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Into the Torture Chamber
"Major Bowles, I want you to resign your commission so you can join us," said the visitor, who was seated on a low rolling chair so he could look up into the face of Johnny Bowles, who was lying on his stomach on a gurney in an evacuation hospital near Tunis.
"I represent the Office of Strategic Services, Major, and we want you to join us," the visitor said, getting to the point quickly.
Bowles was dumbfounded. He had come out of the operating room only yesterday. Doctors had removed pieces of a German 88's shrapnel from all over his back and had put his sacrum back together with steel clips. He was still in pain and did not know if he would ever walk again. He wouldn't give the civilian the right time: "Hey, mister, get off my back, will ya!"
Testiness was uncharacteristic of Bowles, but the fear of being unable to walk was overpowering. A bad temper would not have helped him be-come president of his class at Piqua Senior High School or to be named Ohio State's varsity quarter-back at the end of his freshman year. Nor would he have got along so well with tal-ent agents and choreographers when he danced in the "Andy Hardy" movies.
But the recruiter's visit was the start of Bowles' trip to the torture chamber. The trail had actually begun in Sicily, when the Third Infantry Division was fighting off a furious German counterattack. An 88 had hit the battalion CP, a dugout where Bowles, his operations officer, and his radioman were trying to extricate Fox Company from an onrush of unexpected tanks. Bowles had just called in air support, when the 88 came in, probably aimed at the command car behind the dugout.
As he was being evacuated, all Bowles wanted to know was whether the planes had arrived in time to save Fox Company. Morphine made him drowsy and confused. In his semi-waking moments, he saw himself dancing again behind Mickey Rooney, but with a limp. Then he was once more carrying the ball as Ohio State's junior varsity, six-foot-two quarterback, dodging a tackle here, evading a blocker there, and sprinting down the field toward the goal line, but his right leg was stiff and straight and he wondered why the blockers hadn't been able to stop him.
Once, he could hear his kid brother across the kitchen table: "Jeez, Johnny. You're getting to be as famous as Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy!"
But their mother brought them back to the straight and narrow: "Each of us does as the good Lord has willed us to do, with the talents He has given us. They are gifts, and we must be thankful to the Lord for those He has bestowed upon us. Neither fame nor money."
The recruiter left him alone and walked away without a goodbye. But two weeks later, as Bowles, dressed in a maroon hospital bathrobe, was slowly walking on crutches among the palms in front of the yellow-stucco hospital, the O.S.S. man came alongside again and repeated his request.
"Look, mister. I'm an infantry officer," Bowles said. "I don't know any foreign languages; I didn't even get a chance to finish college. I don't know anything you want."
"That's all right, Major," the civilian answered. "You're exactly what we're looking for. We checked your service record and were impressed. We need an experienced infantry officer; we've got enough linguists and intellectuals already. We'll teach you all you need to know to do the job we want you to do for us."
The recruiter explained and Bowles listened. The clincher came as an aside: "Look, Bowles, the Army's officer candidate schools can turn out lots of infantry officers to replace you in the Third Division. But they can't give us a whole lot of infantry officers who have been captains of their high school football teams, who have served as governor in Ohio Boys' State, and who were going to quarterback Ohio State. You're a natural leader, Bowles. You can see we've done our homework. It's you we want, and, when you get right down to it, it's your country that needs you."
That evening, Bowles took a long look at himself in a mirror after he came out of the shower. He twisted around to look at his back, but couldn't see the wounds, even in the mirror. He was pleased that there were no marks on his face, the most prominent feature of which was a square jaw with a little cleft in the chin. His black hair, now cut straight across the top for the Army, did not quite reach down to the one scar that would show at the back of his neck, and he wondered if it would if he could let his hair grow a bit longer.
Bowles made his decision and resigned his commission. O.S.S. sent him to the "farm" in Virginia where he was put in command of an infiltration team called URBAN. The team's name had been chosen from a code book and had no meaning whatsoever, although Bowles, a Methodist, thought it had a Roman Catholic tinge because there were so many Catholic men in the Dayton area named Urban.
Bowles was the only member of URBAN who had been an officer. All eight members of URBAN were combat veterans and all were from the Army, except Chuck Avery, a Marine gunnery sergeant who had fought in the Philippines in 1941 and 1942. All had been separated from their services to go into O.S.S. They were told to remain in their old uniforms and to act as though they still were what they had been previously. Only their pay was different, considerably higher than before. For Bowles it was three hundred dollars a month, most of which he allotted to his mother's savings account at the Citizens National Bank of Piqua.
In the beginning, all URBAN did was small-unit training and calisthenics. Later, they were sent to Camp Benning to become parachutists and were taught radio and cryptography at Camp Gordon. At the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, they became proficient with captured German and Italian weapons. When URBAN returned to the "farm," its mission was revealed-Yugoslavia.
Bowles and his men were totally ignorant of Yugoslavia and asked each other over and over why they had been chosen to go there, of all places. Vahan Peretzian, URBAN's medic, even pointed out the oddity that not one of the men was descended from Yugoslav stock.
And because they were going to Yugoslavia, this brought on the most excruciating part of their training: boring, sleep-inducing lectures. URBAN sat through talks by long-winded professors who taught the intricacies of Yugoslavia's ancient blood feuds. Because URBAN's lives would depend on what was learned, members of the team tried hard to stay awake. To break the monotony of the lectures, they also spent some four hours a day on small-unit infantry drill, calisthenics, practice parachute jumps from a tower, and learning the Slovenian language.
The professors spelled out the complex tangle of ethnic and religious hatreds that made Serbs and Croats hate each other. Thrown into this tangle were other nationalities, other religions, even the Mohammedan. But for URBAN, the focus was on Slovenia, a region with its own language, written in the Latin alphabet, and, like neighboring Croatia, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.
A professor from Chicago, explained that his name, John Oman, reflected much of the history of Slovenia. "The Ohmanns were Germans, sent by the Holy Roman Empire to protect Christendom from the invading Turks 500 years ago. My ancestors ended up in the snowy mountains of Slovenia, remained Catholic even after Martin Luther, and changed their name to a Slovenian form.
"I grew up eating a lot of Sunday dinners I thought were authentically
Slovenian. Now I know it was all German food. But it wasn't just my family
that was retaining its German traditions; all of Slovenia loves whipped
cream, a fondness Slovenes learned from their Austrian conquerors. We also
eat little dumplings that are just like the Germans' spaetzle. Our language
differs from Serbo-Croatian, which is spoken in most of the rest of
Yugoslavia. Our religion, like that of the Croats, is Roman Catholic, not
Orthodox like that of the Serbs. And, like the Croats, we write in Latin
letters, just like English.
"You are obviously destined for western Slovenia, or they would be teaching you Hungarian, too. So I hope they teach you to ski. Slovenia has great mountains, wonderful skiing, and awesome snow. And it doesn't have a lot of 'Yugoslavs,' a term that really applies only to the passport people carry when they are outside Yugoslavia. The people of Yugoslavia think of themselves only as Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians, or Bosnians.
"Frankly, none of the peoples of Yugoslavia likes any of the others. It's actually much worse than that now because Croatia is - pure and simple - an Axis nation. The Nazi-created Independent State of Croatia has been forcing Serbs in Croatia to choose Catholicism or death. Tens of thousands of Serbs have been executed or deported. I don't believe this happened only be-cause Serbs dominated the Yugoslavia that was established after World War I; it goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.
"But the Serbs are no angels, either. Because of their long subjugation by the Turks, they are intensely anti-Catholic and anti-Moslem. They hate Croats and the Moslem Slavs, and save their greatest hatred for the Moslem Albanians who live in Serbia and the Moslem Serbs, who live in Bosnia. "This anti-Moslem hatred does not exist to any degree in Slovenia or northern Croatia, because those areas were never conquered by the Turks.
"The people of what was until recently Yugoslavia have been merrily killing each other by the thousands since the beginning of the war. Since World War II began, there have probably been more casualties in Yugoslavia from their civil wars than from either the Germans or the Italians."
Bowles found it all difficult to absorb, not only because it was so alien, but also because it had now been more than two years since he had hit the books at Ohio State. And even then he had carried a light load because he was there primarily to play football. He wondered how the other seven men of URBAN were absorbing all this bloody history.
O.S.S., obviously, thought all this background necessary, Bowles concluded, and this set him to puzzle out what sort of job had been planned for URBAN. They were probably going to be parachuted into their zone of operations, hence they had been sent to Camp Benning. They were going to be among Slovenes, hence the indoctrination and language sessions. But what was it they were going to do there? And they had not been taught to ski.
A British major with ruby crowns on his shoulders, the first Allied officer to reach the Partisans of Marshal Tito, spoke to URBAN for two long days. One comment that struck Bowles was: "To reach Tito and the Partisans from the Adriatic coast, I was given an escort by the Chetniks. They got me safely through German territory until they delivered me to Tito's headquarters at Uzice, southwest of Belgrade."
Bowles made a note to question this. From all previous speakers, Bowles had gained the impression that the Chetniks - principally royalist Serbs - were collaborating with the Germans and that there had been pitched battles between the Chetniks of Col. Drazha Mihailovic and Tito's Partisans. When the Englishman asked for questions, Bowles asked about the Chetniks. The explanation made no more sense than anything else they had learned about Yugoslavia.
"To the Chetniks, I was an ally," the Briton said. "When I made my request
to reach Tito, Mihailovic called him a Communist swine; but he ordered his
men to take me where I needed to go.
"When we approached the Partisan outposts, a Chetnik called forward, 'Hello. We are bringing an Allied officer from England. Will you let us pass?' And the Partisans called back, 'Let him come forward alone.' So I got up and walked through no-man's land between the two opposing Yugoslav forces."
After the Englishman came the big brass from Washington to explain U.S. policy in Yugoslavia. For these sessions, URBAN was gathered in a mess hall with the cooks and K.P.'s specifically excluded from the room. Sumner Welles, the undersecretary of state, told URBAN that Great Britain had decided to cast its lot entirely with Tito and to give him exclusive support and materiel. "Our British allies have proclaimed Tito the only Yugoslav resistance leader," Welles said. "We have not acceded to this position."
This was too much for Chuck Avery, the former Marine. "Does that mean, Mr. Secretary, that we still support the Chetniks?"
"No, it does not," Welles said. "What it means is that we have not yet accepted Tito as the one and only Yugoslav leader. But we no longer aid the Chetniks."
"If we don't help them, do we consider them on our side?" asked Peretzian, the team's overweight aidman, who had voluntarily been cooking up Middle Eastern meals for URBAN to give the others a taste of what they were in for in the Balkans.
"No, Sergeant," said a two-star general accompanying Welles. "We're fairly sure they're on the side of the Germans. But they are still helping us to get downed airmen back to Allied lines, and we can't just cut them off."
The biggest shocker came when a civilian from O.S.S. headquarters explained why URBAN had been made up entirely of native-born Americans, not one of whom could speak any of Yugoslavia's three major languages, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, or Macedonian: "We cannot trust anyone with any ties to Yugoslavia or who belongs to any Yugoslav ethnic group. They all hate each other over almost anything you can imagine-their language, their religion, their alpha-bet, or whether they are for or against the king."
"At the rate we're learning Slovenian," said Marty Mullins, URBAN's supply sergeant, "you may regret that decision. Slovenian is a bitch!"
"Yeah, I know," the civilian replied, "but if you were to sound wrong where you're going - and wrong means you know Serbo-Croatian - it might cost you your life. You better learn all the Slovenian you can while you have the chance. You're going to Slovenia."
When URBAN arrived at O.S.S. headquarters in Bari, things got even more muddied. Colonel Frank Davidson, the base commander and O.S.S. operations officer for the Mediterranean, told them what their mission was to be. They were to keep two entire German army groups-one in Italy and one in Yugoslavia-from linking up.
"You've got to be kidding, Colonel," said Ed Wilson, the team's radioman, who had played the tenor saxophone in the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra before the war. "How can eight men do that?"
Davidson, a man with a round, ruddy face, topped by neatly cropped red hair, had expected the challenge and explained, pointing to a map that he revealed by lifting a manila paper cover from maps displayed on an easel. "Where you are going," Davidson said. "the Partisans have full control over a huge area. To their rear, Italian Partisans have liberated another large area.
"The Germans in Italy are retreating northward, toward that Partisan-held
area. Romania has surrendered and Bulgaria looks like it's next. We expect
the Red Army to enter Yugoslavia from the east within days. What that means
is that the Germans may try to pull out of Yugoslavia, fight their way
through the Partisans in Yugoslavia and Italy, and link up with Field
Marshal Albert Kesselring's troops in Italy, to withdraw back into Germany
through the Brenner Pass or to join Kesselring in opposing our armies here
in Italy. We want to prevent that linkup. We don't want Kesselring
strengthened. Nor do we want the German troops in Italy and Yugoslavia to
rein-force the troops in Hitler's final redoubt in Bavaria. That's where
you come in.
"One thing we know for sure: The Germans have been trying to build a tunnel through the Alps to link Slovenia with Austria." He pointed to the map with his cadre stick. "The tunnel would have been both an escape hatch and a supply route. Fortunately, they haven't been able to get it open. We are keeping an eye on it and - if they manage to break through - we'll bomb the shit out of it.
"URBAN will not have to do any fighting unless you are attacked. Your job is to find the Partisans in this area," he pointed the cadre stick at the northwestern corner of Yugoslavia, proving Professor Oman's guess correct, "and act as liaison with Supreme Headquarters of the Mediterranean Theater in Caserta through this base. It will be your job to bring in air-supply drops and to coordinate tactical air strikes. In effect, you will become rear-echelon troops at Partisan headquarters."
Things did not work out as planned. Although URBAN had received instructions from British officers on the "farm," His Majesty's government suddenly objected to the dispatch of an American team into what the British considered their own area of operations. Further, the British suggested that O.S.S. would not be welcome among Tito's Partisans because O.S.S. still had men with the Chetniks.
The British objections brought a flying visit by Tito to Supreme Headquarters at Caserta. Tito's visit brought Churchill to Italy. The two leaders met in a requisitioned villa on the isle of Capri.
Davidson sent his second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Newhouse, as his representative to the Capri conference. At the same time, Davidson sent URBAN off into the mountains on a training exercise.
When Newhouse, the brother of newspaper publisher S.I. Newhouse, returned to the sprawling former Italian Army base in Bari, he told Davidson what had happened. URBAN's mission was still on, but a British officer would have to command it. Davidson puffed on a corncob pipe as he heard him out, occasionally asking Newhouse to expand on a point.
"I kind of expected that, Norm," Davidson said. "I fooled the British. I sent in team ROBIN, Paul Gregory's outfit, yesterday. Don't tell Bowles, who should be back later today from the wild-goose chase I sent him on."
Newhouse protested immediately. "ROBIN wasn't trained for Slovenia; that team was supposed to go into Germany."
"Yeah, I know. But they'll do OK."
Two days before URBAN was to take off, a short, ruddy-faced Canadian major with a thin mustache appeared at the Bari base, bringing along a chubby signalman who was proficient in Serbo-Croatian. Bowles was summoned to Davidson's office to meet William Macnaughton, once of His Majesty's Princess Patricia Light Infantry, the Princess Pats.
"Are you the new C.O. of URBAN?" Bowles asked bluntly.
"No," Macnaughton answered. "You are-and I'm damned glad of it."
"Because I don't know beans about you or your men. How the devil would I be able to command?"
"Then what are you here for?"
"Have you ever heard of a political commissar, Bowles?" Macnaughton asked, winking at Davidson and smiling a reassuring grin.
"A what?" Bowles asked.
"In the Russian army, they have a commander for a unit, but they also have
a political commissar, a Communist Party official who supposedly knows the
right way to think. I won't do that for you, but I'll give the appearance
of being the man Winston Churchill and Tito want in charge.
"Let me tell you a story, and you'll understand: I was inspecting my battalion one day and came to the quartermaster store. A corporal awaited me there behind a table on which he had spread a white bed sheet. The table was empty except for a small bottle. The bottle stood in the middle of the sheet, quite fascinating me. I said: 'Corporal, what's in that bottle?' and he said, quick as a wink, 'Eyewash, sir.' He passed inspection, Bowles.
"I've come to join your unit to be your eyewash-at least as far as Tito and Churchill are concerned."
Bowles' first impression was: "He sounds just like an American." His second - after the story about the eyewash - was: "He's OK."
"One more problem, Macnaughton," Bowles said. "Who's the fat guy they sent with you?"
Bowles had already heard, and had not liked it at all.
"My radioman, Bowles. He is to keep me in contact with Brigadier Maclean at Tito's headquarters. He will not replace your tactical radio operator."
The reference was to Fitzroy Maclean, who coordinated Allied support to Tito on behalf of Britain's Special Operations Executive, the organization on which O.S.S. had been based.
"Sorry, Macnaughton," Bowles continued. "You did not understand. They tell me this guy speaks Serbo-Croatian. Is that right?"
"I don't want him along."
Davidson, who was unaware of the Yugoslav animosities about which URBAN had been warned on the "farm," could not understand what Bowles was driving at. He objected. "Major Bowles, you're not giving the orders on that; I am."
Bowles noticed that Davidson's tone had suddenly turned to Army chickenshit. He decided it was best to shut up, at least for now. But he planned to warn Davidson about the danger that a Croatian speaker posed to URBAN.
At supper in the officers' mess, Bowles reopened the subject cautiously.
"Colonel, we were given intensive training on the 'farm' about inter-Yugoslav hatreds. We were told that's why URBAN was made up of nothing but native Americans, so nobody would have any links to Yugoslavia."
"Are you trying to bring up that radioman again, Major Bowles?" Davidson asked, interrupting Bowles before he could even get to the point.
"Don't!" Davidson said sharply, his voice rising in anger. "I know we're not in the Army here and I know O.S.S. is less conventional than the Army. But I'm wearing eagles on my shoulders, Major, and you're not. I don't wish to have my orders questioned. Is that clear?"