The trip out provided us with our first real opportu-nity to get acquainted. It also provided me with an opportunity to examine our position in detail.
We were aboard the usual C-47, the Air Transport Command's stripped-down DC-3, with half a dozen fellow passengers who looked like the tail-end of a commando unit. Their equipment, like ours, consisted largely of automatic weapons and "K" rations, the little waxed cardboard packages of food used by parachutists. And there was a young corporal who was going back to his unit, now in the fray near Naples, after completing some special detail. He was very young and came from Brooklyn and he was lonely and wanted to talk about home. I talked to him for a while, but I wanted to stare out of the window at the blasted African landscape that was rolling and pitching below—it is always rough on that run to Constantine—and do some serious work in my mind. I neglected him a while and he got into conversation with Radic. Tim was wrapped in thunderous conversation with Mladineo, shouting in his bad French to make himself heard through the din of the engines.
It was Thursday morning. We had spent forty-eight hours in Algiers and now we were speeding on toward Italy. If the
plans we had before us prospered we would be operating our supply routes within a few days. It was hard to believe, but I refused, after a moment's thought, to speculate and doubt. There were too many imponderables in the problem. We would simply do the best we could. . . . One thing was certain, however: we were going too fast. We were presuming on our luck and leaving too much unfinished business behind us. If all went well we would be forgiven for not attending to all the details that had taken us to Algiers in the first place, for not waiting on the conferences that would be in progress there during the next ten days, making sure that our Middle East interests were properly represented. The Major from Corsica would speak for us, but he was out of touch with Balkan affairs and might find himself unable to act with any conviction or authority. All sorts of things might go wrong at those meetings, and if anything at all went wrong for "operations," it would be my fault.
Before leaving Algiers I had cabled a report of our activities and plans to Cairo, but the officers there would be somewhat baffled. It was not easy to present the whole argument in favor of the course we had adopted in a few words. It might well be felt that we would have done better to wait in Algiers for a reply to our message and an authorization to amend the rough plan that had been agreed upon at the beginning of the week. In this connection it was comforting to remember Tim's conversation with the Colonel at the airport and the latter's expressed indulgence for any slight irregularity our haste might engender; but he was on his way to Washington and might be gone for some time.
Well, there was nothing for it now but to hope that Cairo would take a good view, at least provisionally, until they could see the results of our amended program, and to hope
that the amended program itself would prove as sound as it now appeared. It is of the essence of responsibility that he who has it shall exercise it at his own discretion and take the consequences. Our only problem now was to get results.
Tim had drifted into conversation in English with Radic, which left Commander Mladineo out in the cold. I crossed over to where he sat looking out of the window and found room on the aluminum bench beside him.
He proved to be in high spirits. "It's wonderful to think that a shipment of guns and equipment will be in Bari in a couple of days," he began. "Who would ever have imagined that our trip"—his and Radio's—"would be so fruitful! I thought everything was supposed to move at a snail's pace in big headquarters like General Eisenhower's. But even we Partisans couldn't act any quicker or more directly than you do."
He and Radic had covered much ground since putting into Bari aboard the Bog s Nama only six days before. At no point had they experienced the slightest delay in getting through to officers of high rank who unhesitatingly took decisions. It was nice to think we were like that! They had been met by British officers in one place and Americans in another, or by British and Americans working together; nowhere had they seen the slightest evidence of conflict between us. That was nice too.
to the bar and actually practice law. He would have become a full-fledged lawyer, like Radic, in a few months more, he explained. But the bombing of Belgrade had put an end to that. He had joined the Partisans in 1941.
After taking part in a series of minor actions he had been promoted to his present rank, which made him about equal to a company commander, a captain, in the American army; and he had been placed in charge of the garrison on one of the islands opposite the spur on the Italian boot—Vis, the island from which they had set out with their wounded a week before.
Mladineo then surprised me by adding that he had been married quite recently and that his wife, who was a Partisan soldier too, had come over with him. She was an official member of his "mission." The chief engineer on the Bog s Noma, Mirko Petrinovic, was also a member of the mission. Indeed, the three of them constituted the official group. Radic had been brought along by them to act as interpreter and to advise them in various ways, he being a worldly man accustomed to doing business in Paris and London and New York; but the responsibility for everything they did rested pretty squarely on his (Mladineo's) shoulders—his and his young wife's.
I was full of curiosity about his wife. They must have been married in the woods and spent their honeymoon stalking fascists in the darkness instead of lying together in clean white sheets. After a moment I asked him how it was.
"The village priest married us one afternoon under a pine tree," he said. "We have had very little time together since, and practically no privacy when we were together."
"How old is your wife?" I asked.
"Nineteen—but she is very serious-minded, not frivolous at all. You will see," he answered.
"What is her task in your mission?" I asked.
"Olga types out all reports and keeps a record of everything we do. She writes any letters that are necessary. She can write French and English as well as our own language—and Italian too."
"Does a Partisan officer have to make out many reports?" I wanted to know. This seemed odd in a guerrilla army.
"It depends on his duty," Mladineo replied. "I shall be expected to make very full reports about our trip, covering every detail of it. . . ." The thought brought a troubled expression to his countenance and after staring out of the window for a while he added: "I would not want the authorities to think I went off to Algiers on my own. ... I must make them understand that it was not my idea, that it was the only thing I could do. ..."
So he too was worried about acting—or being accused of acting—ultra vires. There were two of us in that predicament. I laughed and slapped him on the back. "Don't worry," I told him. "When you sail back at the head of a fleet of ships loaded to the scuppers with food and guns Tito will not be angry with you."
"The Command might be displeased with us for going to General Eisenhower's Headquarters," he said. "We certainly were not authorized to open negotiations with the Allies; but it will probably not be too difficult if we bring back shiploads of food and guns. . . ."
I reflected that we were entering a new world as we flew eastward over the mountain ranges, a world about which I had been curious for months—the Partisan world. There must
be stern discipline among the Partisans . . . nothing else would explain Mladineo's great anxiety.
A few minutes later we stopped briefly in the dust and the wind at Tellurgma, the airport that serves Constantine, then we went on toward Bizerte, flying low through the Kasserine Pass. We followed a road down which I had driven in a jeep a few hours after the battle that stopped the German drive on Tebessa, back in February, then swept out over the plains across which the Eighth Army had advanced after turning the Mareth line. Those exciting days seemed only a few weeks back. The months pass like days in wartime.
At Bizerte we stopped long enough to gulp some GI food in a canteen at the edge of the airport. Planes were moving through there at the rate of one a minute, most of them doing shuttle service to the Sicilian bases. Crowds thronged the little canteen where two Italians did their best to set up hot food faster than the ravenous crews devoured it. We served ourselves, using unwashed plates. Everything was dirty but the food was good. Half an hour later we were back in the air on our way to Catania.
We saw dozens of C-47's as we crossed the water. There appeared to be an almost continuous stream of them moving in both directions along the route we followed. Our aircraft, The Snafu Express, was flown by a sober lad, but some of the other transport pilots on the run apparently were bored. One of them joined us to do a little formation flying, bringing his wing-tip in close to our cabin windows, and there he remained for mile after mile.
When we reached Sicily, the formation flyer left us. We flew along parallel to the sea over rugged landscape that showed few signs of having been so recently a battlefield. The great bulk of Mount Etna rose slowly out of the hills before
us and soared to its volcanic peak. We circled its flanks until Catania lay below, then we landed once more on the clattering steel web of an improvised runway. The plane taxied to a halt and we climbed out in a sea of mud.
There was plenty of evidence of recent combat at Catania. Everything there was wrecked. Airports acquire a particularly desolate appearance after being under fire and this one was no exception. Drizzling rain heightened the effect.
A group of passengers and crews were crowded together before an improvised bench in the rubble of a shattered hangar, watching a British army captain's apparently vain efforts to complete some business over a field telephone. We joined the back of the crowd and watched and listened. The Captain, as we had supposed, was a one-man priorities board controlling the movements of passengers and freight bound for the front. He looked efficient and exhausted.
"I'm already overloaded on that run," he explained patiently, studying his loading schedules. "There may be another aircraft the day after tomorrow. No, I can't promise anything. It all depends on the priorities. Even the freight often goes through here with a number one."
Several officers asked about facilities for getting on to Taranto or Brindisi or Bari when he hung up. There was nothing open for the next few days.
"You had better hitch-hike into town and try to find a billet," he advised them. "It's about seven miles. Quarters are awful scarce as much of the town was blown down, and there's no light or water."
It was discouraging. We withdrew a little and waited until the crowd thinned out before approaching him. The officers ahead of us stacked their equipment against the only dry wall in the hangar and left afoot or in one of the RAF lorries
that came grinding through the mud every few minutes. Several officers unrolled their sleeping bags on the damp floor and prepared to spend the night there.
I sauntered over to the Captain's desk with a copy of our orders when he was finally alone, calling to his attention a phrase Tim had very astutely contrived to have inserted there: ". . . highest operational priority. . . ."
"Any chance at all of getting us out of here tomorrow?" I asked. "There are two Jugoslav officers—Tito's men—with us."
"Tito's men?" he said, "from Jugoslavia?" He peered at them a moment. "If I could rearrange the load in the first two planes I might get you on," he said thoughtfully, going to work once more with paper and pencil to juggle out his freight and human cargo. "The trouble is they have no petrol for us up there and we have to take enough aboard here for the round trip. It cuts the pay-load way down." As he worked I watched his face, which was grey with fatigue. Since daybreak he had been there alone, struggling with the field telephone and surrounded hour after hour with impatient officers most of whom considered him personally responsible for their delay, quietly trying to get his gallon of cargo and humanity into a pint of aeroplane.
"Be here at seven o'clock,"* he said finally. "We'll get you out on the first run if the weather's any good. I'll have to put those two captains off for another day, but they can take it."
The Captain not only got us off the next morning on the first plane; he also provided us with transport into town that night, right to the door of the hotel where the American officers' mess was situated and where we found the billeting officer; and there was a car waiting for us at six o'clock in the morning to take us back to the airport too. In the confusion that characterizes a recently fallen city whose streets are still
blocked with rubble, a city reduced to ghostly ruins by naval gunfire only a few days before, that was good!
There was something sinister, almost terrifying, about the quiet streets through which we walked to our billet, after dinner. We had been cautioned to go armed and to stay together. Silvery moonlight flooded the ruins that lay all about. There was no overtone of sound in the city: there, was oppressive silence, isolated sounds. We heard a restless child crying in the night and the voice of its mother speaking the soft Italian words, a scratchy gramophone far away, and drunken Italian sailors quarreling in the street. . . .
A disheveled young woman with yellow hair and a frightened baby in her arms admitted us when we reached the house to which the billeting officer had directed us. She was alone there in the semi-darkness with her child, and she looked frightened too. The one oil lamp she had was guttering as though it were about to go out altogether. "Olio finito," she apologised. The bombardments had broken all the windows and smashed half of the furniture in her house.
She wanted us to pay her twenty lire each—twenty cents— for the night's lodging. We gave her five dollars for the four of us and told her to keep the change for her bambino. Perhaps she guessed what we were trying to say but dared not believe . . . she appeared not to understand until Mladineo explained carefully in Italian, then she burst into tears, muttering expressions of abject gratitude. The baby was alarmed by her emotion and cried again. . . .
Who was she and where was her man? What had become of him in that land of heartbreak and ruin?
As we went in to our moonlit rooms and began undressing in the house with its gaping windows, Mladineo said, as though talking to himself: "Just like home!"