The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines

The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines

by Cate Lineberry


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The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry

A #1 Wall Street Journal e-book bestseller!

"THE SECRET RESCUE combines all of the elements that draw us to WWII stories: the daring of The Guns of Navarone, the suspense of The Great Escape, and the bravery reminiscent of Ill Met by Moonlight. It's the inclusion of so many women, though, that makes this story unique.'' — Daily Beast

This mesmerizing account of the courage and bravery of ordinary women and men reveals for the first time an astonishing true story of heroic struggle and endurance.

When twenty-six Army Air Force flight nurses and medics boarded a military transport plane in November 1943 on a mission to evacuate wounded and sick troops, they didn't anticipate a crash landing in Nazi territory.

Emerging from their battered aircraft, the Americans found themselves in Albania, a country rife with chaos and danger. With hunger and sickness as their constant companions, they hid at night with courageous villagers who shared what little food they had, risking death at Nazi hands by doing so. For months, they prayed desperately to be rescued while doing everything they could to survive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316220248
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 200,544
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Cate Lineberry is a former staff writer and Europe editor for National Geographic and the web editor of Smithsonian, and her work has appeared in the New York Times. She lives in the greater Washington, DC, area.

Read an Excerpt

The Secret Rescue

An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines

By Cate Lineberry

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Cate Lineberry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-22022-4


The Nurses and Medics of the 807th

More than ninety personnel of the newly formed 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS) piled into two railroad cars in Louisville, Kentucky, on a sweltering afternoon in the second week of August 1943. As sweat soaked through their summer uniforms, the group, including twenty-five female nurses, stashed their heavy field packs and settled into their assigned seats. The officers, including the nurses, sat in one car, while the enlisted men were assigned to another. Both groups talked with the new friends they'd made over the last few months in Louisville; but with officers and enlisted men prohibited from fraternizing, many in the squadron were almost strangers as they started their journey to uncertain fates overseas.

As new members of the Army Air Forces' MAETS, the men and women were part of an innovative program that transported the wounded and sick from hospitals near the frontlines to better-equipped medical facilities for additional care. In the course of the war, the MAETS would move more than one million troops, with only forty-six patients dying in flight. It was so successful that in 1945, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed air evacuation as important as other World War II medical innovations, including sulfa drugs, penicillin, blood plasma, and whole blood, and credited it with saving thousands of lives.

Among those on board was the 807th's commanding officer, thirty-six-year-old Capt. William P. McKnight. A medical doctor just over six feet tall with a shock of sandy-red hair and a mustache, McKnight was known for quietly but effectively enforcing his authority and was well-respected by the men and women of his squadron. McKnight and the four other doctors in the 807th had been trained as flight surgeons at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas, before arriving at Bowman Field Air Base in Louisville and joining the new 807th just a few months before. Despite their titles as flight surgeons, their primary duty when they arrived overseas would be to serve as liaisons between airfields and forward hospitals and to screen patients brought for transport to make sure it was medically safe for them to travel.

First Lt. Grace Stakeman, a thirty-year-old blonde from Terre Haute, Indiana, nicknamed "Teach" by the young women who reported to her, was also finding her seat on the stifling train. As the 807th's head nurse, Stakeman was in charge of the squadron's twenty-four other flight nurses, all second lieutenants who were trained as nurses before joining the military. Like Stakeman, the nurses were allotted relative rank, which, since 1920, had given nurses the status of officers and allowed them to wear insignia but at half the pay of their male counterparts, though as flight nurses they earned an extra sixty dollars per month. Military nurses would be awarded full but temporary rank in 1944 and permanent rank in 1947. Though Stakeman's delicate features gave her a somewhat fragile appearance, she, like the other nurses drawn to volunteer for the Army, was far from frail. After recovering from a car accident in her early twenties that broke six of her vertebrae and required her to wear a full-body cast, she had joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) more determined than ever to help others.

The squadron also included twenty-four enlisted men who had just been trained as medics and been promoted to the rank of technician third grade, or T/3. The medics came from a variety of backgrounds and places, with some just out of high school and others with a host of jobs under their belts. While some had enlisted, others had been drafted. The rest of the 807th was made up of a medical administrative corps officer in charge of supplies and dozens of enlisted men who would serve as the squadron's cooks, clerks, and drivers and held ranks between private and master sergeant.

Twenty-one-year-old Harold Hayes, a reserved but inquisitive medic with wire-rimmed glasses, dark hair, and a deep voice that rivaled any radio announcer's, sat in the enlisted men's car and was as anxious as the rest of the squadron to learn of their destination overseas. They were now headed to their port of embarkation, where they would undergo last-minute preparations before shipping out.

Hayes had volunteered for the 807th after working under McKnight at a dispensary at Bowman Field Air Base and was one of the first four medics to join the squadron. He and the three other young men sitting in the car that morning had become fast friends. Twenty-year-old Robert "Bob" Owen from Walden, New York, was a tall, lean, and handsome young man with hazel eyes who still looked like the star high school football player he'd been only a few years before and whose favorite topic of conversation was "Red," the beautiful woman he'd recently met at a USO club in Louisville and would eventually marry. John Wolf from Glidden, Wisconsin, twenty-one years old, was a quiet outdoorsman and avid hunter who had married at seventeen. The oldest at twenty-three and the shortest at just five foot six was Lawrence "Larry" Abbott from Newaygo, Michigan, whose childhood nickname was "Windy" because he liked to talk so much. The four had been nearly inseparable at Bowman and spent their free time swimming, watching movies, drinking beer at Louisville bars, and attending USO dances. These new friends referred to one another fondly as Brother Owen, Brother Wolf, and Brother Hayes, while Owen dubbed Abbott "Little Orville," a reference to his middle name and short stature.

Agnes Jensen, a twenty-eight-year-old brunette with blue eyes and high cheekbones, from Stanwood, Michigan, took her place in the car reserved for the 807th's officers. Nicknamed "Jens," she and Helen Porter, another fresh-faced nurse who was two months shy of turning thirty, from Hanksville, Utah, had been last-minute additions to the 807th after being reassigned from another squadron just ten days earlier. The two considered it a lucky break that they would get to travel overseas earlier than expected.

Also among the nurses was twenty-seven-year-old Eugenie "Jean" Rutkowski, a former airline stewardess raised in Detroit, who had joined the military in May after her fiancé went missing while ferrying a plane to England. Nearby was newly married twenty-three-year-old Lois Watson, a blonde with hazel eyes from Chicago, Illinois. Watson had been a senior in nursing school with plans to become a stewardess when hundreds of Japanese planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, trying to destroy the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet. She and the rest of the country had reeled from the shock and horror of the assault, which left thousands dead, including one of the residents she used to go with on double dates. When she and her father had stopped in an enlistment center in downtown Chicago only to inquire about her joining the Army, she signed up.

By the following December, Watson had found herself at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and away from home for the first time. Within days of arriving, she met Nolan McKenzie, the young man she would marry just a few months later. Both were interested in flying, and he left in April for training to become a B-25 pilot, while she joined the MAETS in May.

All of the 807th's nurses and medics had just completed a six-week training course in air evacuation at Bowman Field Air Base and were ready to put their skills into practice. The air evacuation program—the first of its kind anywhere in the world—was only months old. The first two MAETS squadrons, the 801st and 802nd, had been activated in early December 1942 and were in demand before they could even finish the training the Army Air Forces (AAF) had rushed to put together. The 802nd had begun its journey to North Africa on Christmas Day, while the 801st left for New Caledonia in the South Pacific in January.

By the time the 807th started its training, the nurses' program included everything from aeromedical physiology and enemy plane identification to chemical warfare and religious procedures in an emergency. They were taught survival skills for the arctic, the jungle, and the desert to prepare them for wherever the war might take them and learned how to unload patients in the event of a water landing. To give them experience in the air, the nurses were flown over the Ohio River. Watson kept telling herself "I won't get airsick" as one flight twisted and turned so much that one of the nurses became ill. To learn what happened to the body without oxygen at ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet, they were put into a low-pressure chamber and watched the dizzying effects on one brave volunteer who went in without an oxygen mask. These training procedures were powerful reminders of the challenges they would face in the air as the unpressurized transport planes traveled at a range of heights and in a variety of weather conditions.

Physical training was as important as the lectures and demonstrations, and the nurses performed daily exercises and long marches, where they were sometimes pelted with flour bombs in simulated air attacks to teach them to take cover. Military drills included navigating obstacle courses that required them to crawl under barbed wire with live machine-gun fire overhead, first on their stomachs and then on their backs. As they practiced on one particularly hot and humid Kentucky day, Watson watched as several of the nurses struggled to finish and passed out on the course after completing it.

Unlike the very first flight nurses, the women of the 807th didn't have to fight to be able to wear pants rather than skirts as part of their uniforms. Months earlier, Col. Florence Blanchfield, the assistant superintendent of the ANC, had ordered flight nurses who were wearing the more practical men's one-piece flight suits without authorization back into their regulation skirts. That policy changed after Blanchfield showed up at Bowman Field wearing the popular "pinks and greens" dress uniform, an olive-drab jacket with a taupe skirt. Having never flown before, the colonel accepted the offer of a demonstration flight. As she awkwardly tried to put on the required parachute while wearing a skirt, the nurses on board explained to her that she would only need to lace it into position in an emergency. Soon after takeoff, the plane experienced engine trouble and the pilot announced that all on board should prepare to jump. Blanchfield fumbled with fastening her parachute until the pilot was able to restart the engine. Shortly after, flight nurses were allowed to forgo their skirts and were given slate-blue uniforms consisting of short Eisenhower jackets with waistbands and matching pants and caps.

Unlike the nurses, the medics, all enlisted men, had received basic military training before volunteering for the air evacuation program. Their specialized instruction in air evacuation covered some of the same material the nurses' program did, including survival skills and additional physical conditioning; but their medical experience, which included working with the nurses for a few weeks in local hospitals, was limited mostly to first aid. Their main focus was learning how to quickly and smoothly load and unload patients, which would be one of their primary tasks. To test their skills and to have a little fun, the medics in the various squadrons often challenged one another to see who could load and unload planes the fastest on practice runs. The 807th couldn't be beat.

Though air evacuation was still new in 1943, medical evacuation itself had only been around since the Civil War. In 1862, the medical director of the Union Army of the Potomac, Maj. Jonathan Letterman, created a system to manage mass casualties, which included first-aid stations on battlefields, mobile field hospitals, and ambulance services. In late August 1862, it took a week to remove injured soldiers from the battlefield at Second Manassas, with many young men succumbing to their injuries as they waited alone and in pain for help to come. Less than a month later, the Battle of Antietam left twenty-three thousand casualties after twelve hours of bloody combat. With Letterman's new triage system in place, medical personnel were able to remove all injured soldiers from the field within twenty-four hours. Though the lifesaving system was refined during the Spanish-American War, it remained virtually unchanged until the age of the airplane.

In 1910, seven years after the Wright brothers made the world's first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk and one year after the Army received its first plane, Capt. George H. R. Gosman and Lt. Albert L. Rhoades built an aircraft for the sole purpose of transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the hospital. Though the plane they built crashed during its test flight and the War Department turned down Gosman's pleas for financial assistance, the idea of an air ambulance had been born.

Despite the advantages of rapid evacuation that air ambulances could offer, concerns regarding the safety of planes, a technology still in its infancy, would linger for years to come. When Col. A. W. Williams, a retired Army officer, recommended at a meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons in November 1912 that the airplane be used to evacuate patients, the Baltimore Sun responded with an editorial stating, "the hazard of being severely wounded is sufficient without the additional hazard of transportation by airplane."

Undaunted by the risks, French physicians and aviation enthusiasts began exploring the use of air ambulances, even proposing a monoplane that carried patients in a box under the fuselage. When French military surgeon Dr. Eugene Chassaing asked for government funds to develop a modified plane, one critic responded, "Are there not enough dead in France today without killing the wounded in airplanes?" Chassaing persevered, however, and using a Dorand AR.2, a French observation biplane, he designed a side opening that allowed room for two stretchers to be placed in the fuselage behind the pilot. In April 1918, two of his planes helped evacuate wounded from Flanders, marking the first successful use of air evacuation on specially equipped aircraft, a victory that helped ensure air evacuation's future.

Though most of the world had been at war since 1914, the United States didn't officially enter the fray until April 1917. With the rush to train thousands of new pilots at temporary flying fields in the States, the inexperienced flyboys crashed regularly, and getting medical care to the injured proved difficult because of poor roads. A surgeon was typically flown to the accident scene and provided medical care on site before transporting the flier to a base hospital in a motor ambulance over bumpy and unpaved roads. It took hours to deliver a patient, and many died along the way.

By 1918, Capt. William C. Ocker, the officer in charge of flight training at Gerstner Field in Louisiana, and reserve medical officer Maj. Wilson E. Driver modified a standard Curtiss JN-4, a biplane called a "Jenny," to allow the craft to carry a patient in a litter, or stretcher, in the rear cockpit. That same year, they transported the first patient to be flown by plane in the United States. News of their success traveled, and air service personnel at nearby Texas airfields replicated their efforts and made their own modifications. On July 23, the Director of the Air Service ordered all flying fields in the United States to employ air ambulances.

Overseas, however, the U.S. Army Medical Department continued to evacuate troops using litter bearers, horse-drawn and motor ambulances, and hospital trains. Many patients, who frequently couldn't be moved from trenches until dark, suffered long and difficult journeys over war-torn roads to get to a hospital.

When the war ended, several European countries continued experimenting with air evacuation and developed equipment and procedures for transporting casualties. The U.S. military, however, still continued to favor ground evacuation. In May 1921, the War Department stated, "In case of accident, the use of airplanes for the transportation of sick and wounded soldiers, when other safer means of transportation is available, could not be justified."


Excerpted from The Secret Rescue by Cate Lineberry. Copyright © 2013 Cate Lineberry. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader xi

Prologue 3

Chapter 1 The Nurses and Medics of the 807th 7

Chapter 2 Destination Unknown 22

Chapter 3 Flying Blind 36

Chapter 4 In Enemy Territory 52

Chapter 5 Unlikely Comrades 64

Chapter 6 Under Attack 78

Chapter 7 Suspicions 92

Chapter 8 Albanian Curse 109

Chapter 9 Secret Agents 123

Chapter 10 Rumors 138

Chapter 11 Lurking Danger 153

Chapter 12 Breaking Point 166

Chapter 13 Beyond Reach 181

Chapter 14 Unstoppable 195

Chapter 15 Escape 208

Chapter 16 Left Behind 222

Epilogue 235

Notes 247

Acknowledgments 287

Index 293

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The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding, Invigorating, Informational, WONDERFUL! An untold story of a secret rescue in Nazi occupied Albania, with real facts and details about the escape and the mental and physical agony that the prisoners endured. This book will be a Best Seller!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome book. After just receiving it in the mail, I couldn't stop reading it. The danger the nurses, medics and their Albanian helpers faced is truly amazing and shows the type of heroism that was so commonly found during WWII. The detail and information provided really made me feel like I was part of their adventure. It shows you how strong the human spirit and cooperation between people can be in overcoming great odds. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LOVED IT!  An incredibly well written story of heroism and courage!   Lineberry has done a stunning job of capturing this amazing story. The group's harrowing adventure comes alive with the myriad of details woven into this compelling narrative.  I could not put it down  and would recommend without hesitation!  Perfect timing for both Mother's Day and Father's Day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I had to get up at 6 a.m. this morning, I couldn't stop reading until I finished the book at 3:00 a.m. This a gripping true account, incredibly well-researched and beautifully written in a way that you come to know the characters and feel as though you are right there with them. The 26 army nurses and medics, along with their 4-man flight crew endured the most harrowing two months-plus of their lives after crash-landing unknowingly in German-occupied Albania due to terrible weather, loss of all radio communications, as well as the functioning of their compass. Rescued by partisans, sheltered along the way by many poor and war-ravaged villagers from the Nazis at great risk to themselves, their final rescue took place through the unrelenting efforts and bravery of American and British secret agents especially during the last leg of their almost 1000-mile trek to reach the Adriatic Sea and freedom, The travails they suffered not only included evading the Nazis, but concern about their Albanian rescuers who were also entrenched in a civil war between violently opposed factions. The rugged, mountainous terrain they were forced to travel, the indescribably harsh climate, lice, fleas, lack of food, water, appropriate clothing, and basic sanitation, and the constant presence of uncertainty and fear, made this a real life testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit; a story that is long overdue in its tellling! Thanks, Ms. Lineberry, for introducing us to such heroes and heroines, and giving us an unforgettable reading and learning experience.
ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Brenda Ballard for Readers' Favorite The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines, written by Cate Lineberry, is a deeply researched account of a true experience. Imagine being in WWII as a nurse in a new and every-changing segment of the military. Airplanes are so new that the higher ups don't even have a protocol on their use as medical evacuation yet. This is a story about how these young nurses and surgical doctors first became involved in the specialized unit. That foundation being made, the reader is catapulted with the group into the situation of being forced to land in unknown whereabouts and without anybody else knowing where they are. Albanian partisans risk their lives to help the group of Americans in a perilous journey across enemy territory.  I am a big fan of history, especially that of our military and the belief that Freedom Is NOT Free. Cate Lineberry has gone above and beyond in her research and the surely difficult task of piecing it together. The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines is the result of her traveling to Albania, meeting with the few veterans that were still alive and documenting their stories. I love this story. It is not just thrilling and filled with peril, it is our nation's history of the people who have sacrificed in the name of our freedom. This book should be part of WWII curriculum in every school, every college. The work that has been put into this historical military story is in itself remarkable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! So well written and a true untold story in WW2. I thought they had all been told but this one truly is amazong. Lineberry does such a great job. I can see this being turned into a Movie along the lines of Argo.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Vastly interesting book for myself as a nurse, and in fact, for all readers interested in the events of WWII. Reads fast and keeps your attention.
Anonymous 15 days ago
Excellent book! I am a nurse and found it very interesting and informative. Wow, you wonder if young people now could survive such hardships. Very inspiring.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not llike the format but it is quite a story.
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jersey88 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book it kept my interest and was an amazing story of survival and determination. I would recommend this book to everyone.
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I bought this book because I am a nurse and because I love history. It is astounding to me that the nurses, medics and pilots were barely into their twenties! Also the nurses had 6 weeks of training before going overseas. It shows you the confidence you have at that age, and the "can-do" spirit of America, especially of that time. This book is extremely well written and researched, and it moves along very quickly. It also tells the story of the Albanians who helped them at great danger to themselves, as well as sharing food when they themselves had almost nothing, It makes you think: could I have survived this? Could I have remained mentally tough? 
boomerMS More than 1 year ago
fascinating book. read like a mystery novel. just could not put it down. a look at one of the seldom told story of wartime experiences. thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learned some details of the war i was not aware of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dicken--15--dog More than 1 year ago
This book is interesting from an historical point of view, but it is ponderous reading. The author puts in a lot of historical facts along with the backgrounds of the characters and really slows down the pace of the rescue. I intend to finish it, but have done a lot of skimming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago