Thirty miles down the road we were halted suddenly by an Italian who was too breathless and too excited to tell us what was the matter, but something was seriously wrong. He had been coming up the road at a fast run when we rounded a bend and discovered him. A swig of rakjia steadied the fellow and as soon as he was able to talk he explained that he had been ambushed by a Chetnik band as he came up the road in a truck a few minutes before, just around on the other side of the next hill. He had escaped into the bushes, but the bandits were even now looting his truck and loading the booty onto their horses. . . .
"You see," Ilic said, turning to me. "Sometimes it's nice to have these things with you." He slapped the stock of his machine gun affectionately.
We got out then and prepared a plan of action. Ilic sent one of the cars back to the nearest town for a truckload of soldiers but before they arrived we heard the clatter of machine gun fire down the road, punctuated by a few rifle shots, and almost immediately afterward a little Opal car came up from the direction of the hold-up and stopped beside us. Two cheerful-looking young Partisan officers got out and came laughing over to where we stood.
They had come upon the Chetniks quite unexpectedly, they said, and had tumbled out of their little car immediately and opened fire at what was fairly long range for their nine millimeter sub-machine guns, but their fire had scattered the Chetniks who vanished into the bushes without even taking their horses with them. A few shots had been fired in return by the Chetniks—there were bullet holes in the Opal—but none of them had scored.
They drank a swig of rakjia with us while we waited five minutes for the truck to arrive, then we said good-bye and proceeded down the road again, the soldiers in the truck leading the way.
Except for this little fiasco our trip to Livno was uneventful. We reached Headquarters soon after ten o'clock and clumped up the stairs to the office.
"I hope there's some dinner waiting for us here," Ilic said. "I'm famished."
A smoky kerosene lamp on the table in the middle of the bare little room cast a dim effulgence over the figures of four officers talking together. They broke up at once when we entered and came across to greet us. Among them I recognized Slim, the senior American liaison officer in Partisan Jugoslavia. He finished what he was saying in Serbo-Croat as he came toward us.
"You're getting pretty handy with that language," I said to him.
"No," he answered. "I have a hard time with it, even though I've studied it for a thousand hours."
"Well, it's a good try," I said.
We were near the table now and suddenly he recognized me. "Louis!" he shouted. "For heaven's sake! When did you get in?"
These exclamations were accompanied by thunderous
thumpings on my back and the mutilation of my right hand
in his powerful paw. It was wonderful to see him again and
find him in such good health. Tito's message had simply
instructed him to come to headquarters for "important con
ferences," mischievously refraining from indicating who would
I found Slim unchanged, except for a great black Mongolian-looking mustache which he had cultivated since coming into the country. He looked bigger than ever in the dim light, dressed in British battle dress with an American flag embroidered on his right shoulder, a heavy service pistol slung across his right hip; and for a long time he continued to pound me on the back and shake me by the shoulders and subject me to other forms of affectionate abuse.
"By God, it's wonderful to see you," he said again and again. I shared his feelings. For days I had been looking forward to meeting him and getting his account of all that he had seen since last we were together at the Cairo airport, the night he left to go in.
Ilic broke in upon us to say that there was no truck available to take us to the coast that night and propose that we start out early the next afternoon. He thought it unwise for us to try to get through without an escort. This would give us a chance to talk and make our plans, so I agreed, although by this time I was anxious about the situation at Bari, where I supposed Tim was still alone, and eager to get back there.
Dinner was served to us after a little while; then Slim and I settled down for a long conversation, but we were both too tired to go very far with it. After an hour we decided to turn in. We would have hours to talk together in the morning.
The next morning after breakfast I drove out with Slim
to the village twenty miles away where he had been living for the past ten days. As we talked on the way it became apparent that the only possible course would be for him to come out, at least to Bari, and prepare a comprehensive report on his observations. They were too important to be handled any other way.
I had missed Brigadier MacLean again in Livno, he having driven through a couple of hours before we got in, but Slim confirmed that it was the Brigadier's intention to be in Bari within the next few days. Slim himself was very eager to have a few days in Italy. He was deeply impressed by the Partisan movement and felt that immediate steps should be taken to explain it to our Government.
"How would you like to make a flying trip back to Washington and deliver your reports orally to the White House and the State Department?" I asked him.
(Slim made the trip to Washington before going back to Jajce in a parachute.)
Late that afternoon I was killing time in the square in front of Headquarters. A group of peasants with their carts were clustered together on the far side and I sauntered over to look at their horses. As usual, they pressed around, politely offering their Zdravos and staring with undisguised curiosity. But there was one tall man of sixty who came forward and spoke to me in English.
"I lived in Chicago once for five years," he said. "How are you? It's a great pleasure to see an American officer here."
As we shook hands something strange and almost terrifying about his personality chilled me. I peered closely at him. He was dressed like the rest of the peasants in old working clothes and home-make sandals. It was his face that was strange, the expression in his long lean face. . . . Then I realized that he was aware of my scrutiny and lowered my eyes.
There was a kind of bright animation about him which was in terrible contrast with the tragic expression in his eyes.
"Things are going very well for us, now, at last," he said. "Have you traveled about the country much? Large areas of it have been liberated, and it can't be much longer now before the whole country will be freed by the Partisans. We are sure to win now. But of course it will be too late for me."
"How is that?" I queried. "Why will it be too late for you?"
"I'm dead," he said, peering at me closely with his terrible eyes. "Can't you see that I'm dead? You noticed it when I came up! Everybody in my village is dead."
"How did it happen?"
'The Ustasha did it," he answered. "Oh, it was just one of many villages they destroyed, but it happened to be mine. I lived there with my wife and my six children, the youngest only four—a little girl. The Ustasha came. They killed us all, everybody in the village, all of us including my wife and the children and me. They burned down all the houses, too, and they buried us all in one big trench."
"But you are here," I said.
"Me too," he insisted. "They killed me too and they buried me too, but the Partisans say that when they came they found me only half covered with earth sitting up in the trench, and they lifted me out... so in a kind of way I'm still here.
"Oh, it won't be long now before we win . . . but it will be too late for me, much too late for me. Don't you see?"
I could see.
The old man was very proud to be able to talk to me and introduced all the peasants. They came over and shook hands and bowed and smiled.
"They are good people," the old man said. "I live in their village now and they are very kind to me."
At five o'clock the truck arrived with a dozen Partisan riflemen aboard. Ilic wanted us to wait until later when a second truck would be available. There had been some action in the area through which we would have to pass and he thought we should have a strong guard, but Slim and Steve and I talked it over and decided not to wait. Trucks were scarce in Livno and there was plenty for them to do. Going off with two of them would embarrass the garrison.
We said good-bye to Ilic and the Commissar and Benny, who would be down within the next few days, and set out in a little Italian car behind the truck.
The trip was easy and uneventful, except that at one time we found ourselves confronted by a whole series of road blocks. Steve and I were the only two who had been over that road in recent days, and we knew that there had been no road blocks on it when we passed, but in the darkness— we did not come to that part of the road until after nine o'clock—it was impossible to say definitely whether it was or was not the road we had been over. . . .
The first road block was a barrier five feet high made of big stones, without mortar. The officer in charge of the truck stopped opposite it and climbed out in the full glare of his headlamps to go over and investigate. For a moment he waited there lighting a cigarette, then, as no one fired at him, he ordered his men out of the truck and put them to work heaving the rocks over the edge of the road. We, in the staff car, thought there was something unhealthy about this procedure, but said nothing; and we all drove on.
But scarcely had we started up again when we came to another, just as solidly built. Again the young officer in the truck walked out in the glare of his headlamps and when no shots were fired ordered his men to work.
When we came to the third wall across the road I pointed out to Steve that we must be on the wrong road and suggested that we turn back. We were travelling too much to the south anyway—toward Imotski again. Steve thought that might be, but did nothing about it, and we drove on to the fourth road-block.
While this one was being cleared away I got Steve to point out to the officer on the truck that if this was indeed the right road—the one we had come over three nights before—there were only two ways of explaining the presence of these barriers, which in this case, were freshly erected. Either the Germans were nearby and had just put them in to prevent the Partisans from coming through, or the Germans were nearby and the Partisans had just put them in to prevent the Germans from coming through; and in either case it was foolish to go on through them without getting some advice on how they happened to be there.
This argument impressed the Partisan officer and he reluctantly agreed to turn back to the nearest village, some ten miles up the road.
When we got there we discovered that we had, in fact, been on the wrong road, and that once more we had come within a few miles of the garrison at Imotski.
Once, in the hours that followed, we overtook a Partisan regiment on the march. They moved in single file along the road, men and women together, each carrying a weapon and nothing else—not even a blanket or a canteen. They had no transport whatever with them. Their food supply, sheep and a few steers, trotted along beside them in the darkness, bleating and keeping close to the column for protection in this unfamiliar world.
It was eleven o'clock when we reached the coast. Word had been sent ahead that we would be down and there was a ship waiting for us, ready to leave. We paused only long enough to greet friends at the little command post and check on the continued arrival of supplies, then went aboard and moved silently out to sea with muffled engines.
This was a good start. We had not left the coast so early in the night before and it seemed reasonable to suppose that if we had the luck to find one of the MTB's in Vis harbor we could make it across to Bari that night, but we were due to be disappointed. When we got there all three of the launches were away and it was too late to set out in a slow ship like the schooner that had brought us over, so we turned in again with Dusan and Marica after rousing them once more by throwing pebbles at their bedroom windows.
That stop-over proved profitable, for it enabled us to make a variety of useful arrangements with Nikic the next day. From him we learned that all was apparently going well at Bari. Ships were continuing to arrive regularly and unload their cargo at his docks. We learned, too, that the Rah had been sunk, not by the MTB's, who had missed her when she came out from her hiding place in the Neretva River, but by aerial attack.
That was good news. So our planes were beginning to come over now! The Partisans were delighted.
"They shot up the Snell-Boat base in the mouth of the Neretva, too," Nikic said. "We don't know how much damage they did, but they may have wiped out the whole lot of them. There have been none about since the attack."
The schooner that had brought us over from the coast proved to be a beautiful vessel with a cargo capacity of nearly two hundred tons. I thought she might be a valuable addition to our fleet so I asked Nikic to let us have her, and he agreed at once.
The day passed quickly and at nine o'clock, after I had signed up the skipper, we cleared for Bari. There was a gentle wind and we moved due south away from Vis, sails set and Diesel engine chugging softly. It was Tuesday evening. Wednesday, soon after one o'clock, we arrived in the port of Bari and found Fred (Captain Jensen) standing on the pier.