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It would have been reassuring then to know that Captain Fred Jensen would be at the dock in an hour, but I had no inkling of his presence in Italy until I got back a week later and found him using our Partisan friends like a crew of longshoremen—and making them like it. Fred was bland and charming and gay, but as hard as steel. When my work in the Adriatic was finished, he and Tim carried on, increasing the pace with each day that passed until the frantic tempo of the operations made military and naval authorities gasp and brought Admirals and Generals from miles around, just to have a look.
Steve and I sat on the fore-deck and watched the gunners checking their weapons as we roared out of the port, three MTB's in a line, as usual, and breasted the gentle swells of the open sea. As soon as we were clear, they fired a chattering burst from each weapon, just to be sure everything was ready for any prowling enemy aircraft we might run into before darkness set in, then they relaxed in vigilant attitudes, the men in the power turrets swinging themselves from side to side unceasingly and scanning the wide blue skies.
Once they found a speck on the horizon and held it firmly in their sights as it rushed down upon us, twenty-odd heavy machine guns and light automatic cannon on our three little ships covering its rapid approach—but it turned out to be a Spitfire.
Steve still had a worried look and I refrained with difficulty from teasing him about his fears. The report he had turned in after an afternoon's steady writing in Vis on the eighteenth would be far up the line toward Jajce—or it might even be in Tito's hands by now. In a few hours he might know the verdict, he might be quit of his fears—or the worst of them might be realized.
It was simply not imaginable to me that he could be in trouble. I was absolutely certain that good news awaited him when we should see Ilic again, but I was not sufficiently familiar with Partisan discipline to feel free to initiate any discussion of his anxiety: it was up to him to do that, if we were to talk about it at all, and he was not doing it. I gave him marks for his pride in the matter and turned my thoughts to distracting him.
"Now that we have the mine-fields charted and a supply of high octane gas waiting on the island we might use one of the MTB's to go down to the coast tonight," I suggested.
"That's a good idea," he answered, "but I think we should stop at Starigrad on the way. There might be a message there for us, and besides, we should go there to make final arrangements for the sinking of the Rah. That attack could be carried out tomorrow night. They can get a message across from Starigrad to the mainland by telegraph and courier in a matter of hours."
"All right," I agreed. "Just so we don't have to cross in that damned little launch again."
The weather was fine, for a change, as we plunged ahead at twenty knots into the dusk, the sun sinking on our port beam. We were in the leading launch of the three and the two behind us were a pretty sight with the light falling flat across them as they thundered down the white path of our foaming wake. We wandered happily about the little ship, going below to look at the three vibrating thousand-horsepower engines that were hurling us along, going up forward again for a smoke on the open deck, cigarettes being tabu behind the bridge on these vessels, and a few minutes after ten o'clock we cruised into the harbor of Vis at reduced speed and tied up beside the now familiar sea-wall.
Our first duty, as usual, was to call at Headquarters for a glass of rakjia with Nikic and his colleagues, and to see that all our ships had come in and whether there were any messages there for us. It was known at Headquarters that this time the MTB's were out for business, and there was jubilation over their arrival. The officer commanding them, a lad of twenty-one in the uniform of the wavy navy (Royal Naval Reserve) accompanied us and was warmly welcomed.
"This is Lieutenant Edward Tyler, commander of the three launches that came over tonight," I told Nikic. He shook hands with the slim young officer enthusiastically and said: "How old are you?" His directness startled Tyler who blushed as he gave his age.
"How many ships have you torpedoed?" Nikic persisted.
"Only five," Tyler answered with embarrassment. "But I have not been in the service very long."
"Five!" Nikic shouted. "Five! Tell us about them."
"Two were destroyers and three were merchant vessels," Tyler stammered. "The destroyers were in an enemy port and we had to jump over the torpedo boom that closed the mouth of the harbor, so we just went in at full speed and got over it all right. They were so surprised to see us in the harbor that
we got both torpedoes away at point-blank range and were on our way out again before they really started shooting—and we had been lucky; our propellers were undamaged by the boom so we were able to get away. The others, the merchant ships, were just ordinary operations."
All this was translated into Serbo-Croat for the benefit of all who were present, with many loud exclamations and epithets, and all the Partisans surrounded Tyler to thump him on the back and assure him in their language, which he could not understand, that he was a great man, a hero, an absolute tiger. There was panic in his expression and I could see that he was more alarmed by the awful turn this situation had taken than he had ever been on the bridge of his little boat during any of his battles. When I suggested to him a few moments later that he take us over to Starigrad an expression of immense relief came over his features.
"Certainly," he said, "certainly, with great pleasure," beginning to edge his way toward the door. Anything to get out of that crowded little office!
Steve and I were back with him aboard his boat a few minutes later. He sent the other two launches around to their hiding places with orders to report back at the sea-wall the following night at nine o'clock. Then we cruised out through the harbor mouth into the eternally choppy water between Vis and the tip of Hvar, there to slam and bounce our way along at a brisk pace. The Partisans would supply him with a liaison officer who spoke English when we got to Starigrad, and through him he could effect contact with the Partisan command which would be necessary for the operations against the Rab.
There had been no message waiting for Steve at the Vis Headquarters, but Nikic had told him there was a message at /p>
Starigrad. He told me that on the way over, and I could see he was consumed with impatience to have a look at it.
We were soon driving down the deep fjord that leads to the old harbor, as usual acknowledging rifle shots from the hillsides with the night's lamp-signals, learned at Vis, and soon after twelve we tied up to a big bollard on the sea-wall near Headquarters. Steve and I jumped ashore at once, but Tyler, no doubt still shaken by his experience at Vis, said he preferred to wait aboard, unless his presence should be specifically required.
The glaring white light of a gasoline lantern suspended from the ceiling blinded us for a moment when we thrust open the door of the small office, and there, to our great surprise, stood Colonel Uic and his inseparable Commissar. They greeted us with cries of pleasure and announced that they had just arrived a few minutes before.
"We were on our way to the coast," I said. "We thought you were going to be there."
"We were impatient to see you," Ilic answered, smiling warmly, his eyes twinkling. "There was time, so we hurried over." I thought his manifest good spirits augured well for my friend Steve but he said nothing about any message until after we had had a drop of rakjia together, clinking glasses like old friends, then he nudged my elbow lightly and produced an envelope from his pocket which he delivered casually after checking to see that this was indeed the one marked for "Commander Stevo Mladineo."
Steve glanced at his face and at the Commissar's before breaking the seal, but there was nothing to be read there;.they were both absolutely dead-pan. With a quick nervous gesture he opened the envelope and drew the fold of paper from the interior.
The message was brief, but he stared at it for a long minute, reading it over and over again. It was from Tito himself and consisted of generous words of praise for his initiative and an appointment which, in a more orthodox government, would have carried cabinet rank: he had been made Commissar of the Jugoslav Merchant Marine! When we entered the room, he had been white in the face; now the color flushed back into his cheeks as we all shook hands with him, offering our congratulations and good wishes.
"Olga will be happy when she sees this note," he whispered to me.
We stayed until after three at Starigrad, planning and conferring. I told Hie that our recommendations had gone in and that an air attack would be made shortly against the Snell-Boat base in the mouth of the Neretva River; also that all plans for maintaining a secret MTB base at Vis had been approved and that the boats were already there with orders to remain until all German shipping was safe at the bottom of the sea.
The Germans were aware of our activities and determined to interrupt them at all costs. They had already launched an attack on the western part of the island of Brae, twenty miles north of where we were, and a battle was going on there now. They had also launched an attack in some strength against the Pelejesac Peninsula, just south of Hvar Island, obviously determined to cut us off. All this was alarming news. Reinforcements were being gathered in the islands and rushed to the scenes of action, but the outcome was still anything but clear. What could we do to help? the Colonel wondered. Could we bomb Netkovic and Mostar?
Soon after three, Tyler sent word to us that he would be compelled to leave within the next half hour if he was to /p>
make his way safely to the berth where his Partisan camouflage artists were waiting to hide him from the patrols that would be over soon after seven o'clock in the morning. As it was too late for us to make our way to the coast before daybreak, it was suggested we go back to Vis and set out again on the following night, should it be necessary for Steve and me to make that journey. I suspected that the Colonel and the Commissar wanted a ride in one of the MTB's and fell in with the proposal at once.
It was while racing through the choppy seas on our way back to Vis that the Colonel sprang his second surprise on us. Tito was eager to see us at his Headquarters in Jajce and had asked him to bring us up as soon as he could. There was a military escort waiting now on the coast to take us through, if we could manage it on this trip. . . . Tito, it seemed, preferred to talk to us himself and answer our insistent questions; and there were arrangements to be made for the third leg of the supply route, that section which lay between the coast and the interior. I wanted to see for myself how difficult it was to get through the German lines and what equipment would be needed to keep the cargo moving. ... I would get a chance to see the officers I had sent in to Tito's Headquarters from Cairo—those who had dropped in by parachute—and find out from them what life was like in the interior of the liberated countries . . . and I would meet Tito, the mysterious leader whose name was now beginning to trouble the imagination of statesmen throughout the western world! Steve's eyes were shining. For him it would be a pilgrimage to the shrine.
"How long would it take us to make the trip?" I asked Ilia
"If we leave Vis tomorrow night early, we can be in Jajce the next afternoon—with luck," he answered.
"And without luck?"
The Colonel shrugged and looked bored. I realized it was a stupid question. Steve looked at rfie with mounting anxiety. Could it be that I was thinking of putting the trip off until later?
"All right, we'll leave tomorrow night," I agreed.
At Headquarters in Vis we found a conference in progress when we arrived a little before five o'clock. Further reports had come in from the battle in western Brae, and they were all bad. The Germans had gained a foot-hold there and efforts to dislodge them were not prospering. Could the MTB's be used? The answer was that they could not. They are built to hurl torpedoes and virtually useless for every other kind of fighting, being much too vulnerable. The hours passed. Day came, bringing the Dornier over us as usual, and bringing problems of its own. We needed crews for many more ships and additional stevedores at the dock in Bari. I wanted to check the methods that were used for handling supplies once they reached Vis, knowing that sooner or later the military and naval authorities from which we were drawing millions of dollars' worth of war materials in Italy would question us about it. And there were further details to arrange about fueling the MTB's and about the attack on the Rah. Thus the whole day passed. The Dornier pilot droned by overhead on his evening round, found everything n6rmal, and went home to supper, and at nine o'clock we started out again, this time for the coast and the interesting journey overland to Tito's Headquarters.
The MTB's were on the prowl that night and we wanted to leave them to it, unencumbered by the necessity to ferry us about, so the wretched little Chetnik was going to take us across to Starigrad where a proper sea-going fishing boat /p>
would take us aboard and carry us on to the coast. We boarded her without enthusiasm and set forth.
The first hour of that journey passed pleasantly enough, although the seas were much too big for a craft of that dimension. We bobbed and wallowed like a cork, but the engine beat out the knots with a steady throbbing. The old pilot who had guided her on our previous voyage was not with us that night and in his place there stood Joco, a wiry, squirrel-like little man, who talked incessandy to the mechanic in charge of the engine, who said nothing in reply. Finally the mechanic, who had already betrayed some symptoms of seasickness and was turning greener by the moment, leaned over the side in copious offering to the fishes.
When he recovered his place on the bench beside the garrulous Joco, he put his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands. For him it was the end of the world. Joco tried to put some spirit in him by friendly chaffing, but groans and sighs were his only reward.
For a little while we proceeded silendy, except for the steady drone of the engine, then something went wrong: the engine began to knock violendy and slow down. Joco screamed at the sick mechanic who roused himself at last and went forward on all fours into the cramped space beside the hot engine to see what he could do, but no sooner had he set out on this expedition than he fell to vomiting again, this time all over the hot machinery. It was more than the little Chet-nik's rebellious engine proposed to put up with. It spluttered a noisy mechanical protest and stopped dead.
Joco's remonstrances were comical. He chided the mechanic gently, his voice as tender and persuasive as a woman's when she scolds her child. I could not understand the words, but the intonations were revealing. The mechanic stayed a few moments, stupefied, on all fours, then he retreated from his cubicle and seated himself again, groaning, on the bench and buried his head in his hands. Joco's protests were of no avail. There was nothing he could do about the engine, the mechanic said. If it should be started up again it would catch fire; and he would have nothing further to do with it. Joco cleaned up the mess.
The scene might have been wonderfully comic if it had not been so serious. We could not be more than four or five miles from the western extremity of the island of Hvar. There was little wind, but a big soft swell was slowly carrying us toward the cliffs that constitute that shore-line, where we would be smashed like an egg flung against a wall. The big swells were gentle enough in the open sea; where they met the cliffs it would be another story. I could see, in my mind's eye, the roaring breakers and the white spray ascending sixty or eighty feet into the darkness from the place where they finally washed up against the shore. . . .
Ilic contemplated the sick mechanic with undisguised amusement. "What a type," he exclaimed. "What a poor miserable specimen of a man!" There was pity in his words and no trace of annoyance or resentment. It struck him as absurd that anyone should be so utterly ignoble and craven. "Can't you pull yourself together?" he asked the mechanic. The latter shook his head. Ilic turned to me and explained: "It is not really his fault. He is an automobile mechanic, not a sailor. We took him because there was nothing else, but I'm afraid he will not be much use to us."
To my unforgettable consternation and dismay the Colonel then turned up the collar of his greatcoat and lay down on the bottom of the boat with his cap over his eyes. I presume he went to sleep, for there was no further movement in him.
"For Christ's sake," I said to Steve, "we've got to do something about this. No one is going to come along and pick us up—unless it's the Germans. Are there any oars aboard?"
He answered that there were and began a long incomprehensible conversation with Joco. This lasted so long that I very nearly fell asleep sitting in the stern waiting for it to end, and, when it was over, the oars were at last produced by the pilot from under the planking of the little deck. He and Joco went to work with them, doing the best they could, but there were no oar-locks—only loops of rope over a pin in the gunwale—and the oars themselves were heavy enough to require the strength of three men on each one. I watched them work a while. They were unable to head us into the wind so they settled down to doing their modest best to propel us forward.
Finally I said to Steve: "What's the plan?"
"We'll try to clear the little barren island that ought to be on our lee side and get in behind the tip of Hvar to comparatively sheltered water—if possible," he answered, straining at his task.
I offered to relieve him but got Joco's oar instead, and this agile little sailor then climbed out on the narrow, tilting deck and converted himself into a precarious human mast, using a top coat for a sail. Steve and I toiled silently for a while, becoming drenched with sweat from the exertion. No doubt we did propel the boat forward, some, but it was heavy and our movements, although costly in effort, seemed utterly futile. The Commissar was now apparently sleeping beside the fatalistic colonel. Joco, of the wonderful equilibrium, remained in an upright position with his tiny triangle of wool exposed to the wind, no matter how the launch rolled and tossed, addressing further remonstrances from time to time to the besotted mechanic who never altered his despairing pose or betrayed that he heard any single word of it. The waves were big and black and they slid slowly by beneath us, lifting us very high and lowering us again with infinitely gentle motion. They flowed by hissing slightly, and there was no other sound.
For two hours this silent battle continued, then we began to see the white towers of spray lifting themselves in noiseless rhythm on our starboard side. They were fixed in the middle distance and our position with relation to them seemed unchanged as time passed, but Joco began to shout encouragement to us.
"Harder!" he shouted, "harder! We may still make it past them."
Steve and I said nothing. We had no breath left with which to speak. The oars were taking from us everything we had to give. The Colonel and his Commissar slept soundly. The mechanic never lifted his sea-sick head.
"Shall I relieve one of you at the oars?" Joco shouted. Steve answered negatively, after a glance at me. Neither of us could have maintained our balance where he stood. The surf began to seem nearer, then its voice came to us up the wind. When it filled our ears it proved a better exhortation than anything Joco could shout at us.
We made it past the end of the barren rock reef that lay there in the open sea, clearing it by two hundred yards, but we were unable to clear the next one that turned up on out lee. This time the sea carried us slowly into the danger zone /p>
where the crests began to race in their final mad dash against the rocks.
But Joco saved us from the salt-water bath to which Steve and I had long been reconciled—and probably from a good deal worse than that.
When we were close to the shore—not more than a hundred yards from it—he managed to get us anchored. He had found a good anchor and eighty feet of line in the Chetnik, and he got the anchor's flukes into the limestone bottom while we were still outside the breakers. The seas were terrifying. They rushed down on us with express train speed, hissing furiously, only to glide harmlessly by beneath and around us while we rose high in the air. None burst over us, and there we lay until daylight. The Colonel and the Commissar slept like children at our feet. The mechanic never changed his position, even when he vomited, as he did from time.to time onto his boots and trousers. Steve and I shivered. We found some rakjia in a musette bag and ate some bully-beef out of a tin, and that helped, but our clothes were wet through from the effort we had made. Joco sat with us and smoked, looking at his mechanic now and then to shake his head sadly and observe: "What a miserable, wretched creature!"
The wind shifted before daybreak and the seas subsided. When we could see clearly we went to work again and after a frantic half-hour managed to get ashore unhurt. Joco manipulated the anchor with great skill, pulling it up hand over hand and throwing it back to what he supposed was the right place in the sea, until we were able to pay ourselves out on the line to a point within only a few feet of the shore. He then waited in the stern for a favorable moment and threw himself across the intervening gulf onto the rocks. He got wet, but once there he ran a line across to the stern and the
rest of us were able to go ashore without too much difficulty. That was the last we saw of the Chetnik. We left it, there, anchored in the surf, posting the mechanic on the shore to guard it, and set out over the big hills six or seven miles afoot to Hvar, the nearest village.
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