Robert Heft walks to the podium
Serbia’s Consul General Desko Nikitovic rose to the podium.
“In my view,” said Nikitovic, “‘The Forgotten 500’ provides the last missing piece of the puzzle in WWII. I particularly like the first line in the book that says ‘One of the last untold stories of World War II is also one of the greatest.’”
He went on to tell the audience that Serbia and the United States established good diplomatic relations over a century ago and that he hoped these good relations would continue always, and that as time goes on the truth would come out about why the story of ‘Operation Halyard’ was buried for so long. He then introduced the featured speaker of the evening, Mr. Gregory Freeman who gave the following poignant and beautiful presentation:
"When I hear from high school students who tell me they never really knew what Grandpa did during the war but now they realize what he did – those are the moments that really remind me of the impact that a book can have…
One of the greatest things about writing non-fiction is being able to immerse yourself in the lives of others. You get a glimpse of the events that other people have lived through. I feel privileged when they open up so I always appreciate the fact that people are sharing things with me that they really don’t have to – things that are often painful to relive.
One of the more memorable interviews for this ‘Forgotten 500’ project was when I sat down with 92 year old George Vujnovich in New York. When I met him I already knew enough about him to be impressed with the life he had led, but I was about to learn a lot more. He was the leader of the OSS operation – the one who organized ‘Halyard’ – in Bari, Italy. That’s what I wanted to learn about – how he planned it. That’s what I had originally come to talk to him about, but he told me so much more. He told me about the local girl from Yugoslavia (Mirjana) he had fallen in love with and how that eventually tied in directly to the whole rescue of the airmen. His wife ended up playing a pivotal role in getting the airmen rescued, and it’s also a beautiful love story…
…The men who walk among us have a story. It’s easy to look at them and never realize what they’ve been going through. I think it’s important for activities like ‘Lest we Forget’ and books like this to make sure the public gets to know what people experienced and what they contributed…
‘The Forgotten 500’ tells one of these stories – the story of the airmen downed in Yugoslavia and the OSS agents who rescued them, and it tells the story of the Serbian leader Draza Mihailovich.
Mihailovich will never be forgotten by the families who saw their loved ones come home, only because he risked his life to save them. With every man I spoke to during the research of this book, the regret over not being able to save Draza Mihailovich was palpable. Even after so many years, they expressed so many strong emotions. These men would get angry, get sad, get so worked up just thinking about what Mihailovich had done for them and how our country couldn’t help him. They’re still upset about not being able to stop the execution of this leader who had sheltered them from the Nazis.
In these moments I could see the 18, 19, 20 year old young man – I could see the fire in their eyes as they relived the experiences from 1944. It was impressive how fiercely they’d held onto the stories the rest of the world had forgotten.
I have long held great admiration for WWII veterans and what they accomplished – some of them with well-deserved glory and so many with little true recognition of what they did. And through my work on the ‘Forgotten 500’ I’ve also gained respect for the Serbian people as I came to know more about the amazing and inspiring story of ‘Operation Halyard’.
More than 500 U.S. airmen were rescued in WWII, along with some from other countries - all right under the noses of the Nazis. The mission was a complete success, the kind that you’d expect to be trumpeted in news reels and splashed across the ‘Front Pages’, but it wasn’t.
It’s a little known episode that began with one initial rescue in August of 1944 and was followed by a series of additional rescues in the following months. American agents with the OSS, which was the precursor of the CIA, worked with the Serbian leader Draza Mihailovich, to carry out the huge ultra-secret rescue mission. ‘The Forgotten 500’ weaves together the tales of about a dozen of the airmen involved and the OSS agents who rescued them.
The airmen were shot down over Yugoslavia during the Ploesti (Romanian oil fields) bombing raids and found themselves having to bail out over the hills of Yugoslavia. They realized they were bailing out over a country they knew very little about. They’d been given, what turned out to be, some bad information about the people on the ground waiting for them. Much to their surprise they found out that the local Serbian population wanted to help them. The Serbian villagers appreciated what the American airmen were doing…they were willing to risk their lives to save the Americans. Still, the American airmen didn’t know what their fate would be. Though they were well treated by the Serbs, they didn’t know if they would ever get back home.
When the OSS agents in Italy heard about these stranded airmen, partly through George Vujnovich’s wife, Mirjana, they began planning an elaborate and previously unheard of rescue. The Americans would send a fleet of C-47 cargo planes to land in the hills of Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines, and pluck out hundreds of airmen. It was audacious and risky beyond belief, but that was the only way to get those men out of Nazi territory.
The list of challenges and potential problems was just never-ending. The airmen themselves had to evade capture and that was a challenge. They had to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any tools and without the Germans finding out. And the planes had to make it in and out without being shot down…
This is a story that has changed my view of the Serbs. Before I began to research this story, I was probably the average American in this regard – with no particular ties to Serbia, I knew nothing of Mihailovich, I had never heard of ‘Operation Halyard’, and I only really knew the recent history of Serbia.
But rather than being a handicap, that lack of familiarity actually proved useful to my storytelling. I can tell the story to the average reader, who also knows nothing of these things, and explain it to them in the same way I came to understand it.
My lack of ties to the Serbian community also let me tell the story honestly. Nobody can say I gave the story a good spin for the Serbian community because of my heritage. I don’t have any connection like that.
The story plays out in such a way that the Serbian people, who really haven’t received much good press in recent years, are definitely the good guys, deserving of some long overdue recognition of what they did for the American people in WWII.
That conclusion, that portrayal of the Serbian people as wonderfully caring and giving and gracious, just came about organically as a result of studying the facts, learning what actually happened, listening to the passionate stories of the men who were there.
I hear almost daily from people who have been touched by this story, people who had never heard of Mihailovich or ‘Operation Halyard’, as well as those who were intimately involved and are gratified to see the story finally come to light.
Sometimes, I ask why the American people showed so little interest in this story after the war. Some did fight for Mihailovich as he was put on trial. The surviving airmen certainly did their very best to get some measure of justice for him, but there was very little they could do in the end.
As for modern day Americans, I really think most people just really don’t know what they don’t know about history…but there is hope for the truth. People who have respect for humanity – they can be touched by the personal stories of others regardless of ethnic origins or political viewpoints. The key is to tell the story in such a way as to highlight individual human beings, and that’s what I tried to do in ‘The Forgotten 500.’ This story is about the individual airman, the individual OSS agents…and that’s what really connected with people. This is not just a story about politics and governments, but about individual human beings helping one another, risking their lives for those who were willing to risk theirs.
Now, in telling the story of Mihailovich and ‘Operation Halyard’ my task was to tell the story in such a way that the average reader - not only Serbs, not only veterans, not only people with a particular interest in military history - would find interesting. It’s such an incredible story, this story of ‘Operation Halyard’, that it wasn’t as hard as it sounds. The reader learns so much while reading this fascinating story, this emotional drama about the airmen – once people start reading, they realize it’s more than just an exciting tale. They realize that an important part of American history was intentionally hidden from them for many years. It’s a pleasure to shed some light on this story that’s been kept hidden for so long…
That will conclude my comments on ‘The Forgotten 500’ tonight , and I would just like to say that it is truly an honor to be here. Thank you.”
…Applause from the audience and from those on the stage…
I was so pleased with Greg Freeman’s genuine, sincere, and thoughtful presentation. He was everything that I hoped he would be, and I’m thankful that it was he who took it upon himself to tell the story of ‘Operation Halyard’.
As the evening continued, George Vujnovich, the OSS leader of ‘Operation Halyard’, who turned 94 this year, was shown on the big screen, dressed in a suit. He spoke to us in his clear, warm voice, expressing his regret at not being able to be there with us, but assuring us that he was there in spirit.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it because of my advanced age…Have a wonderful celebration. Remember the men that flew with you, remember the Serbians that helped you, remember Draza Mihailovich and his troops. I know you will…”
A genuinely nice man, still sharp, still well spoken, George Vujnovich is someone I’m so proud to know.
Due to the efforts of Daniel Christy in California, I had the privilege of being included among the speakers that evening. I chose to tell the story of who General Draza Mihailovich was. Some in the audience knew his story well, while for others he was a stranger. My goal was to introduce him to those who did not know him while at the same time pay tribute to him as the great military officer he was and the great man that he was – a man whose moral certitude and dedication to honorable moral and ethical principles in a time of war deserve to be forever glorified. He was one of those people who did the right thing no matter what, and for that alone, he was a true hero.
Throughout the years, two things had struck me above all others: The first was that Draza Mihailovich had insisted on the caretaking and saving of hundreds of Allied airmen in his beloved homeland AFTER he had been abandoned and betrayed by the Allies. The second was that following his criminal execution by the Yugoslav communists on July 17th, 1946, there has never been a gravesite found or established in all of Serbia for this man who had fought so valiantly for Serbia and who had refused to leave even when offered to do so in order to save him from his fate.
“…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,” I told the audience, “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: