AS WE TOPPED THE BIG HILL AFTER CLIMBING FOR HALE AN hour we walked straight into the deliciously warm morning sunlight. Little flowers bloomed along the path we followed— a path the sheep had worn across the hills—and we chatted amiably. It was nice to be ashore in such a lovely place. East lay the mountainous landscape of the island, rocky and wild; the wonderfully blue Adriatic, quiet now, was a vast aquamarine below us to westward. On the horizon, we could see the island of Vis beyond the water we had crossed during the long night.
Suddenly a sentry's voice rang out from a clump of bushes nearby. We could hear the click of the bolt as he loaded the chamber of his rifle. "Halt! Who goes?" The words were different but the rhythm and accent were the same— That phrase must be recognizable in Chinese. . . .
"Partisan," Ilic answered.
"Advance, one, and be recognized." (That too sounded the same.)
Ilic walked over to the bushes and the rest of us waited in silence where we were. The sentry never showed himself to us. He was covering us from behind big rocks that lay beyond the bushes and he remained there until he had talked to the Colonel and satisfied himself that we were really friends. He was alone on that hill-side with his rifle and there were five of us (counting Joco), every one armed with a sub-machine gun and a couple of grenades. . . .
When he did step forth he was a tall, hirsute man in tattered clothes and bare feet who needed only a jug of corn likker to pass for a primitive Kentucky mountaineer. He directed us to a narrow roadway leading into the town of Hvar.
We found the path and sauntered on. It was pleasant to be able to move in such leisurely fashion after hurrying all the time, night and day. None of us regretted our night's misadventure as we laughed aloud, recalling the antics of the poor mechanic.
When we rounded a bend in the road and discovered the town of Hvar below, its extraordinary beauty transfixed us. For a while we stayed up there, resting, above this exquisite village snuggled in against the hills at the back of a natural harbor, white houses and vineyards and pine trees in amphitheatre array, oriented to the clear blue sea, its raison d'etre: then we made our way down the long hill into the terraced gardens to the steep and narrow streets, until we reached the waterfront.
That day began auspiciously, but before it ended it became a nightmare. I had been half-cured of a lingering case of dysentery when I left the Middle East, and at three o'clock that afternoon the hara-kiri belly cramps returned. It was just after we had finished lunching at Headquarters in Starigrad, to which we had driven in a truck over amazing roads that wound among the vineyards on those big rocky hills. The country was a desert of rocks and it seemed incredible that anyone should try to cultivate it, yet the vines were everywhere, sometimes on plots no bigger than a hat. We arrivedp>at Headquarters ravenously hungry and were given an excellent meal of rich stew and potatoes. The cramps set in as we were climbing back into the truck to drive on to Jelsa, another twenty miles along the coast toward the mainland.
I prayed that they might pass, but their intransigence compelled me to stop the truck several times along the way. . . .
It was just before we left Starigrad that we had a look at reinforcements on their way to Brae. Colonel Ilic called our attention to the embarkation as we were finishing lunch. Two hundred Partisans were filing by under our windows and boarding a ship that lay there against the sea wall.
It was my first look at Partisan forces going into battle and I found them an odd spectacle. Almost one third of them were women, but they were not dressed like Olga; they were clad in uniforms as strangely compounded as those of the men, but there was no trace of preoccupation with their appearance in any one of them. I had seen men in the Partisan ranks before, and they all looked more or less alike, although they differed in quality, as men do anywhere, when you look at them closely; but the women were different. The men were males of their species and preserved their aggressive maleness, but the women had been transformed in some way; they had lost their characteristic female pride. They had become fighting units: they were no longer women. All preoccupation with themselves as women was gone. They had become soldiers without sex. As I watched them file by I found them rather terrifying.
"Where do the women come from?" I asked Ilic. "They have a strange look about them."
Ilic had been watching them march past silently at my elbow. "They come from a village in the interior of the island that was burned to the ground by the Ustasha," he said. "Most of them saw their men killed before their eyes—and their male children as well. The younger ones were undoubtedly raped in the presence of their husbands before the husbands were shot. They are killers now. . . ."
We reached Jelsa at dusk and were offered another excellent stew for dinner, but I passed it up. Instead I searched my musette bag and almost whooped with joy on finding the little flat tin of twelve sulfanilamide tablets issued to frontline troops with instructions to take one every quarter of an hour after being wounded. ... I took six at once and the rest at the rate of one each hour, washing them down with rakjia. The treatment was rough, but if it made me feel shaky I could always use benzedrine—the only other drug I carried (except for a bottle of rakjia) to pick me up and keep me in good form—when we reached Tito's Headquarters.
It worked, too. The treatment may not be orthodox therapy, but it worked. The cramps diminished and by the next morning they were practically gone; but there were some long hours in the night when I felt like feeding myself the one other tablet in my pharmacy—the ugly rubber-covered pill that opens the door into the next world in a matter of seconds for men in our line of business when they are captured and there lies nothing before them but the torture chamber, that instrument of interrogation which might lead even a strong man to betray his friends. (That pill was standard equipment for all of us in enemy country.)
A tiny fishing boat was waiting to ferry us over from Jelsa to the point on the mainland where the Colonel's men would be waiting to take us to the interior. There were disconcerting reports on the progress of the German offensive waiting for us in Jelsa, too. German landings had been attempted and repulsed on the island of Korcula, a few miles south of the p>eastern part of Hvar Island where we were having dinner, and the Germans had not yet been thrown back from Brae, where they had landed the day before. There was great activity throughout the entire area and we were encouraged to exercise extreme caution in crossing over to the mainland that night. There would be enemy patrols about. Colonel Ilic, it was easy to see, was anxious and worried.
Fortunately, it was an uncommonly dark night. We went aboard the little fishing boat soon after eight o'clock and found it much like others we had seen, machine guns on short tripods guarding the decks, men lying in shallow sandbag revetments behind them. Steve and the Commissar sat on a hatch-cover talking in low tones as we crept out of the harbor with the engine throttled back to make a minimum of noise. The Colonel and I threw away our cigarettes and stood together in the darkness at the starboard rail.
The trip probably required only about an hour, but it seemed longer, for some reason. Ilic and I talked in low tones. I had been wondering whether he was married and now asked him. He paused a moment before answering, "Yes . . . I'm married."
"Where is your wife?" I asked.
"The Chetniks captured her."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Long ago?"
"No. Four months ago, early in June. . . ."
I could not see his face but I could feel how painful was the story, and regretted having blundered into it, but before I could say anything he continued:
"They took her to the Headquarters of Draza Mihailovic and he interrogated her personally without getting anything from her, then he said to her: 'Your husband is one of the men who is ruining Jugoslavia,'—and he had her shot."
There was a long articulate silence, then Hie added, speaking slowly in the same quiet voice: "The BBC often says there are certain little outstanding points of difference and ill-will between the Partisans and Mihailovic . . . well, this is one of them."
When we reached the mainland, we went ashore silently and walked a long way over a narrow foot-path. At the end of it, we found the command post of the garrison defending that particular point on the coast. There were sentries and guards everywhere. Hie led the way into a room on the second floor, where we found the Commanding Officer before a small desk cluttered with documents and reports. The officers and men were all happy to see him and pressed forward to wring his hand. He had a few pleasant words for each one and they all turned away beaming broadly. There were further reports here on the progress of the fighting and Ilic pored over them all, discussing each item with his captains and lieutenants. Decisions were taken and orders issued, and the minutes ran into hours. For a time I slept in a chair. It was half past one when we said good-bye and set out afoot again the thick darkness.
We had learned there, with pleasure, that our supplies were arriving from Vis and that several truck-loads had already gone inland.
This time there was only a short distance to go. We entered what appeared to be an olive grove on the hillside and found two Italian vehicles waiting there, one, a light truck, the other a small staff car. A group of Partisans appeared from nowhere and pressed around us, saluting with clenched fist to the temple and a chorus of "Zdravos." Someone started the engines and turned on the lights and we piled into our vehicles. Every
man was armed, like us, with a sub-machine gun and grenades as well as a pistol.
How Steve and the Commissar and I all managed to sit in the back seat of the little staff car, even with pistols twisted around to lie across the groin instead of on the hip, is still a mystery, for the car was very narrow. But we did it. The Colonel, who was much the biggest of the four of us, sat in splendor alone in the front with the driver. We kept our submachine guns handy across our knees.
Ahead of us lay our own "Burma Road"—one of several, all alike—over which our supplies would have to move to the interior. German garrisons lay all about us. The back roads we would use passed within a few miles of some of the largest enemy garrisons in Jugoslavia, and there was one stretch several miles long where we would be obliged to abandon the back roads and make a dash for it over highways that were German held. . . .
In the thick night it was impossible to discern the vast bulk of the mountains but one could feel them there, and we had hardly quit the olive grove before we began to ascend.
At that point on the coast the mountains rise to an altitude of about six thousand feet almost vertically. The peaks are probably not more than half a mile in from the sea. The truck led the way and we followed close behind, grinding along in low and intermediate gear through an endless succession of hair-pin bends, back and forth, back and forth, across the mountainside. It was a road over which no one would have driven a car, except on a bet, in peacetime. Here and there the entire shoulder of the road had crumbled away into the abyss and what remained sloped invitingly toward the fault. We would hug the hillside there, scraping fenders against the bank, tipped up steeply, and creep by.
Big rocks had been stood on the soft shoulder at the outside of some of the worst hair-pin turns, but this was an unusual precaution. The boundaries of the road were usually a cliff rising on one side and a seemingly vertical drop into the sea on the other. Loose rock that had fallen from the heights above encumbered this narrow thoroughfare, often forcing us out perilously close to the wrong side. And occasionally the remains of a half-removed road block did the same, but the drivers went over the boulders and loose stone if they could, preferring this lurching and pitching to the breathless squeeze past on the outer edge.
After an hour of this slow ascent we reached a point midway up the mountain side where another command post was situated. On that first stretch of the road we had met no sentries and as we got out of the car the Colonel said: "That's one of the worst stretches. There's only one more ahead that is as bad."
We stumbled into this mountain Headquarters, led by Hie, who again settled down to a long series of conferences with his officers. I found one who spoke English and questioned him closely about the road. The Partisans were constantly being ambushed on the section we had just crossed, he said, and although escape was easy for the men there was always danger of losing their precious vehicles. The terrain was ideal for road blocks and these could be built in an instant simply by dislodging a litde loose rock on the steep hillside above the road. ... It was his opinion that only by driving the enemy out of the immediate area could the road be made safe. Workmen sent down there now were in constant peril from snipers. . . .
I fell asleep again for a while, sitting at the edge of the table where Ilic and his men conferred, and at three o'clock we left to resume our grinding ascent.
The road was the same above that station, winding and turning. We bumped over fallen rock, rubbed against the mountain side, pitched and jolted and twisted along at a snail's pace. As we gained altitude the temperature fell off sharply so that now the cold was added to our other miseries. We entered a cloud-bank moving on a brisk wind, as chill and penetrating as sea-water.
These were the worst hours of the night. Fatigue and the cramps in the belly and the cold reduced me to a semiconscious condition, a kind of shivering nightmare. Steve, who sat next to me, roused me now and then to thrust a lit cigarette into my hand or pass me the rakjia bottle, recommending a gulp. Time stopped. We went on and on, always in the same place, always in the same swirling cold mist. I dreamt I was dying of peritonitis and woke to find that it was true, but that I could make no progress with it.
When we reached the top of the mountain the weather changed again. A dry, cold wind blew down upon us from the interior. The waning moon hung low in the sky and there was bright starlight overhead. We stopped then and got out to stretch while Ilic talked with the sentries who had hailed us in a bend of the road. There were sentries everywhere along the road now and from the manner in which they challenged it was evident that they reckoned with the possibility of any car that came along being German. . . .
When we resumed our journey it was at a lively pace. The road was better and the drivers crashed along at top speed; it was a perpetual race to get through the next danger zone before daylight.
Once we got off the road onto a well-surfaced strip that provided a real dash of speed—until the sentries halted us again and told us we were only three miles from Imotski and headed straight for it. We turned around then. Imotski was in German hands.
The country about us, after we had crossed over the coastal range, was a wild desolation of strewn boulders, ghostly and oppressive in the starlight. No vegetation of any consequence was to be seen.
When the truck stopped again before the solitary figure of a Partisan rifleman asking for the password we had reached a broad plain that appeared to be under cultivation.
We were always hailed in the same way, one man stepping suddenly into the glare of the headlamps with his rifle held in two hands at the hip, pointed into the windshield and ready to shoot. He would be given the password in low tones, then other Partisans would step forth from behind trees and rocks to inquire about the situation down the road and see whether there were any messages from Headquarters.
This time there were thirty or forty men in the party. Our men remained in the truck, in obedience to an order from the driver, but we got out and walked around while Ilic and the Commissar delivered orders and gathered information.
"This is it," Steve said, pointing down the road a little way to an intersection. "We go on along that road there, to the left. It's one of the main roads in the country. The Germans often patrol it in heavy armored cars at night. In the daytime they drive back and forth along it with trucks and supplies— although we shoot at them. The big garrison we nearly called on at Imotski has no other supply route."
Instinctively we checked our weapons as we got back into the car and a moment later we swept into the open road. The /p>
engines roared as the drivers "stepped on it." We thundered along at sixty miles an hour.
Ten minutes later the truck slowed and whirled off the road toward the north. We followed. Ilic turned to us, grinning. "The rest is easy, now," he said.
We were entering the "liberated territories."
Throughout the remaining hours of the night we worked our way along from one village to the next. We were in an inhabited world now. The mountains-of-the-moon country with the grey-clad Partisan riflemen like armed ghosts behind the rocks—Jugoslavia's no-man's-land—lay behind us. We were safe among our friends.
In each village we were given the watch-word for the stretch of road ahead between us and the next Partisan garrison. Morning found us driving through a pleasant land with picturesque peasants going out to their fields to work. Romantic Bosniak villages dotted the landscape. Everywhere we were greeted with Zdravos and broad smiles. There was a sprinkling of Partisan uniforms in every village, but we saw no concentration of troops anywhere.
At eight o'clock in the morning we drove into the big town of Livno and went to Headquarters for a shave and breakfast. I could hardly walk when I got out of the car, but the last of the cramps passed after I had tramped around a while and gulped some hot stew and black bread and wine. As we would be in Tito's Headquarters during the afternoon I decided this was the right time to swallow the remaining benzedrine, then I lay down on a bunk and rested for a little while. When I got up my troubles were over. The drug worked. I felt full of pep and elation in anticipation of the coming meeting.
Ilic introduced Steve and me to a number of his fellow officers, the commanders of various brigades in his sector. We talked at length about improving the "Burma Road" and increasing the garrison on the coast to safeguard the supply-route. Fifty men, with two hundred riflemen to keep them covered, could make the road quite passable for trucks like our standard two-and-a-half-ton Army model, the "six by six," as it is called. This vehicle has ten driving wheels and can manoeuvre very well on difficult terrain. But I was reluctant to consider sending any of them over—if we should succeed in drawing them, which would be difficult—without first having the road repaired and strengthening the patrols on its lower reaches. Ilic and his officers thought this would be easy, but the Colonel was unwilling to make any commitments. "It's something to setde with the Commander," (meaning Tito) he said. "It's a part of the whole problem of our coastal defences."
We remained there until after lunch when we set out again, this time in two staff cars, without the escorting truck and its troops.
"There's no danger now," Ilic said. "We're in our own country. You can drive for miles without any danger at all."
What he meant was that one could drive for miles without encountering a German column on the move. I noticed he kept his machine-gun on his knees, and that the Commissar and Steve did the same. . . .
"Then why don't we leave these guns here?" I asked.
"Oh, there are a few little Chetnik bands that we never bothered to mop up," Ilic answered. "They live in the hills in the wilder parts of the country and occasionally ambush the cars along the road, so it's sometimes nice to have them."
The trip from Livno to Jajce, through southern Bosnia, was a tourist's dream. The country is beautiful and picturesque beyond belief. At times we drove between pleasant fields, all carefully cultivated; sometimes we were in rough country, heavily forested with giant pine trees, cut through by sparkling mountain streams. Smiles and Zdravos greeted us everywhere. Once we found a peasant whose wagon was stuck in the mud and we all piled out to help him and his little mountain horses haul it back onto the road. We saw many burnt-out villages, but little other evidence of war, then at five o'clock we approached the old Turkish city of Jajce, built on the slopes of a big hill whose summit is crowned by the ruins of a very ancient castle, an old "Kula."
The streets were filled with Partisans as we worked our way through the narrow thoroughfares up the hillside. When we stopped we were near a small cedar grove in the shadow of the crumbling castle walls. Orderlies rushed up to assist us from the cars, relieving us of musette bags and paraphernalia, and to escort us to a gate in the fence surrounding the grove. A stalwart, smiling officer in grey uniform was waiting for us there.
"Comrade Tito," Ilic said. "These are my friends, Major Huot and Commander Mladineo."
He shook hands with us warmly.