Chapter Eternal: Richard “Dick” Heim – WWII airman rescued behind enemy lines
Dick Heim ’48 (Penn State) was a B-24 tail gunner in WWII. His plane was badly damaged during a raid on Germany and he was forced to bail out over Yugoslavia — behind enemy lines. Until recently, his inspiring story of evasion and rescue was untold.
Answering the call of duty
Heim had just started his studies at Penn State when WWII intervened. Like so many young Americans who were driven by their sense of honor and duty, he enlisted in the US Army Air Corp, saying, “I’d have to finish my education later.”
Trained as a tail gunner in B-24 Liberator bombers, Heim became acutely aware the dangers that he faced when his first crew crashed in training. They lost one man and five others were wounded. In 1944, he was deployed to the Mediterranean theater and assigned to the 15th Air Force flying out of Southern Italy.
Assignment Italy: 15th Air Force
Among the primary goals of the 15th Air Force was to deny Germany resources to wage war by targeting oil producing plants that fueled the Axis war effort. It was an effective, but costly strategy.
Flying over Nazi-occupied countries, bombers faced a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire and fighter attacks. Every time a fleet of bombers went out, some were heavily damaged by German defenses and went down, or tried limping back to Italy.
If the bombers lost engines or fuel, many couldn’t gain enough altitude to clear the high mountains of the region. During the campaign, hundreds of American airmen were forced to bail out over German-occupied Yugoslavia.
Shot down behind enemy lines
Heim successfully flew a number of missions with his crew on a B-24 named the Yellow F. He recalled, “our crew was very close. We were a good mixture of what America is all about.”
On November 17, 1944, their target was a synthetic oil refinery in Blechhammer, Germany, just 90 miles from Berlin. Heim recalled, “on that fateful day, we were caught by a burst of 88mm anti-aircraft fire that ruptured our main fuel tank.”
With the plane hemorrhaging fuel, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Floating down in his parachute, Heim lost track of his crew and was all alone when he landed in Yugoslavia.
Heim said, “I hid behind a boulder where I saw a group of ragtag soldiers approaching, shouting ‘Partizono, Partizono’.” He realized they were Tito’s Partisans, communists who opposed the Germans, and knew he was safe.
The Yugoslavians hated the Germans and happily provided aid and shelter to downed allied air crews. Though they had little to give, the Yugoslav people fed the airman and hid them from the Germans at great risk to themselves.
Heim was reunited with most of his crew and met dozens of other downed airmen being protected by the Partisans. As it turned out, there were hundreds in Yugoslavia, all biding their time and hoping for a rescue.
When allied intelligence confirmed that hundreds of fliers were being harbored by the Yugoslavians, they dropped in teams from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to coordinate rescue efforts.
The mission was known as “Operation Halyard” and it was both logistically complex and politically delicate. The OSS planned rescues for airmen held by the communist Partisans, as well as those being sheltered by the royalist Chetniks, who were fighting each other for post-war control of the country.
The Yugoslavs and airman had to prepare suitable landing strips that could support C-47 transport planes without raising German attention. And the planes would need to make dozens of undetected landings at night to extract hundreds of airmen.
In January 1945, after two months behind enemy lines, Heim recalled, “we continued to wait in Yugoslavia for a break to take us home. Finally, a snow covered, plowed field with carbide lights was set up. What a welcome sight to see those Dakotas (C-47 transports) coming though and landing on that bumpy runway.”
Heim and his entire crew successfully evaded capture and were extracted. According to the US Air Force, more than 1,000 American airmen were airlifted from Yugoslavia in WWII. It was the largest rescue operation of American airmen in history.
Heim was eternally grateful to the Yugoslavian people saying, “God bless those brave Partisan freedom fighters, both men and women, who saved our lives from from Nazi capture or death.”
He received a Purple Heart and an Air Medal for his service. Until recently, the story of the rescue was classified because it was a covert operation.
Lifelong Dedication to Pi Lam
Heim went on to graduate from Penn State, did graduate work in history at NYU, and became a Manhattan advertising executive. He had a lifelong dedication to Pi Lambda Phi, and held several positions on national council. As a Trustee of the Education Foundation, he raised substantial monies to support its scholarship programs.
Former IEC President Stan Klunder remembered him as, “not only a friend but a trusted fraternity Brother and mentor of mine for many years. As his beloved wife Rose said he had ‘continued a life-long dedication’ to our fraternity reflecting our motto of ‘not four years, but a lifetime’.”
Richard Heim passed into the Chapter Eternal in 2007.