of the medical team didn't even know where they were until approached by a local partisan fighter: they were in German-occupied Albania. The months-long odyssey that ensued is the subject of Cate Lineberry's book, The Secret Rescue.
During World War II, Albania was first occupied by the Italians. After Italy surrendered to the Allies in September, 1943, the Germans moved in, allowing the Albanians a measure of self-government while launching fierce reprisals against partisan Resistance fighters. Then the tensions that already existed between the two main factions of the Albanian Resistance, both of whom wanted to control the country following the war, exploded into violence.
Crash-land some unarmed and unprepared Americans into this hotbed of civil strife and world war and you have a pretty exciting story, a close-up view of one section of the Balkan campaign, and a tale that hasn't previously been given full-length treatment. Although the reader knows from the outset that the team will make it out (the word "rescue" in the title sort of gives this away), author Cate Lineberry has organized the book in a manner that allows the reader to experience each new twist and turn just as the nurses and medics did. Guided by partisans who promise to help them connect with agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Americans make their grueling trek on foot from one impoverished village to another, most of the inhabitants trying to be as hospitable as possible by sharing what little they have but all facing deadly German reprisals for doing so.
Lineberry's own odyssey is a researcher's dream. After she "stumbled across" the story in an old newspaper, she obtained two related memoirs then accessed various declassified documents and letters (the American government forced the rescued team to remain silent about their ordeal for decades) before tracking down the one remaining member of the team, 89 year-old Harold Hayes. Lineberry claims that Hayes had a sharp memory, and there's no doubt of that; although the narrative has the ring of truth—nothing seems exaggerated or fictionalized—there are some startling details here, especially regarding the Germans who are, so to speak, constantly just offstage. At one point they charge into a village where the Americans are staying, leaving most of them barely enough time to scramble out. Later, one of the officers of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who becomes involved in the rescue sees a group of Albanian partisans wearing German boots and carrying German weapons. "Every partisan I met," he said later, "claimed that he alone had killed eight to ten Germans."
Lineberry has done a fine job shaping all the various testimonies into a cohesive narrative while also giving a good description of each character. That's no mean feat, because the book has quite a cast. Yet all the nurses, medics, agents of the SOE and OSS, and Albanian partisans are described with enough detail to give a clear picture of the individual without bogging down the narrative flow.
Only once or twice did I get the feeling that the author possibly hadn't done all of her background homework. For instance, while briefly comparing the aims of the British SOE and the American OSS, she states that "OSS training distinguished itself from SOE training by focusing less on strict military discipline and formalities between officers and enlisted men and more on self-reliance and initiative." The SOE was huge on self-reliance and initiative and wasn't populated by actual military personnel (although each agent was assigned a faux military rank in hopes it would save them from being shot as a spy if captured). But since those two organizations are tangential to the story, this is a relatively minor issue. Bringing this great tale to light is a major achievement on Lineberry's part, and The Secret Rescue is a thrilling nonfiction read.