Cornel Dolana is a survivor.
As a child he survived the German occupation of his country on his parents’ family farm outside Ploesti, Romania during World War II. He survived the Communist takeover of his country as a teenager. He escaped Communism and fled to Yugoslavia, Italy, France and finally, in the early 1960s, the U.S.A.
In the beginning of the Second World War Romania sided with the Axis Powers. Almost immediately Romanian oil from refineries in Ploesti was used to keep the German war machine going.
“I started paying attention to the war when the Americans bombed the Ploesti refineries a 100 miles from our farm,” the 75-year-old south Englewood resident said. “I remember hundreds of bombers flying over our farm on the way to Ploesti.”
The most important raid by American B-24 “Liberator” bombers on Ploesti took place Aug. 3, 1943. Called “Operation Tidal Wave” 177 heavy bombers destroyed 40 percent of the refinery’s production, but the Germans rebuilt the damaged factories within weeks.
American losses during that raid were heavy because they struck the Romanian refineries at 10,000 feet, less than half their normal altitude. A total of 54 of the 177 bombers were shot down by 700, 88 anti-aircraft guns protecting the refineries.
The butcher’s bill for this single raid totaled 440 American airmen killed and 120 became POWs.
The next thing Dolana remembers about WW II, “… when the German army came through our area on its way to the Russian Front. By the time I was a teenager the Communists had taken over after the Germans lost the war.
“After the Russians arrived we lost everything. During the war we had plenty of food, but when the Communists turned our farm into a collective operation food was scarce and we were issued ration books,” he explained.
“At this point I knew we were going to have a real problem with the Communists. My father wasn’t a Communist, he wouldn’t join the Communist Party, so I wasn’t supposed to be able to go to high school.
“Because my father was friends with the director of the high school he not only got me into the school, but I went to live with the director’s family for my first two years. After that I moved to another city where my uncle lived and taught school. He helped me complete my last two years of high school,” Dolana said.
After high school he got a job as an office worker in a huge factory that produced locomotives and railroad cars only because his father met the head of the factory while in jail. Dolana’s dad was jailed for anti-communist activities. He had no idea what crime the future factory director committed.
After three years woking as an expeditor in the locomotive factory, Dolana happened to see a movie made in India called “The Vagabond.” It showed cities in America and other parts of the world were booming while conditions in Romania under the Communist were harsh and unappealing.
“After seeing ‘The Vagabond’ we realized the Communists had been lying to us and feeding us propaganda about the rest of the world,” he said. “It was about this time I found an old radio in my uncle’s basement and got it woking. I started listening to ‘Radio Free Europe’ and “Voice of America.’
“I decided to leave the country with the help of my cousin who lived in a town closer to the Romanian-Yugslovian border. In order to go from town to town in Romania, under the Communists, you had to go to the local police station and obtain permission.
“I got a couple of bottles of ‘moonshine’ and gave them to the police chief. He gave me a two week pass to go see my cousin,” Dolana said. “I concocted a plan to swim the Danube River, separating Romania and Yugoslavia, near my cousin’s home.”
During the 15 days his pass was good they made several attempts to cross the river without success.
“We ran out of time and money. We had to do something,” Dolana said. “We decided to climb the fence along the river bank where a boat taking people up and down the river was docked.”
Dolana dove into the Danube wearing nothing but his underwear and started swimming underwater away from the docked boat. His cousin got caught and ended up in jail for a long time.
“When I came up for air there were lights on the water everywhere. I went back underwater and kept swimming. Halfway across the river I was caught in a whirlpool and was dragged to the bottom. When I surfaced I was completely disoriented. I didn’t know what direction to swim, but I kept swimming,” he said.
“It was starting to get light again when I recached the river bank. As I climbed up the rocky bank I looked up and three soldiers were pointing their rifles at me,” Dolana said. “They were speaking Yugoslavian so I knew I had made it across the Danube.”
Although Yugoslavia was a Communist country like Romania, the Yugoslavians had no love for the Soviet Union. So the soldiers didn’t turn him back over to the Romanian border police.
“I was taken to the police department in Belgrade. They interrogated me for a month, but still didn’t believe I had escaped from Romania. Eventually I wound up in a jail in a remote mountain area of Yugoslavia that I escaped from in the dead of winter.
“I spotted a cabin in the mountains with a light from a fire. Its owner allowed me to come in and warm up while he took his horse and went to town to get food. I wasn’t sure about his intentions so I left before he returned,” Dolana said.
He spent the next couple of days in the freezing cold. Along the way he got directions to the Italian border and made the crossing without incident.
“I reached a highway and tried to get a car to stop and take me to a hospital, but no one would stop. I found out where the local police station was and told police I was a Romanian escapee. They said that wasn’t possible, but I pulled out a Romanian train ticket I had kept.
“The ticket changed their minds. They gave me food, a hot shower and took me to the hospital,” he said. “After I got out of the hospital I was interrogated by the police and eventually let go.
“I made contact with the America Embassy in Rome. I filled out a form to become an American citizen and they gave me a little money. I was told it would take at least a year and I needed a sponsor to gain entrance to the U.S. I couldn’t wait.
“At that point I took the train to Paris without a passport or any finical support. I met a Baptist minister in Paris who wrote a letter to a Baptist Church in Branford, Conn. that decided to sponsor me. I received a U.S. passport and the church provided me with sufficient money to make the trip from Europe to Connecticut,” he said.
“I was taken in by two high school teaches in Branford. It was 1963 and I began by doing odd jobs for members of the church. Then I got a job in an electronics factory for $1.50 an hour. I was so happy. I stayed there nine years working in quality control for the company,” Dolana said.
Eventually he got married, had two children and built a home in Branford. Later he got another job working for a big electronics firm that made CAT scanners and MRI equipment.
“In 1980 I decided to go into the electronic business for myself. I founded ‘Doltronics’ and eventually we had 40 employees. Twenty years later I retired as the head of ‘Doltronics.’ My wife, Elilia, and I moved to Florida and built a house in Port Charlotte. Later we moved to an apartment south of Englewood.”
Editor’s Note: Nov. 13, 2013 from 9 a.m. to noon at Oyster Creek Golf & Country Club Dolana will present a book review on a biography about his life: “No Paved Road to Freedom” by Sharon Rushton.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 12, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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