A U.S. airman teamed with a Romanian noble to save 1,161 Americans during World War II.
Lieutenant Colonel James A. Gunn III was on his hands and knees, stuffed into a cramped, dark, and cold compartment on an Me-109G-6. The space had been designed to hold radio equipment, not a large man in a bulky flight jacket, but he had squeezed in through an 18-inch-square metal door. That door was his only way out, and there was no latch on the inside. Though the plane was flying at 19,000 feet over the Adriatic Sea, Gunn had no parachute, no oxygen equipment. His fate lay largely in the hands of the pilot, a Romanian ace—a prince, no less— credited with shooting down dozens of Allied planes, including an American B-24. Enemies only days before, the two men had now conspired to steal the Me-109 from an airfield outside Bucharest.
How a U.S. pilot came to be flying in a stolen German plane with a Romanian of royal bloodlines is one of World War II’s wildest tales. The story would end with the rescue of more than 1,100 Amer ican airmen once held as POWs. But it started with the 32- year-old Gunn, commanding officer of the Army Air Force’s 454th Bombardment Group, and the gamble he took to save his men.
Ten days earlier, on August 17, 1944, Gunn had led a squadron of B-24s in an attack by more than 200 U.S. bombers on Romanian oil refineries at Ploesti that were fueling Germany’s war machine. This was the 23rd mission against Ploesti, and more than 280 Amer ican bombers had already been lost, along with 2,829 air men captured or killed. Gunn’s plane was brought down, and he was captured and taken to a large POW compound in Bucharest.
Within a few days, Gunn and the other prisoners found themselves caught in the middle of a firefight—this time between Romania and Germany. Romania’s longtime fascist dictator, General Ion Antonescu, had backed Adolf Hitler in the war, supplying more troops for the Eastern Front than all of Germany’s other allies combined. But the country’s ruler, King Michael, a teenager at the war’s start, had made frequent pleas for peace and won support in his country’s military and government. By late August 1944, with Germany reeling and Soviet forces advancing on Romania, the king confronted Antonescu and demanded his resignation.
“What—and leave the country in the hands of a child?” Antonescu replied. The king had the general arrested, a provisional government was formed, and Romania threw its support to the Allies.
The American prisoners, assuming they would soon be free, were ecstatic when they heard the news. But they quickly realized there were new dangers. What if the Germans moved them to other POW camps? Or executed them on the spot? When the Russians arrived in Bucharest, a fight with the remaining Germans would be inevitable, with the Americans caught in between. As if that were not enough, German aircraft launched bombing raids on Bucharest.
Some of the airmen were now held in a ski resort in the Transylvanian Alps. To keep these men safe from German reprisals, Romanian soldiers moved them to a remote nearby village, Pietro sita, where they joined the locals in a raucous celebration of Romania’s changing fortunes. Several of the men had formed a jazz band in prison and offered to play. They started with the hit song “Flat Foot Floogie,” a jazz tune even the Romanians knew, and many young women of Pietro sita jumped up to dance. “The party went on until the early morning hours,” Lieutenant Richard Britt remembered. “American-Romanian relations were firmly cemented that night.”
There were no parties for the POWs in Bucharest. The Romanian guards returned to the Americans their guns but cautioned against wandering around town. That did not stop two lieutenants, Henry Lasco and Martin Roth. They left the compound one night despite hearing rifle shots, commands barked in German, and pounding footfalls. In the dark, Lasco banged his head against something, only to discover it was the boot of a German soldier who had been hanged from a lamppost.
As the two men passed one doorway, they were grabbed and dragged inside by a group of Romanians who hugged and kissed them. “The Americans are with us!” they shouted. The young officers decided they would be safer back at the POW camp.
German He-111s continued bombing the city, spreading chaos. The compound was hit several times, killing at least five Americans and wounding several dozen more. Four prisoners were killed by a German soldier who walked into a crowded restaurant and opened fire. Many POWs were stricken with dysentery but could not find medical help. Staff Sergeant Harry Fritz, who had been a tail gunner, was so sick he could barely move. “I was ready to break physically and emotionally,” he said. Other POWs fled into the city. Some received food and shelter from residents, but others roamed the streets, not knowing where to go or what to do.
As the senior officer at the POW compound, James Gunn was responsible for the men. Determined to get them someplace safe, he contacted Romania’s minister of war and asked permission to fly to one of the American bases in Italy “to make known our situation.” The Romanians agreed, and on the morning of August 26, only nine days after he had been shot down, Gunn was driven to Popesti airfield, a few miles south of Bucharest. The aircraft waiting for him was an old, run-down SM-79 bomber. It didn’t look as if it would make it off the runway. Nor did the pilot inspire confidence. He did not speak English and acted afraid of Gunn—and of flying the plane to Italy. They took off, but within 20 minutes the pilot turned back, claiming there was engine trouble, though everything sounded fine to Gunn.
Back on the ground, Gunn was puzzling over what to do next when a handsome, rakish Romanian air force pilot walked up and made an astonishing offer. “Colonel,” the man said in flawless English, “if you will crawl into the belly of a Messerschmitt 109, I will fly you to Italy.”
The pilot was 38-year-old Captain Constantin Cantacuzino, Romania’s leading ace. Born into a wealthy family of nobles descended from a ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Bazu (“Buzz”), as he was nicknamed, had demonstrated early in life a keen ability to work hard and excel at just about anything. He was an adventurer and a playboy, yet he carried himself with great class. The prince enjoyed many sports, often paying handsomely for training and equipment. He won motorcycle competitions and even set a world record in a Paris-to-Bucharest race, riding for 44 hours. He excelled at tennis and captained the Romanian ice hockey team at the 1933 world championships.
But his primary love, aside from women, was flying. He had won aerobatic contests in his biplane, a Bü-133 Jungmeister. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Cantacuzino flew throughout Europe, first as pilot for the president of the International Aviation Federation and then as the chief pilot of Romania’s air transport company, LARES. He joined the Romanian air force in 1941 and flew more than 600 combat missions, with at least 43 confirmed kills. Now, talking with Gunn, he outlined a bold gambit: Though he didn’t even have a map, he would fly the Me-109 over German territory and land at an American air base in Italy. The last few miles would be very dangerous: With the plane’s radio removed to make room for Gunn, Cantacuzino could not tell the Americans that the approaching German aircraft was a friendly.
Despite the obvious risks, Gunn jumped at the offer. He sketched on a piece of cardboard the route to the U.S. airfield at San Giovanni, hundreds of miles away in southern Italy, marking the position of antiaircraft guns and barrage balloons he remembered from his Ploesti mission. Large American flags were painted on the Me-109’s fuselage, and airfield workers spent much of August 27 servicing the plane for a departure on the morning of the 28th.
As preparations continued, Cantacuzino grew worried that word of their scheme had spread. German fighters might be waiting at takeoff. The Romanian proposed that they continue to talk as though leaving on the 28th, but instead depart as soon as the plane was ready.
The two put on quite a show to keep their new plan a secret. Late on the afternoon of August 27, Gunn put on a thick leather flight jacket and climbed inside the radio compartment, pretending he was checking to make sure he could fit in the tight space. As soon as he was settled, Cantacuzino closed the panel door, tightened the fasteners, and jumped into the cockpit. Revving the engines, he taxied down the grass field and soared off, leaving onlookers confused.
For the next few hours, Gunn huddled inside the dark and noisy compartment. It vibrated constantly and often violently. As the plane reached 19,000 feet, the lack of oxygen brought on hypoxia; Gunn grew dizzy, his thinking became sluggish, and he had trouble breathing. The higher altitude also exposed him to intense cold. “It wasn’t a pleasant flight,” he said later.
With no window, Gunn also was disoriented; he could not even tell if they were flying over land or water. Feeling around the compartment, he discovered a small, hinged metal plate on the fuselage. When he moved the plate, it revealed a peephole to the outside and the world below. Before long, he felt the plane lose altitude as Cantacuzino began a long, slow descent. They had crossed German territory and entered airspace over Allied-held lands. Now came the flight’s most dangerous moment: Would antiaircraft gunners open fire on the familiar, distinctive shape of the Me-109?
Before taking off, Gunn had told Cantacuzino how to approach the airfield. The Romanian followed those instructions, lowering the flaps and landing gear, reducing speed, and wagging the wings from side to side. The American guns remained silent as the Me-109 touched down, but each was trained on the plane all the way down.
Cantacuzino brought the plane to a stop, opened the cockpit canopy, and stepped out smiling. Heavily armed MPs surrounded him, along with a crowd of curious spectators. He grinned and raised his hands in the air.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have a wonderful gift for you. Will someone get me a screwdriver?”
A mechanic handed him the tool. He loosened the fasteners and opened the door to the radio compartment, revealing a pair of regulation U.S. Army Air Force boots.
Gunn slowly backed out of the space. As he stretched and stood up, a few people recognized him and broke into applause. It was 7:40 in the evening of August 27. Colonel James Gunn was safe.
Two days later, at 8 a.m., Cantacuzino pushed forward the throttle of an American P-51B Mustang, which he had learned to fly in a matter of hours. He was going back to Romania in formation with other P-51s flown by crack U.S. pilots who had orders to shoot him down if he made any suspicious move. Arriving at Popesti, while the other fighters circled overhead, Cantacuzino landed, then fired a yellow flare to signal that the field was still under Romanian control. Word was passed to Italy, and just past noon, two B-17s escorted by 32 fighters left for Romania.
A mission dubbed Operation Gunn was under way. Aboard the bombers was a 12-man Office of Strategic Services team. They were to round up the POWs spread around Bucharest and the nearby countryside, then take them to the Popesti airfield. The team was equipped with food and medical supplies; Romania’s secretary of state promised help, including trucks, buses, and cars to transport the POWs.
News of the pending rescue spread quietly by word of mouth: “Tomorrow morning. Be at Popesti Airdrome. We’re leaving.” Any public announcement would have alerted the Germans.
In Italy, three dozen more B-17s were being readied for the rescue mission and carrying large numbers of POWs. Crews stripped the planes of nonessentials, including most of the guns and ammunition. Plywood was laid over the inside of the bomb bay doors. Each plane would carry a crew of six, rather than the usual 10, as there were no bombs to drop and few guns to fire.
The first dozen B-17s left Italy at 8 a.m. on August 31, with the others to follow each hour in groups of 12. More than 250 P-38 and P-51 fighter planes accompanied the flight.
At Popesti, the POWs gathered on the runway in groups of 20, with precisely 150 feet separating each. Tail gunner Fritz remembered they looked like a “ragtag bunch: some in dirty, faded uniforms; some in bits of civilian clothing; some wearing enemy helmets and carrying souvenirs; some in possession of more bottles of wine than it appeared they could carry.”
As each bomber landed, it taxied to the head of a group, cut its engines, and took the 20 passengers into the bomb bay. The pilots immediately restarted their engines and took off.
The men were silent as the planes roared down the field. They had no parachutes. They were about to fly over enemy territory with no way out of the plane, memories of being shot down at Ploesti still fresh.
“We were all nervous,” Lieutenant Richard Britt said. “It was the first time we had been close to a plane since [the] raid. We all remembered our last flight ended in a crash.” Any unusual air turbulence or odd sounds from the engines set their nerves jangling.
All the planes were loaded and airborne again in approximately 30 minutes. More than 700 Americans were ferried to safety that first day. The mission continued until September 3, when all 1,161 Americans were evacuated. Famed Tuskegee pilots flew some of the fighter escorts.
The operation was carried out with incredible precision; not a single man was lost. Thanks to a dashing playboy prince and a determined American pilot, the rescue rates as one of history’s greatest.
The postwar lives of the two heroes of this story took very different paths. Gunn remained in the Air Force until his retirement in 1967 and went on to a successful career in real estate in San Antonio, Texas. He died in 1999. In Romania, Cantacuzino fell on hard times. The Soviet-backed communists who came to power after the war confiscated his property. In 1947 he managed to leave the country for Italy, where his wife at the time (he had had many) was filming a movie. He later went to France and Spain and earned some fame performing in air shows. By 1950, he was bankrupt and began flying old American biplanes as a crop duster. Though he made enough money to buy an acrobatic plane and perform in air shows again, he died on May 26, 1958, following unsuccessful surgery for an ulcer. He was 53.
Sadly, Cantacuzino had tried for many years to obtain a U.S. visa but was repeatedly denied. Somehow the man who had helped save hundreds of American lives was not allowed to come to the country for which he had risked so much.
Duane Schultz (www.duaneschultz.com) has written more than a dozen books of military history, including Into the Fire: Ploesti, The Most Fateful Mission of World War II. He wrote about the aftermath of Gettysburg in the Summer 2013 issue.
Originally published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.