75 years ago – almost 76 – in the early hours of November 18th 1943, US pilot Dick Flournoy crash-landed his B-17 bomber plane, on the shore of a sandy marsh near Lefkimi, in the south of Corfu. Immediately after bombing Eleusis Airfield, the key German air base west of Athens, his Flying Fortress had got hit by antiaircraft gunfire. With only one of four engines running he and his nine member crew hoped to reach Brindisi in southern Italy, but fate forced them down to the last Greek island on their route.
The aircraft had stopped just short of a row of trees and none of the crew got injured. Within a few minutes villagers arrived; some climbed aboard and the crew abandoned the plan to set fire to the big bomber, thus denying anything on board to the German occupiers of Corfu. None of the locals spoke English, but some had carried native clothing with them and made it obvious to the crew members to put it on and follow them away from the area of the crash. Soon all the airmen had gone, guided by different people to different hide-outs. When the first Germans arrived on the scene of the crash they found only local inhabitants climbing and searching the plane.
After hiding in individual shelters the crew were guided to different hiding places in the town of Lefkimi, with the efficient help of the underground resistance in the area. Within a week or two most members of the crew got malaria, which they combatted with bloodletting. Just before Christmas the Germans thoroughly searched the town, but the Americans had been forewarned and taken refuge in the hills.
Some days later the very well organised resistance smuggled the ten in olive carts pulled by donkeys through the outskirts of Corfu Town. Later on they went by foot past a German army camp and after many adventures and hazards reached the small fishing village of Kontokali, a few miles north of the town. Two Greek fishermen rowed them in two boats in twelve hours across to the bay of Butrinti in Albania, avoiding almost continual patrols by the German navy.
Ten weeks on the run
The group made it under horrific circumstances by foot through the snow-clad mountains of Albania and Epirus to the coast of northern Greece. It was not until March 16th 1944 that they were shipped out to Gallipoli in southern Italy and could consider themselves save and free once more. The common thread of all their conversations “was each person’s admiration for the courage, the cleverness, imagination and vigilant protection given us by the Greeks. No matter the danger or the challenge, they were ready to do whatever was needed to see to it that we survived. Each of us would eternally be indebted to them for that.”
A local friend of mine eyewitnessed that in Lefkimi are still objects to be found from the crashed B-17 and even original clothing of the crew. Perhaps a small museum will be dedicated one day to the extraordinary escape to freedom of the US crew with the remarkable and self-sacrificing aid of the inhabitants of Corfu.
Nowadays a monument of granite and white marble, near the municipality beach of Alikès, commemorates the crash. The text says: “In memory of the event that took place on November 18 1943 during the German Occupation, in which an American B-17 War Plane Bomber with a ten man crew on board crash landed in this area. Local Lefkimmi patriots courageously rescued them, hid them and safely led them into the hands of the allies. Municipality of Lefkimmi.”
I quoted freely from: Philip D. Caine, Aircraft Down!, Evading Capture in WWII Europe, Potomax Books, Washington D.C. 2005, Chapter six, ‘All present and accounted for’, pp. 182-223.