By Major Van Harl USAF Ret
Wisconsin –-(Ammoland.com)- “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.
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.” firstname.lastname@example.org