The Liberty Gazette
June 12, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: “Whoever controls the island of Vis controls the Adriatic,” explained Nano, our private military tour guide.
My eyes were still adjusting to the bright sun as we emerged from a tunnel into a rubble-strewn area that overlooked the gently rolling sea. I was careful not to trip on the corroded circular metal pad bolted to the cement floor and its rusting metal sleeve that protruded upward, the remains of a mount for heavy artillery. I’d seen similar bunkers at Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach in Normandy. But those didn’t require navigation through hundreds of yards of dank-smelling tunnels.
“This island never was occupied by Germany like the rest of Yugoslavia,” Nano pointed out. “Italy held it, but gave it up.”
Linda: The remains of over thirty separate military installations are still on the island. Nano, a native of Vis, drove his Land Rover along rugged roads to show us bunkers, barracks, and a sunset from the second highest point on the island. The highest point is still military-occupied. Some centuries-old ruins are crumbling. Others, built during WWII and the Cold War, we explored by flashlight. We dodged bats and bugs through the dungeon-like maze.
Italy abandoned the island when they surrendered in September, 1943. This allowed the Yugoslav Partisan resistance to move their headquarters here, where they added a hospital and an airstrip.
Mike: In 1944, the RAF stationed two squadrons of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters at the newly-built air base. The United States Army Air Force also placed a group of mechanics on the island to repair war-damaged bombers. The hospital was busy treating wounded crew members.
“The air base here was one of the most important in the Adriatic. When bombers, damaged while attacking German targets in the Balkans, couldn’t make it back home to Italy, they came here.” Nano slowed his vehicle to show us a marker. The inscription reads: "In Proud Memory of the Men of the Royal Air Force who lost their lives while operating over Yugoslavia 1944 through 1945," except someone has scratched out “Yugoslavia” and replaced it with “Croatia,” a sign of continued internal struggle.
One day in 1944, thirty-seven B-24 Liberators either landed at or crashed on the short runway. To clear the overtaxed field for more landings, crashed airplanes were chopped up with axes. Several aircraft crews bailed out nearby or had to ditch in the blue waters surrounding the island.
As Germany retreated farther north in 1945, the mechanics and squadrons of fighters were moved to an airfield in Zadar on the Yugoslav coast. At the end of the war, the island air base was closed and the land returned to use as vineyards. But buildings still have signs that say “Aerodrome,” and old pilots have returned to remember friends both saved and lost.
At war’s end, 218 aircraft were saved and over 1,000 airmen owe their lives to the little airfield and its hospital in the middle of the Adriatic.