MEDFORD, Ore. — Harold Hayes, an Army medic and the last survivor of a group of medics and nurses who spent nine weeks evading capture in Nazi-occupied Albania during World War II, has died. He was 94.
All 30 men and women in the group eventually made it out, but it was kept secret to protect partisan fighters who helped them.
Hayes’ daughter, Margaret Bleakley, told The New York Times that he died Jan. 22 in a hospital in Medford, Oregon, following an operation to remove a blood clot from his leg.
Hayes was among 13 medics, 13 nurses and four crew members to board a twin-engine cargo plane in Nov. 8, 1943, in Sicily expecting a two-hour flight to help wounded troops in Italy.
“It sure wasn’t something any of us expected,” said Hayes in a 2013 interview with the Medford Mail Tribune. “We thought we would be in Italy for a very short time, then return.”
Bad weather caused the plane to go off course, and it was attacked by German fighters before ducking back into the clouds, finally running low on fuel and landing 25 miles inland.
“The pilot made a skillful landing,” Hayes said. “But it came to an abrupt stop when the wheels bogged down in the mud. It turned up on its nose and fell back again.”
A 23-year-old crew chief was the only casualty, unable to walk with a knee injury, and the others carried him for much of their 600-mile trek out. Along the way they suffered dysentery, lack of food, lice, and the dangers of German patrols and getting caught up in Albania’s civil war.
“We were caught in the middle of all that,” Hayes said. “Some days we walked 24 hours without stopping.”
They were listed as missing in action and letters went out to their families.
In late November, British intelligence in Albania learned the American plane had crashed and those aboard were alive. American and British rescue plans were developed.
On Jan. 9, 1943, 10 nurses and 17 medics and crew members boarded a British launch and crossed to Italy. Three nurses who remained behind in the German-occupied city of Berat made it across in March 1944, riding pack mules to the coast and then a torpedo boat across the Adriatic.
The escape was kept classified for years because some partisans who helped the Americans were shot by Germans and, after the war, those suspected of helping the Americans were executed by Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist dictator. He died in 1985.
“For many years, I didn’t say anything about what happened in Albania,” Hayes told The New York Times in a 2015 telephone interview.