The Forgotten 500 (2007) tells the story of Allied airmen who were trapped behind enemy lines in World War II and the courageous citizens of Yugoslavia who risked everything to help them get home. For political reasons, the story remained classified for decades until the 1980s. But now, the events leading to the largest rescue operation of the war are available to us all.
Introduction: Discover the events leading up to Operation Halyard.
Table of Contents
In the waning months of World War II, everyone’s attention was caught up in the miraculous D-Day landings in Normandy and the slow, Allied march toward Berlin. But elsewhere in Europe, other miracles were taking place that didn’t get as much coverage. In fact, some wouldn’t become known to the general public for decades after the war ended.
The story of what happened in Yugoslavia in 1944 is one of those unreported miracles. For political reasons, the events that led to the rescue of over 500 Allied airmen would remain hidden until the late 1980s. With access to declassified documents as well as first-hand testimonies, it’s now possible to reconstruct the thrilling narrative that led to what became known as “the Great Escape of Yugoslavia.” This is the story of Operation Halyard.
The year is 1944. For the past three years, Allied bombers have been conducting sorties over Romania. The goal? To destroy the country’s oil fields. Romania has been occupied by Nazi Germany since 1940, and its oil is playing a key role in the war effort against the Allies. The Nazi war machine knows that to win the war, it’ll need a continuous supply of oil to power its tanks, planes, and ships.
Most Allied planes that take off from Italy to participate in the bombing raids return to base. But some don’t. Shot down over enemy territory, the airmen only have one option – to parachute down and hope for the best. But they’ve been warned – if they end up landing in Yugoslavia, Romania’s neighbor, avoid the Chetniks. This Serbian nationalist guerrilla force is suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. If caught by the Chetniks, the allied airmen might get handed over to the Germans. And if this is the case, execution by firing squad is a real possibility.
One such airman that found himself in Yugoslavia was Lieutenant Robert Wilson. He was the navigator on a B-17 bomber that went down in July 1944. To his surprise, upon reaching a Serbian village, he was welcomed with open arms. Even more surprising was when he learned that other Allied airmen were being hidden by the villagers from the occupying German troops.
Most Americans who survived the parachute down were treated like family members, fed, and provided with a place to sleep. All the while, it turned out the Chetniks weren’t turning over Allied airmen to the Germans. On the contrary, they were helping to escort Americans away from German-occupied areas to remote mountain villages.
Eventually, hundreds of airmen were gathered with the Chetniks in the remote village of Pranjani. The village also served as the headquarters of the Chetniks’ leader, Draža Mihailović. The Americans who had the chance to meet Mihailović describe him as a quiet man of principle. He ate the same food as his men and joined in with doing difficult tasks. What’s more, is that he was risking the lives of many Serbians in order to shelter the downed Allied airmen.
This begs the question: why was Mihailović doing so much to help the Allies? And why had the airmen been recommended to avoid his Chetniks in the first place?
To understand his reasoning, let’s take a brief look at the politics on the ground in Yugoslavia at the time. The two most powerful anti-Nazi resistance groups in the region were Mihailović’s Chetniks and Marshal Tito’s communist Partisans. These two groups hated each other even more than they hated the Nazis. They had opposing war goals, with the Chetniks embracing the return of the prewar monarchy. In contrast, the Partisans envisioned a new communist state under Tito.
In addition to their political differences, the two groups had differing strategies on how to counter the Nazi occupation. The Partisans were very proactive in resisting the Nazis and weren’t afraid to sacrifice civilian lives to do so. The Chetniks, on the other hand, were mostly biding their time until the Allies launched a successful invasion. This meant that the Allies’ position was to back the Partisans and, at the same time, to remain suspicious of the Chetniks. This position was strengthened by intelligence reports indicating that Mihailović was collaborating with the Nazi occupiers.
In aiding the Allied airmen, Mihailović wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the Allied cause. In doing so, he hoped to receive their support in forming a government after the war was over.
But when intelligence sources in Yugoslavia got word out that Mihailović was gathering downed Allied airmen with the hope of returning them to the West, the reports were met with deaf ears. They assumed that Mihailović was attempting to trick them.
The situation for the hundreds of stranded Allied airmen seemed dire. With no help coming, surely the Germans would eventually find them. All the while, their mothers and wives back home had been informed that their sons were missing. This, of course, usually meant they were dead.
They needed a miracle. Luckily, the stars were about to align for the downed airmen.
The Stars Align
The months were wearing on for the now more than 500 airmen stranded in Yugoslavia. Food was scarce, and many were sleeping in barns. With few options aside from simply staying put, depression became rampant among the soldiers. It seemed that the world had forgotten about them – and that no rescue attempt was going to be made.
Meanwhile, across the Adriatic Sea in Italy, rumors of stranded airmen reached the desk of a high-ranking American intelligence official. His name was George Vujnovich, and he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. After the war, the OSS would become the CIA. Vujnovich’s parents had emigrated to the US from Yugoslavia, and he had extensive connections to the region.
One such connection was that of his wife Mirjana, herself a native Yugoslav. It was May 1944, and she was eight and a half months pregnant and residing in Washington, DC. Luck would have it that she heard about the plight of the stranded airmen while attending a party with many fellow Yugoslav immigrants in attendance. She immediately sent a letter to her husband in Italy, imploring him to look into the situation. Hers was no ordinary intelligence collected by spies but instead based on first-hand accounts of ordinary people on the ground in Yugoslavia. Perhaps Mihailović wasn’t trying to play a trick after all?
After reading the bombshell letter from his wife, George Vujnovich decided to get to the bottom of the situation. He made it his personal mission to determine the existence of these stranded airmen and, if possible, pull off a successful rescue attempt. Although the airmen themselves didn’t know it, their fate had just taken a turn for the better.
A plan was set in motion. Vujnovich assembled a team whose mission was to parachute behind enemy lines and rendezvous with Mihailović. Vujnovich recruited fellow OSS agent and Serbian-American George Musulin to lead the three-man team dropping into Yugoslavia. As Musulin had worked with Mihailović in the past, he was the perfect man for the operation.
If Musulin could confirm that the airmen were indeed stranded there, he’d send an encrypted radio message back to Italy. Finally, he’d coordinate the secret construction of a landing strip for Allied evacuation planes to land on. If all went according to plan, the airmen could be successfully evacuated.
The plan was codenamed Operation Halyard. Other OSS agents described it as crazy, and most thought it was doomed to fail. So much could go wrong. But Vujnovich and Musulin were not to be deterred. The lives of hundreds of Americans were at stake – they had to try. So, after three months of preparation and making contact with Mihailović, Musulin and his team boarded a plane headed to Yugoslavia. They were unsure if they’d make it out alive.
While stormy weather and bad intelligence scuppered the first two parachute attempts, it was third time lucky for Musulin and his team. On August 2, they parachuted into enemy territory with ease, landing not far from the welcoming party of Chetniks and Allied airmen. When the two groups rendezvoused, Musulin was shocked to find out that it wasn’t just the 100 airmen that he was expecting – it was more than 500. The operation just got a lot bigger, and more risky to boot.
Now that the existence of the airmen was confirmed, it was time to begin perhaps the most risky phase of the operation – building an improvised runway from scratch right under the Germans’ noses in a mountainous area. They didn’t let the daunting nature of their task stop them from getting started right away.
The Chetniks had no adequate tools or equipment, so farm tools such as pitchforks and hoes were gathered, and the airmen and their Yugoslav hosts got to work. Oxcarts came in hand for hauling the bulk of the rocks and dirt, but most of the work was done by hand. To complicate matters, the men had to work at night in the dark so as not to attract the attention of German spy planes flying above.
Six days after Musulin arrived, the runway was nearly ready. This information was radioed over to Italy, as well as a request for six cargo planes to arrive the next night. So far, their luck was holding out.
Finally, the day of the evacuation arrived. The planes were to land at night without any lights, further raising the risk of failure. But before the sun even set, the sound of planes was heard in the distance. To the horror of all, it wasn’t their rescuers, but a German Stuka dive bomber accompanying two Junker transport planes.
Everyone who was still working on the improvised landing strip ran into the forest to take cover. Could it be that the Germans had found out about their plan? Were these enemy planes about to bomb the landing strip they’d spent the last week building? Had they gotten so close to being rescued just for all of it to fall apart at the last minute?
It was with a huge sigh of relief that the hiding Americans watched the German planes simply pass overhead – it had been a random flight after all. It seemed their plan was still safe for now. And if their luck continued to hold out, a good portion of the airmen would be on their way home in a few hours. A shaken Musulin almost considered delaying the first evacuations for another day, but he knew it was now or never. The later they left it, the more likely the Germans would discover their plan.
Finally, after the sun had set, the familiar drone of an American C-47 cargo plane was heard in the distance. The airmen were ecstatic – they were finally going to be rescued. The plane still had to land though, and this was the tricky part. Would their improvised airstrip be sufficient? Was it long enough? And could these pilots pull off landing in the dark on a mountainous plateau?
It turned out the answer to these questions was a resounding yes. Over the next two days, 272 men were picked up and flown back to Italy. Before leaving, they tossed their flight jackets and other gifts to the Yugoslav villagers who’d helped them so much during their ordeal.
Over the next few months, more evacuations were successfully planned and executed. Allied airmen continued to make their way to the airstrip from across the region, all with the help of Mihailović’s Chetniks. The grand total of Allied men rescued came to 512, making Operation Halyard the largest successful air evacuation of World War II.
Upon arriving in Italy, all rescued soldiers were commanded to keep the mission a secret. The reason? That if the Germans found out who’d aided them in their escape, they might suffer violent reprisals.
But there was more to it than that. This brings us back to the political situation in Yugoslavia. Even though Mihailović had demonstrated his dedication to helping the Allies, their position didn’t change. The official line was still that he was a Nazi collaborator. The communist Partisans were still doing a much greater job in fighting against the Germans, and more evidence of previous Chetnik collaboration with the Nazis was coming to light.
The war was over within a few months of the last evacuation plane departing. Backed by the USSR, the Partisans assumed leadership of Yugoslavia, and a communist state was established. Then, in 1946, Mihailović was arrested. The charges? Treason and Nazi collaboration.
The airmen who’d been treated so well by Mihailović and his men were outraged upon learning of the charges. They petitioned the State Department with a simple message: He saved our lives – now we’ll save his.
But although they were granted permission to visit him in prison, they weren’t allowed to testify for him in court. In what was considered a sham trial by the airmen, Mihailović was sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad on July 17, 1946.
After his death, Mihailović was largely forgotten. But the rescued airmen didn’t let this get in the way of their crusade to prove his innocence. Their continued perseverance resulted in President Truman posthumously awarding Mihailović the Legion of Merit in 1948 for his role in saving over 500 Allied airmen. This award is the highest recognition a foreign national can receive.
The award was kept secret until 1967 so as not to damage relations with Yugoslavia. But with Operation Halyard now being declassified, the world knows of the heroism of Mihailović and the Yugoslavs that helped save hundreds of American lives.
Hundreds of Allied airmen were downed while conducting bombing sorties over Romania in the final year of World War II. The lucky ones were found by the Chetniks, a Yugoslav nationalist guerrilla force led by Draža Mihailović. The Chetniks kept the airmen safe until a rescue mission was finally planned by American intelligence officials. Against all odds, the mission was successful and over 500 Allied airmen were rescued.
“The Forgotten 500” by Gregory A. Freeman is a gripping non-fiction account that delves into one of the most remarkable rescue missions of World War II. The book explores the untold story of the courageous men who risked everything to save the lives of over 500 downed American airmen trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia.
Freeman’s narrative centers around Operation Halyard, an audacious plan devised by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the United States Army Air Forces. The mission aimed to airlift these stranded airmen out of German-occupied Yugoslavia, a region where they faced imminent capture, torture, or death. Freeman masterfully reconstructs the events leading up to the mission, providing detailed insights into the planning, execution, and aftermath of this extraordinary rescue operation.
One of the book’s notable strengths is the meticulous research and extensive firsthand accounts that Freeman draws upon. Through interviews with surviving airmen, their families, and individuals involved in the mission, he paints a vivid and harrowing picture of the airmen’s experiences, the challenges they faced, and the sacrifices made by the brave Yugoslav Partisans who aided them.
Freeman seamlessly weaves together multiple storylines, deftly shifting between the perspectives of the rescued airmen, the OSS operatives, and the Yugoslav Partisans. This multi-dimensional approach not only adds depth to the narrative but also provides a comprehensive understanding of the rescue mission from various angles.
Moreover, “The Forgotten 500” goes beyond the immediate rescue operation and delves into the geopolitical complexities of the time. Freeman explores the delicate balance of power between the Allies and the Partisans, the tensions between the British and American intelligence agencies, and the impact of the mission on the overall progress of World War II. This contextual backdrop adds richness to the story, elevating it from a mere tale of heroism to a nuanced exploration of wartime politics.
Freeman’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making “The Forgotten 500” an engrossing read for both history enthusiasts and casual readers. He maintains a steady pace throughout the book, infusing suspense and tension into the narrative, even though the outcome of the mission is known from the start. Additionally, the author’s attention to detail and his ability to capture the emotional journey of the rescued airmen make the reader feel personally invested in their fate.
If there is one criticism of “The Forgotten 500,” it is that, at times, the extensive cast of characters and the complex web of relationships can be challenging to follow. However, Freeman provides a helpful list of characters at the beginning of the book, which assists in keeping track of the individuals involved.
In conclusion, “The Forgotten 500” by Gregory A. Freeman is a captivating and meticulously researched account of an extraordinary rescue mission during World War II. Freeman’s ability to bring together personal narratives, historical context, and the bravery of those involved creates a compelling and unforgettable read. This book stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the often overlooked heroes who risked everything for their fellow comrades. It is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II history, acts of heroism, and the untold stories of war.