Interview with Lt. Col. Charles L. Davis by Joe Motheral
Published in Grapevine, November/December 2006. This interview is scheduled to be published in a new book, Iconic Figures of Northern Virginia, in late 2022.
On a bright sunny day at 11:00 in the morning, a hulk of a man with a long beard came up to him. “Amercanski?” He repeated three times while Charles had his hand on his side arm, a cocked 45 tucked in under his jacket. “Finally I said yes. Then the man, whom he later learned was Mr. Slavko Jevtovic, came up to me and kissed me three times on first one cheek and then the other. That’s the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox—for Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
Charles Davis, a dapper 87 year old can recall in great detail his experiences in World War II. He was a bombardier/navigator as part of the 459th Bombardment Group in the 15th Air Force aboard a B-24 shot down over Yugoslavia on their 14th bombing mission. He and his fellow crew members eluded capture by the Germans thanks to General Mihailovich and his resistance fighters after they had bailed out over Serbia.
The plane had taken off from Guilia Field in Italy on June 6, 1944 with the objective of hitting fuel tanks in Rumania. “The primary target was clouded over.” Says Charles, “So we went after the secondary target, a rail line leading away from the tanks. Our No. 1 engine malfunctioned; then the No. 3 engine began leaking oil.” They had to break formation at that point says Charles when the No. 4 engine was hit.
They had been told not to abandon ship over Rumania which was hostile to Americans so they managed to stay in the air, ”Until we crossed the Blue Danube which was really brown. Then we knew we were in Serbia.”
The six man crew parachuted onto the side of Ravna Gora (Ravna Mountain). Charles said, “As I was coming down I could hear voices in the trees below. I didn’t know whether they were friendly.” As it turned out he had concentrated so much on those voices that he landed on one leg and broke his ankle. “Another of the crew also broke his ankle landing.”
That’s when he met Mr. Jevtovic. They carried him to where he could mount a horse and the group proceeded to, “The safety of a beautiful house with a thatched roof. The woman of the house greeted me with a small bottle. It looked like white wine. She offered it to me and I said no you first. She took a sip then handed me the bottle. I took a big gulp and turned red and green and my eyes watered. It was homemade plum brandy—Slivovitz.” Everyone laughed. Welcome to Serbia.
“They put me in bed and later a larger bed. The woman of the house placed a lantern on the headboard then brought me a comic book about the thickness of a Readers Digest. It was an American comic book.”
On June 9th or 10th Charles said, the woman came to his bedroom and said, ‘Davis your birthday?’ “Yes ma’m. I replied.” His 25th birthday fell on June 8th. She later brought him a small cake. “How she found sugar and other ingredients I’ll never know. The Germans had taken everything of value. They had been German occupied for over two years.”
The whole crew moved each day from one house to another. “The people where we stayed gave us their beds while they slept on the ground or in a hay stack. Food was scarce but we had black bread and goat milk cheese in the morning and in the evening. Slivovitz was plentiful.”
Each of the crew members had been supplied with a survival kit, Charles says. It included a map on silk to keep the colors from running in case it got wet; fish hook and string, a compass, book and a vial of morphine. Since he had to have his ankle re-set, the morphine came in handy. The Serbs located a man who had attended to the animals—no doctors were available. He worked on the ankle then fashioned a splint and made a crutch. It was important that Charles be able to walk because they moved the crew to a different home each day and walking was the chief means of transport.
Later Charles persuaded his pilot who had been an enlisted man in the Medical Corps to try and reset the ankle as he says, “I knew it wasn’t quite right.” Charles passed out during the resetting but says, “Once we returned to the States and I went to a doctor, the doctor said it was perfect and wanted to know if another physician had set the ankle. Pilot Joseph Buchler had done a perfect job.”
He says the daily routine involved their staying in the house while the host family went to the fields during the day. When they came home in the late afternoon, they had dinner with whatever was available. Of course, Slivovitz, was always on hand. This went on for 66 days.
“One time,” He says, “We were being transported in an oxen drawn wagon filled with hay. The Germans had taken virtually everything such as tractors, cars, trucks and they had hauled off farm animals except for the oxen which were too slow and big to move. We heard the sound of something mechanized and knew it had to be Germans. Our driver pulled the wagon off the road and down to a stream for the oxen to have a drink. We covered ourselves with hay. The Germans drove by on the road and paid us little attention as oxen drinking from a stream hitched to a wagon was a typical scene.”
Their odyssey took them to the area in Serbia near the towns of Cacak, Ivanjika, and Gornji Milahovac all of which lie south of Belgrade.
General Mihailovich’s partisans, the CETNIK soldiers, were able to extract the radio from a fallen B-24. Charles said they hooked it up to the magneto on a motorcycle to recharge the radio’s battery and began sending out messages. Ultimately, the OSS—the predecessor of the CIA—responded. But the OSS didn’t know who was sending the messages and they asked them to identify themselves. They did so by citing that one member of their crew always wore a yellow kerchief around his neck and another one had made a drawing on the inside of a tent where they had been billeted in Italy. “We sent out everyone’s serial numbers—enlisted men had eight digits, officers seven. Only the radioman used nine digits for eight of the enlisted men to denote the coordinates of where we were located.”
One thing led to another and eventually the OSS created the ‘Halyard Mission’ to rescue the MIA airmen. On August 10, 1944 they arranged to have 17 C-47s land at night on a secret airstrip that General Mihailovich’s troops had built. The troops had dug trenches along the sides of the dirt runway; filled them with brush and then used residual fuel from wing tip fuel tanks that had been collected from tanks discarded by fighter escorts. “That night 252 airmen were evacuated to Italy. General Mihailovich rescued over 500 American between December 1943 to December 1944.”
The Army assigned Charles to the radar operations school at Langley Field, Virginia and upon completion of the course was retained as an instructor.
These days Charles keeps busy doing income tax returns in keeping with his training as a financial person and as he says tapping his head, “To keep this sharp.” He has been a volunteer fireman; likes to play cards with his friends sometimes at the American Legion Hall—also he says a place for families and charitable programs and he reminisces.
One of his favorites is about the time they were in training at Lackland near San Antonio, Texas staying in pyramid tents with raised wooden floors. A Gila monster, lizard took up residence underneath the floor. Charles says their place was a mess—clothes strewn everywhere as they had no one to keep them ship shape. The lizard one morning came out of its home and strolled into the tent; turning his head one way then the other scanned the entire tent; then turned around and went back under the floor. Charles said, “That was when we decided we had better tidy up!” Likely the lizard, and his tent mates had no idea what else life had in store for him.
Charles, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, has been honored to receive the Purple Heart and the Air Medal. He has chaired the National Committee of American Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich, Inc. and has worked to get a statue erected of General Mihailovich who had been executed by his rival, Marshall Tito. United States policy at the time favored Tito and didn’t want to upset him because during the Cold War, Yugoslavia had warm water ports coveted by the Soviet Union. So the statue has remained a dream. Charles was selected in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the War in Europe to commemorate what General Mihailovich did by presenting the Legion of Merit to the General’s daughter, Dr. Gordina Mihailovich. He went with his daughter, Barbara. And he has a son who lives in Bakersfield, California. And he stays in touch with the Jevtovic family.
Charlie Davis came from Chicago and he says sometime in 1936 or 37, “I moved to New York—maybe that was in 1939. Anyway, I wound up in Washington D.C. in a brownstone owned by a bookmaker—an Italian fella.” He remembers that on the second floor lived a bunch of girls. He had a job with the Agriculture Department, Smithsonian for awhile, then the OPA (Office of Price Administration). He remembers that one of his roommates joined the Air Force. “He came in one day decked out in a spiffy uniform. I was impressed.”
Later—sometime in 1942, he took a job as an apprentice boat builder at the Norfolk Navy Yard and as such had a deferment since ship building was an essential wartime industry. “I was involved in building dinghies and tugs.” He says a whistle would blow everyday at noon to signal it was time for lunch and at 4:00 PM when his shift ended. “I hated that whistle. It was an awful sound.” Charlie says.
“That and the spiffy uniform gave me the idea of signing up for the Air Force. So I went to the recruitment office. Had to take a test. One of those multiple choice tests.”
The examiner, a Captain, gave Charlie the test then laid a template over it. “You had to get a grade of 97 out of 100. I came up two short with a grade of 95. I tried to talk the Captain into letting me in, but he refused.”
Two days later Charlie received a cable telling him he had passed. The military had reduced the requirement by two points and so Charlie was in. The Captain told him, “Charlie you would do anything to get away from that whistle.”