BANGOR, Maine — A World War II military transport plane carrying a group of 13 flight nurses and 13 flight medics — one who raised his family in the Queen City — crash-landed 70 years ago Friday on a mountaintop in Nazi-occupied Albania.
If caught, the men would be killed immediately under Adolf Hitler’s Commando Order, issued a year before on Oct. 18, 1942. The order demanded that all Allied men caught behind enemy lines be executed.
The stranded members of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron, which included the late Robert “Bob” Cranson of Bangor, one member from the 801st and the four-person flight crew luckily were found by a group of resistance fighters shortly after the plane went down.
The Albanian partisans helped lead them to safety but it was a harrowing nine-week journey over rugged mountaintops with sometimes sketchy intelligence and little or no food or water.
The Americans relied on the resistance group, impoverished local Albanian villagers and British and U.S. underground intelligence to get them out of the country, said Cranson’s son, Denis Cranson.
“They were lost for 62 days,” he said Tuesday, sitting in his French Street home with black-and-white historic photographs of the nurses, medics and his father in uniform spread out before him. “The only real hope they had was to get to an area where they could be rescued.”
The medics and nurses were part of a specially trained medical team that stabilized seriously wounded soldiers at aid stations near the front lines and flew them to hospitals farther back from the fighting, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s commemoration of The Army Nurse Corps during WWII.
The fortitude of the nurses led to the incident being deemed “one of the most famous incidents in Nurse Corps history,” the Nurse Corps history states.
The 26 nurses and medics boarded a C-53D Skytrooper in Catania, Sicily, on Nov. 8, 1943, for a two-hour flight to Bari, Italy, but inclement weather and equipment failure threw them off course and they somehow crossed the Adriatic Sea and crash-landed in Albania, which had fallen to the Germans just months before.
“They had to get over the mountains and work with the Albanian underground because it was German-occupied,” Cranson said. “You had to trust people but you were afraid to trust people. What if they were a Nazi sympathizer?”
The more than 650-mile trek took the group over several mountain ranges, once during blizzard conditions, and from village to village.
“He talked about how poor Albania was and how good the people were to him,” Cranson said of his father, Bob. “He wouldn’t have made it without them.”
When the Americans got to Berat, Albania, three nurses became separated from the main group. Each night the Americans were broken into small groups and each stayed with a different villager. When they awoke to leave Berat, the Germans had arrived and the partisan family helping the three nurses told them to hide in the basement, the U.S. Army history states.
The others, including Cranson, scrambled to leave Berat and had no choice but to leave after the three nurses did not show up at the rendezvous point. They left Berat not knowing the fate of the missing nurses and were rescued from a coastal area on Jan. 9, 1944, by a team made up of American, British and Yugoslav forces, but the original rescue had been scheduled for the day before, said Denis Cranson.
“There were Germans there [patrolling the Adriatic Sea] when they went to meet the boat, so they had to delay it a day,” he said. “They were scared to death they were not going to get rescued. They were starving.”
The group was rescued and a newsreel of them finally arriving in Bali, Italy, produced by the First Army Air Forces combat film detachment, still survives.
The three missing nurses in Berat hid for three months while fake paperwork was created to sneak them out of the German-occupied town.
“Dressed as Albanian civilians and supplied with Albanian identification cards, the nurses finally left Berat by car in March ,” the Nurse Corps history states.
The three were taken deep into the countryside and rode pack mules to the coast where they met up with a torpedo boat that took them to Otranto, Italy, on March 21, 1944.
While famous in the Nurse Corps, the incident was almost lost to history because those involved were barred by the government from speaking about the ordeal in order to protect those who assisted them behind enemy lines, said Cate Lineberry, who nearly two years ago contacted Cranson about her book, “The Secret Rescue: The Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines,” which includes his father.
“It was a real gift to read her book,” Cranson said, with Lineberry’s book and two others, one written by a nurse on the ill-fated flight and one by another medic, nearby.
“He never provided a tremendous amount of detail. That was that generation of people,” Cranson said of his dad. “They came home [from war] and became silent about it.”
Lineberry said she happened on the story a couple years ago while researching another World War II story and was intrigued by the tale of wartime survival in harm’s way.
“What I think is so interesting about this group is they were ordinary men and women and they all raised themselves up to face this difficult situation,” she said Friday by phone from Washington, D.C., where several anniversary events are taking place. “They were in harrowing positions. The woman and these particular men were never supposed to be behind enemy lines. It’s a testament for them all.”
A memorial was held Saturday at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute, she said.
“We’re expecting about 127 people, including Harold Hayes, the one remaining survivor, and family members of the Albanians and Americans,” the author said.
Bob Cranson, who was the oldest member of the downed flight, continued as a flight medic until he was discharged from the Army Air Force in 1945. He returned to Sandy Creek, N.Y., and shortly afterward moved to Bangor to work as a laborer and raise a family. He worked for Penobscot County for years and had a hand in constructing Roque Bluffs State Park, his son said.
His father opened up about the war at the end of this life, Denis Cranson said. He died in 1991.
“When you fought, you did what you had to do and you didn’t talk about it again,” Cranson said, referring to an edict of The Greatest Generation, of which his father was a member.
“It really is quite a story,” the Bangor resident said. “It stayed with him right until the end. He never forgot it. For him, it was a life changer.”