Retired Lt. Col. Mike Horn grew up knowing about his father's near-miss over Nazi-occupied Germany in the final months of World War II. But the details of that heroic mission would not come for decades, after Horn's own children were old enough to understand the significance of their grandfather's service.
1st Lt. Larry Horn was just 21 when he crash-landed his B-24 Liberator on a British-controlled airfield in Yugoslavia, surely saving the lives of his crew. It was the bomber pilot's 27th combat mission — and his second narrow escape of the war.
Larry Horn went on to safely fly eight more combat missions, reaching the requisite 35 before heading back to the United States. He went to college on the GI Bill and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He married, had four children and settled in Tennessee, where he spent the latter part of his career performing engine tests for aircraft and space systems as a civilian at Arnold Air Force Base. When he retired in 1985, he and his wife, Dedie, took a travel trailer across the country. Grandchildren were born (nine of them) and great-grandchildren (four so far), and the older they got, the more inquisitive they became about their grandfather's life before them.
So the veteran opened up more than he ever had, handing over his military records to Mike Horn, whose own 20-year Air Force career was inspired by his father.
The records and the stories and the photographs, thought Mike Horn, would be the closest he would come to understanding his father's wartime experiences.
Then in February, his father, who'd turned 90 just a few months before, phoned with a proposition. The World War II bomber pilot wanted to return to the little town in present-day Slovenia where he'd safely landed his plane nearly seven decades before, and he wanted Mike Horn to go with him.
Mission to Germany
Larry Horn had not left the continent since the military brought him back all those years before. He grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, and entered the Army Air Forces in 1943 at 19.
"They immediately got him through pilot training and over to the European theater," his son said.
The young lieutenant flew his first combat mission on July 26, 1944, to Albania. He flew to Hungary the next day. On his third mission in three days, he and his entire crew bailed out over Yugoslavia after they came under enemy fire. The airmen spent 30 days in the hands of locals, hiking their way back to Allied territory to rejoin their unit.
Exactly one year after he parachuted from that ill-fated bomber, he married his bride. Larry Horn liked to say he took the two biggest leaps of his life on the same date, his son said.
In Europe, Larry Horn was back in the air just weeks after he was reunited with his squadron, successfully flying combat missions to France, Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany, as well as the very country he'd managed to hike his way out of.
On the cold morning of Feb. 27, 1945, the 725th Bomb Squadron pilot left Castelluccio, Italy, for another bombing mission — his 27th — over Germany and did not immediately come back.
According to Mike Horn's written account:
First Lt. Larry Horn flew the lead plane in a seven-plane formation that took off from Italy and winged over the Adriatic Sea, Yugoslavia and Austria before reaching their German target. No sooner had they entered Nazi airspace did the squadron take on a hail of anti-aircraft fire. The crews pressed on anyway.
When flak struck the lead Liberator, taking out both left wing engines, they dropped their payload. The plane quickly fell 8,000 feet, and the pilot contemplated ordering his crew to bail out. He considered their chances of evading capture behind enemy lines and thought better of that plan.
The B-24 Liberator crew that survived the Feb. 27, 1945, crash-landing in Yugoslavia.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo
The pilot and co-pilot managed to maintain control of the damaged bomber and head south. Their best hope, they thought: Reach an airfield on an island in the Adriatic controlled by the Allies.
But as they headed over Yugoslavia, the plane lost more altitude. It grew harder to control. The navigator frantically searched for a safe place to land while the plane powered on. Moments passed. Finally, the navigator spotted the seemingly impossible: an airstrip in the middle of a clearing. The pilots shut off the remaining engines and glided the damaged plane to the ground.
The airstrip near Griblje, Yugoslavia, was being used by Royal Air Force cargo planes to carry troops and supplies in and out of the area. The American crew stayed with a local family near the airfield that night; the next day, they returned to Italy aboard a British airlift.
Five days after the crash, Larry Horn returned to the skies. He flew his final mission one month later.
The intrigue of the Liberator's surprise landing in Yugoslavia had lingered for generations, surviving political upheaval and the break-up of the country.
"It was the only U.S. B-24 that ever crashed in that part of former Yugoslavia," Mike Horn said, and photographs had ended up in a museum in present-day Slovenia.
That's where local historian and military aircraft enthusiast Jure Miljevic first saw it. He'd gleaned the bomber's number from those photos and had gone to work trying to track down any surviving crew members. Miljevic's research led him to an organization dedicated to the 405th Bomb Wing and, eventually, to the pilot himself.
In the years that followed, the historian and the veteran struck up a friendship over letters and email.
It was Miljevic who greeted Larry Horn and his two sons, Mike and David, when they arrived in Slovenia this summer after their long journey from Tennessee.
Ninety-four-year-old Anna Pezdirc, seated center, recalls the day Larry Horn's bomber crash-landed in a Yugoslavia field next to her home. Shown with her are Horn, seated left, and her family.
Photo Credit: Courtesy photo
On Sept. 2, the Horns and Miljevic arrived in the little village of Griblje. Larry Horn recognized the house where he and his fellow airmen had stayed the night, now standing empty. Miljevic led them to the home next door, occupied by the Pezdirc family, who warmly welcomed the American strangers.
The family matriarch, 94-year-old Anna, had a story to tell. She'd been a young woman when the plane came down in a field near her home. She did not remember Larry Horn, but she recalled the excitement of it all. Within days, Anna said, all signs of the bomber were gone, its fuel drained and its metal melted and recast as utensils.
Outside, the once-rudimentary airstrip was now long gone, grown over by grass and cornfields in a mostly unchanged village. But Larry Horn recognized the ridges in the landscape he'd navigated to bring the plane down in one piece nearly 70 years before.
Mike Horn could see the emotion in his father's face, hear it in the word he repeated over and over as he rubbed his jaw and shook his head: "Amazing. Amazing. Amazing."