ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For a week in December 1944, 20-year-old Jesse Casaus and his nine fellow crewmen sneaked across the Yugoslavian countryside, knowing that capture – or rescue – could be just over the next hill.
Traveling at night in groups of two or three, the crew members of the crashed B-24 Liberator bomber inched their way westward toward the Adriatic Sea where, they hoped, friendly cohorts would help them return safely to Italy.
Had the latter not occurred, the crew’s bombardier, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Casaus, 87, would not be attending this week’s annual convention of the Air Force Escape & Evasion Society, taking place here Wednesday through Sunday.
Instead of languishing or dying in a POW camp, Casaus survived World War II and the Korean war, returned to his native New Mexico and capped an impressive 27-year career with the Air Force in 1970.
Casaus and other “evaders” will share their stories at a public meet-and-greet from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday at the convention site, MCM Eleganté hotel on Menaul just east of University.
Jerri Donohue, an Ohioan coordinating the convention, said AFEES was formed to encourage airmen assisted by resistance groups or patriotic nationals of foreign countries – referred to as the airmen’s “helpers” – to continue friendships with helpers and comrades alike.
Membership is open to any U.S. or allied airman who was forced down behind enemy lines and avoided capture or escaped from captivity.
Donohue said several “helpers” usually attend the conventions to share their stories with the veterans. Among those slated to be at this year’s convention is Roger Anthoine of Peron, France, who was part of the underground from 1941 until 1944. Anthoine never forgot the airmen he assisted, and he wrote a book, published in French, about Allied fliers who escaped the Nazis and made their way to Switzerland.
Casaus, a bombardier at the time, knows firsthand how important people like Anthoine were to downed pilots and crewmen.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 1944, Casaus and his 783rd Bombardment Squadron’s mission was to fly from their base at Pantanella, Italy, across the Adriatic to bomb the Linz-Styer rail yards in Austria, a marshalling point for the German military.
It was his crew’s 17th mission, almost halfway to the benchmark 35th mission that would earn them a return to the States.
Things went smoothly until about 10 a.m.
“We got hit by anti-aircraft flak from ground fire – German 88s – and immediately lost an engine” Casaus recalled in the comfort of his northeast Albuquerque home. “We fell back from the squadron and were out there like fish in a barrel for the German fighters.”
A German Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter quickly shot out two more engines, sealing the four-engine B-24’s fate.
“The B-24 , if it lost that much power, couldn’t stay up,” Casaus said. “With three engines out, we had the choice of ditching in the Adriatic Sea which, in December, was very cold and we wouldn’t have survived very long. Or we could crash land in northern Yugoslavia.”
“We were lucky to find a little valley just big enough to crash land in.”
The impact tore the bomber apart, but all 10 crewman were able to scramble out of the wreckage.
“Thank the Lord, no one was killed – although we got banged up pretty good,” he said. “I still have scars from it.”
The bomber crashed a few miles from Zadar, Yugoslavia, on the Adriatic coast. Preflight briefings had instructed downed crews to head toward the coast and to seek out OSS contacts. The OSS, or Office of Strategic Services, was a U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II to coordinate espionage activities and assist allied troops behind enemy lines.
Casaus said he and his crewmen traveled in twos or threes during the night and hid during the day for nearly a week.
Squadron members had been warned to avoid guerrillas loyal to Gen. “Draza” Mihailovic and to seek out Partisan soldiers led by Josip Broz Tito.
The advice wasn’t much help, Casaus said, because it was hard to determine by sight who were guerrillas and who were Partisans.
Eventually, Casaus noticed a man wearing a cap with a red star pendant. “I knew that had to be Tito’s bunch,” he said.
“With my Spanish and their broken Italian, I managed to tell them we were Americans who had been shot down by the Germans, and that we wanted to get to the island of Split. We had been told there was an Allied airstrip there.”
The crew soon was linked up with OSS operatives who returned them to Italy by boat. After reporting to an Army unit at Bari, Italy, they were taken by truck back to Pantanella.
“We thought, mistakenly, that they were going to send us home, but the flight surgeon said we were fit for duty so it was back to flying again,” Casaus said.
He and his crew flew eight more missions before the war ended.
Once back in the States, Casaus joined the Reserves and was called up for the Korean conflict, where he again flew aboard bombers. He remained in the Air Force until retiring in 1970 as a lieutenant colonel.
“The real heroes are the ones we call the ‘helpers,’ ” Casaus said. “They were the ones who helped the downed airmen. If we got caught, we’d have been POWs. But if they were caught, they would be shot and killed. Those people, the ones who set up escape routes … we owe our lives to them.”
Casaus said he regrets not finding out the names of the people who helped him and his crew avoid capture. “But at the time, we were just worried about surviving. I don’t think it occurred to us to ask them who they were.”
Nearly seven decades after those unnamed helpers risked their lives to get him and his fellow aviators to safety, Casaus remains grateful for their efforts.
“I hope they had wonderful lives,” he said. — This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal