When Harold Hayes said he had one helluva war story to tell, he wasn't kidding. The 94-year-old, who died on Sunday, was the last survivor of 30 intrepid Americans who crash-landed behind Nazi lines during World War II, plunging them into a surreal odyssey that included German attacks, blizzards, illness, and near starvation as they trekked 600 miles until their eventual rescue 63 days later. Details of their saga was a "long-held-secret" for decades, the New York Times reports. It all began on a clear day in November 1943 when a cargo plane carrying nurses and medics from Sicily to Bari, Italy, was blown off course by a major storm and fired on by German flak guns. After ditching in a remote area, the group learned they were in Albania from locals.
Under constant threat of capture, Hayes, then 21, and the others bunked with peasants with little to share except lice-infested blankets. They boiled tea from straw and ate berries. Their limbs froze as autumn gave way to white-out blizzards. "When you're hungry, cold, and tired, you forget about almost everything else and are only thinking about surviving," Hayes said, per National Geographic. A British spy found them too sick to go on, and arranged a US air rescue that failed. Crushed, the group managed to continue moving west and reached the Adriatic coast on Jan. 9. To protect their Albanian saviors, they stayed mum during the war and for years after during the Communist years. Hayes "rarely talked about his ordeal," author Cate Lineberry tells the Times. (This lost WWII sub was found off Hawaii.)