My First Mission

[or parts thereof that relate to Stuart May & Jack Ritch] by Edwin Burkhardt

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May Burkhard & Ritch
Stuart May, Ed Burkhard & Jack Ritch while evading in December 1944

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[If you're continuing from the Stuart May page, you have already read the italicised part]

"...About three hours after dark, we arrived at a large cabin on top of a mountain where the snow must have been two or three feet deep. I was exhausted and glad to get inside the building. Here I met my first group of Partisans. The group was headed by a Slovak captain. I can't recall the number of people in the group, but I do recall that there were two women — one who seemed to stay with the captain at all times, and the other, a radio operator, who had two men to help carry her equipment. I also met two Canadians in this group, Lt. Stuart May of Weston, Ontario, and Lt. Jack Ritch of Edmonton. Alberta. It sure was nice to finally be able to talk to someone. The Canadians had been with the Partisan group since October 17, 1944, when they crash-landed in a Mosquito. They had been moving from place to place, mostly to keep from being shot or captured by the German SS troops. They had had many close calls and didn't expect things to improve any. We stayed in this area for about a week.
The Canadians warned me that living conditions with the group were horrible and that body lice made it much worse. I didn't have any idea what body lice were, but just a few days later I found out that these creatures could make my nights a lot more miserable than my previous nights in Slovakia had been.

Every day around noon, the radio operator set up her equipment and sent coded messages to Russian-occupied territory. The code was carried on tapes and the tape was destroyed after each message was sent. When the ammunition, explosives, and code tapes were about used up, she would send a message asking for additional supplies. At night the Partisans built three fires on the top of the mountain to form a triangle and the Russians flew in the needed supplies in small planes, dropping the bundles between the three fires. The supplies never consisted of anything more than ammunition, explosives, codes and tobacco. All of the food we ate was stolen or given to the group by Slovakian peasants. I believe most of the food was stolen from the poor people as we marched and moved from place to place.
On one occasion, about a week or two after joining the Partisans, they stole a pig weighing about 150 pounds. We were on a hillside when they decided to butcher the pig. After the pig was cut up in pieces, the SS troops apparently spotted us. Machine gun fire echoed and we ran for cover. I saw one of the Partisans drop the hind leg of the pig as he ran by. Flight Lt. Stuart May picked up the leg and the three of us took turns carrying it as we ran up the hillside. Any time that we were chased by the Germans, we headed for the highest part of the mountain, making it dangerous for the Germans to come up after us because the Partisans could set up their machine guns and shoot anything that moved below them. For days afterward, we ate pieces of pork cooked over an open fire.
The captain decided we would spend the night in the forest on top of the mountain where it was very cold and the snow was about four feet deep. We built small fires on top of the snow, but they wouldn't burn very well because, as the fires got hot, the snow melted and the fires sank down. Fortunately, the snow had a hard crust on it to hold us up. If anyone broke through the crust, it took a couple of others to help him get back on top.
Many nights we slept like this, with our feet toward the fire. At least once I edged too close to the fire and eventually burned holes in my shoes.
We spent several weeks with this particular group. Stuart May, Jack Ritch and I helped the radio operator carry her equipment as we moved back and forth over the same territory. During this period, the Partisans sent their men out at night to blow up trains and do what damage they could with the small amounts of explosives they could get. The Canadians and I felt helpless because we could not speak the language and because we began to lose hope that we might get through the German lines into friendly hands. It seemed that in the last few weeks the Partisans were unloading the radio equipment from their backs to ours. After some discussion among ourselves, Stuart, Jack and I decided we would refuse to carry their equipment any more. At first we worried about this decision, but as time went by it proved to be a very good one. The captain apparently got angry over our refusal and told us that we were going to be transferred to another Partisan group.
A member of this new group, a Slovak, could speak fairly good English. From him we learned that we were only about twenty miles from where my plane had crashed. He said he learned from two Frenchmen that two members of my crew were badly wounded and in a hospital nearby and that the rest of the crew had been sent to a prison camp, except for two whom the Germans claimed were killed in the plane. They also said that Slovak peasants had buried one of our crewmembers whose body was found in the wreckage of the plane. From what he told me, I concluded it was Roland Morin, the lower Sperry Ball turret gunner. I just couldn't believe it; I didn't think our plane was hit that badly before we parachuted. To prove to me that the Frenchmen were right, they promised to show me pictures of the two fellows in the hospital. About four days later, they returned with pictures of the two men in the hospital. One was a picture of Charlie Foss, out radio operator. The other I didn't recognize. [Forty years later, I realize it must have been Chet Rudel, our co-pilot, who I had met on the morning of our departure.] This confused me and I figured I would have to wait until I got home to find out the truth.
The question still remains: Would I ever get out of Slovakia? It seemed like we had hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains since I parachuted on December 17 and now I was just twenty miles from the spot where the plane had crashed.
About a week after joining these Partisans, we stopped off at another farm house near the top of another hillside. Most of us were lying around on the dirt floor in two rooms of the house. Suddenly we heard the cry of alert. From past experience, we knew immediately that German soldiers were approaching and we should take cover. As we headed for higher ground, we heard machine guns from the top of the hill. This time the SS troops had surprised us and were above us. The two Canadians and I lay flat on the ground behind a huge rock. Machine gun fire kept up for about thirty minutes. Then silence. Pretty soon we got the signal to go on up to the top of the hill — where about twenty SS troops had surrendered to the Partisans. They turned over their guns, ammunition, and some of their clothing. All twenty of them pleaded for permission to join the underground group. Surprisingly, the captain allowed the Germans to join us. Many times during the next few weeks the Partisans sent these Germans into villages to secure supplies. We found out that on one occasion two of them were sent out at night but never returned. Nobody knows whether they returned to the German army or were shot by the Germans while on their assigned mission.
Another time, we stopped to rest in a wooded area. During such stops the captain assigned men to stand guard duty on each side of the group. The Partisans included the following nationalities: Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Serb, Tatar, Russian, and German. This time one of the men assigned guard duty was a Hungarian. I don't know exactly what happened on this particular day, but while we were resting the captain must have sent two of the Germans into a village to set him some tobacco. As they returned, the Hungarian guard saw them approaching, got excited and fired two shots in the air. Of course, the shots caused a mad scramble for cover. When we got the all-clear signal, the captain called us together for an explanation. After some discussion, the captain walked up to the Hungarian, using profanity I had often heard, pulled out his revolver and shot the Hungarian in the temple. Then he ordered two other Partisans — also Hungarians, who appeared to be buddies of the dead man — to dig a hole and bury him. As soon as they had buried their friend, we were signaled to move on. We wondered how the captain could be so cold blooded, but after being with this camp for a while, we should have realized that his very existence depended on stealth, and the sound of rifle fire for no good reason could alert German troops to our location.
Sometime near the first part of March we were told by the Partisan who spoke some English that the captain had decided to go through the lines into Russian-occupied area. He said that this would be very dangerous but that he had concluded that his work in German-occupied Slovakia had been completed. On our journey, we would have to cross some very high mountains which were bitterly cold. We were warned that on one of the peaks we could not stop for rest or we would freeze to death.
For the two Canadians and me this was welcome news. Many times we wondered if we would ever get out of Slovakia. We spent hours hiking over rough terrain always using the route that was nearly impossible for human beings to travel. As we approached the top of the highest mountain, the snow became deeper and deeper and the temperature dropped lower and lower. It had been a hard journey that day and most of the group was dead tired. The captain reminded us once again that it would mean freezing to death to stop for a little rest. It took hours and hours to get over the top of that mountain. There was nothing but snow and wind. Snow stays on that mountain even during the summer months. At dusk we had descended far enough down the other side of the mountain to safely take a rest. The captain waited for everyone to gather, but ten members of the group never showed up — frozen to death when they couldn't keep going. Some of the Partisans had picked up the guns of their fallen comrades. The Canadians and I had refused to carry a gun, since we were warned in training that carrying a gun in enemy occupied country might cause us to be shot instead of taken prisoner of war. However, the captain decided that each of us would now have to carry a gun.
Whenever the group was climbing mountains or moving from place to place, we always walked in single file. A couple of the Partisans who were familiar with the terrain went first, then the captain and some of his close advisers. The two Canadians and I were somewhere in the middle of the group. We always seemed to go in that order. The Slovak Partisan who spoke English was ahead of Stuart May, Jack Ritch followed Stuart, and I followed Jack. We were to keep moving in the moonlight until we came to a farmhouse some distance below. One obstacle ahead of us was a precipice that dropped about 70 or 80 feet. Just before we reached the cliff, one of the Partisans got between Jack Ritch and me. When Ritch hit the bottom, his rifle hit a stump with a thud, causing the gun to fire. The bullet hit the Partisan in the stomach as he slid down the incline behind Ritch. After we all assembled at the bottom, it was decided that there was nothing we could do for our bleeding comrade. So the captain again took his revolver and shot him in the temple to remove him from his misery. Once again, by some act of God, I was spared. I've never figured out how the poor fellow got ahead of me.
When we arrived at the farmhouse, we were told we would get some sleep but to be ready for an early start. That night I noticed that my left foot was slightly frost bitten and it got pretty sore. One of the women living in the house fixed a solution for me to soak it in. Quite a few of us were suffering from frostbite, so the captain let us stay for a few days. I was quite relieved because my foot was very sore and swollen. This was especially worrisome to me since I had seen the captain's method for removing anyone who hindered the group's progress. We finally got well enough to move on but were warned by the Slovak that much danger still awaited us because we had to cross a closely guarded railroad and pass through a small German-occupied village.
Around noon we could see the valley and in the distance a dual railroad track with an armed guard riding a bicycle back and forth. Alongside the railroad track was a rather deep and wide creek. When we got to within a hundred yards of the track, the captain halted the group and sent two of the Partisans ahead to place a tree over the creek so we would not have to wade across. Somehow, they managed to do it without making noise and attracting attention. As soon as the tree was in place, we headed for the track and sneaked up behind the guard. When he turned around, one covered his mouth and the other took away his gun. Then the rest of us hurried across the creek.
The Partisans forced the German soldier to come along with us, pushing his bicycle in the snow. As usual, we headed for the hills on the other side of the track — with the snow getting deeper and the poor German sweating from pushing his bicycle while a machine gun pointed at him all the way. After several hours, we halted. I believe the German did plead to join the Partisans, but he was ordered to give the captain his watch, his coat, his jacket, and exchange shoes with one of the Partisans. After the shoes were exchanged, the Partisan who had been pointing the machine gun at the German was ordered to fire. Then we moved on, leaving the bicycle with the German body.
The partisan who spoke English told us that we would continue our march all night, stopping only to rest occasionally. He also said that we would be approaching the front lines in the morning and, if all went well, we would get into Russian-occupied territory sometime during the afternoon.
About dawn we came to a mountain covered with dug trenches. We heard many rifle shots and now and then the whistling of bullets. We didn't see many live German soldiers that day as we ran along, but there were many dead bodies in and out of the trenches in the wooded areas. Sometime during midday we stopped. The captain and the Partisans were talking to men we had never seen before. I later learned this group of men was a scouting Russian patrol and that the captain figured we had completed the most dangerous part of our trip.
About dusk, we arrived at another farmhouse that was used by the Russian army as an outpost. We had now completed our journey through the German lines. We were told we could rest until morning and then move on to a town called Szolnok in Hungary. At Szolnok we would be placed in contact with the Russian army headquarters.
It was March 20, 1945.
The following morning we departed and traveled across land that showed signs of intense battle: many piles of dead horses, half-destroyed tanks and trucks.
Approximately two days later, we arrived at the Russian army headquarters in Szolnok. At this spot, the Partisans turned us over to the Russian army. I have no idea what happened to the various other members of the Partisans. As I look back upon this moment, I feel bad that I was unable to give proper thanks to the captain and the Slovak Partisans who had helped us through so many very dangerous and discouraging days. That night and for two additional days, we were interrogated by a Russian officer and ate our meals in their mess hall. During the interrogation, it seemed the Russians were very interested in German trucks that carried an automatic rocket dispenser on the back. It must have been an effective new weapon utilized by the Germans. Of course, I could not help them in this regard since we had never gotten close to any of the German facilities. Occasionally we had heard repeated explosive action that could have been caused by such trucks.
On our first evening in the mess hall, the two Canadians and I sat at a huge table filled with Russian officers, eating potato soup. All of a sudden, everything became very quiet. We looked up and found the Russians had stopped eating and were staring at us. It seems they were amazed that we could eat our soup without the loud slurping noise made while gulping down theirs.
Here I was introduced to Russian vodka — a clear liquid that burned for ten minutes after swallowing it. In fact, during the next few days I dumped my drinks out a window on two or three occasions rather than hurt their feelings by refusing their offer. We heard a young officer brag about how well he could handle his liquor, emptying a bottle about the size of our pint. Shortly thereafter, he became loud and obnoxious. The officer in charge ordered some assistants to tie his hands behind his back and throw him out in the snow to sober up. He was left out there for a couple of hours.
From Szolnok, we were taken to a refugee camp that had been set up by the Russian army. One of the first things I noticed at this camp was that the Russians did not use men for jobs involved in the refugee operation. All of the persons involved were female, including the medical officers. Here, we attempted to get rid of our body lice. Our clothing was taken from us and destroyed — all of it (I did manage to keep my nylon gloves and the earphones from my flying helmet). A woman wearing a Russian army uniform took us to a large room with a dirt floor where fifty-gallon drums rested on three or four stones approximately a foot thick. In the space under the barrels were wood fires heating the water in the barrels. Nearby were a number of metal washbasins. We were instructed to remove all our clothing and bathe with the hot water, to which another liquid was added after we each ladled a washbasin full. As we attacked the lice, word passed through the building that "Americanskis" had arrived. The next thing we knew, the two Canadians and I were surrounded by Russian women. Here we were, after months without being able to take a bath, and now our bath was being interrupted by Russian women who apparently wished to see if we looked any different from Russian men. Soon the women were ordered back to their assigned duties.
Next came a medical examination by a female doctor — my first encounter with a female doctor — including the short-arm inspection that we had many times during our training in the U.S.A.
After the medical examination, we were issued underwear, a Russian army uniform, and Russian army boots. We were then informed that three other Americans who had recently been freed would be joining us. All three were officers who had parachuted on December 12 about 150 miles from where I did. I no longer recall their names even though I have a picture taken after we reached Odessa. Two of them were also evades. A Russian soldier was assigned to the group as a guide — his duty being to get us to Odessa, Russia, as soon as possible. It was explained that during the Potsdam negotiations Russia had agreed to release all Americans through the center set up at Odessa and there would be no exceptions made. I believe it was on the following day that Stuart May was hospitalized with Pneumonia.
The next day we were introduced to the Russian soldier, a veteran of many battles, wounded eight or ten times in the fighting between Russia and Germany. We gathered he was suffering from battle fatigue and was assigned this new duty as a period of rest. He could speak only a few words of English, but one of the things he told us as we started on our new adventure was, "You will like Odessa, just like New York City." It also became apparent that we could not complete this trip in a couple of days. We soon realized that our guide had been instructed to use any means possible to get us across Hungary and Romania, and into Russia. We walked down highways, dirt roads, and pathways. Sometimes we hitched rides on military trucks, and once in awhile we were placed on passenger trains. During our travels, it became more and more apparent that the Russians used only women in all the operations away from the front lines. The men were at the front lines fighting against the Germans.
The guide helped me keep track of the route we took by marking the map in my escape kit, so I can list the various towns that we traveled through in Hungary and Romania. We had come through the German lines near Liceneo. From there we proceeded through or near the following towns:

In Hungary: Salgotarjan, Hatuan, Jasbereny, Szolnok, Karcaq, Debrecen, back to Karcaq, Kisujszallas, Turkeue, Mezotur, Endroot, Mezobereny and Bekescaba;

In Romania: Arad, Deua, Orastic, Alba-lulia, Blaj, Sighisoarn, Hagbiz, Maerus, Brasov, Ploesti, Braila, Galati, Reni, *Bulgarioa, Ciadar, Lunga, Romanesti, Carudjica, Bahmutes, Carbuna, Cainart, Zaim, Tighina, and Tiraspol.

The town names listed are taken from the escape map printed in 1943. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the towns from Reni on are now in Russia. Most of those listed after Reni have apparently been given other names since the new boundaries were formed.
Shortly after entering Romania, we stayed one evening in barracks that were part of a Romanian airfield. Here we met a contingent of American Air Force personnel who were assigned to this airfield. One of the officers was a colonel who thought he could arrange for us to be flown back to the States from this point. We later learned this would be impossible since the Russians would not agree to release us. A day after we left the air field, two of the Americans discussed taking things into our own hands and going back to the air field to arrange for our return to American military control. The other American and I disagreed with their plan, stating we did not wish to upset our Russian guide with such action. That night the two of them left the group while we were sleeping. They were brought back to the group by female military personnel slightly beaten up. From then on, we traveled without any further difficulties among our group.
One day we were at a railroad station and when the train pulled in, the cars were quickly filled to capacity. Some cars even had people standing or sitting on the outside. Since our Russian guide couldn't get us on the train, he arranged with some military policewomen to remove passengers from one of the cars. This they did by rough force and a threat to shoot any resister. Jack Ritch and I, the Russian guide, and the other Americans then boarded the car. None of the passengers was allowed to get back on, and we went on our way in a nearly empty car.
I finally arrived in Odessa but had no idea what the date was. Mother was notified at 9:20 a.m. April 6, 1945, that I was returned to military control. This telegram indicates that Washington DC received this information at 7:55 p.m. on April 5, 1945. I believe that is the date I arrived in Odessa. We arrived early in the morning and seeing a pig and some chickens on the streets, I jokingly remarked to the other Americans that Odessa was like the guide told us it would be — "Just like New York City."
Upon our arrival in Odessa, Jack Ritch was turned over to Canadian military officials and I never saw him again."

"My First Mission" by Ed Burkhard & published in the June 2004 edition of The Liberaider"




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