Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Book recounts top-secret airlift of 500 caught behind enemy lines in WWII

Monday, February 25, 2008


Star-Ledger Staff // New Jersey

For five weeks Anthony Orsini's family thought he was dead. Killed in action fighting the Nazis.

The Woodbridge man was one of more than 500 U.S. airmen shot down behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia in 1944 while bombing oil fields in Romania. Watched over by Serbian Chetnik guerrillas who hid them in local villager's attics, cellars and barns, the group was rescued by Allied forces in a daring top-secret airlift mission.

"Operation Halyard," considered by some military historians as the single largest evacuation from Axis-occupied Europe, normally would have made bold front-page headlines and been featured in movie house newsreels. But the U.S. State Department put a gag order on it all, not wanting to draw attention to the mission because of political wrangling.

The soft-spoken, well-dressed Jersey City native remembers vividly what happened and recounted his tale to Gregory Freeman, who wrote, "The Forgotten 500," a book now bringing renewed awareness to the rescue and Orsini, who is basking in the attention.

"I can't believe this excitement is happening 63 years after the fact," said the 85-year-old Orsini, one of only a handful of survivors who is now getting a chance to see his story told.

Freeman spent two years researching and writing the book after he became intrigued with the rescue, which took place in present-day Serbia, then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

"This is the kind of story I am drawn to -- stories that are significant but overlooked," said Freeman, of Marietta, Ga., whose two previous books on slavery and an aircraft fire are currently in film development.

Orsini, who was a navigator on one of the bombers, remembers "the most exciting day of my life." It was July 22, 1944.

Assigned to the 449 Bomb Group, attached to the 15th Air Force, 716 Squadron, Orsini was on a B-24 bomber approaching the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The sky was full of aircraft when guns started to fire and black clouds of flak filled the air.

"My blood ran cold," Orsini said.

When the bomber violently shook, Orsini said he knew they were hit. The pilot screamed, "Abandon ship!" and Orsini strapped on his parachute and threw himself off into the sky.

He struck a tree and blacked out on the landing. When he woke up, Orsini was in the arms of a peasant woman, who was happily chattering. Villagers and Chetnik guerrillas shielded the airman from roving German patrols.

Gen. Draza Mihailovich, a Chetnik guerrilla leader and Serb nationalist, immediately started coordinating a rescue plan with the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, a forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. His people brought the airmen to the small village of Pranjane where they transformed a farm field into a makeshift airfield.

The first C-47 cargo planes began to airlift the Allied soldiers out of harm's way in August 1944 and continued for several months, Freeman said. Each plane carried a little more than a dozen men at a time.

Orsini was rescued on Aug. 27. and when he returned to his base in Bari, Italy, he was shocked to discover that he was on the "killed in action" list. He immediately telegraphed his family back in Jersey City to tell them he was still alive.

What he couldn't tell them until later, however, was how he got home. OSS officials wanted to keep the news secret to avoid disrupting the ongoing missions, Orsini said.


Even after the war ended, the State Department kept the rescue quiet because it did not want to anger Josip Broz Tito, who after allying with the Americans and Russians against the Nazis, became the longtime dictator of Yugoslavia.

Tito hated the Chetniks and in particular Mihailovich, said Jonathan Gumz, a history professor at West Point, who called Operation Halyard probably one of the biggest rescue missions of the war.

Tito was fighting the Chetniks in a civil war at the same time World War II raged around them, Gumz said. In the ensuing power struggle, Mihailovich lost and was executed by Tito for collaborating with the Nazis, Gumz said.

When the U.S. airmen tried to put up a small monument honoring Mihailovich, they were silenced by the State Department.

"It was a great disappointment not to be able to honor him," Orsini said. "We tried. We tried."

Mihailovich posthumously received a Legion of Merit medal from President Harry S. Truman, but Freeman said the award was kept secret not to offend Tito. The medal was finally given to Mihailovich's daughter, Gordana, in 2005.

After his discharge in 1945 with the rank of first lieutenant, Orsini married Gloria Cleaver, whom he had known before the war at his job at the North Bergen Trust Co. He earned a degree in accounting from Pace Institute in 1954 and worked in banking until he retired in 1984 from the National State Bank in Elizabeth as a senior vice president and cashier. His wife died five years ago.

In his tidy apartment in Woodbridge, among the pictures of his three children and seven grandkids, Orsini displays a Purple Heart (he was wounded twice in three dozen bombing missions) and an Air Medal.

One of Orsini's prized possessions from his days in Yugoslavia is a steel dagger, made from the parts of a downed bomber, that a Chetnik guerrilla fighter gave him for protection. The metal sheath is dull and tarnished, but the silver blade is sharp, just like Orsini's memories.

"They have my undying gratitude for all they did for me," Orsini said about the Chetniks. "I think back now on how they treated us and we got the best of everything."

Sharon Adarlo may be reached at sadarlo@starledger.com or (732) 404-8081.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

John McCain Snubs American WWII Vet saved by Draza Mihailovich and his Serbs

NOTE - Major Richard Felman had many stories to tell about his experiences during his 50 year effort to inspire official recognition of the heroic contributions made by General Mihailovich and his Serbs to the Allied cause during World War II. Of the many that he conveyed to me personally over the years, his experience with Senator John McCain, who was his senator, was among those that left him the most disappointed. I know that if Richard Felman were alive today, he would be reminding John McCain of their meeting below.

Aleksandra Rebic

Truth About World War II MIAs Still Covered Up

Tucson Citizen, November 9, 1992

By Richard L. Felman

TUCSON, AZ. The recent glut of news stories proclaiming our government's all-out effort to get at the truth about missing servicemen in Vietnam in reality was nothing more than election-time grandstanding.

It brings to mind the political maneuvering behind the scenes that I personally experienced in another MIA situation. As a group of former MIAs, we have had 47 years of firsthand exposure to the depths to which our State Department will sink to withhold the truth about MIAs from Congress and the American people if it will interfere with its foreign policy of appeasement.

During World War II, I was one of more than 500 American airmen listed as missing in action for periods of up to 18 months after being shot down over German-occupied Yugoslavia.
Only through the courageous efforts of General Draza Mihailovich's anti-communist guerrilla forces were we able to avoid capture, be gathered up at a central point and air-evacuated to safety at our bases in Italy.

To this day, the "Halyard Operation" remains the largest one-time rescue of Americans from behind enemy lines in our nation's history. For political reasons, it has been covered up by our State Department.

During a recent visit to the archives at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, authorities at the highest level told me they could not believe there had been no record of such an historic rescue in their files.

Since the end of World War II, our group has petitioned Congress to allow us to publicly express our gratitude to those on foreign soil responsible for saving our lives while we were serving in defense of our country. Unfortunately, we have been fought every step of the way by the State Department's fear that the truth would offend the postwar communist government of Yugoslavia.

Even though that government no longer exists, the State Department continues to this very day to vigorously oppose the bills we now have before Congress, which have the support of the 8 million members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Air Force Association.

At the local level, we have been supported by the Arizona State Legislature, the Arizona American Legion, the Tucson Veterans Affairs Committee, former Sen. Barry Goldwater, former U.S. Rep. Mo Udall, and former Gov. Rose Mofford.

The political ramifications of this deception have been so far-reaching that our recent appeal to Dante B. Fascell, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, parroted the standard State Department denial together with the following explanation: "What is at stake concerns not simply the sensitivity and opposition of the official Yugoslav government, but also several ethnic groups in Yugoslavia as well."

It sets a terribly frightening precedent when the legitimate requests of American citizens on an internal matter are opposed by the U.S. government on the basis that it might upset some foreign government and its ethnic groups.

Worthy of mention is some background of our ongoing struggle. In 1977, the U.S. Senate passed legislation granting our committee permission to erect a simple memorial in Washington to be financed with private funds. Nine days after the bill passed, the American ambassador to Yugoslavia, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, fired off his protest conveying the Yugoslavian government's "extreme distaste for the Senate move."

In a strongly worded recommendation against "further action," his letter stated: "Passage by the House of this legislation would have an extremely adverse impact on our bilateral relations with Yugoslavia. Rightly or wrongly, the Yugoslavs look upon the bill as a provocation and would react to its passage accordingly."

This stand has been the etched-in-stone policy of the State Department ever since and the reason why our bills have never gotten out of the House committee.

It should be noted that after serving as Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Eagleburger left the State Department and earned more than $900,000 a year as a director of a Yugoslav bank later convicted of money laundering and as a director on the board at Yugo Cars. After Yugo Cars went broke, Eagleburger returned to the State Department, replaced James Baker, and is now acting Secretary of State.

My hopes for finally uncovering the truth were raised when we elected U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., to represent us. I felt he could identify with what it meant to be rescued, since he was shot down in enemy territory and endured five years of torture in Vietnam.

It took me almost seven years to get an appointment with him. While expressing sympathy for our effort, McCain told me he could do nothing. Instead of calling for the investigation I requested of our serious charges - withholding the truth from members of Congress and using taxpayer funds to disseminate communist propaganda are federal offenses – he told me the only way to get at the truth would be for me to write the 435 members of the house of Representatives and get a majority of them to support our effort.

I thought the reason the people of Arizona elected politicians was to represent them in Washington.

At this point, our disillusioned group of aging veterans has given up trying to repay our nation's debt of honor to those on foreign soil who saved American lives. After risking our lives and watching our buddies in combat get their arms, legs and heads blown off, we returned home to find an uncaring bloated bureaucracy that treated our service to country with contemptuous disregard.

After 47 years of disappointments our noble effort has failed. How can we expect the government to level with the American people about the MIAs in Vietnam, when they are still covering up the truth about the MIAs from World War II?


Richard L. Felman of Tucson, now deceased, was a retired Air Force major and president of the "National Committee of American Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich."