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May 26, 2013

MARK BENNETT: American nurses, medics, stranded behind Nazi lines, survived through tenacity, heroism, generosity

TERRE HAUTE — A story of survival, perseverance, danger, and extraordinary courage and generosity extended in the midst of war remained untold for decades, but thankfully not forever.

Life-saving help was given, at great risk, “with no promise of anything in return,” as Cate Lineberry put it.

Sacrifice is a primary subplot of her new book, “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines.” It details the unimaginable chaos that confronted 30 Americans — 13 medics, 13 nurses and four flight crew members — in November 1943 as World War II raged. Their intended mission was difficult enough — to fly from Catania, Sicily, toward the combat zone at Bari, Italy, and evacuate sick and wounded troops.

Instead, they flew into a severe storm and then an attack by German fighter planes, veered more than 100 miles off course, and crash-landed into a country they knew little about, Albania, occupied by Nazis and torn by civil war.

The nurses and medics of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron and the airmen had just one gun. They stayed on the run for months, dodging the Nazis, battling the winter cold, starvation and disease, and relying on the kindness of the impoverished Albanian partisans and villagers for food, shelter and cover from the Germans. Aided by underground British and American groups, all were eventually heroically rescued by the Allies.

“These were not the people on the front lines you’d expect to be caught in this situation,” Lineberry said in a telephone interview last week. “These were ordinary men and women fighting in the war who rose to the occasion.”

The 13 nurses faced a predicament rare in that era, Lineberry said, considering women had been granted the right to vote just 23 years earlier.

“They were very brave women,” she said, “going against the grain of the time.” As the lost contingent trekked through remote hills and rugged rural terrain, the young women — between 22 and 32 years old — kept pace with the male medics and airmen. In total, they walked more than 600 miles to elude capture and gain rescue. “I think their fortitude and dedication was outstanding,” Lineberry said.

In their closest brush with the Nazis, three of the women got separated from the group. Scattered in units of three or four in the homes of villagers in Berat, Albania, the Americans awoke to gunfire from German forces. Most ran into the street from their hosts’ homes. The family housing those three nurses advised them to hide in their basement. Stunningly, Nazi soldiers burst in and found them, but let the women go. A boy in the home speculated that his father, a winemaker the Germans found friendly, influenced their escape. It took the Allies two extra months to locate and rescue that trio of nurses.

The Albanians, including both factions of their own civil war, risked execution by the invading Nazis by sharing their homes and meager food supplies with the Americans. Harold Hayes, the lone surviving member of the 30 stranded Americans, told Lineberry that when the poor Albanian people “gave them food out of their own hands, that meant somebody in that village would not be eating that day.”

“It’s an unbelievable story in so many ways,” added Lineberry, a former staff writer and European editor for National Geographic now based in Washington, D.C.

Terre Haute holds a link to that story. Grace Stakeman, born and raised here, served as an Army first lieutenant and head nurse of the 807th in Catania. Though she wasn’t aboard the flight that crashed in Albania, Stakeman helped train the squadron’s 24 nurses, including the 13 involved in that mission. They nicknamed Stakeman — who died in 2001 — “Teach,” and held her in high esteem. Hayes, who lives in Oregon, told Lineberry “the other nurses really respected” Stakeman.

Stakeman’s spirit reflected the gumption her nurses needed to survive the Albanian ordeal.

The book emphasizes the 30-year-old, blonde Terre Hautean’s tenacity, saying, “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.” Her brother, retired Terre Haute printing press operator Rudy Stakeman, agrees.

“She wasn’t scared to argue with anybody,” said Rudy, now 88. “Like it said in the book, she looked fragile but wasn’t.” She once used her nursing skills to pull broken glass from Rudy’s heel and to comfort another brother stricken with malaria. That calm manner served her well in Catania. There, Stakeman led a nurses squadron that helped evacuate 1,651 sick and wounded soldiers in their first three weeks of action, alone, in the fall of 1943.

She wasn’t the only member of her family stationed overseas in the Armed Forces during World War II. Three of Joseph and Ethel Stakeman’s other children — sons Rudy, George and John — were on duty at the same time. At the time, Rudy knew little about his older sister’s role in the evacuation operation. In fact, even after they returned home, “She never said anything about it.” In fact, the 30 Americans kept silent about the episode, initially under military orders and later out of concern for the safety of their Albanian benefactors who lived in a communist dictatorship until 1995 and faced reprisals for aiding Westerners.

Grace left writings about the 807th, though, as a chronicle of the squadron’s history. Her notes proved valuable for Lineberry, who decided to write the book after stumbling upon an old newspaper clipping in 2011 while researching another World War II topic. Grace “was the one that really helped me learn what it was like for those nurses,” Lineberry said. Nurses, for example, received half the pay of their equally ranked male counterparts, the author learned. (Flight nurses earned an extra $60 a month.)

In Albania in 1943, they all managed to live and be rescued. Their page in history is now revealed as Lineberry’s book — published by Little, Brown and Co. — hit store shelves nationally May 7, three weeks before Memorial Day. “It’s an unbelievable story in so many ways,” she said.

And no longer forgotten.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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