THE LEGION OF MERIT,
THE MIHAILOVICH MEDAL,
FINALLY COMES HOME
By Aleksandra Rebic
“You know as well as I do, I don’t have another
fifty years to fight for a cause as American as the
American flag, the Star Spangled Banner,
and the Bill of Rights. Gratitude. American
gratitude. That’s all we want, for 500 American
– Major Richard L. Felman, U.S.A.F.
May 31, 1994
In years past, and in the years that followed, the circumstances just didn't seem to lend themselves to the fulfilling of this simple request.
The Legion of Merit in the degree of Chief Commander was bestowed upon the late General Dragoljub Draza Mihailovich of Yugoslavia by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, two years after General Mihailovich was executed by the Yugoslav communists. It was awarded to General Mihailovich posthumously in acknowledgment of and appreciation for “organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory." Though he didn't live to receive or even know of this honor, 57 years after the award was conferred upon him, an American delegation was in Serbia on May 9, 2005 formally returning the Medal back to the homeland that the great General had fought and died for. It was an appropriate day, for May 9th was the day the world marked as the anniversary of the end of World War Two and the defeat of Nazism and Fascism.
The Americans who attended the quiet ceremony in Belgrade were Major George Vuynovich, the chief of O.S.S. Bari, Italy; O.S.S. Radioman Arthur Jibilian, the last surviving member of the Halyard Mission; rescued U.S. airmen Lt. Colonel Charles Davis, Clare Musgrove and Robert Wilson and members of their families.
The presentation of the Medal took place in the private home of a Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Embassy. No government dignitaries were present. The Medal was given by the airmen to Dr. Gordana Mihailovich, General Mihailovich’s daughter who graciously accepted the award.
Why did it take so long? Obstacles and excuses permeated the diplomatic cover-ups as the honor began evolving from its very inception immediately after World War Two.
The obstacles surrounding the official and public recognition of the awarding of the Legion of Merit to Mihailovich in the degree of Chief Commander essentially revolved around two issues:
One: The United States establishment did not want to offend or alienate the new communist regime of Yugoslavia, headed by Josip Broz Tito and
Two: There was no viable person to whom the medal could be presented.
For these two reasons, not only was no publicity given to the award back in 1948, it was also kept classified for 20 years. Even though it was finally "declassified", due in large part to the efforts of U.S. Congressman Edward J. Derwinski, the award remained stored away ever since. It remained in possession of the U.S. State Department until 1978 when it was given over to the United States National Archives, where it remained safely stored in "The Vault", a highly secured area of the Archives designated for some of the most valuable historic material. Upon learning this, I was glad that it had at least remained safely stored away all that time and had not been lost or damaged or destroyed.
For years, Yugoslavia was under the control of Marshall Tito, thus release of the medal was not considered, for it would have "offended" him and his regime. Though no longer in power and no longer alive after 1980, thus seemingly eliminating the first conditional obstacle set forth in releasing the Medal, for years after his death Yugoslavia remained under the control of the Party faithful, again a situation not lending itself to the release and proper presentation of the Medal.
Then came the shredding of Yugoslavia as a sovereign nation with the onset of the wars over the course of the 1990s and beyond. Because of the “tensions” and conflicts this created between the ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia, again it seemed futile to try to accord a public honor upon a commander who was Serbian. Given the way in which the Serbs were demonized over the course of the last decade, how many “officials” were willing to look past the fact that General Mihailovich, though Serbian, had nothing to do with what was happening fifty years after his death in his homeland?
Then, finally, Serbia began to stabilize and slowly evolve as being more “democratic”. A new administration came to power that appeared to be amenable to working with the Americans, despite the tensions that arose between the two countries over the course of the 1990s. Serbia had always considered America a friend and an ally in the past. General Mihailovich was an embodiment of that loyalty. There were definite signs that the climate, at least in Serbia, would be far more receptive, or at least tolerant of, an “official” honoring of General Mihailovich.
With regard to the second conditional obstacle – that no viable recipient was available -- General Mihailovich has a grandson, Vojislav, and a daughter, Gordana, both still living. Vojislav Mihailovich, an official of the Serbian Renewal Movement, had formally asked the U.S. State Department to release the Medal and present the award in 1994, eleven years ago, at the height of the ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia. The request was denied. Vuk Draskovic, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Serbia and Montenegro and leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement Party in Serbia then repeated the request in August of 2004, this time asking former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to intervene.
Unaware of this request and separate from the efforts of those in Serbia, I wrote and sent an appeal to the head archivist of the United States in September of 2004 to consider releasing the Medal while at least some of those whom had been part of the great story were still alive. I respectfully explained why the time was right and why there should be no more excuses for keeping it hidden away. This appeal was then referred to the U.S. State Department. Then all we could do was wait. Somehow, though, I had a real good feeling about the prospects of the release.
When it all came through, the only thing that barred the deserved jubilation for such a long overdue event finally happening was the fact that it was kept so low-key, so quiet. I strongly felt that any such requests should be kept quiet as this was the most effective way to prevent sabotage of the ongoing efforts and progress being made, but once done, the quiet continued, with only a few token mentions and descriptions of the event in the media. This I was not able to understand.
I was to learn that due to ‘political considerations’ regarding ongoing negotiations with regards to the situation in the former Yugoslavia and concern for the reaction of various non-Serb ethnic groups, there was to be virtually nothing done to attract attention to this event. O.S.S. Radioman Arthur Jibilian, “Jibby”, in his respectful way, described his reaction to this mandate:
“The day before the presentation, we were told by the Embassy that the presentation would have no publicity and no political overtones. The medal was from the "American people (airmen) to the Serbian people." This lack of publicity disturbed me immensely. GENERAL MIHAILOVICH SAVED OVER 500 AMERICAN AIRMEN, for heavens sake. The American people need to know this!!
Having said this, I realize that I am not privy to ALL the information available to our government. I must have faith and trust that our representatives are doing what is best for our country. I take solace in the fact that history is (usually) an evolution and the facts of General Draza Mihailovich's contribution to the Allied war effort will be duly recognized and his name and reputation cleared.”
Embodied in this Medal is a story of heroic and noble magnitude. It reflects a truthful accounting of who General Mihailovich was and what he did that is not tainted by years of embedded historical propaganda and disinformation perpetuated by historians who haven’t dug deep enough and who write only what's been repeated over and over again, and by those in whose interest it has been to invalidate and discredit General Mihailovich.
The medal doesn’t just address the magnificence of the great rescues of Allied personnel in 1944, it directly credits General Mihailovich with being of service to the entire Allied cause throughout the war, and that cannot be forgotten.
He was a believer in the ideals of freedom and democracy. He was not a political man. He knew and understood his people and was loyal to both them and the democratic Allies in whom he believed. When the Nazis attacked and occupied Yugoslavia in April of 1941 and the government and army surrendered, making Yugoslavia yet another of Hitler's successful conquests in Europe, Draza Mihailovich opted not to surrender, but to fight. With him he took only 80 men into the mountains of Ravna Gora, Serbia where he and his Serbian Chetniks were the first to raise a successful resistance to the Nazi forces in occupied Europe. This resistance would have far-reaching implications on the outcome of the entire war. The Allies, bigger and stronger than he and his guerilla fighters and the peasants who nourished them, would come to owe much of the success of the Allied campaign against Hitler to these simple people.
Mihailovich made his position clear to the Germans: "I demand," he told them, when the Germans attempted an armistice, "that the German troops evacuate my country and then the peace will be restored. As long as a single enemy soldier remains on our soil, we shall continue to fight...Our fighting spirit is based on the traditions of a love for liberty and our unflinching faith in the victory of our Allies."
The enemy did not evacuate. Mihailovich was good to his word. Severe and cruel Nazi reprisals began against the innocent Serbian civilian population in order to stop the resistance. Because he was a compassionate man who loved his people, Mihailovich was compelled to alter his means of fighting the enemy in order to spare the lives of the innocents. He and his fighters would prove very adept at the sabotage campaigns that were crippling to the Nazi war machine. Ultimately, Hitler would be forced to keep several of his divisions in Yugoslavia just to fight the guerrilla resistance that had by now grown in number and foiled his plans for an easy conquest of Serbia. The ultimate consequence of this would prove fatal for the German Army.
Because Hitler was forced to keep several of his divisions in Serbia, his plan for the invasion of Moscow was delayed in 1941. The delay proved to be critical, because by the time the German forces would finally approach Moscow, the brutal Russian winter had set in, and that was a force the Nazis could not overcome. Had the German forces not been delayed by the Serbian resistance in Yugoslavia, Moscow may well have fallen and the course of history would have been much different.
As pivotal as this was in the eyes of those whose lives General Mihailovich and his Chetniks affected directly, a feat was later accomplished that was even more important.
During the course of the Allied bombing campaigns of the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, Hitler's only supply of oil in the Summer of 1944, hundreds of Allied airmen were shot down by the Germans. Over 700 of these airmen, 500 of them Americans, would end up on Serbian territory. There they would be nursed back to health by the Serbs loyal to Mihailovich, who at great risk to themselves, would shelter, feed, and protect these men who were foreigners on their soil. Ultimately, these airmen, to the very last one, would be returned to their homes and their families as a result of evacuations that stand as the greatest rescue of American lives from behind enemy lines in the history of warfare. It was a grand rescue under extreme duress for they were surrounded by the occupying Nazi forces. 500 American young men would return home to become husbands and fathers and later grandfathers who would tell their children and grandchildren the story of how their lives had been saved so many thousands of miles away by a man named Draza Mihailovich.
One of those men was the late Major Richard L. Felman, U.S.A.F., who did not live to see the release of the Legion of Merit medal. In his address at the Halyard Mission celebration on May 31, 1994 in Chicago, Illinois, an event that was part of the U.S. Department of Defense week-long commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, Major Felman recounted the personal battle that followed the end of World War Two:
“After the war was over, as you know, we turned over the government of Yugoslavia to the communists. They seized upon the opportunity to capture Mihailovich, and in March of 1946, Tito announced to the world that they had captured Mihailovich and were putting him on trial as a war collaborator.
The immediate response was that the airmen he had rescued ran to the newspapers, saying ‘How can this be?’ I have a book here, a thousand newspaper clippings from 1946 of airmen in the newspapers asking 'How can this be? How can this man who saved our lives be a war collaborator? We want to go to Belgrade. We want to testify on his behalf. This man saved our lives. We don't want to be presumptuous and say we want to interfere in your internal affairs -- but, the government of Yugoslavia was charging him with being a collaborator. How could he be a collaborator? Our lives were a testimony that he wasn't! So, we don't want to judge him, we just want to present testimony that our lives were relevant to the charges of collaboration.'
So we flew to Washington. We chartered a plane from Chicago, called it 'A Mission for Mihailovich.' There were 22 of us Allied personnel. We were met by congressmen and senators, and we petitioned the State Department to send a diplomatic note to Yugoslavia to request permission to appear at his trial, presenting evidence relative to the charges of war collaboration. The State Department sent two notes to the Belgrade Court. The response from the Belgrade Court was this:
‘Mihailovich will be given a fair trial, but we have enough legal evidence to convict him, and he will be shot.’
At that point, we almost gave up. We couldn't appear.
After the Belgrade court turned us down, we formed the "Commission of Inquiry" in New York. Testimony was presented at the Commission of Inquiry in May of 1946. It was presided over by some of the most prominent jurists in the United States. We accepted testimony from all of the American Intelligence officers and airmen. The findings were sent to the Belgrade Court in the interest of international justice. The Belgrade court ignored it, and on July 17, 1946 they executed Mihailovich and threw his body in an unmarked grave.
Now once that happened, put yourselves in our position. What do we do now? The man was executed -- murdered is a better word -- so what do we do now? Thank God, along came the Honorable Edward J. Derwinski.
Twenty years after Mihailovich was executed by a communist firing squad, Edward Derwinski came up -- he was investigating this for years -- he came up with the fact that in 1948, two years after Mihailovich was shot -- Secretary Derwinski came up with the information that President Truman, on the recommendation of General Eisenhower, who knew better than anyone else, that President Truman awarded posthumously the Legion of Merit in the Degree of Chief Commander, to General Mihailovich for his material contribution to the Allied victory. Mind you, this is the highest award the United States government gives to a foreign national. This award was given two years after the communists shot him as a war collaborator.
For the first time in the history of this country, because of the "behind the scenes" activities in Washington, this award was kept secret. The first time in history, one of the highest awards was kept secret! The State Department finally admitted -- well, ‘we did not want to release this because we did not want to offend the communist government of Yugoslavia.’ This is in an actual document ! So, it's okay to offend the Americans, but don't offend the communists!”
Major Felman would go on to express further frustration with the fact that the non-Serb ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were always a consideration in whether or not publicly honoring and thanking General Mihailovich would be “officially” allowed. He related how it felt to read the letter he received from a U.S. official in February of 1990, (before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and before the wars of the 1990s began) declining Felman’s appeal for a public display of gratitude. In this letter, Major Felman was told that ‘we appreciate what you are trying to do but the petition for Mihailovich is being denied, because of the opposition of the Yugoslav government and the opposition of certain [ethnic] groups in Yugoslavia.’
“I broke four windows when I got that letter. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would live to see the day when a committee of the United States Congress would allow an ethnic group to interfere in our internal affairs. Besides that, and this is the important thing, it sets a frightening precedent that the legitimate requests of American citizens are denied by the United States government on the basis that they might upset a foreign government.”
“After trying all these years, I will never accept the fact that, during World War II we risked our lives and watched our buddies get their arms, legs, and heads blown off so that ethnic groups could tell us what we could or could not do in our own country.”
Former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Edward J. Derwinski was also present as a featured speaker at the Halyard Mission commemoration on May 31, 1994 and emphasized just how deeply rooted in secrecy the Legion of Merit award remained and how much insult was added to injury after the honor was posthumously conferred on Mihailovich. Though he did not give himself enough credit, we may never have known about the award without Mr. Derwinski’s efforts.
“… It was immediately classified. The reason was that the officials in the United States State Department didn't wish to offend Mr. Tito's government. It remained classified for twenty years, until we finally managed to get the Defense Department to finally acknowledge that this award had been conferred upon General Mihailovich by President Truman.
That started, what I call, the revival of legitimate history in studying the role of Yugoslavia in World War II. …if it hadn't been for the resistance of the Yugoslav government, the Nazis would have had far greater resources for their invasion of Russia, and the entire tide of the war may have changed if they weren't pinned down by General Mihailovich and his men, and their power siphoned off because of this, which led to their ultimate failure in Russia.
That's hardly ever mentioned, because we went through that terrible period, and the airmen can tell you, when they were rescued one of the things they found out was that they weren't supposed to discuss it. After all, our propaganda machine, the propaganda of the Allies, was already 100 percent in favor of Tito."
Perhaps this lies at the core of why it took so long to release the Mihailovich medal. No doubt that the prospect of opposition from the various ethnic groups and political entities not amenable to honoring General Mihailovich, a Serbian patriot and a true democrat, played into the decisions made as to how and when the Medal would be released. Ultimately, however, the paradox had to weigh heavily as to how could it be publicly acknowledged that such a high honor had been bestowed upon a man wrongfully accused, abandoned, betrayed and destroyed for mere political expediency. The hypocrisy of the betrayal of General Mihailovich by the Allies would then have to come to light and the political powers would have to be held accountable for the wrong decisions that were made and kept at a crucial point in our history.
I love the Mihailovich story. It has all the elements of a genuine and tragic drama. Most of the people involved never received the official accolades their efforts and their loyalty deserved. What stays foremost in my mind is the fact that General Mihailovich organized and facilitated the great rescues of the American and Allied airmen in 1944, long after he was abandoned by the Allied leaders and left to face the Nazi and Communist forces alone.
I can only begin to aspire to that kind of nobility of character and unselfishness. The Mihailovich story, no matter how tragic, will always serve as an inspiration to “do the right thing no matter what.” And for him, the cost was great. He did the right thing from start to finish, having already borne the gross injustices of the charges being leveled against him and the extent to which those false and contrived charges were used to justify abandoning him for political expediency. It is noteworthy that upon the end of the war, Sir Winston Churchill, the Allied leader most responsible for the abandonment of General Mihailovich, ended up deeply regretting his decisions and policies. But by that time, the injustices and the errors in judgment could not be undone. And the great General was gone.
We cannot resurrect General Mihailovich. We cannot reverse history. But we can acknowledge the wrongs that were committed against him and honor him the way he deserves to be honored. I am so glad that Serbia seems to finally be on her way to publicly honoring one of her greatest heroes and one who gave far more than he ever got in return. I am happy, too, that some of those folks for whom this story is paramount in their lives have lived to see the Medal released, among them my father.
I am sad that so many of those for whom the release of this Legion of Merit medal would have meant so much are no longer with us and did not live to see this happen. So many of them were part of the story and lived it. Captain Nikola Lalich, Colonel Nick Stepanovich, Zvonko Vuckovich, Captain George ‘Guv’ Musulin, and so many others, among them veterans and survivors of the war who remained true Chetniks in their hearts to the end of their lives. I wish most of all that Major Richard Felman, who passionately and ceaselessly devoted the last fifty years of his life to the cause, had lived to make the visit to Serbia in May of 2005 to see the Mihailovich Medal finally come home. You can bet he would have ignored the directive to keep things quiet – he would have been shouting from the mountaintops. I hope that wherever he is, General Draza is right there with him and that they are celebrating together.
Our most sincere thanks go out to the airmen who did make the historic trip to Serbia in May for keeping the faith all these years and for never forgetting their debt of gratitude.
July 2, 2005