- - Wednesday, October 2, 2013

By Timothy M. Gay
NAL Caliber, $26.95, 279 pages

Although this amazing story did not receive much press during or after World War II, Timothy M. Gay’s book informs us of the courage and “savage will” of the men and women of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron after their Dakota C-53 aircraft crashed-landed in Nazi-held Albania, 850 miles from Allied lines.

The 807th nurses and medics boarded the aircraft in Sicily in 1943. This was to be a routine flight to the Italian mainland, where the medical personnel were assigned to care for wounded soldiers. But the C-53 flew into a storm and became lost, and the pilots were forced to crash-land the aircraft in what they later discovered was mountainous Albania.

Without winter clothing or weapons, the air crew and passengers were ill-equipped to survive in hostile territory and even more hostile weather. Albania in 1943, Mr. Gay tells us, was a war-ravaged land, occupied by German troops and rival bands of pro-German and anti-German guerrilla forces.

Mr. Gay’s “Savage Will” begins in a dramatic fashion with a 23-year-old British Special Operations Executive (SOE) officer in Egypt named Jon Naar receiving a surreal late-night telephone call.

“‘Captain Naar here,’ he answered, in his brisk British public school way,” Mr. Gay writes. “The connection was remarkably free of static. A female operator said, “Please hold for the president.” A moment later, there was no mistaking the patrician Yankee accent, so famous from radio broadcasts and movie newsreels.”

The caller was President Franklin Roosevelt, and he demanded to know why it was taking so long to get the nurses out of Albania. Seven decades later, Mr. Naar, at 93, still recalled the telephone call.

“Before I could explain the logistical complexities of trying to extricate 30 Americans in the dead of winter from a mountainous country occupied by three divisions of the Wehrmacht and several brigades of pro-Nazi Albanian collaborators entirely in control of all the major roads and airfields, the president said ‘Captain, if any one of those girls is so much as touched, there’ll be serious consequences!’

“After a slight pause, FDR snapped, ‘They are the flower of American womanhood. They must be saved at all costs!’”

As this was one of the rare cases of women being trapped behind enemy lines, the British SOE and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), along with the Allied air forces, put together a desperate rescue mission to get the nurses and medics out of Albania. Looking over their shoulders with impatience were FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Gay points out in the book, the rescue mission was somewhat marred by a bitter rivalry between the British and the Americans. The British thought the rescue operation deflected from their primary mission, which was to help the Albanian resistance fight the Germans. They also resented the interference by FDR; the OSS chief, Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan; and his OSS operatives.

Nevertheless, despite their differences, the rescue mission ultimately became what Mr. Gay calls the “most inspired Allied team effort of the war.”

One of the unsung heroes of the story, in addition to the nurses and medics themselves, is a 24-year-old SOE lieutenant named Gavan Bernard “Gary” Duffy. Duffy, a demolitions expert, was in central Albania teaching Partisan guerrillas how to “blow up roads, bridges and the occasional Nazi staff car.” Duffy was assigned the difficult task of leading the Americans out of Albania.

Other unsung heroes are the Albanian Partisan guides and the many poor Albanians, who offered food and shelter to the trapped Americans over the course of more than 60 days.

Duffy, the guides and the Americans traveled some 800 miles up, down and across cold, mountainous terrain. They not only had to survive the weather, meager food and raggedy clothing, they also had to elude Nazi troops and pro-Nazi Albanian guerrillas.

“Before the ordeal finally ended, it would ensnare two future movie stars, one English and one American; one of the most decorated soldiers in English history; the British Empire’s most renowned explorer and mountaineer; the scion of Britain’s largest cookie fortune; and the Cold War’s most notorious traitor,” Mr. Gay writes. “To spring the final group of Americans, Allied special operatives and their Albanian cohorts would concoct a subterfuge so audacious that it rivaled the Central Intelligence Agency’s Argo rescue in Iran thirty-six years later.”

This interesting, well-researched story reads like a thriller, and I suspect, like “Argo,” it would make an interesting movie.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers law enforcement, intelligence and the military.

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