THE HALYARD MISSION
By Lt. Com. Richard M. Kelly, USNR
Blue Book Magazine Vol. 83, No. 4
The two OSS parachute instructors at a secret training camp in Virginia stared in amazement at the huge bulk of a man approaching the plane.
“That big guy isn’t going to jump, is he?” asked the first incredulously.
“Well, if he does, I won’t take any bets that he’ll ever do it again! He must weigh twice as much as those other guys.”
The “big guy” who caused this comment—and much more—was George Musulin, who was far heavier than the usual weight accepted for paratrooper duty. The heaviest paratroopers accepted prior to his arrival had been 185 pounds, the official limit for Army paratroopers. Yet the five-foot-eleven former University of Pittsburgh tackle, from 2820 West Liberty Avenue in the Smoky City, had been permitted to take the training entirely on his own responsibility.
Some months later, this same courage and willingness to assume unusual risks was to surprise his superiors and win him high honors when, in spite of all warnings, he jumped blindly into German-occupied Yugoslavia to organize and execute the greatest mass air evacuation of shot-down Allied airmen from behind enemy lines in the history of warfare.
They didn’t think he could do that, either; but doing the difficult and the supposedly impossible was a specialty of this former steelworker and physical education instructor of Major General William J. Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services which conducted America’s secret and highly successful clandestine operations all over the world in the past war.
Musulin, the son of immigrant Yugoslavian parents, had been inducted into the Army as a private in May, 1941. While on maneuvers in Virginia, he had been approached by an OSS representative and asked if he would volunteer for “dangerous work behind the lines in the European theater.” He accepted and soon found himself undergoing the rigorous training with which the OSS equipped its men for their highly dangerous work.
In addition to his unusual physical attainments, Musulin’s mastery of the Serbo-Croat language impressed his instructors with his particular aptness for a mission to Yugoslavia. This was exactly what Musulin had wanted. He had heard a great deal about the country where he had numerous relatives and for many months had been thrilled by the gallant fight against terrific odds being put up by the fabulous General Draza Mihailovich, who at that time was being hailed in the Allied press as the greatest underground fighter in all of occupied Europe.
Musulin completed his parachute training quickly—training that was punctuated by his instructors’ jovial bets, every time he was due to jump, as to how many panels in his chute would break! He outlasted both the chute and the bets, and was handed his commission, along with his orders for flight overseas to Cairo, Egypt.
He was four months in North Africa; and then, on October 18, 1943, he took off from Bengasi in Libya, bound for central Serbia. Into the heart of this small country he was dropped at midnight, the third American officer to parachute into Yugoslavia. His assignment—to assist a British team which functioned as Allied liaison with the Chetnik army.
He was received by elements of General Mihailovich’s forces; and his first sight of them as he lay waiting in the darkness brought him to his feet with a start. For standing there in the flickering light cast by the ground flares, they had a storybook look – long wild hair, bushy beards, ragged, nondescript clothing, their weapons an odd assortment that varied from modern pistols and rifles to mountaineers’ axes and knives.
As they stared at him silently, surprised by his great bulk, Musulin broke quickly into Serbian, introducing himself as an American officer of Serbian parentage, and held out a tentative hand. The Serbs’ reaction was immediate—here was one of their own; they were wild with excitement, and Musulin’s one difficulty now was to convince them that his presence would not necessarily bring about the liberation of their country and the end of the war.
Musulin’s duties involved liaison with the First Chetnik Corps, transmitting intelligence on German troop movements, spotting targets for our bombers, training the underground fighters and receiving occasional supply drops. It took only those first few days at the encampment for Musulin to realize that these supply drops, at this stage of the war, were but a pitiful trickle of arms. For the most part, the Chetnik forces’ fighting weapons were remnants from the equipment of the old Yugoslav army.
He learned that this First Corps had been busy before his arrival—they had a record of numerous acts of sabotage against the Nazi lines of communication. It was this record that brought a strong German punitive force into the area and caused the evacuation of Musulin and his corps just forty-eight hours after his arrival…
The next seven months was a time of wandering; for with the Germans continually after them, they could not make a permanent encampment. They traveled over the mountains, living on the land, sharing the people’s hardships; and Musulin saw copious evidence of German atrocities—hundreds of villages burnt, their population wiped out. The misery and suffering of the people was far greater than he could have ever imagined any people could take; yet he knew from what he saw that their will to resist was unbroken, and their support of the underground fight was strong and unwavering.
It was during this time that he met and learned to know General Mihailovich, at whose shifting headquarters he spent considerable time. He was on friendly terms, too, with numerous Chetnik leaders—a most important factor in his future work.
Following the Teheran Conference in December 1943, when Roosevelt and Churchill decided to back Tito in place of Mihailovich, support from Allied headquarters began to taper off. During the spring of 1944 the Yugoslavian civil war was going full blast, and Tito’s Partisans attacked the Chetniks but were thrown back. Several months later the Allied Mission received orders to evacuate, and on May 29, 1944, the entire party, with forty Allied airmen who had been picked up by the Chetniks, was flown out from a secret airfield built in the mountains by the Mihailovich forces.
Just before leaving, Musulin had received word from the Chetniks that another party of twelve Americans had been picked up, and he immediately requested permission to stay behind and get them. Headquarters denied his request, and he was flown back to his base in Italy. The decision had been made at the highest level that Mihailovich was to receive no more Allied support, and though the Chetnik leaders were in tears at Musulin’s departure, the orders must be obeyed.
Back at the OSS base in Bari, Italy, Musulin learned of the progress of the war and in particular of the Allied policy in relation to General Mihailovich. He was shocked to find that his beloved Chetniks were accused of collaborating with the Germans, against whom he knew they were waging a relentless war. Worse than that, distressed American airmen were being briefed to bail out only in Tito Partisan-dominated territory and not in Chetnik areas, because Mihailovich was said to be turning shot-down Allied airmen over to the Germans. This OSS officer, who had just left the Chetniks and had taken forty Allied airmen out with him, knew this to befalse; but he found himself a weak minority against the all-out support being given Tito and his charges against the Chetniks.
On the other hand, he discovered that both the United States and Great Britain had numerous missions attached to Tito’s forces. These missions were receiving all-out military support. Airmen who were forced to bail out in Tito areas were promptly aided by these missions and returned to their Italian bases; whereas with the departure of Musulin’s mission from Serbia, there existed no comparable machinery to aid American air-crew forced to bail out in Chetnik zones.
And this knowledge made Musulin fighting mad. American Air Corp boys, he argued, were entitled to rescue wherever they were, regardless of American or British political policy with regard to the Yugoslavian civil war. Furthermore, he knew that Mihailovich was not turning over airmen to the Germans and to prove it, he would parachute blindly into Serbia.
These potent arguments availed little against the tide of Tito feeling and the official policy line laid down by London and Washington, but events in other quarters soon gave unexpected support to Musulin’s daring proposals.
As the summer of 1944 opened up, the American bombing offensive against German oil facilities and communication lines was stepped up to an overwhelming tempo. Balkan targets, particularly the Ploesti oil fields and other rich objectives began receiving special attention from the 15th American Air Force, headquarters for which were at Bari, Italy. The mighty Allied air effort elicited a frantic and costly German reaction. The toll from German fighters, and particularly their massed radar-directed anti-aircraft guns around every target, was heavy. More and more of the returning bombing crews reported seeing plane-loads of their squadron matesbailing out of crippled ships in northern and central Yugoslavia, where the Chetnik underground operated. Major General Nathan Twining, Commanding General of the 15th Air Force, became vitally concerned. He wanted something done to rescue these crews.
Meantime the Yugoslav embassy in the United States picked up a message from General Mihailovich stating that he had a number of American airmen in various areas under his control and requesting that American personnel be sent in to organize their evacuation. He agreed to receive the mission and render every assistance.
While this situation was developing, Musulin’s OSS chief in Bari, Lt. Nelson Deranian, USNR, told him to go ahead and organize a team for the dangerous mission he was pressing to undertake. This was all that “Guv,” as the big University of Pittsburgh ex-tackle was known, needed. Knowing that the chances of a prearranged reception were slight, and that there was no accurate information on recent German moves in the area since the last reliable Allied radio link with the Chetniks had been severed, he decided to select for his team men who had already completed missions to Yugoslavia and had proved themselves in this rugged duty.
His choice fell on Master Sergeant Michael Rajacich of Washington, D.C. as his second in command; and youthful Arthur Jibilian, an expert Navy radioman, also from Washington, D.C. to handle his communications. Both of these men spoke the Yugoslavian language, knew the people and the problems of operating behind the German lines. Together with Musulin, they prepared the necessary supplies and worked out the details for their dangerous project.
The Halyard team finally was organized on July 5, 1944, and placed under the operating supervision of a specially established 15th Air Force section under Colonel George Kraigher, who was assigned by General Twining. Musulin was designated as Commanding Officer of Air Corps Rescue Unit, Team 1, which was known as ACRU…
Direct radio communication with Mihailovich did not exist, but there was an old roundabout, inadequate and probably insecure radio link which now brought additional confirmation of Musulin’s claims that there were large numbers of Americans in Chetnik hands. This communication was suspected on two grounds: First, it came from the Chetnik leader, who had been disavowed by the Allied high command; secondly, it was no longer considered secure from German interception. In spite of these serious complications and the doubts of his superiors, Musulin and his men decided to attempt the drop to a pinpoint designated by this radio. More than once during the ensuing attempts, they had reason to wonder if the doubters were right, or not.
The dangers they faced were extreme. The radio messages were so roundabout and so delayed that the rendezvous had to be set days ahead. Musulin knew very well that the military situation in occupied Yugoslavia was very fluid. An area that might be Chetnik-controlled when they set the rendezvous, might well be overrun by Germans the very next day; and inasmuch as the Germans always lit flares to attract Allied planes, he could never be sure but that torture-bent Nazis would receive him.
Furthermore, the flights were made in unarmed C-47s without escort, which made them sitting ducks for German night fighters based at an airfield only ten minutes’ flying time from the pinpoint—fifty miles south of Belgrade. To add to the suspense, several planes had recently been shot down at night in the same general area.
Weather canceled out their first effort on July 8th. Again the long process of setting a rendezvous and the try on July 19th. This time they reached the pinpoint, but no signals were visible. Could it be a trap? They flew about and turned homeward.
They tried again on July 25th. It was a 350 mile trip each way from the American airfield at Brindisi at the foot of Italy. As they crossed into Yugoslavia, they ran into a heavy anti-aircraft barrage and the Halyard team hooked up their chutes ready to bail out. Moments of waiting, the nearness of death, their utter helplessness—and then there was no sound but the peaceful hum of their own motors. They had flown through the barrage safely; now to find the signal. But there was no signal. Again, they circleddespairingly, then headed east for home and another discouraging report: “Mission unsuccessful.”
The tension was telling on everyone’s nerves, but the next night they would have one more chance, for this rendezvous had been arranged for successive nights, lest anything should go wrong on either end. This time they met no barrage…they neared the pinpoint—and there lighting up the countryside were the red glows of fires. The signals? Quickly they checked—these signals were wrong. Musulin stared downward in desperation. Maybe the code had been confused—should they take a chance? Suddenly a blinding glare illuminated theplane and the anxious faces of the men—German flares bursting about them! From the ground came the flash of heavy small arms. This was either a trap—in which case night fighters and possibly ack-ack could be expected within a few moments; or they were completely off their pinpoint and had almost dropped into a nest of Germans.
Their reaction was instantaneous. In a few seconds the plane was headed back, the anxious pilot straining for every ounce of speed, the men tensely keeping a look-out for the threatened night fighters. Twice they thought they spotted them; and twice they eluded them; and then some hours later they were back at base, a weary and disheartened group. As Musulin jumped from the plane and headed for the OSS dispatching station, he was fighting the bitter thought that the Halyard Mission was doomed from the start…
In a little Chetnik encampment far behind the enemy lines a group of discouraged men waited. Many of them were sick and wounded; some wore tattered clothes and were shoeless; all of them were sick at heart, for these men believed themselves abandoned. They were men of the United States Army Air Force, shot down over a Chetnik underground area, awaiting a rescue that they now began to feel would never come. Among them was Lt. Richard L. Felman of New York City. His B-24 “Never a Dull Moment,” had been shot down by ME-109’s on the way back from a strike at the Ploesti oil fields. He remembers those days sharply now:
"We had been briefed by Intelligence that if shot down in Yugoslavia, we were to look for Tito’s Partisans and avoid the Chetniks, who were rumored to be turning Allied airmen over to the Germans. I bailed out on the 9th of July and found myself in the hands of these Chetniks whom I had been told to avoid. They said they would take care of me. I was suspicious, but in a few days I was convinced that they were on our side. One incident in particular made me feel sure of them and of their sincerity.
They told me that one of our crew had been killed when the plane had crashed, and that the Germans had stripped his body and buried it. After the Germans had left the immediate area, a band of Chetniks dug up the body and gave him a reverent funeral service. They took pictures of the ceremonies, and then gravely presented them to us with the request that we send them on to my crewmate’s family.
There had been ten of us who had bailed out—we were all located and brought together by the Chetniks. The Germans had seen us hit the silk, and immediately demanded that the local people surrender us. The peasants stood fast: they refused. The reprisal—their village was burned to the ground.
Within two weeks after I landed, our group of Americans had grown to about seventy-five, all of whom were constantly protected and aided by the Mihailovich forces. Every day the Chetniks would come and tell us how they had tried to arrange for American planes to come in, but when nothing happened, the boys really began to feel low. Some of the fellows had been down for five months, and about that time they felt as though they had had it. We kept on hoping, though we knew that only Tito was receiving Allied support.
Finally our senior officer, Lt. T.K. Oliver, a West Point man, and son of Major General E.L. Oliver, went up to Mihailovich’s headquarters and borrowed one of his radios. With it he began to broadcast in the clear on a rare frequency, in the hope that some Allied monitoring station would pick up the message. Day after day he tapped out the words: ‘We are 250 American airmen…many sick and wounded. Please notify the 15th Air Force to come and get us.’
We began to get answers—but they were all questions. Whoever was receiving was suspicious and rightly so, for they not unreasonably feared we were Germans, or Americans operating under German duress. They must be made to realize that this was a legitimate signal from distressed Americans.
Lt. Oliver devised an ingenious and unique system of encoding and decoding. Using the army serial numbers of various airmen, nicknames, intimate Air Corps slang which his West Point roommate back at the base knew that Oliver had used, items of wearing apparel effected by individual officers (a certain colored scarf for example), the painted insignia on various planes, details of officer clubs at his air base and other similar data which could be known only to a very few people, he managed to establish working communication. This improvised code, though sent in clear language, accomplished two things—it completely shrouded the meaning from the listening Germans, and it convinced the monitoring stationwho was picking us up that we were probably legitimate.
Finally a message came that made even the sick men look up and smile. ‘Prepare reception for July 31st and subsequent nights.’ That was all we needed—I’ll never forget that feeling of relief. We got busy preparing that reception and sat back and waited. The 31st finally came. General Mihailovich himself and about one thousand of his ragged troops came to visit us at our encampment near the tiny air-strip from which we expected to be evacuated. He held a review of his troops in our honor and thentalked to us through an interpreter. He told us now much he loved America and how sorry he was that he had not been able to do more for us, though his people had given us the best of everything they had. He also assured us that he had eight thousand troops deployed over a twenty-mile area around the air-strip with orders to hold off the Germans at all costs until we were evacuated.
That night at ten p.m. we were all down at the field. We waited for forty minutes silently. Exactly at 10:40 came the sound of motors, but we were afraid that coming so late at night it might be a German plane, so we decided not to light up the flares, since that might give away the whole show. Nothing appeared the rest of that long night—or on the next. Our spirits hit rock bottom.
Then on August 2nd we were all down at the field again. At 10:10 p.m. we heard plane engines in the distance. We couldn’t be certain that it was an American plane, but at that point we were willing to risk anything. So we lit up the flares and the wind tee. About thirty seconds afterwards we could hear the plane turning to head back over our strip. Were we going to get a scrafing from the Germans, or would this be a rescue from our own boys. We all crouched in the bushes watching.
The plane circled for about ten minutes, then came in very low over our strip. As it zoomed over our heads, we could see the big white star of the Air Force under the wings. With one voice the men let out a yell—the most terrific cheer I have ever heard went up in those Yugoslavian mountains! It was just like Ruth hitting a homer with the bases loaded in the World Series. The sight of that American plane was the first tangible evidence of rescue that we had seen since landing, and the boys nearly went crazy.
Next thing we knew, Chetniks came running up, hauling packages which had been parachuted from the plane. Then I heard a tremendous commotion in the darkness, a whole crowd of Chetniks—men, women, and children were shouting and cheering: ‘Captain George, Captain George!’ A few seconds later three men came up to us. The one who was in the lead was the center of a mob of Chetniks—they were kissing him and cheering him with tears in their eyes. He was in an American uniform, and he was one of the biggest chaps I’d ever seen. He walked over to us and put out his hand. ‘I’m Lt. George Musulin,’ he said.”
For Musulin, the sight of the gratitude on the faces of these pathetically eager American airmen was enough. He had been right in begging for this mission; all the discouragement of the five previous attempts was now wiped away in this moment of initial success. He thought of the new hope he’d felt when T.K. Oliver’s messages had begun to come through.
“Those messages,” he says, “gave me new faith in Halyard Mission, especially when the location of his signals was plotted as coming from the same area south of Belgrade to which I had been planning to jump. It seemed to confirm what I had been saying all along. It also confirmed our roundabout messages from Mihailovich.
I had been pretty disturbed when the first rendezvous we’d set up with Oliver on July 31 failed. As a matter of fact, I had been prepared that night to jump in without a reception and take my chances with the Germans. By that time the three of us on the team were nervous wrecks. I was very worried about getting our mission off and about the morale of the team. I kept thinking about the plight of those airmen, and I knew that their danger would increase with every flight we made to the area. The terrific tension of those long, dangerous flights, the strain of beingconstantly alerted at the airfield, the unnerving knowledge that each successive flight might mean being shot down, or a jump to death, had us all pretty groggy. We had nearly had it a dozen times, and we weren’t even inside yet. I haven’t enough praise for Mike [Rajacich] and Jibby [Arthur Jibilian], who kept taking it and were still game for another trip on August 2.
This time when we thought we had reached the pinpoint area, fires broke out below us. After so many disappointments it was hard to believe it when we seemed to be in the right pattern. But that was all we needed. We circled a few times, dropped our package, and then I found myself diving through the air. As usual I had a terrific shock when the chute opened and caught my weight. I remember thinking that no matter what lay ahead, thank God we were at least on our way.
Our drop was not too good, in that we landed two miles away from our pinpoint, due to an error in dispatching. Fortunately, all of us were uninjured. I landed in a cornfield, Mike in a tree and Jibby in a mud-bank. I picked myself up and ran over, to find Mike hanging by his shrouds a few feet off the ground. An old woman was kissing him and telling him that we were with General Mihailovich’s forces.
I cut him down quickly, and then some peasants brought up Jibby. We were very relieved to learn that we were with the Chetniks, because even though T.K. Oliver’s messages seemed very authentic, we had no certainty that he had not been under clever Nazi torture which had elicited all that information, and that we might be headed for the same treatment.
Pranjane, where we landed, was where I’d spent a great deal of time in my previous seven and a half months with the Chetniks, so I knew a great many people there, and received a very touching and sincere reception from them. They quickly led us to the small clearing where the airmen were waiting. We received a tremendous ovation from them, and their unrestrained joy in meeting us made all the trouble and risk we had had getting there well worthwhile.
The Americans were like kids when they saw us. I introduced myself to them and assured them we’d soon have them back at their bases. They were sure glad to get the cigarettes and chocolate we’d brought—their first in many long weeks. Some of them were in pretty bad shape, and before sending them back to their quarters for the night I told them that we had some medical supplies which would be distributed to the worst cases in the morning.
Shortly after dawn, I held a conference with the senior American officers—Captain L.C. Brooks, Lt. T.K. Oliver, Lt. R.J. Hefling, Lt. K.A. Pfister, FO J.W. Barrett, Lt. W.J. Kilpatrick and Lt. J.E. Buchler. I learned that there were approximately 250 airmen in the vicinity, divided in six groups with an officer in charge of each. They were quartered in small groups at the homes of various Chetniks in an area of about ten miles around the strip. There were about twenty-six wounded and injured in the lot. They were being treated by an Italian doctor who had escaped from a German prison camp in Belgrade and wasworking with the Chetniks.
With the medical supplies that we had brought in with us, we set up a small hospital and gave them the best treatment we could under the circumstances. A large number of the airmen were barefoot and inadequately clad in fragments of Air Corps uniforms and peasant attire of all sizes and description. Many had long hair and beards and except for a few incongruous items of G.I. clothing, looked very much like the weather beaten, tattered Chetniks who had been looking after them.
Jibilian managed to make radio contact with our base in Bari the first day, and I reported our safe reception and the presence of over two hundred airmen, many in need of food, clothing and medical supplies. In response, we received a promise of an immediate supply drop, and a commendation from Major General Twining for the ‘fine work’ so far.
As soon as I had the airmen straightened out as well as I could with our limited means, I held a conference with my old friend Captain Zvonko Vuchkovich then of the first First Chetnik Corps, who was in charge of the Mihailovich troops in the area. It was just two months since I had left the zone, and I was anxious to check on the German strength, for I realized how precarious our situation was. What I learned from the Chetnik leader was far from reassuring. Only twelve and a half miles away in the town of Chachak was a garrison of forty-five hundred Germans. Just five miles from our clearing was another garrisonof two-hundred and fifty. Our principal security lay in our mountain location, the guarding Chetnik troops, and the wonderful support of the Serbian population.
I knew very well, however, that we would stand little chance if the Germans ever got wind of our presence and the projected evacuation. Should they attack us in strength with their superior armament and planes, the Chetniks would be forced to retreat through the mountains, and I knew that very few of our airmen could survive such a retreat. We would have to get these men out, and get them out fast!”
On the night of August 5th our first supply drop came in. With it we received a large number of shoes, food, clothing and additional medical supplies. The arrival of these supplies improved our situation immensely. Many of the men had been barefoot for months, and their long walks through the mountains had their feet in terrible shape. Many of the Chetniks were in the same or worse condition, yet they wouldn’t take any of the clothing themselves. That’s the way they were about everything. Our hospital was able to help them, however, and it was pitiful to see theirappreciation for the smallest kindness when they were risking everything they had for us.
After conferring with Captain Vuchkovich on the German dispositions, I went over the security arrangements of his own troops, on whose protection the whole operation depended. He explained to me that on General Mihailovich’s orders he had set up an outer and inner ring of defenses in the mountains around our air-strip. In addition, his men had roadblocks set up on the side of every road the Germans would have to use to interfere with the evacuation. His plans were that when the actual operation took place, these roadblocks were to be quickly set up and manned by troops, who were under orders to hold at all costs until the job was completed. These plans seemed very good to me; and knowing the Chetniks, I felt sure that they would be carried out. But just to reassure myself as to the probable strength of these outer and inner perimeter defenses, I sent Sgt. Rajacich to check them.
The thing that impressed me most about the set-up was the truly amazing security of the Chetniks soldiers and peasants. The American airmen had been assembled from an area covering many thousands of square miles. Thousands of people knew of their presence in the area. They had been brought together at great risk and at a high cost by the Chetniks. Men had been tortured to death and villages destroyed, by the Germans in an effort to locate them. These poor suffering people, who had been deserted by the American and British governments, and who were under merciless attack from both the Germans and Tito’sPartisans, would have received more money than they could ever dream of earning in their entire lives by tipping off the Germans to the presence of the Americans. But in spite of all that, not one American was betrayed. Their sense of honor and secrecy for the welfare of their beloved Americans was so great that they never even discussed their presence among themselves. Without this heartshaking loyalty, our entire mission would have been fruitless, and not one airman would have had a chance to escape.
After assuring myself as to our defense situation, I next applied myself to the air-strip, which was by long odds our biggest problem. This strip—if you could call it that, was a small, narrow plateau well up in the mountains. It certainly didn’t look as if a plane could ever land and take off from it. The strip was only one hundred and fifty feet wide and approximately eighteen hundred long. There were woods on one side, and a sheer drop on the other. At one end of the strip were some large trees; at the opposite, a huge depression. Added to these nearly prohibitive limitations, was the fact that highmountain peaks were all around the strip at varying distances of a mile and a half to two miles.
I discussed the strip with the Air Corps officers and they were very skeptical of any planes being able to use it. By considerable work we could improve it and lengthen it by about seventy-five yards, which would give us the absolute minimum for C-47 operations. Immediately I asked the Chetniks for assistance, and three hundred laborers and sixty oxcarts were assigned to work on extending the strip. Stones and dirt were hauled from some nearby streams, and with every man pitching in, the strip was gradually improved.
I was still afraid that the 15th Air Force would not approve the strip, even with these improvements, so I dispatched Captain Brooks and Lt. Oliver to search for other possible fields. Another party made up of Lt. Kilpatrick and FO Barrett took off on a similar mission in another direction. Several days later both parties returned with reports of other fields, both better than our strip at Pranjane, but they were fourteen hours’ walking distance from our present location, and would also involve shifting our defenses very considerably. Because we did not think it practical to attempt to move our sick and wounded over such a distance, we decided to use the Pranjane strip.
On the night of August 5th our first supply drop came in. With it we received a large number of shoes, food, clothing and additional medical supplies. The arrival of these supplies improved our situation immensely. Many of the men had been barefoot for months, and their long walks through the mountains had their feet in terrible shape. Many of the Chetniks were in the same or worse condition, yet they wouldn’t take any of the clothing themselves. That’s the way they were about everything. Our hospital was able to help them, however, and it was pitiful to see their appreciation for thesmallest kindness when they were risking everything they had for us.
I was pushing the work on the airfield as fast as I could, because I realized that every hour’s delay made the danger of discovery by the Germans more likely. Finally, by the eighth of the month it looked as if the job would be finished the next day, so I had Jibby radio that we could start the evacuation the next night. Confirmation of my plans came through from base, and it looked as if the next night would be the big test.
Fortunately the weather on the ninth was perfect. It looked as if our luck was running good. I had requested six planes, and given orders for seventy-two airmen to be ready at the air-strip at ten p.m. We had issued numbers to everyone. The sick and wounded received the lowest numbers, and after that the priority was established on the length of time each man had been behind the lines. Some had been in Yugoslavia for over five months. We made no distinction between officers and enlisted men.
The number per plane was kept down to twelve because of the danger of taking off from such a short runway. Before I left, it had been settled that the incoming planes would be stripped down of all excess material and would carry half a gasload, little more than enough to complete the round trip. Even with these precautions and as anxious as they were to get back to Italy, many of the pilots doubted that it could be done.
Everything seemed in readiness late in the afternoon. Mike and Jibby were out at the airstrip completing the laying out of the flare pots which would mark the air-strip and the wind direction. At about six p.m. I was riding a horse out to the strip to make a final check on all arrangements when I heard plane engines.
The second I heard them, I knew they were German. I dived off my horse and took cover in a ditch by the side of the road, expecting to be strafed. But they paid no attention to me—they headed instead for our strip. There were three of them, flying in a loose formation—one a Stuka, one a JU-52 and the third marked with a red Red Cross. My heart was in my mouth; I watched them approach the strip; then to my horror, they buzzed it, circled around and headed back off in the direction of their own airfield.
Bitterly I got back on my horse and galloped out to the field. There were Mike and Jibby, and when I saw the look on their faces I knew that they shared my worst fears. The job must have been blown. Somehow the Germans had found out, and all our precarious preparations had come to naught at the very last minute.
Worst of all, in Italy the planes were probably already taking off, because they were due in about four hours. Even had we been able to contact our base by radio immediately, it would have been impossible to stop them because the message would never get to the airfield in time. There was nothing we could do but sit and wait for everything to blow up in our faces.
I looked over the field. Sheep and cattle were peacefully grazing over the air-strip—I had figured that would be a good cover for our activity. It was a lush pastoral scene that in a few hours might be the center of war. Some sign of our planes must have been visible to those planes. Had anyone tipped off the Germans? There was absolutely no way we could tell.
Jibby was afraid that the Germans had detected his radio, which had been in frequent communication with base arranging all the details of the evacuation. If they had made a fix on his set, maybe these planes had flown over to investigate the area. It seemed too coincidental that they had just happened to fly across our strip. Would the German night fighters be waiting for our unarmed and helpless C-47s when they came within a few hours? Were the nearby German troops getting set for an attack which would frustrate all our plans and lead to the capture or death of so many of these airmen who had been through so much, and were now so confident that I could get them outsafely?
I was nearly sick with frustration. To think that this had to happen at almost the last minute! More than my own personal feelings of disappointment, my tremendous responsibility for the lives of the two hundred fifty airmen and the crews of the incoming planes weighed heavily upon me. If our worse fears were realized, I would be to blame. From the beginning I had been largely responsible for the organization of Halyard Mission. It was the toughest spot I ever hope to be in, and I don’t mind telling you we started to pray—and boy, I mean we prayed!”
There didn’t seem to be another thing we could do. Fortunately, none of the airmen had been anywhere near the air-strip when the German planes buzzed it. At least they didn’t know about our fears, and the three of us decided not to tell them. There didn’t seem to be any point in getting them all in a sweat at the last minute, when there was nothing we could do about it; and if by some miracle things went off as planned, so much the better.
One check that I was able to make was on the nearest German garrison. Maybe if our plans were known to the enemy, there would be some sort of unusual activity in Gorni Milanovac. I knew that the Chetniks had a secret telephone line into that town to warn them if the Germans were sending patrols out after them. Immediately I asked for the latest report from this source. Word came back after some delay that the German situation in the town was normal. It was now getting on toward nine o’clock, and this slight assurance gave the three of us some encouragement, but wedidn’t stop our praying.
By ten o’clock the designated first seventy-two airmen assembled at the strip. I had a Chetnik soldier stationed at each flare, ready to light them up at my signal. The airmen were all in top spirits, but unfortunately we of the Halyard Mission were not able to share the exuberance. We waited there in the darkness for another hour and then in the distance we heard airplane engines. Everyone strained their ears and then the airmen began to cheer—
they sounded like American planes.
Jibby was standing by me with an Aldis lamp to blink the proper identification signal. As they circled over for the first time he blinked ‘Nan’ and to our great joy received the correct reply, ‘Xray.’ So far, so good—at least they had found us, and there had been no German interference. Now to get them down and off again. I gave the order to light up the ground fires, then shot up a green flare, our signal that the landings were to commence.
The first plane started down with his landing lights on and headed toward our strip. The airmen were cheering and shouting, but as the plane came in the noise died down. Everyone was holding his breath and more than a few were praying. Down and down he came, and then just before he put down his wheels, he gave it a gun and roared off, having overshot the field. The next plane, however, made a perfect landing and pulled in at the end of the strip. The rest of them were supposed to stay aloft until I had the strip cleared, but they disregarded our signals and kept comingright in. I was afraid that there would be a pile-up at the end of the strip and had some Chetniks and airmen wheel the first plane down into the sloping depression off to one side at the end. This was done just in time, because the wings of the next plane just passed over the top of this first one as it wheeled about to taxi to one side. It missed by inches, and I could see that these night landings were too dangerous. The slightest mix-up, and the whole show might be ruined.
Two of the planes brought additional medical supplies and equipment. In one of these was Captain Mitrani, a Fifteenth Air Force medical officer, and two medical technicians. In another plane was Lt. Nick A. Lalich of the OSS, who had come in to lend me a hand with the evacuation work. When Nick landed, he told me that there were only four planes instead of the six we had expected—two of the planes had developed engine trouble and had been forced to turn back. This was a great disappointment to twenty-four of the men, but I promised them that I would get them out the next morning.
Quickly we loaded up the planes, and it did my heart good to see the happiness of those men as they went aboard. Most of them stripped off their shoes and clothing and tossed them to the Chetniks. The pilots of the C-47’s, who were the best in the 60th Troop Carrier Command, were pretty worried about the take-off, but there was nothing for them to do but try it, as they couldn’t stay where they were. Naturally, I didn’t tell them my fears about German night fighters, but I did give them complete lists of all the airmen who were to be evacuated, and told them that I wanted the rest of the of the planes to come in the very first thing the nextmorning. My fear of German intervention and the many evident dangers of attempting further night evacuations led me to this decision, which I also put in writing for Colonel Kraigher.
All this took but a few minutes, and I soon had the planes loaded and set to take off. One pilot wanted to fill up his plane with a lot more, but I finally persuaded him that he would have his troubles getting off with the twelve men he had on board.
About twenty minutes after they landed, the first plane started down the strip to take off with its precious cargo. We were all pretty tense, but she took off nicely without a hitch. The rest followed, one of them brushing a tree in the process, but all got away safely. It was just about forty minutes after we heard the motors that we heard them die away in the distance as they headed back to Italy. The first part of our job had come off successfully. There had been no accident—no German interference. We all thanked God andprayed that the rest would go off as well.
Immediately I sent couriers to all the rest of the airmen ordering them to be at the air-strip no later than eight-o’clock the next morning. All the rest of the night Jibby kept busy at his radio trying to contact base to get confirmation for the arrival of the planes with fighter cover in the morning. His efforts were unsuccessful, but we went ahead with all the plans anyway, and just before 0800 on the morning of the tenth we heard a tremendous roar of engines in the distance. Our first thought was that it was another huge bombing mission to the routine Balkan targets, but as the planes came closer, a shout went up from some of the assembledairmen. They had recognized the unmistakable lines of six lovely C-47’s in the center of a swarm of fighters. Could this mighty show of air strength be the answer to our hurried plea of a few hours before?
The planes headed directly toward us, and the advance waves of the P-51s began stunting overhead. Now there could be no doubt about it—the whole show was just for us. To team Halyard, to the airmen, to the Chetnik soldiers and the Yugoslav peasants, it was the most inspiring sight we had ever experienced. The cheers were tremendous, and the show that those boys put on was deserving of the acclaim with which it was received.
Most of the twenty-five P-51’s broke off from the protective umbrella formation with which they had been covering the six transports and started a strafing sweep of all roads and German installations which we had pinpointed in the area. Another section gave the German airfield at Kraljevo, about twenty-five miles away, a thorough going-over, to give the impression that it was a normal air strike.
The C-47’s began to come in at five minute intervals. As each plane put down, we of the Halyard team sweated out every landing. The minute each plane taxied to a stop, it was surrounded by screaming women and girls, who showered the planes, their crews and the embarking Americans with garlands of flowers. The airmen going aboard were shouting boisterously and as each group of twenty entered their designated plane, they would peel off their shoes and most of their clothing, and toss it to the cheering Chetniks.
The pilots and crews of the evacuating planes were caught up with the excitement of the occasion. All of them wanted souvenirs—daggers, guns, Chetnik caps and opankas, the Serbian sandals made out of goatskin. None of them was in any hurry to leave, and I had trouble getting them to take off to clear the strip for other planes. Those pilots of the 60th Troop Carrier Command who took those planes in and out were the hottest flyers I have ever seen. Some of them even ground-looped in landing to slow up and stop before they reached the end of the strip. It seemed to me that most of them had more guts than brains, and I certainly hand it to them for the job they did.
While all this was happening on the ground, the P-51’s were putting on a breath-taking exhibition overhead. None of us on the Halyard team had much time to watch this demonstration, as we were directing the landings, loadings and take-offs—every one of which had us holding our breath; but in a few minutes we had the six planes off again and circling slowly to gain altitude. Slowly they formed into a clumsy V formation, and then, with their roaring fighter escort sweeping all around them, they dipped their wings in a final salute to their Chetnik friends and headed back to base and safety.
Just before nine-o’clock a second wave of twenty-five P-51s came over with another six transports. The whole happy performance was repeated—with one exception. One of the last planes disobeyed the instructions of Lt. Nick Lalich, who was acting as ground control officer, and got his left wheel stuck in some mud at one end of the strip. This could have been critical, for I knew that the fighters would have to leave in a very few minutes because of the limited gas supply. If the plane were left behind, it would surely be spotted by the Germans. While the rest of theplanes circled overhead, I hastily selected a ground crew of one hundred Serbs, and in twenty-minutes of hard work we had him dug out and on his way. Except for that slight mishap, the entire operation went off without a slip.
In two hours 241 Americans were taken off the ‘Missing in Action’ list. With the Americans went six British, four French, nine Italians, seven Yugoslavs and twelve Russians. Our total achievement for the night and the morning was 289 highly skilled Allied personnel. When the last plane had disappeared behind the mountains to the east, we of the Halyard team shook hands with each other. After all our danger and trouble, we relaxed for the first time in five weeks with that wonderful feeling of an important job well finished.
Later that same day we retreated ten miles into the mountains, because it didn’t seem possible that the whole operation could have escaped the attention of the Germans on the other side of the mountain only five miles away. Our OSS base wired us congratulations, as did the 15th Air Force; and we were particularly pleased to receive a unit citation from Lt. General Ira Eaker, ranking American airman in the Mediterranean theater. Our greatest satisfaction, however, came from the realization that we had accomplished the job we had set out to do.
That night five more Americans were brought into our mountain camp, and they were plenty mad when they realized that they had just missed a ride to safety. We spent several days away from the strip and then when the Germans made no move against it, we decided that the fighters had done such a good job of strafing that the enemy must have all dug in and our evacuation had escaped their observation.
For the next few weeks we kept collecting additional airmen whom the Chetniks would bring to us. We received several supply drops, and one night laid on a reception for another OSS team under the command of Lt. Col. Robert H. McDowell, whom I introduced to General Mihailovich with whom he was to operate.
By the end of August we had accumulated another large group of airmen, and on the nights of the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh we evacuated 58 more Americans—and two British officers who had been ‘captured’ by the Chetniks in an engagement with some Partisans. On this second flight, I was evacuated under orders from OSS headquarters to work with the Air Force in preparing new escape maps and proper briefing for American airmen who might be forced down in Chetnik territory. Jibilian, Rajacich and Lt. Lalich stayed behind to carry on the evacuation work of the Halyard Mission.
Our total for the whole month of August amounted to 383 Americans, and the work of the subsequent months carried out under Lt. Nick Lalich’s direction brought the grand total to 432 Americans and eighty Allied personnel. This work was considerably hampered by Tito’s forces, which finally drove the Chetniks from the Pranjane air-strip while they were awaiting another evacuation.”
Note: Lt. Musulin received the Legion of Merit for his leadership on Halyard Mission. Just before this issue of Blue Book went to press, statements of several hundred American Air Force officers and men who were rescued from the Germans by General Mihailovich’s Chetniks, and most of whom were evacuated by Musulin, have been submitted to the United States State Department as testimony on behalf of the Chetnik leader, who was then on trial for his life in Belgrade for having collaborated with the Germans.
“The Halyard Mission”
By Lt. Com. Richard M. Kelly, USNR
Blue Book Magazine, August, 1946 Vol. 83, No. 4