Behind Enemy Lines

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret

756th Bomber Squadron
756th Bomber Squadron
AmmoLand Gun News
AmmoLand Gun News

Wisconsin –-(  “We are not stinking Partisans, we are Chetnicks” a classic line from the 1978 movie, “Force Ten from Navarone.”

This is about all the history the average American has learned in regards to the two different resistant groups, fighting the Nazis, in German occupied Yugoslavia. But for a 1938 graduate of Altus High School there was a lot more to be learned about these two groups who made war on the Nazis while trying to kill each other.

Bert Cole was drafted into the Army in July 1942 and was headed to Officer Candidate School to become a medical officer. He snuck off base to take a test to be an aviation cadet and past. This took him from a future military medical career field, into the Army Air Corp and flying.

By January of 1944 now First Lieutenant Cole was flying bombing mission over Czechoslovakia, Romania and northern Italy, with the 756th Bomber Squadron, stationed at Cerignola, Italy.

One of the German’s greatest shortfalls of the war was oil. On the Friday just before Easter of 1944 1LT. Cole was in a formation of bombers headed to the famous Ploesti oil fields of Romania. They were attacked by German fighters as they approached the oil fields, but were able to deliver their bombs on target and head home to safety.

First Lieutenant Bertram “Bert” Cole
First Lieutenant Bertram “Bert” Cole

But it was the German anti-aircraft batteries in Yugoslavia which were not listed on any allied maps that shot up his B-24. After loosing both inboard engines he ordered the other nine members of his crew to bail out of the rapidly descending, mortally wounded bomber. He strapped on his parachute and jumped out of the open bomb-bay door in the belly of the aircraft. He was less than 600 feet off the ground when his chute opened just as he slammed into the earth. Luck was with 1LT. Cole because he suffered no broken bones on impact.

It was the Chetnik resistance fighters with their famous beards who found 1LT. Cole and three other members of his crew. The problem was Bertram “Bert” Cole and his fellow aircrew members were now caught in the middle of a political struggle between the Chetniks and the communist backed Partisans. The Russians had convinced the Allies to switch their support from the Chetniks to Marshal Tito’s communist Partisans. This meant that just at the very point in WWII history when 1LT. Cole and crew needed help from the Chetniks, the Chetniks were being ignored by the Allies.

All through history politics can and does get helpless people killed. This sudden change in direction was to have severe consequences for the four aircrew members. Instead of being back in Allied hands in a matter of weeks, they spent four and a half months on a constant run with their Chetnik hosts. They were always worried about being discovered by the Germans and their fellow Yugoslavians, the Partisans; both groups trying to kill them.

Being on constant move all the time takes a toll on the body.

The shortage of food was a critical issue. 1LT. Cole was six feet and four inches and weight 240 pounds when he exited that crashing bomber and when he finally got back to Italy he weighed 160 pounds. At one point his band of Chetniks came face to face with a German patrol. By then 1LT. Cole had a beard and the clothes that made him look like an under fed Yugoslavian. The Germans never suspected the four Americans were the missing aircrew members they were looking for.

Back in Oklahoma the Cole family to include his wife had no real idea where Bert was. They were told first he was missing in actions and then later he was a POW in a German prison camp. Misinformation is always an issue in time of war. Finally 1LT. Cole and one other crew member were put on a sixteen foot open boat, along with some Chetniks and sailed for 52 hours across the Adriatic Sea to the Italian coast. They were almost discovered by a German patrol boat, but finally were picked up by an English military ship.

He eventually was sent back to the States and finished out the war as an instructor pilot. 1Lt. Cole, along with the other nine airmen got to come home from their war and he continued to live out his life in peace in Oklahoma. Mr. Cole died a little over a year ago (15 May 2013) at the age of 92. We was an American hero, and a hero to Oklahoma. There are three generations of Cole descendants who might not have ever been born if 1LT Cole had not come home from his war.

You do not have to wait until Memorial or Veterans Day to remember our hero’s. If you see a veteran don’t just thank them for their service. Engage them in conversation and learn about your history.

They were there making it for you while keeping you safe. Goodbye 1LT Cole, I just found out you were gone sir.

Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret., a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School.  A retired Colorado Ranger and currently is an Auxiliary Police Officer with the Cudahy PD in Milwaukee County, WI.  His efforts now are directed at church campus safely and security training.  He believes “evil hates organization.”

  • 2 thoughts on “Behind Enemy Lines

    1. Thanks for a very good article about a true American hero, like every other soldier, sailor, airman, and marine that wears or wore the uniform with Honor.

      Just a minor complaint, major: please employ a good proof reader.

    2. This story inspired me to write a short story about my father who enlisted early in the Korean War. He grew up in the rocky mtns. Of s. Colorado and n. Nm. His father was an army Calvary officer who went through the transition from saa colts to 1911s in his career. Serving in ww1 until seriously wounded. My father was sent to Oklahoma for artillery f.o. Training after passing the intelligence tests easily. Being an .f o requires a lot of math skills as well as deduction skills. He was sent up to the front lines upon arrival to support army units in place being severely harassed by n. Korean artillery . Being a private one day he was “volunteered to take a small patrol out into no mans land for better observation. A better look around. He along with his three men were sneaking along. Through what little brush was left in the area using it for cover when they spotted an enemy patrol @ 200 yrds out moving from R to L. Instantly dropping to the ground they all waited till dusk before crawling very slowly to a small arroyo they waited till well after dark before digging into the high side under the bank none to soon for they soon heard enemy voices in the distance and could hear their movement coming closer. Having hidden their tracks well ,they stayed put for what seemed like forever before the heard the movement and voices get further and further away, finally going completely away. Then still waiting a couple of hours more after he heard nothing and having no water left my father decided to head out and find some. He was able to get to a hillside under the cover of darkness and at daylight surveyed the area . He found an outcropping of rock the exact same as shown to him by his supreme outdoorsman uncle and slowly pulled the canteens he had and laid them in a row as he carefully dug into the hillside until he hit the water he was able to very slowly, to slow for comfort in the brightening daylight fill three of the four canteens he had .now it was to light and he had to get out of there .looking around again he found what looked to be the best exit route for his group of men then crawling slower than cold molasses he finally got back to his group after dropping into the was late in the Day before he got there so he rationed out the water and told the group that they would have to wait till the middle of the. Night to go back. They waited out the rest of the day until well after midnight and very slowly carefully crawled out and began to crawl back towards the American line . After hrs of crawling ever so slowly they were able to get to safety with their fellow Americans and returned to their unit. He stated that he felt as if he aged yrs. that night from the tension and worry of getting them all back safely. Thankfully He was able to . this is only one of the few hair raising stories her shared with me. He had a bad case of ptsd or PTSS as I prefer o call it post traumatic stress syndrome not disorder. In his entire time in Korea he served well earning 2(two) bronze stars and a Purple Heart as well as a presidential unit citation from the S Korean government. Sadly the story ends in 2013 as he passed away at the age of 82 leaving us all to hopefully find peace

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