By Melinda Baird, email@example.com
Veterans and civilians alike were treated on Veterans Day to author and pastor Clint Abbott’s rousing narrative of his father’s escape from German-occupied Albania during World War II.Michigan Military Heritage Museum in Grass Lake, celebrating its one-year anniversary, hosted the speaker as part of a “Guest Speaker Saturdays” series throughout November.
It wasn’t until 18 years after his father’s death that Abbott learned the details of two critical months during which his father’s life hung in the balance. Lawrence Abbott of Newaygo, MI never cared to dwell in the past, so Clint grew up oblivious to all his father had endured November 1943 to January 1944.
“He died in 1982, one year after retirement from GM, and with him went his story,” Abbott said.
That is, until 2000, when Abbott’s Uncle George prodded him to search for clues of his father’s story online. Connecting the dots with the help of the Internet and a corroborating memoirs and later, the discovery of his dad’s own unpublished 250-page typewritten manuscript Abbott recounted the following:
Lawrence was one of 30 Americans who, as part of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron, would fly November 8, 1943 to Bari, Italy where a group of wounded soldiers awaited their arrival. But an unanticipated storm midflight caused the pilots to lose all visibility and radio communications. Disoriented and lost, the pilots unwittingly flew over the Adriatic Sea and, eight hours after take-off, belly-landed in marshland of enemy territory in Albania.
Mountains in the distance suggested to the American crew they were in western Italy, a notion quickly dispelled when Albanian villagers gathered around the aircraft. In no time, panic became mutual. But then Albanian Hasan Gina appeared on horseback and, speaking some English, conveyed to them where they had landed. A member of the resistance group fighting in an Albanian civil war, Gina figured the Americans had come to rescue his people.
Gina warned the American crew (which uncharacteristically included 13 nurses who, per protocol, were never supposed to find themselves behind enemy lines) the Germans were near. He helped the Americans avoid German-claimed roads by leading them through the treacherous Korab mountains by day and villagers homes by night. Dressed for a two-hour flight, the crew for two months, sustained by raki and goat meat, barely dodged German fighter planes while enduring hunger, dysentery, frostbite and fleas. After several failed rescue attempts that repeatedly dashed their hopes, the crew made it to the Adriatic coast on January 9, 1944 where a rescue boat operated by a team of Americans, British and Yugoslav forces fed and blanketed them and brought them home.
Lawrence returned to Newaygo, wrote a manuscript immediately upon his return and tucked it away. He took up construction before being swept up in a recruitment wave by GM and, for the next thirty years, worked nine to five without ever mentioning the war.
“He only wanted to think about what was in front of him ,never behind,” Abbott said of his dad.
Beginning in 2001, Abbott went on to personally connect with many of those who had survived alongside Lawrence, and on Veterans Day 2009 set out to do what his dad left unfinished, he was going to publish a book. “Out of Albania: A True Account of a WWII Underground Rescue Mission” was published February 2010. In 2013, Abbott and the unit’s surviving members were honored in Washington D.C. where, lo and behold, none other than Hasan Gina’s son was present.
“What are the odds that all those years later, the two sons would meet and shake hands?” Abbott marveled.
For those sorry to have missed Abbott’s engagement, two distinguished speakers will wrap up the series Saturday, November 18.Â At noon, Mike Grobbel, president of Detroit’s Polar Bear Association, will present the history of the American North Russian Expeditionary Force from 1918-1919. At 2pm, veteran and president of the Michigan War Dog Memorial Phil Weitlauf, accompanied by his dog, will speak on the history of war dogs from WWI through present day.
Michigan Military Heritage Museum is located at 153 N. Union Street in Grass Lake and can be reached at 517-926-6696.