Book: The Secret Rescue
Author: Cate Lineberry
Published by: Little, brown & Co.
Price: $16.20 hardcover; Kindle $10.99
Reviewed by: Tom Rockwell MD
It’s November 8, 1943. The Allies are fighting the Germans, inch by inch up the Italian peninsula – slow, brutal, and bloody. Thirty members of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron - 13 female nurses, 13 young male medics and a 4 man flight crew – climbed in a C47-type transport (called the Gooney Bird), and headed north into developing storms, bound for Catania. Four hours into the flight, the storm expands and worsens dramatically. Suddenly they are lost , without radio contact, and low on fuel. Then suddenly they are dodging ME109s, seeking to destroy the ungainly craft as it weaves through thunderstorms. Spotting a momentary hole in the clouds, the pilot dives through, amazingly managing to avoid an active German fighter base, and land the plane on a marshy bog adjacent to a small lake.
Thus begins one of the most remarkable stories of human heroism since Ernest Shackleton set out for McMurdo Sound. Their situation was not good. The group had no radio, only 1 gun, almost no provisions, no idea where they were, and most were dressed in casual uniforms.
Over the next few hours they began to piece together a fuller picture of their dilemma. They had landed in Albania, several hundred miles from their intended destination. Albania was heavily occupied by German military, and by Italian defectors who had fled Italy following Mussolini’s overthrow. It was winter, wartime harvests had been poor, and the country was near starvation. Perhaps more threatening, Albania was in a state of Civil war, split into two warring groups – the Partisans and the BK. Most villages were clearly and stridently under the control of one of the two groups, who continually slaughtered, raped and stole from each other. Some of these conflicts had historical roots extending back hundreds of years.
Secret Rescue is the story of the heroism, persistence, and resourcefulness of these young people – all strangers to each other – as they walked, wearing ordinary medical uniforms, across 6 mountain ranges, through German military patrols, negotiating with partisan antagonists, raging storms, famine, and civil war.
It is a story with no single outstanding hero-figure. Each member evolved their own role. The group succeeded by evolving pragmatic solutions to the complex assortment of survival challenges the group faced. It was interesting sociologically. The women in the group ALL outranked most of the men, because all nurses were accorded Officer status. The women were, in the main, also ten years older than the men. What evolved was an unstructured process of group problem-solving that was apparently devoid of some strongly held social mores of the time. Some of the villages had a death-penalty for touching a woman, yet the American nurses were welcomed and accepted.
Somehow, it worked. After about 4 months of one cliff-hanger after another, the entire group eventually made it back to Allied lines. After a few days of rest, most returned to active duty. Although their story was known by many in the Allied command superstructure, including Franklin Roosevelt, war-time secrecy prevented coverage in popular media, because doing so could compromise Allied military operations in Albania. After the war several members of the group received medals for heroism, but the full story largely vanished from history.
Cate Lineberry, a writer for National Geographic, stumbled across the story in 2011, and began interviewing surviving members of the group. Eventually, she ended up in Albania, attempting to retrace the group’s path, and interviewing people in the many small villages through which they passed. The result is an extraordinary document, both historically, and as a personal inspiration.
The group’s medical expertise was unquestionably essential to their survival. Equipped with only minimal medical supplies and instruments, they not only treated their own medical and surgical problems, in many cases they provided care to the villagers who helped them. Their orientation as healers kept them alive.
So was the presence of women, which reassured the jumpy villagers that they were not another gang of robbers. Their training as surgical nurses prepared them to provide welcomed care to hundreds of small wounds, infected cuts, minor fractures, etc.
The human dimensions of the saga shine through intermittently. Although most of the group was under 30 years of age, amazingly, no romantic relationships seem to have developed amongst group members. “ We were so terrified, so hungry, and so focused on surviving the day, most of the time, that it just never happened.”
So the 807th straggled back from Albania, and their story was classified for many years to protect the identities of helpful Albanian individuals and villages. Now that it can be told, attention has swung elsewhere.
But the story should be told, because it illustrates many heroic individuals coping selflessly with an endless series of threats and dilemmas. And it shows the group’s innovative, pragmatic, self-organizing survival behavior as they survived famine, blizzards, German toops, Partisan conflicts, and assorted infections and injuries of many types.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. Learning of the challenges our parents and grandparents dealt with is inspiring. Our debt to them is great. Not least, the wars for honesty, integrity and excellence in health care.
The irony is that this legendary accomplishment almost evaporated without a trace. Thanks to Cate Lineberry, that did not happen. She traveled around the world, interviewing survivors, and piecing together the 807th’s story. It would make a great movie. Until somebody makes one, the book is all we’ve got. Read it – it’ll inspire you.