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The amazing story of how Albanians helped American GIs escape to freedom

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I was working at Acton University in June, helping speakers with their audio/visual needs in the lecture rooms, when I was approached by conference attendee I had never met before. His name was Clinton W. Abbott and he had learned earlier during the conference in Grand Rapids that there was an Albanian working with Acton. That girl was me.

This is not so unusual at Acton U. because it is a very international gathering. But Abbott shared a story with me that both surprised and inspired me about my native country. His father, Lawrence O. Abbott, was one of 30 Americans shot down by the Germans while flying over Albania during World War II. Their aircraft was heavily damaged in an emergency landing but the Americans survived, and with the help of local Albanian villagers and partisans, spent two months hiding from the Nazis. I had never heard about this before.

The story begins on Nov. 8, 1943, when an American airplane, a Dakota C-53, with 13 nurses and 13 doctors of the U.S. Army’s Medical Unit 807 Air Evacuation aboard, along with four  pilots, were flying from Catania to Bari in Italy.

Because of harsh weather conditions and a technical defect, the flight crew went off course and accidentally flew into Albanian airspace. When they crossed the border, they were attacked by Nazi German forces, and were forced to land in a rough field between the cities of Elbasan and Berat. This landing so badly damaged the aircraft that it was no longer able to fly.

Even though they were in a new place, the downed U.S. servicemen and nurses found the support of the Albanian people. Thanks to the help of these people, Americans were welcomed into their homes, and hidden from the Germans.

With the help of the Partisan units and the National Front (in Albanian Balli Kombetar), as well as the help of British and American officers, the Americans eventually made their way to secret bases on the Adriatic coast on January 9, 1944, and then to Italy via fast motorboats.

This amazing episode, I learned, was recounted by then Sgt. Lawrence Abbott, one of the rescued Americans. The story has been told in the book “Out of Albania – From the Memories of Lawrence O. Abbott – A true account of a WWII underground rescue mission,” authored by Clinton Abbot, the son of Lawrence, using original manuscripts from his father. Clinton sent me a copy of the book after our meeting at Acton U.

This story reinforces and brings attention once again to the values and traditions of the Albanians. Cultural values are extremely important to people as they are indicative of a nation’s traditions and identity. A special characteristic of Albanians throughout history has proved that, besides others, Albanians are hospitable. Hospitality is an important ideal of traditional Albanian society.

The other case where Albanians have shown their generosity as a people is the protection of Jewish refugees by the end of World War II. Throughout the war, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees sought refuge in Albania. Most of these Jewish refugees were treated very well by Albanians, even though during that time the country was occupied by Fascist Italy, and afterward by Nazi Germany. Albanians, following a traditional custom of hospitality known as besa. This word literally means “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. Albanians often welcomed or even kept Jewish refugees in their houses, and afterward transported them to Adriatic ports where they fled to Italy.

If you want to read more about this story, several books are available such as: “Out of Albania – From the Memories of Lawrence O. Abbott – A true account of a WWII underground rescue mission by his father Lawrence O. Abbott”; “Albanian Escape: The True Story of U.S. Army Nurses Behind Enemy Lines” by Agnes Jensen Mangerich; “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines” by Cate Lineberry and “Savage Will: The Daring Escape of Americans Trapped Behind Nazi Lines” by Timothy M. Gay.

This story really demonstrates how Acton U. is a place not only for sharing different views about religion, liberty, free markets and a free society but also it’s a place where you can meet peoples from different countries and backgrounds. What’s more, this story magnifies the generosity of the Albanian people during World War II and shows how they risked their lives to help Americans. Lawrence Abbott, in his own words, believed that the Albanian people were “doing the best they can for us.”

Photos used by permission of Info Elbasani News.  (http://infoelbasani.al/)

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Alkida Lushaj Alkida Lushaj is an intern at the Acton Institute with the Executive Staff. Alkida received a BA in Political Science from University of Tirana, MA in Diplomacy and International Relations in EU from University of Tirana and a second MA in European Studies - Eurasia from Istanbul University. Alkida is author and co–author of numerous articles, studies and publications addressing social issues, mainstreaming gender issues in policy making and women empowerment as concepts strongly related to the social, economic and political development of Albania, her native country.

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