Operation Reunion

WHEN the Romanians quit the Germans last summer, Lt Col James A Gunn III had been a prisoner of war six days. Shot down over the Ploesti oil fields, this lean, balding 32-year-old pilot, whom the others called "Pop," was the ranking officer in Romanian hands. How well he shouldered his responsibilities is shown by the facts — four days after the Romanian switch, Pop was in Italy, 600 miles across enemy territory, helping organize the world's greatest air rescue mission; four days later he was welcoming 1,126 rescued fliers back to friendly soil. In carrying word to Italy of his fellow prisoners' plight and the practicability of pulling them out by air, this former California prune farmer created a 20th century version of the message to Garcia.

Gunn carried the message because there were no radio communications. He carried it himself because the message was vital and the job dangerous. He was a passenger in a Messerschmitt 109, flying at 20,000 feet without an oxygen mask, lying flat on his back in the fuselage, bolted in from the outside, with no parachute and no chance to get out if the plane caught fire in a forced landing. He was as helpless as the useless radio which had been removed to make room for him, and practically as inanimate. He couldn't sit up — there just wasn't room. He couldn't change positions — the extra exertion would use up oxygen that was already scarce. He couldn't see out— there was no opening. He couldn't even keep time — he had given up his watch and other metal objects so as not to upset the plane's compass.

The plane's route lay first over enemy territory, where the American flag and insignia would draw fire. It then led to friendly territory, where American fliers and American ack-ack would spot the Messerschmitt silhouette and think the US markings were another enemy trick.

Gunn's pilot was a Romanian who had become an ace shooting down Allied planes. Until twenty-four hours before the takeoff Gunn had never seen or heard of him. And ace though Captain Cantacuzino was, his route was new to him, he had no adequate maps, no radio to tell the Americans he wasn't a German, no recognition signals, and, because of his passenger back there without oxygen, no chance to climb if attacked.

That's how Pop carried his message to Italy, the message making possible the evacuation. of 1,126 American fliers whom the Germans might otherwise have recaptured.

But that flight is only part of the story. There was infinite perseverance which overcame Romanian lethargy, quibbling, evasion, hesitation and all-round chaos.

Here is the situation Gunn faced in the officers' prison, Lager 13, in Bucharest, on the night of Wednesday, August 23. At 2215 the radio, which had been slipped into the prison part by part and secretly reassembled, brought the news that Romania had switched sides, had gone over from Germany to Russia. Gunn immediately closed the doors, discussed the possibilities with other senior officers, and decided upon a basic policy. First they would arm themselves against possible attack by German troops and sit tight, then they would attempt to arrange an organized evacuation.

Later on, in the recreation room, he was meeting all the officers, giving them the news, pausing while they whooped it up, then telling them to keep their clothes on, stay in their rooms, be ready for any emergency.

Then Gunn demanded arms — the officers' own .45's which the Romanians were keeping in a storeroom. The prison commandant was a fat, heartless colonel accustomed to kicking his own enlisted men. He put on military airs, claiming he didn't have proper authority. So Jim Gunn got the commander of all Romanian prisons on the phone. He too claimed insufficient authority. Gunn announced that they would take the arms anyway. The commander came running to the prison and Gunn had him in a dither when a Romanian general staff colonel arrived, delivered a patriotic address and shortly found himself making a deal with the determined Californian.

By this time, around daybreak, machine-gun fire in the streets indicated the possibility of an attack on the prison. Pop needed precise information. Romanian officers knew virtually nothing. He tried telephoning but the lines were dead. He dispatched one officer to contact Red Cross and Geneva Convention authorities, another to try to establish radio communications with the 15th Air Force in Italy. Meanwhile Gunn reasoned it would be foolhardy to rush out pell mell and chance meeting some German platoon which could either mow them down or take them prisoners.

At 0940 Thursday, German bombers arrived: first 38 Heinkels for low-level bombing, then Junkers for dive bombing, Rotterdam stuff, unopposed, with even the air-raid sirens, fouled up by German agents, sounding no alert and then sounding an all clear in the midst of the raid. When the first bombing was over — the first of a series lasting three days, almost hourly — Gunn had a morale problem on his hands. Officers were asking what to do, shouting, "Let's get the hell out of here." About one in four eventually pulled out and some 500 of the 570 enlisted men at the other prison scattered over Bucharest.

But Pop stuck to his plan: to arrange an organized evacuation. Through bombings and lulls he waited for reports from his reconnaissance officers. None came Thursday, none Thursday night, none Friday morning. By noon Friday Pop decided he could wait no longer. He collared a Romanian sergeant with a motorcycle, a most unusual sergeant who had been hanging around the prison, Daly by name, reportedly of royal blood, in the King's Guard, son-in-law of the admiral of the Romanian fleet.

Thus Pop was off on the long, winding trail which he followed until he had what he wanted, a plane to fly him to Italy to get help from the 15th Air Force. He had to confer with several officers before he could get to the Minister of War's headquarters, in a camouflaged summer cabin hidden in woods north of Bucharest. He had to spend some time in polite talk with the Minister's wife and sister-in-law, who couldn't get enough of the American cigarettes Gunn had just received from the Red Cross. When the Minister agreed to let him have a plane, he had to listen to a long discussion about returning it — the Romanian army had so few planes they feared the loss of one would affect them seriously. Then, when Gunn promised to get it back, he discovered that the Minister of War had to get the approval of the Air Minister.

Late that afternoon the Romanians decided to fly him to Turkey rather than Italy. So Gunn had to see the Air Minister and talk him out of that. He tried to hurry things by insisting on a night flight, but the Air Minister said no, tomorrow. Pop spent most of the night getting military information, talking with Major Yeager, the freckled-faced Texan he had dispatched to set up a radio. Hank Yeager had grabbed a couple of enlisted men, built a sending station out of parts from wrecked planes. The only code he had was a year old. He had gone on the air blind with it, didn't know whether his messages were getting through or, if so, whether anyone was heeding them. In short, Pop was right — someone had to carry the message to Italy.

In bed at three, up at six to take off, Gunn found more complications. The Air Minister had to see him, revealed excitedly that he had a message saying fifty American planes would land, requesting that Romanian planes be grounded. Gunn observed it might be a German trick and went on to the airfield, found the plane picked to fly him, a twin-engine Italian-made Savoia-Marchetti. Gunn had been in the Air Force since 1939, had flown all kinds of planes, become a B-17 pilot, a B-24 pilot, a B-24 group commander. He didn't balk at this slow, obsolete bomber; he simply took in its characteristics and around them, however poor, built his plan for getting back to the 15th Air Force in Italy.

Then, at 1300 Saturday, the Savoia-Marchetti took off, with Gunn in the engineer's seat behind the pilot. A great poker player, Pop always tries to figure his odds. Now he figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of getting through and that, anyway, whether shot down or reaching Italy, it would all be over in a few hours, He was wrong. After half an hour in the air the pilot, claiming the right engine was acting up, turned back to Bucharest. In another half hour Gunn was deposited on the field from which he had taken off.

There he got to talking with Captain Cantacuzino, commander of a Messerschmitt fighter group. "Bazu," as everyone called him, had 6000 hours flying time, 500 hours combat, 54 planes to his credit. He and Pop were two of a kind, both thirty-two, both tall, both speaking the same languages, English and aviation. They hit upon the idea of Gunn riding inside the fuselage of an ME 109. Then the Air Minister drove up and called Gunn into conference. He revealed that over Yeager's radio the Romanians had asked for bombings of certain airfields, that these fields had now been retaken and there was no sure way to cancel the bombing requests. So there was Gunn, with another message to carry and with permission to go in the ME 109.

Bazu and Pop first considered crossing the Adriatic "on the deck" — close to the water. But they finally decided upon another plan— to fly at 20,000 feet until 100 miles from Italy, nose over with maximum power, come in downhill at 450 miles per hour. They figured that even if American fighters were alerted instantly, this plan would give only five minutes for interception. They considered installing oxygen but decided it would take too much time, and Pop thought he could stand 20,000 feet without it. If he began to lose consciousness, he was to beat on the fuselage with his heavy GI shoes and Bazu was to come down two or three thousand feet in altitude.

Pop drew a map showing known flak areas in Jugoslavia so Bazu could avoid them if weather compelled a deviation from their course. He showed Bazu where he could cross the Italian coastline without hitting flak and balloon barrages, what river to follow inland, where to turn for the San Giovania airfield, where to land on it, where to taxi, even where to park. They agreed that if fired on coming into Italy, Bazu was to make a belly landing in a wheat field. Over and over again Bazu asked whether the P-38s and P-51s would shoot him on the ground. Pop kept saying he didn't think so but couldn't guarantee it. They decided, in addition to putting American insignia on the wings, to have an American flag painted on each side of the fuselage. They secretly agreed to take off at 1730 Sunday.

While the paint job was going on, Bazu decided on a little confidence-building. He walked over to a small biplane, climbed in, and gave the best spectacle of stunt flying the Californian had ever witnessed. During the day he also flew several fighter missions and got another German plane. Meanwhile the painters were slow measuring every star, refusing to be hurried. Bazu grabbed a paint brush, daubed on the last few stars and gave a furtive nod to Pop, who crawled in. Instantly Bazu fastened the inspection plate over the opening, climbed into the cockpit and took off.

At 20,000 feet, lying motionless, trying to relax, unable to keep time, Pop occupied his thoughts figuring odds. He figured them owe way, then another, then another, over and over again. It was then he thought he heard the engine sputtering, knew he heard a metallic "clunk," felt the plane nose over. The clunk was simply the spare belly tank being dropped, but Pop didn't know that, thought they were in an air battle. "Hit by a 20-mm!" Air began to rush in. The plane's extra speed had partially opened the footstep in the fuselage, but Pop didn't know that; he thought they were about to land: "Good grief! Jugoslavia." Then he found where the air was coming from, twisted around to peep through the narrow slit, saw water at 15,000 feet. Later he saw land flashing by at seven miles a minute, small strips he didn't recognize. At 200 feet he could see that he was over a river, a winding river with dry gravel bars in it; and Pop knew it was the one he'd flown so many times, the right one. Soon the plane was turning, they were heading for San Giovania, Pop was hearing Bazu put the wheels down, feeling him rock the wings, giving himself ten to one odds the field wouldn't shoot. Now he had a glimpse of planes on the ground, felt the 109 land, taxi, turn, stop, heard cars and people, heard Bazu tell someone, "I have a surprise for you back here." They opened the plate and Pop crawled out, feet first.

This is how Pop carried the messages to Italy that stopped the bombing of Romanian-held fields and started the air rescue mission laconically named "Operation Reunion." That night he was telling his story at 15th Air Force headquarters. Next morning he was flying to MAAF — Mediterranean Allied Air Forces — telling his story again, telling it once more to a big conference headed by General Sir Maitland Wilson. Then he was flying back, to find the 15th already planning Operation Reunion in detail, getting everything on paper so as not to lose time when a go-ahead arrived from MAAF.

Pop helped in the planning, but essentially Operation Reunion was a team job, planned like a little invasion, with an H Hour and all that. First, communications had to be set up between Italy and Romania. Bazu flew to Bucharest and, while four accompanying fighters hovered overhead, landed to make sure that Romanians still held the field. He fired a green flare as a signal and the fighters streaked back toward Italy. Halfway home they shot a radio code message to two B-17s which took off with radio equipment and a big gray-haired colonel to handle the Bucharest end of Operation Reunion.

Meanwhile in Italy other B-17s were being made ready for the actual rescue: their bomb bays planked, their fighter covers synchronized, their crews briefed — even as to where to park on the Bucharest field. These B-17s arrived in groups of twelve, an entire group landing, parking, loading up with prisoners and taking off in twenty-five minutes. The operation was so expertly scheduled that the Ploesti fliers were lined up in squads of twenty, each squad having a number designating precisely which plane it would take.

Thus 1126 fliers, including seventeen on crutches and ten on stretchers, were picked up, flown to Italy without one accident, and later brought home. Reassigned, they are now back in the fight again.

On landing in Italy, one of the fliers took off his shoes to dance barefoot on free soil. A photographer got a picture of that but, missed the real picture — man after man walking up to Pop, shaking his hand.

This article was originally published in the March, 1945, issue of Air News magazine, vol 8, no 2, pp 46-47, 72.
The PDF of this article is illustrated with a photo of Lt Col Gun, a bottom view of a B-17G and a map of Jugoslavia and the Adriatic, showing the route flown.
The original was printed on 9½ by 12¾ inch paper. The images in the PDF have been reduced to print on letter-size paper.
Map credited to Air News; photos credited to Press Association, Lockheed, European.