A Tribute to Major Richard L. Felman, of the United States Air Force, for the 10th Anniversary of his passing in honor of Veterans Day, 2009
Major Richard L. Felman U.S.A.F.
May 29, 1921 - November 13, 1999
Major Felman, kneeling and saluting, as the wreath is laid
at the eternal flame in Daley Plaza, Chicago,
for the 50th Anniversary commemoration of
"Operation Halyard", May 1994. Photo by A. Rebic.
He never stopped. It became his mission in life. For 55 years, over half of the 20th Century, Major Richard L. Felman of the United States Air Force worked ceaselessly to do one thing. To repay a debt of gratitude. To say "Thank You".
As we in America honor Veterans Day 2009, it is our turn to say "Thank You" to a man that we who knew him will never forget. Remembering the passing of a good and honorable man who is no longer with us is never easy, especially when you are trying to pay tribute to, and properly honor, the life and work of someone you knew personally and liked very much and whose passing leaves a void that cannot be filled. But done it must be, and it is my hope that those reading this who never had the pleasure of meeting this fine man will come to know him and appreciate the tireless dedication and perseverance that reflects some of the best virtues of human character.
Richard L. Felman was born in the Bronx, New York City, on May 29th, 1921. He was the son of David, who was born in America, and Dora, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. He had one brother, Irwin, born six years earlier. At 21 Felman enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps on July 24, 1942 and became a master navigator. He would go on to fly combat tours in WWII and in Korea and would receive 27 awards and decorations over the course of his military career. In early 1944 he was assigned to the 415th Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force stationed in Lecce, Italy as a Second Lieutenant. He would be flying B-24s, the "Liberator" bomber: his plane, the "Never a Dull Moment," would live up to its name.
Returning from a bombing mission over the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, Hitler's largest supply of oil at the time, in July of 1944, Felman's B-24 was hit by German ME-109s and 10 of the 11 man crew was forced to bail out from 18,000 feet over the Yugoslav hills. In the attack and subsequent fall, Felman was wounded and would receive a Purple Heart for those wounds.
Of all the places in Yugoslavia to land in July of 1944, he was lucky enough to land smack in the heart of Serbian territory. Unfortunately, it was also Nazi occupied territory and the enemy had seen him coming out of the sky. The Germans had counted all ten of their chutes coming down and knew exactly where they were, but they could not get to them in the hills. That was the first stroke of good luck. The second and what would become the most significant, was that Felman was immediately surrounded by the Serbian Chetniks of Draza Mihailovich and Serbian peasants in the area. These were friendly hands Major Felman and his compatriots had fallen into. An immediate friendship was forged between them and it was a friendship that would last the rest of Felman's lifetime.
In their briefings before the bombing mission, Felman and his crew had been told that if they ever had to bail out over Yugoslavia to avoid the men in the beards and fur hats for they would cut off their ears. They were instructed to look for the men with the red stars on their hats.
This contradicted everything Felman had heard about Mihailovich and his Chetniks from the time that Time Magazine had named Draza Mihailovich "Man of the Year" for being leader of the first resistance in occupied Europe. Nevertheless, the first thing he did when the strangers came running towards him was to reach for his ears. Not only did his ears stay intact, he was nursed back to health, fed, sheltered, clothed, and protected. He was also initiated into the magic of Serbian slivovitza. A story that Felman would tell over and over again, everywhere he went from that time on, including the halls of Washington, was about what happened then. The Germans gave Mihailovich an ultimatum to turn over the flyers or a village in Pranjani of 200 women and children would be burned to the ground. Mihailovich refused. Felman would learn later just how much pain this decision had caused Mihailovich who had done everything possible to limit reprisals against his people during the entirety of the war.
The Germans made good on their threat. The village was burned, and with it the Serbian civilians perished. That one incident would light the fire that would fuel the rest of Richard Felman's life work. As the daily bombing offensives increased and more and more Allied airmen were being shot down over Yugoslavia, MIA, a three member rescue unit headed by 1st Lieutenant George Musulin was formed and was blind-dropped at night deep into enemy territory with medical supplies, short wave radios and a coded evacuation plan called the "Halyard Operation". A total of 750 Allied airmen, most of them Americans, would, over the next several months be rescued and taken care of and flown to safety at great cost to the Serbian people who had protected them. All would return to their families and their homes. Alive.
The rescue operations that began in August of 1944 would become the single greatest rescue of Allied Airmen from behind enemy lines in the history of warfare. Major Felman, after spending time with the Serbs and running sabotage missions against the Nazis, witnessing first hand who was doing what on the ground, was among the first group of Americans airlifted out on August 10, 1944. The last evacuation was successfully completed in December of 1944 under the leadership of Captain Nikola Lalich. For the rescue operation, Draza Mihailovich personally provided 8,000 of his best men to keep the Germans at bay while the C-47 planes flew in and took off without incident, carrying their cargo home. Ironically, after this rescue, Allied Intelligence continued to report that Mihailovich was collaborating with the enemy and turning over the Americans to the Nazis - the same false reports that had caused the greatest betrayal of the war - the switch of Allied support from Mihailovich to Tito's communists in September of 1943, months before Mihailovich would risk everything to rescue the lives of the Allied airmen.
It would be just one of the ironies that marked the beginning of a battle of vindication that Felman would fight for the next 55 years. When it was learned that Draza Mihailovich had been captured by Tito's communists and that there would be a trial in Belgrade charging Mihailovich with being a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, Felman and his friends went into action.
This time from home. He, along with 21 others, went to Washington in April of 1946 to petition President Harry S Truman and the U.S. Government to be allowed to go, at their own expense, to Belgrade and present their testimonies to the "jury". They would soon learn the true nature of the new Yugoslav politics and the politics of their own country. Tito said no. The State Department said no. Refusing to give up, Felman and his group, along with other notable Americans, formed a Committee for a Fair Trial for Draza Mihailovich in May of 1946 and the government set up a Commission of Inquiry that would hear their testimonies in New York regarding the guilt or innocence of General Mihailovich as a war criminal.
The testimonies of the airmen were presented and documented. The record was compelling and irrefutable. But it would do Draza Mihailovich no good. The word from the Belgrade Regime was this: "Mihailovich will be given a fair trial, but we have enough legal evidence to convict him, and he will be shot."
They could not let this happen. They tried everything, and at the time of the Commission hearings, Major Felman formed the National Committee of American Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich, Inc. Felman was elected its president and remained so for the remainder of his life.
But Belgrade wasn't kidding, and the U.S. State Department wasn't budging. The U.S. had switched sides in '43, at the behest of the British, and Tito was their man. Tito now held the strings 5,000 miles away.
Draza Mihailovich lost his battle and was executed and buried in an unmarked grave on July 17, 1946. But he had made a friend during his darkest hours of the war, and, as it would turn out, nobody could have made a better or more loyal and dedicated friend than Major Richard Felman. I can only guess how Felman and others like him must have felt on that day in July of 1946, but I do know that the injustice would sustain Felman with a stamina of purpose that defies the imagination. Mihailovich was gone, martyred, but Felman was bound and determined to keep him alive and alive he would stay in the hearts and minds of all those who would hear Felman speak and read his words and know of his efforts. He would become relentless and would remain consistent even when a new war began in Yugoslavia in 1991 and the Serbian name became poison. Felman knew what he knew. He had lived it.
Due to the efforts of Felman and his buddies, President Harry S Truman, on the recommendation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, posthumously awarded Mihailovich the "Legion of Merit", the highest award America can give a foreign national, for his material contribution to the Allied victory and the rescue of American Airmen from behind enemy lines. But the ironies would continue. For the first time in history, this high award and the story of the rescue was classified secret by the State Department so as not to offend the communist government of Yugoslavia and subsequently publicize their colossal blunder of switching sides to Tito during the war. It would take 20 years and the efforts of those such as Felman, and especially the tremendous effort of Honorable Edward J. Derwinski who would later become Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to uncover this award and make it public. The next step would begin another uphill battle that would drive Felman and consume him. He retired from the United States Air Force in 1968, but he remained a fighting man as the beginning of long stream of obstacles would mar the realization of his dream to have a memorial monument erected on Washington land honoring Draza Mihailovich for the saving of American lives.
In 1970, for the first time, Draza Mihailovich was written into the Congressional Record and it was in Congress that the battle would be fought.
Felman would again go to Washington, to rally on the steps of the Capitol and get a bill introduced into the Senate by Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater in 1976 and in 1977 for the establishment of a statue on the Capitol grounds honoring General Mihailovich. The bill passed. But it would die in the House due to a campaign of the State Department which again and again would cite "offense against the Yugoslav Regime" and the ire of "certain ethnic groups" in Yugoslavia as justification for denying the appeal. Again and again, year after year, the bill would be introduced, passed, then killed. The resolutions are all in the Washington records. Attempt after attempt. Felman, despite getting discouraged and frustrated, remained a bulldog. In the wake of repeated denial, he would courageously declaim his group's apolitical stance and pass judgement on those who he felt were perpetrating yet another great injustice. He was not afraid of losing his pension. He was not reckless, but nor was he intimidated.
Over the years, Felman would write countless letters, give countless speeches, interviews, and submissions to newspapers, and would travel all around the country at his own expense to spread the word and keep just one drumbeat going: Repaying a debt and clearing the name of a man who had saved his life. He didn't mince words, ever. In June of 1982, the Tucson Citizen newspaper let Felman let loose:
"Were the truth ever to be nationally known, there would not be a single American who would object to expressing, at no expense to the taxpayer, a nation's gratitude for saving the lives of over 500 of its fighting men. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason, or rhetoric that should prevent the American Airmen from repaying their debt of honor. For 38 years we have fought for this right and been denied. In all good conscience, I cannot sit idly by and watch a 38 year effort go down the drain while the threats of another nation make our proud American eagle look like a plucked chicken."
Even after Tito was dead and gone in 1980, there would be no statue. And then came the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Croats were as relentless as Felman in blocking the establishment of the coveted memorial. And they were winning the battle in Washington.
I would first meet Felman on April 23, 1993 at the Congress Hotel in Chicago for the celebration of Draza Mihailovich's 100th birthday. I had met him over the phone back in 1992 when the first preparations for the celebration were being made. My father had already known him for years. Felman was happy as pie that someone had taken up the cause to mark and honor the landmark anniversary. Without his constant enthusiasm and support and wealth of knowledge the event wouldn't have been the same. He was walking out of an elevator as I was walking toward it the afternoon of the big night. Somehow I immediately knew who it was. Sharp and handsome in his dark blue blazer and blue jeans and white shirt with a silver and turquoise bolo tie around his neck, he was tan and buoyant, the youngest 72 I had ever seen. Given that the big night was only hours away, I didn't give him the proper greeting he deserved, but he didn't hold it against me. He had come, all the way from Arizona at his own expense, and would give a speech that night that I would hear for the first time, and then time and time again over the following years. He was great on stage and his words and story mesmerized and entertained the audience, all 1500 of them, who embraced him. He told that audience of Serbs what they so desperately needed to hear at that juncture in their history. In those dark hours, as they were being demonized in the midst of a war back home, he was there to tell them that they had a friend in the American community who believed in them and appreciated them, and most of all, knew the truth.
We continued to keep in touch by phone and by letter, as the piles of material he sent me continued to grow. This was gold to me as were his words of support and appreciation for keeping Draza's legacy and the story of the Halyard Mission alive. The next time I would see him would again be in Chicago when he came for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the rescue operation in May of 1994. This was special for it was not a Serbian event, but an event opening a weeklong celebration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day, which had officially been sanctioned by representatives of Washington and the City of Chicago. Both Serbs and non-Serbs would be participating. And Americans would be hearing Felman's testimony. A full year before the first bombing of the Serbs, in Bosnia, in 1995, and the subsequent bombing of Serbs over Kosovo, Felman spoke the following words. They echoed then. They echo even louder now:
"Everyone of the airmen sitting here and throughout the country...I believe I can speak with one voice for everyone of them...They will all join me in saying that throughout the entire time we were evading capture, no sacrifice was too great for the Serbian people in making us comfortable. It was they who sheltered us in the hills and in their farm houses, often at great risk to themselves. Those of us who were wounded received whatever medical supplies were available. If there was one slice of bread in the house, or one egg, it went to the American. If there was one blanket or one bed, it went to the American, while our Serbian host slept on the bare ground. Many of the peasants were tortured, tortured to death because they would not tell the Germans where we were. The many heroic stories and sacrifices they made on our behalf is something the airmen will never forget. I recall these sacrifices of 50 years ago every time I read in today's American press that the Serbs are murderers and some sort of two-headed monsters.
Those that we met were all fine, decent, God fearing people who were fighting for their freedom and their country. Were it not for them, there would not have been a Halyard Mission, nor would we have survived the war.
To all those all knowing political analysts and politicians who were in their diapers, literally, when WWII was going on, they know absolutely nothing about the people and the war. I would say to them, if they want to know anything about the Serbian people to talk to the thousands of American grandchildren who are alive today because of these so-called monsters they are condemning. I would also tell them in the strongest possible terms about the anguish that we Americans would feel to see our fellow Americans go charging in with their guns blazing to kill some of the very same people who saved our lives.
I don't believe our government should return their kindness and sacrifice by killing them."
To know Felman was to talk with him and see him. To read his words on the printed page and really hear him. The tears were real. The passion true and contagious. The frustration immense yet inspiring in its subordination to pure gut level determination.
I would meet him again in July of 1996 for the 50th anniversary of the execution, marked at the New Gracanica Monastery in Third Lake, Illinois near Chicago. Then, I would see him for the last time, in June of 1998 here in Chicago as he came to receive the "Award of Merit" presented to him by the Serbian Bar Association. His health was beginning to fail, but his words were still magic and the love between him and his audience of Serbs who had come to honor him was as real as it had always been. And the military uniform that he had worn over 50 years before as a young man was on his body. At 77 he was wearing it proudly. Imagine that!
I am grateful that he did see some of his efforts come to fruition while he was still living and that he did receive some of the honors and recognition he so richly deserved. His story "Mihailovich and I" was published in both Serbian and English. He was given the honorary rank of "Chetnik Colonel" by Voyvoda Momchilo Djujich with whom he was friends and whom we lost in September of this year. He was personally decorated twice by King Peter II of Yugoslavia, first with the Royal Order of Ravna Gora, Yugoslavia's highest military decoration in 1946, then with the Commemorative War Cross, 1941-1945 of the Royal Yugoslav Army in 1968. In April 1997 he was made "Vitez"-"Knight of the Serbian People" by the World Serbian Community in Geneva, Switzerland.
He helped rewrite the history books through a letter writing campaign begun in the late 1970s to both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana asking them to revise their biography on Mihailovich that had characterized the Serbian General as a brave but compromised man who had collaborated with the Nazis. Both revised their biographies of Mihailovich due to Felman's efforts in the mid 1980s. Though his dream of the memorial statue of Mihailovich in Washington was never realized he did succeed in having a life size bronze bust made of the General and at his own expense donated several to the Serbian Community in the United States and Canada. Most importantly, for the first time in history, there is official recognition by an American museum which holds Felman's donation of the bronze bust on permanent display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, one of the largest aeronautical museums in the world.
In 1990 he met with the head archivist of the Air Force Academy Library in Colorado Springs who found it hard to believe there was no record of their rescue in their files. By providing his story and his extensive documentation of "Operation Halyard", Felman ensured that future American cadets will know about one of the most glorious moments in the history of the United States Air Force.
In 1995, for the 50th Anniversary of VE Day, Major Richard Felman, accompanied by his wife Mary Anne, returned with Captain Nick Lalich, and Lt. Col. Charlie Davis, to Serbia after 50 years and was met on the mountain of Ravna Gora by 50,000 Serbian people who gave him a thunderous ovation. That, said Felman, was his shining moment. In June of 1998 Richard Felman was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, a degenerative and terminal neuromuscular disorder. Word of his illness spread throughout the Serbian community and he would receive hundreds of cards and letters from Serbs saying "Thank You" to the man who had dedicated the last 50 years of his life to thanking them.
I last spoke to him over the phone on May 29, 1999. I had called to let him know I was thinking about him and to thank him as I had so many times before. I hung up without realizing it was his birthday. It would be the last time I would hear that wonderful voice.
Major Felman fought his last battle on Saturday, November 13, 1999. He died quietly, with his wife Mary Anne by his side. He is survived by her and his brother Irwin. He had no children. On Tuesday, November 16, 1999 he was laid to rest at "All Faiths Memorial Park" in Tucson, Arizona.
In memoriam, my father shared his thoughts about Felman, and they are mine, and I believe many of yours as you learned of his passing.
"He was one of the small number of foreign nationals," said my father, "who dedicated his life to promoting the truth about Serbs as they were going through some of the darkest hours of their history. With Felman's death, some of the wings the Serbs had to survive through the last half of the 20th century have been stilled. Sailing will be harder without Felman."
Richard Felman was my friend. I will cherish the conversations and all of the gifts of his documents and his cards and letters. It is we who now must carry on the fight.
He never forgot us nor did he forsake us when it would have been most convenient for him to do so this last decade. He never stopped saying that "For as long as I live I will never forget the enormous debt that I owe to the freedom loving Serbian people who gave their lives to save me and my fellow Americans." Felman didn't just talk the talk. He walked the walk.
In what seems ages ago, back in April of 1993 in Chicago at General Mihailovich's grand 100th birthday celebration, Felman proclaimed from center stage something that garnered him a standing ovation: "Although I am an American Jew, in my heart, I am a Serb."
Sixty five years ago, Richard Felman met Draza Mihailovich. They prayed in a Serbian Orthodox church together. They shook hands. They went on sabotage runs against the common enemy, shared slivovitza, and found a way to communicate.
When Major Felman died, I remember thinking that "Now, somewhere out there, Jew will meet Gentile again, American will meet Serb, military man will shake the hand of another great military man. With all my heart I believe that this time around, it will be the old General who will be saying 'Thank You.'"
Major Felman, I will always miss you. We will not cease fighting the good fight. That is our pledge and our promise to you. May God Bless you and hold you in the palm of His hand, for just as you never forgot our Draza and our Serbian people, we will never forget you.
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org