By Aleksandra Rebic
There is no grave site. There is no marker. It is as if they wanted to remove him not just from the earth but from the history of his country and the consciousness of his people. But they failed. Nowhere is this more evident than in those mountains ofSerbia they call Ravna Gora. And it is in those Ravna Gora mountains where the soul and spirit of Serbia can still be found, untouched and untainted.
July 17th is an important day for those who knew who he was and what he did. His name may or may not be familiar to you, but he may have been as important a figure in history as those whose names are imprinted in the national consciousness. He was Yugoslavia's General Draza Mihailovich, a Serb, whose life was taken from him on July 17, 1946. He didn't die during the war while in the thick of it. His life would end in the time of peace. He was a true hero, and he may have been one of the last of his kind in a part of the world that so desperately needed people like him. As a child growing up very far away from where he made his mark, I came to know who he was in a very personal way.
Draza Mihailovich was born in the Spring of 1893 in the small town of Ivanitsa, Serbia in Yugoslavia. He would become a good military man, schooled in the Military Academy and groomed to be an officer. His destiny was to become a participant in war after war, beginning with the First and Second Balkan Wars, then WWI, then WWII, where he would fulfill his fate. He would become the kind of officer any man would be proud to serve.
He was a true believer in the ideals of freedom and democracy and wanted those ideals to be the hallmark of his beloved Serbia. He was not a political man, and this would prove to be both his great virtue and his undoing. He knew and understood his people and was loyal to both them and to 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 back. With him he took only 80 men into the mountains of Ravna Gora, Serbia and began a resistance that would be the first of its kind in the war. He and his Serbian Chetniks were the first to raise a successful resistance to the Nazi forces in occupied Europe, and this resistance would have far-reaching implications for the outcome of the entire war. The Allies, bigger and stronger than he and his guerrilla 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. When the Germans attempted an armistice, he was unequivocal: "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 faithin 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 chetnik 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, more than 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 would become 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 fathers and husbands 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.
The most significant aspect of these rescues was that General Mihailovich evacuated these hundreds of Allied airmen after the Allies had abandoned him.
General Mihailovich would turn out to be a tragic hero. Due to political game-playing, a severe lack of foresight, and devastating betrayal, Mihailovich would be abandoned by the Allies. The Communist enemy, against whom he had fought as hard as he had fought against the Nazis, would prevail. In one of the worst cases of judicial travesty and the miscarriage of justice, Mihailovich, after being captured by the Yugoslav communists, was tried by a kangaroo court in Belgrade on fabricated charges, sentenced to death, and executed on July 17, 1946. He was 53 years old. There would be no marker, no headstone, no grave in all of Serbia.
Two years after his death, U.S. President Harry Truman, under the advisement of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, posthumously awarded General Mihailovich the Legion of Merit in the rank of Commander-in-Chief, the highest combat award our nation can bestow upon a foreign national:
''General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by 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."
March 29, 1948. Harry S. Truman
I learned about this man, Mihailovich, growing up in my home. I cannot remember a time in my life that I did not know of him. I became familiar with his kind, warm face and the truly glorious things he did under impossible conditions through my father. It would be through my own steps up the steep, snowy paths of the Ravna Gora hills in Serbia in February of 1995, the same hills in which he had first begun his great resistance, that I would come to appreciate the honorable things that General Mihailovich did first hand. No, there is no grave site yet in Serbia, but there in those hills, his spirit is everywhere.
We are committed do doing what we can to promote the legacy of a hero we believe in and that all Americans and freedom loving people should know about. It is our hope that through the efforts of those who are dedicated to honoring the Mihailovich legacy his name will finally garner the attention it deserves and that the true story of who he was and what he did sees the light.
General Mihailovich did huge things much of the world doesn't even know about. He was a good man. A virtuous military man and a patriot who was willing to sacrifice himself for his people and the ideals he believed in. A decent human being. One of the few truly good guys in the badness that is war.
We hope that in visiting this site you will come to know him.