THE LAST MISSION OF #22, YUGO DETACHMENT, 376th. BOMB. GROUP, 15th USAAF in ITALY
November 24,193 in respect to weather, was a bad day. In San Pancrazio light rain and muddy, while over the Balkans the skies were very heavy with partly broken cumulus cloud formation up and above 25,000 feet. The mission was to bomb the marshalling yard in Sofia, Bulgaria. Halfway to the target we were advised that we may, because of the weather condition, proceed to an alternative target. However, we stayed on our original course and continued toward Sofia,Bulgaria.
The formation consisted of several echelons and our plane was in the lead echelon. The target was covered by several strata of broken cloud layers. We dropped to 20,000 feet and aimed for the target. The flak was very heavy but we proceeded on. Since the target was not sufficiently visible the lead aircraft decided to go for another run. The second echelon being beyond and above us, flew over the target, dropped the bombs and headed back for home. The fighter escort of P-38s, above all of us, observing that the second echelon have dropped bombs, presumed that we were also on our way home. They left the target area too, and headed home. Our echelon made the second run over the target and we released our bombs. The ME-109s and Ju-88s were allover the area. And then it began: our plane received a direct hit from the ground fire. The projectile hit the right wing, close to the nacelle of the #2 engine. A ME-109 came into our tail and emptied its guns. Our tail gunner, Sgt. Vasa Benderach, was busy shooting at other enemy fighers. When he turned his turret in the backward position all he saw in his gunsight was a ME-109. He opened up and the ME-109 went down in a flame. (The loss of this ME-109 was confirmed by a Bulgarian officer who, later on, took me in an ambulance to the military hospital in Sofia because of my back injury). During this time I was in the nose-turret. The co-pilot Lt. Jelich called to inform me that two J-88s were approaching us from the "eleven O'clock" position about 500 to 700 feet. I fired several bursts aiming at the leading fighter. He dived and the co-pilot yelled "you got him! you got him!" However, they disappeared out of my sight.
Our plane was full of smoke and there was a smell of gasoline. Our oxygen system was shut. We were heading home but we had to drop out of formation into clouds losing altitude. Nobody bothered us anymore. After a while the small fires inside the plane died down; however, from the right wing a streak of green-orange flame was coming out. As we were losing attitude, the flame became larger. After about fifteen minutes, pilot Capt. Stanisavljevich, realizing that we were not going to make it to San Pan, called me and asked for our position and the direction of Greece because in front of us laid Albania, an unfriendly country and a terrain with rugged mountains. In the meantime the fire and the heat caused the right tire of the main landing gear to explode causing a bigger flow of gasoline and a larger fire. The right wing began to melt and the pilot, Capt Stanisavljevich, pressed the "bail-out" buzzer. Bombardier Capt Vecerina, bailed out through the nose wheel opening. In the rear, gunner Lt Korosha pushed out hesitating gunner Corp. George Cale, and bailed out himself. Gunner Lt. Lackich followed. In the front, I took my B-4 (parachute) bag. I put in it my gun, some maps, a couple of "C" rations and bailed out. Capt Stan. was still flying the plane manually since the auto-pilot was dead. The rest of the crew placed themselves on the bombway catwalk. Suddenly, the right wing with engines snapped off putting the plane in a spin. The impact threw the rest of the crew into the air and Capt. Stan made his way out fighting all of the "G" forces (he was a weight lifter). The plane engineer, Sgt. Timotijevich, somehow tangled up into the bomb rack. One of his legs was caught and he dangled for a fraction of a second until one of the laces gave up and he was airborn. He spent the entire POW time with one shoe.
As I was descending through the quiet and serene skies - after all of the buzzing and deafening roar of the engines - I noticed hundreds of aluminum pieces floating in circles around me. A thought flashed through my mind: they are sharp and they may cut the cords holding the canopy of my parachute. However, they were dropping faster than I and soon they passed by. I took a look around me to see if anybody else was around and saw no one. I looked down below and saw trees corning fast at me. I hit the ground rather hard and buried my head into some debris. My parachute was tangled in trees. I believe, I had lost conscience for few seconds. When I carne to, I had my mouth full of leaves and a pain in my upper jaw. I got out of the harness with a great difficulty. My back was hurting badly. I looked around for my B-4 bag which I have dropped when my parachute opened. With a great pain I sat on a nearby rock and I heard a shot. Something whizzed through the trees. I looked toward a clearing and saw soldiers running toward me. Painfully, I managed to get up. The first soldier to reach me was a very young Bulgarian, holding a rifle with a bayonet on it and his finger on the trigger. He was shaking like a leaf in a spring breeze. All kind of thoughts passed through my head. In a few seconds several German soldiers arrived and searched me for weapons. They did not ask any questions and I was not in the mood to talk. They ordered me to move but I could not. My back ached badly and I thought I have broken a few ribs. Two of the German solders grabbed me under arms and half dragged me, half carried me toward a railroad station where the Bulgarian forces had a guard house. It was a small railroad station in Bogumila, Macedonia, at that time occupied by Bulgarian forces. Six of us fell within a few hundred yard. There was a German military train in the station. They watched the entire show.
The Germans took along the pilot, Capt. Stanisavljevic, radio man Sgt. Halepa, and gunner Benderach aboard the train to the next larger town, Prilep, and turned them over to Bulgarians. While aboard the train, German soldiers gave to each one of them a loaf of German military bread. Sgt. Timotijevich, Lt. Lakich and I spent the night in the Bogumila's guard house. The next day we were taken by train to the prison in Prilep where we joined Capt. Stan and two others. The rest of the crew members were picked up the following day.
A few days later we all met in Skoplje, the capital of Macedonia. From there, with our hands tied with telephone wire, we were transported by trucks and rail to a millitary prison in Sofia, Bulgaria. From the moment of our capture until the arrival in Sofia we were boo-ed, cursed and threatened by the local population.
In early January 1944, all of us prisoners, at that time about thirty four, were moved by train to a make-shift P.O.W. Camp near Schuman, in eastern part of Bulgaria. By September 1944, we numbered about 450 American and few British POWs. We were freed on September 10, 1944 and released to the American Counsul in Istanbul, Turkey.