Friday, July 17, 2009

Day Two - The Conclusion of "The Forgotten 500 Reunion - Operation Halyard Remembered - Lest we Forget" Michigan June 2009

For 'Day One', please see posting of July 4, 2009 which follows this posting of 'Day Two'

The Forgotten 500 Reunion / ‘Operation Halyard’ Remembered


Michigan, June 17th and 18th, 2009

Part 2 of 2

Day Two - The Conclusion

by Aleksandra Rebic

“To brighten the future, we must illuminate the past.”

The operating principle of ‘Lest we Forget’

As I hit the road on Thursday, June 18th, to attend “Day Two” of the ‘Forgotten 500 Reunion’ at the Park Inn in St. Joseph, Michigan, I thought of the day before and was convinced it couldn’t get any better. But I was wrong. It could and it did.

This would be the day I would finally have the opportunity to meet Greg Freeman, author of ‘The Forgotten 500’, with whom I’d been corresponding for two years. I’d also have the opportunity to see my friend Slavko Panovich, the President of Serbian National Defense, who I hadn’t seen for a long while and who was driving in for the day’s events from Chicago. It was a beautiful day in southwest Michigan, and I would once again be in the company of wonderful people who had done great, important things and made immeasurable contributions to the way of life we were blessed with in America. It would turn out to be one of those singular days in one’s lifetime that leaves a permanent impression and fills the heart with good memories and illumination.

As I walked into the meeting room at the Park Inn, I had made it on time to hear the presentation given by Alexander Jefferson, a black man, a Tuskegee airman, a true blue fighter pilot, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and as I listened to his story there in the room full of Serbs and Americans, I quickly realized how fortunate we were to have this opportunity.

Alexander Jefferson-P-51 Fighter Pilot with the Red Tail Squadron WWII

Mr. Jefferson was a great story teller and we were all transported back in time to get an idea of what it was like to be a ‘colored’ man in WWII and a prisoner of war of the Germans.

Rich Ziebart of ‘Lest we Forget’ described him this way:

“Alexander Jefferson LTC USAF (Ret.) was a P-51 Fighter Pilot with the all Black Fighter "Red Tail" Squadron. They flew fighter protection for many of the Bomber Squadrons that eventually were forced to bail out over Yugoslavia after their mission. They were a very famous group of Pilots that also did not get the credit they deserved. Alexander was shot down and captured by the Germans and became a Prisoner of War.”

Don Alsbro, President of ‘Lest we Forget’ paid this tribute to Mr. Jefferson:

“Alexander has a very interesting story. He was a Tuskegee pilot (not just an airman but a pilot). It was a very elite group of aviators and Alexander flew out of the same Italian airbases that the Operation Halyard men flew out of. Several of his missions were to the Ploesti oil fields so he was very interested in talking to the Operation Halyard group. Alexander flew P-51's fighters and his job was to escort the bombers to their targets. They escorted bombers to targets in France, Germany, Rumania, Yugoslavia, etc. On Alexander's 19th mission he was shot down in France and spent 9 months as a German POW. His book "Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free" is a story of his military experiences.”

(Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free, Fordham University Press, 2005)

Alexander Jefferson and 'Lest we Forget' president Don Alsbro


Next to speak would be Robert “Bob” Heft, a man I had also never heard of, but should have. Considering how much I love the image of the American flag, not just for what it symbolizes and the patriotism it evokes, but as an image itself - how aesthetically beautiful the American flag truly is as a piece of art. Well, that day, I was to learn a bit more about the American Flag from the very man who had designed it!!

We all had the pleasure of hearing him tell his story about how he designed our beloved American flag as part of a ‘high school class assignment’ when he was only 17 years old. That was 1958, and he received a 'B-' for his 12 ½ hour effort. Other students, he told us, who had spent “5 minutes” on their projects received 'A’s'. Well, he wasn’t gong to just accept that 'B-' and let his teacher know just how he felt. His teacher issued the following challenge to the 17 year old boy: ‘Get it accepted in Washington, D.C., and I’ll see about changing your grade.’

Well, get his 50 star flag accepted in Washington, D.C. the young Bob Heft did indeed, and two years later, on July 4, 1960, his flag would be the first American flag raised over the nation, and he found himself sitting on the podium with the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower. Someone prodded the young man to say something to the president, and Bob Heft turned to Mr. Eisenhower and asked the only question he could think of at this grand moment in his young life:

“So, how do you like your job?”

We all laughed. I couldn’t get over it. Here was the man who had designed the longest serving flag in American history. This was an image I cherished, and I’d never once considered that someone out there had to have designed it. Here he was, in this room, with us. What a gift.

American Flag designer Robert 'Bob' Heft


Next up would be another great storyteller, this time, a U.S. Marine who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his outstanding heroism in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. His name was Hershel Woodrow Williams, and he would first tell the story of one of the men in the famous photograph the world knows so well, the young man putting the flag pole in the ground on Iwo Jima as six heroes raised the American flag over Japanese territory on February 23rd, 1945. After telling the story of Harlan Block, Mr. Williams told his own story of a singular day in his life. His measured tone mesmerized us as he shared the following:

“The day after the President put the medal around my neck – there were 11 marines that received the Medal of Honor that day and 2 navy corporals - 13 of us who received the medal – the next morning I had to show up before the Commandant of the Marine Corps. In World War II, the Commandant of the Marine Corp. was just one step below Jesus Christ. All of us were scared to death. Most of what he said to us that day I don’t remember because I was so frightened. But when he said, ‘That medal does not belong to you,’ he got my attention. I had the flashing thought I was going to lose it. Then, he went on to say, ‘It belongs to all those marines who did not get to come home.’

So when I wear the Medal of Honor, which I will tonight, I do not wear it for what I did. I wear it in honor of the 2 marines, who that afternoon of February 23rd, 1945, gave their lives to protect me. When I wear it, I don’t wear it in my honor. I wear it in their honor. They earned it for me.”

Hershel W. Williams

Three outstanding Americans. What an incredible honor it was to be in their company that day. Then, it was time to remember ‘Operation Halyard.’


Don Alsbro introduced Desko Nikitovic, the Consul General of the Respublic of Serbia, who was in the room and who had also driven in from Chicago to share in the remembrance. Then, it was time for us all to finally meet the man who’d written the story that we were all eager to hear: Mr. Gregory Freeman, author of ‘The Forgotten 500’.

Mr. Freeman is introduced and warmly and humbly addressed us all:

“Thank you very much for inviting me here. It’s a real pleasure to be among people who understand the story of the Forgotten 500 and understand the significance of what that story means in terms of remembering our veterans and their sacrifices and our long alliance with the Serbian community as well.

A lot of people ask me about how I came to write this story, The Forgotten 500, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about how I came to write the book…I’ll be speaking again tonight at Lake Michigan College.

I came across the story initially about 10 years ago, just accidentally, and at that time the whole region {former Yugoslavia} was embroiled in a lot of controversy and I knew if I wrote the book then, the story would inevitably get wrapped up in that whole controversy and debate, and I didn’t want that because I knew the story itself, about Operation Halyard and what happened in 1944, was an important story in and of itself, regardless of anything that’s happened before or afterwards in the Balkans.

So, I put the project off for a few years and came back to it later, and at that point, I started contacting as many people as I could that were involved in the story and got in touch with great folks like George Vujnovich in New York, Clare Musgrove, Bob Wilson, and all these great people who were personally involved who could tell me first hand what happened. Then there was a great deal of research in terms of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, a lot of military records that hadn’t been seen in a long time, to try to piece together the story of not only the rescue itself, but why over so many years nobody had really heard too much about it, and that was what I really found most fascinating as I was working on the story. The rescue itself is a dramatic, incredible rescue, but the fact that it had gone largely unnoticed for 60 years or so was what really got my attention. Understanding that was a little bit of a challenge, but I eventually came to understand how the State Department works – what their priorities are sometimes – and how sometimes the rest of us don’t think they make a lot of sense.

I was really happy to be able to bring this story to the forefront and get some attention for this important event – this important chapter in history – and to help make sure that the people involved – what they did for this country – both the Americans, the OSS agents, the fliers themselves, the Serbians who were so vital to this – are never forgotten again.

So it’s been a wonderful experience getting to know everyone and I’m really happy to be here and to be able to meet so many of you personally. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of you. I’ll be visiting Serbia in July with Desko Nikitovic.”

Mr. Freeman informs us that ‘The Forgotten 500’ is being translated into the Serbian language and issued in Serbia. Freeman, who has never been to Serbia, concluded by saying:

“I’m really looking forward to that – we’re going in July to Belgrade and Pranjani where the rescue took place.”

He then opened the floor to comments and questions.

'The Forgotten 500' author, Gregory Freeman

I raised my hand and when he called on me, I introduced myself to him as ‘the Aleksandra’ who had written a review of his book in 2007 and with whom he had been corresponding with over the years. I spoke up to thank him.

“Mr. Freeman, I wanted to say ‘Thank You’, on behalf of the American airmen, yes, but also on behalf of our people, the Serbs. You knew that it would be tough going and what was at stake, you did it anyway, and you did it beautifully. You honored not just the Americans, but our people, the Serbs, with ‘The Forgotten 500’ , so I wanted to say ‘Thank You’ on behalf of the Serbian people whom you honored by writing this book.”

Though I got very choked up, I got through it. And Mr. Freeman was most gracious. His comments in response were especially significant, and I’m glad he followed up my brief tribute with the following statement:

“You know, one of the interesting things I should point out is that I’ve come to know the Serbian people so much after writing this book, and I’ve loved getting to know these people who are so warm and so wonderful. But the interesting point is that I did not set out to write a book to make the Serbs look good. I did not set out saying ‘Okay, Serbs have had a lot of bad press – I’m going to write a book that makes them look good’ or anything like that. The fact is, I just set out to write the true story of what happened at ‘Operation Halyard’. I’m a journalist. I write objectively. I write the facts, and quite frankly, if the Serbs had looked bad in the story, I would have written that. As it turned out, in this window of time, in 1944, the Serbs made a wonderful contribution to the American people and I’m glad to bring that to light.”

Halyard veteran, OSS radioman Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian, then asked the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds ever since ‘The Forgotten 500’ came out in 2007:

“When’s the movie going to be made of the Forgotten 500?”

Freeman, who has become very familiar with this question, smiled knowingly and replied:

“We don’t know exactly – there’s a lot of talk about it. I’ve been approached by a lot of people who definitely see the movie potential there and want to make a movie. I could have said ‘yes’ a long time ago to any number of people, but I’ve held off for a long time, wanting to make sure it’s in the right hands – someone who can really do a nice job with this story. It’s an important story to a lot of people for a lot of reasons, and I want to make sure it’s in good hands. There are reasons to be very optimistic about that!

Thank you. I look forward to seeing you again this evening.”


I couldn’t help but think about the time factor. It remains left unsaid, but when the film finally does make it to the big screen, so many of those who would have been so thrilled may no longer be with us.


A lively “Social Hour” followed these presentations, during which I had the privilege of meeting Kosta “Ken” Pavichevich from Chicago, and Dana Maksimovich from Los Angeles, who I would learn was the Associate Producer of the Oscar winning film “Crash”! I would learn that her parents, Tomislav and Olga Maksimovich, lived in the Chicago area, and that her father was the president of the local chapter of Serbian National Defense. I wasn’t only impressed with her beauty for she is a lovely young woman, but her unassuming, friendly and warm demeanor was delightful to behold. She is truly someone the Serbian community can be proud to call their own!

I was also able to spend a bit of time with American airman Robert Wilson, from Peoria, Illinois and was amazed that he looked no older than he had since the last time I had seen him in Chicago, 15 years before for the 50th Anniversary celebration of the “Halyard Mission”.

At the banquet dinner that followed, I had the fortune of sharing a table with Slavko Panovich, Dana Maksimovich, Desko Nikitovic, Dan Mandich, Kosta Pavichevich, and Slobodan Matich. The dinner, which had been prepared by Nancy Lundgren, daughter of William F. Ernst of the 417th Night Fighter Squadron, was delicious. Even better than the dinner and lively conversation and festive atmosphere we all enjoyed in that room full of Serbs and Americans, were the simple, quiet ceremonies that took place. Alexander Jefferson led us in “The Pledge of Allegiance”. Clare Musgrove gave the ‘Invocation’, reminding us that all our blessings come from God and thanking Him for this wonderful opportunity for us all to be together for this important commemoration. He also announced the resurrection of the campaign to have a memorial established in Washington, D.C. to honor General Draza Mihailovich.

From left to right: Desko Nikitovic, Dana Maksimovich,
Aleksandra Rebic and Greg Freeman

Dana Maksimovich and Kosta 'Ken' Pavichevich

From left to right: Dana Maksimovich, SND President Slavko Panovich,
and Aleksandra Rebic

Dan Mandich holding WWII photos of his father

Ken Pavichevich and Alexander Jefferson

Hershel Williams (left) and Slavko Panovich

Seated center, Robert 'Bob' Wilson, U.S. airman rescued
by the Serbs in WWII, and his wife.

JoAnne Musulin de la Riva, daughter of
Halyard Mission commanding officer George Musulin

Slobodan Matic, a Serb who hid, fed and protected
several American airmen in 1944 in Serbia.

Desko Nikitovic and Dana Maksimovich

American airman and Forgotten 500 Reunion organizer Clare Musgrove
gives the invocation before dinner.

Serbian "shubara" with the Serbian patriotic chetnik symbol, the 'kokarda'.


After the dinner we all left for the Mendel Center at Lake Michigan College, a lovely campus in Benton Harbor, Michigan. It was a perfect summer evening, and it was so gratifying watching all the people entering the auditorium.

After we speakers for the evening got settled on the main stage, Alexander Jefferson of the Tuskeegee Airmen lead us all in the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ as a single spotlight illuminated the American flag at the side of the stage. Hershel Williams lead us all in prayer.

This, I thought, was the way it should always be. These are the traditions so many of us miss in these ‘modern’ times. These are the foundations we need so desperately in this day and age.

The Mendel Center at Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, Michigan

OSS Radioman, Arthur 'Jibby' Jibilian

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.’”

Desko Nikitovic

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:

Greg Freeman

"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:

''General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory."

March 29, 1948. Harry S. Truman

I learned about this man, Draza Mihailovich, growing up in my home. I cannot remember a time in my life that I did not know of him. I became familiar with his kind, warm face and the truly glorious things he did under impossible conditions through my father. It would be through my own steps up the steep, snowy paths of the Ravna Gora hills in Serbia in February of 1995, the same hills in which he had first begun his great resistance, that I would come to appreciate the honorable things that General Mihailovich did first hand. No, there is no grave site yet in Serbia, but there in those hills, his spirit is everywhere.
We who will never forget him are committed to doing what we can to promote the legacy of a hero we believe in and that all Americans and freedom loving people should know about. It is our hope that, through the efforts of those who are dedicated to honoring the Mihailovich legacy, his name will finally garner the attention it deserves and that the true story of who he was and what he did sees the light.

General Mihailovich did huge things much of the world doesn't even know about. He was a good man. A virtuous military man and a patriot who was willing to sacrifice himself for his people and the ideals he believed in. A decent human being - one of the few truly good guys in the badness that is war.”


It is truly conceivable now that the desires expressed in the sentiments above are getting closer and closer to coming to fruition as a result of books like ‘The Forgotten 500’.

Kosta “Ken” Pavichevich, in his presentation, would describe how the British were primarily responsible for the way in which General Mihailovich was ultimately betrayed and how millions of people were doomed to live under the cloak of Communism due to arbitrary political expediency.

Ken Pavichevich

Slavko Panovich, President of The Serbian National Defense Council of America spoke with the same articulate passion that has always been so impressive, however, this time his message resonated even stronger. He and his organization, Serbian National Defense, had initiated an unprecedented challenge to the Serbian nation that had woken people up after more than 60 long years. In March of this year, he offered the reward of 100,000 American dollars to the person or persons who were successful in finding the grave of General Draza Mihailovich. This single challenge initiated a tremendous series of events in Serbia that are proceeding along as I write this. Long classified archives were opened, stories and photos that had not been heretofore published are now seeing the light of day in virtually every Serbian newspaper, and the search for the remains of the great General is on with a vengeance. Only those people who know the extent to which Yugoslavia and Serbia had kept General Mihailovich a ‘persona non grata’ in his own homeland can fully appreciate the magnitude of this initiative.

My heart tells me that it will not be long now until the time comes when the remains of the great Serbian leader are found and he will be given the proper burial that he deserves, with a gravesite that pays proper tribute to the contributions he made to his homeland and to the Allied cause. That will indeed be a glorious day for Serbia and for all of us who know just how important and deserving General Mihailovich was then, and remains now.

Slavko Panovich also directly addressed the airmen on the stage with him that night:

“Whenever I see you,” he said warmly, “I’m proud to be in your presence because to the last breath of your life, you are telling the truth.

Serbian National Defense President, Slavko Panovich

Dan Mandich of ‘The Organization of Serbian Chetniks Ravne Gore’ also paid tribute to the airmen and to the Chetniks who had saved them. Like me, he could not help getting choked up several times during the course of his presentation. It is impossible, you see, to know of these things as intimately as us children of Chetniks do and not feel it in our gut every time we speak of them. We cannot help it.

Dan Mandich

Clare Musgrove, one of the few remaining living American airmen, the man responsible for initiating this wonderful ‘Forgotten 500 Reunion’ as part of the ‘Lest we Forget’ 2009 commemoration, read us the letter that was going out, along with the signed petition, describing the newly resurrected initiative to have a monument erected and dedicated to General Draza Mihailovich in Washington, D.C., an effort that that had first been initiated many decades ago. Perhaps this time, God willing, it will succeed.

U.S. airman Clare Musgrove

That evening at Lake Michigan College on June 18th, 2009 ended with Raymond of the ‘Night Fighters’, Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian the OSS radioman of ‘Operation Halyard’, and Robert Wilson, one of the last surviving American airmen who had been rescued, sitting in the middle of the stage, in the spotlight, taking questions from the audience.

Jibilian spoke directly to us Serbs who were there that night:

“Go back to your fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and give them a big hug for the Forgotten 500, because we owe them.”

Well, Arthur, maybe so, maybe so. But we Serbs owe you, and all those like you, who never forgot, who always remained grateful and appreciative, and who never stopped fighting the good fight.

Left to right: Raymond of the Night Fighters Squadron,
Arthur Jibilian, and Robert Wilson.

The last person to address the audience was JoAnne Musulin de la Riva, daughter of the late George “Guv” Musulin, commanding officer of the “Halyard Mission”. She was escorted onto the stage by Clare Musgrove, and shared this with all of us:

“I’m very honored to represent my father on this occasion. He died 20 years ago and I know he would have been very proud and very happy to be here and personally share his experiences. You all, by reading ‘The Forgotten 500’, will read about his efforts with regards to General Mihailovich. Like Mihailovich, he was awarded the “Legion of Merit”. Following his service in Germany he joined the CIA. He did not speak of his adventures in Yugoslavia, but when he did reunite with his colleagues and friends in the Serbian community, we all got to hear the very exciting stories, and I personally think that because of his job in the CIA, he was not really permitted to participate in these reunions and he never returned to Yugoslavia. He died in 1987 and he and my mother are both buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I think that our family was always aware of the treasure that we had, but it isn’t until participating in these reunions that we realized how far reaching my father’s role was and how his and everyone else’s role impacted on so many lives and the lives of their families. When I asked myself ‘Why come here today?’ it’s really to thank all of you for the sacrifices you made for all of us to be able to live in our wonderful country.”

Center - Clare Musgrove with JoAnne Musulin de la Riva

As the evening ended and we all mingled in the lobby, friends greeting friends, strangers sharing stories with strangers, everyone enriched and illuminated as a result of what they had heard and been a part of here, a woman approached me. She was an American. She asked me if ‘he’ was my grandfather.

I was thrown by the question, not sure who she was referring to – perhaps Jibby?

Who?” I asked.

The General. General Mihailovich.”

She was serious and sincere.

I stammered “Oh no – we are not related.

She seemed genuinely surprised.

Oh – the heartfelt way you spoke of him, it just seemed like he was your grandfather.”

I still smile when I think about this memory. I always smile when I think of that ‘Lest we Forget’ event in Michigan in June of 2009 and my heart remains full. I will never forget those two days. They will remain singular moments in a lifetime of good memories. Everything about the ‘Lest we Forget – Forgotten 500 Reunion” event was wonderful. Absolutely everything. But if I had to choose the one thing above all others that was most significant, most gratifying, it would have to be this:

Serbs and Americans together - together in mutual respect and admiration - appreciating one another and just being the natural Allies that they should always be and forever remain.

Hershel Williams and Arthur Jibilian

I asked a few of the folks who were fortunate enough to be witness to this wonderful occasion for their impressions and this is what they shared:

Dana Maksimovich, Associate Producer of “Crash”, the Oscar winning film for ‘Best Picture of the Year’ at the 2006 Academy Awards, daughter of Tomislav and Olga Maksimovich of Chicago, IL:

“’The Lest we Forget – Forgotten 500’ event was a wonderful event. I was very honored to meet the airmen. It was a great experience.”


Vera Dragisich, Secretary of ‘The Movement of Serbian Chetniks Ravne Gore’:

“It was truly a heartwarming experience to listen to the American airmen, Clare Musgrove, Arthur Jibilian and Bob Wilson, who were saved by Draza and his Chetniks tell their stories of how much the Chetniks and the Serbian peasants sacrificed in order to keep them safe until they could be airlifted out of Yugoslavia. It was also nice to see individual Serbs come out and attend the reunion. It was a true pleasure to meet JoAnne Musulin de la Riva, the daughter of a true Serbian and Serbian-American hero, George Musulin, who played a major role in Operation Halyard. Lastly, those of us Serbs who cherish the memory of our Cicha Draza and who pray daily that his heroic actions during WWII receive the recognition that has been so unjustly denied to him, his Cetniks and the Serbian people, due to communism and misguided Western policies, owe a debt of gratitude to Gregory Freeman, who wrote ‘The Forgotten 500’, for getting this story out in the open at this time.”


JoAnne Musulin de la Riva:

“The one point I wish I could have made is that my Dad loved this country, and defended it with all his might, but he also cherished his Serbian heritage. If he was not able to be more active during his career in the campaign to vindicate Gen. Mihailovich, he dedicated his energies to founding, with a handful of other American Serbs, the St. Luke Serbian Orthodox Church in Washington, DC in 1960. After he retired from government service he testified several times on Capitol Hill on behalf of Gen. Mihailovich. But alas, the political winds of the time deafened the ears of those who could initiate action to correct the worst political missteps of the War.”


Should anyone question whether these stories are to be believed, I have the following anecdote. It’s a perfectly valid and understandable question, for after all, how many people do we know that would allow complete strangers into their homes, especially at a time of war, when feeding and sheltering and protecting them could put our homes and our lives at great risk.

I had one of those “singular” days in a lifetime, that you remember forever, on February 9th of 1995. That was the day when I went up into the hills of Ravna Gora in Serbia with three men as my companions. The four of us made our way into the hills by car for a while. This was no easy task for it was winter in Serbia and there was snow on the ground. These were not nice “paved roads” built for tourist traffic that took you into those hills. So how we made it up there safely and soundly is a miracle in and of itself. After a while, we parked the car on the side of the road and continued walking uphill on foot from there. There, in those legendary hills, where General Draza Mihailovich and a small group of Chetniks had begun the first true resistance to the Nazi enemy in all of occupied Europe, we reveled away that wonderful winter afternoon, walking around with only hills and sky all around us and no sign of humanity or civilization anywhere the eye could see, and singing ‘Sprempte se Sprempte, Chetnici’ and other Serbian patriotic songs at the top of our lungs!

My goal was to find and visit Pranjani, the village that had contained the ‘Halyard Mission’ airstrip, that same afternoon, but to no avail. At that time, Pranjani was not found on any of the maps, and there were certainly no ‘national landmark’ road signs to lead us there. After returning back down to earth off of Ravna Gora, we ended up in the village of ‘Ba’, the village where General Mihailovich’s special Saint Sava Congress was held in January of 1944. This had been a significant and important conference, founded on grand and noble ideals. More than three hundred delegates came from all parts of Yugoslavia and represented a broad spectrum of political opinion and ethnic and national interests within the country. Plans were made for the future political make-up of Yugoslavia once the war was over. It was planned that ‘Democracy’ and democratic principles would prevail, once the occupier had been vanquished.

This was a simple Serbian village then, and it remained so now. The Schoolhouse where the conference was held was still standing which made me very happy. An old man was herding goats nearby. Another man was sitting on his front step with a cat lying quietly on his lap. Both looked curiously at us strangers who had descended upon their little village.

A quintessential Serbian peasant approached us. This was the real thing. And here we were, three adult men from the city, and one foreigner, an American woman who was carrying a Sony camcorder and her Nikon camera.

After we all greeted each other and explained that we had just been on Ravna Gora and that we were “Chetniks”, he invited us into his home, the four of us who he’d never seen before in his life, and introduced us to his wife, who immediately offered us food and drink, without any hesitation! Here was that legendary Serbian hospitality, that graciousness, that incredible thing that always strikes people as being so amazing when they encounter it among the Serbs.

It was a small and humble home. From what we could see, it comprised just a small kitchen and one main room that contained a long table and the beds. There was a Christmas Oak branch in the corner, the ‘Badnjak’ which integral to the Serbian Christian Orthodox Christmas tradition, and an Christian icon on the wall with the votive candle lit, the flame casting dancing shadows against the wall. There was the single photo of a young man, and we learned that it was their only son whom they had lost.

These two lovely people, these Serbian peasants in this remote village in Serbia on a crisp winter late afternoon, opened their home and their hearts to us. We talked about General Mihailovich and the current, ongoing war that had torn Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. Though I was a foreigner, an American, I was treated like family. I still remember their faces and their warmth. How gracious they were to us, we who were complete strangers, who’d arrived with no invitation.

We stayed and visited for a while. Then we had to go, for we still had to make it back to Belgrade, and night would be falling soon.

As we were saying ‘Good-Bye’, the man and woman seemed sad, as though they wished we would stay a while longer. I never saw them again. But I will continue to see them in my heart every time I think of Serbia and the gracious Serbian people.

It all seemed so natural that day. Now, though, every time I think about that day, I am incredulous. Incredulous that I actually walked on the same grounds General Mihailovich and his resistance forces walked on… Incredulous that I was welcomed into that home in the village of Ba and treated like a welcome guest even though I was a stranger from the foreign, far-away land of America.

So, do I believe the stories the ‘Forgotten 500’ have been telling all these years about how the Serbs treated them, sheltered them, fed them, and protected them until they were able, every single last one of them, to get back home to America, I can honestly say I don’t just ‘believe’ the stories. I know, unequivocally, for a fact, that they are true.

The Schoolhouse in the Village of Ba, in Serbia 1995

The Village of Ba in Serbia, February 1995

With a full heart, I wish to thank everyone involved with the ‘Lest we Forget’ organization for being so instrumental in keeping “Patriotism” alive and for reaching out to the Serbs and Americans involved in “Operation Halyard” and inviting us to be part of your wonderful remembrance of the sacrifices and contributions America’s veterans have made over the years. With a full heart, I wish to thank Gregory Freeman for writing “The Forgotten 500”, a book that will live on long after all of us are gone, and, with a full heart, I wish to thank all the Serbs and all the Americans who have been part of the “Halyard” story, one way or another, and who have understood just how important it is to remain steadfast Allies, regardless of the political winds that come our way. I have made friends over the years that I will cherish forever. Many have passed on, and I will miss them always.

To all the veterans from every war, from every corner of the land, that I had the privilege of meeting during those two days in Michigan in June, and all those that I did not:

‘Thank You for your Service.’

And, my dear friend Arthur, a special note to you:

I know you have been haunted by one all-consuming concern over the years:

I wonder,” you have said, “if General Mihailovich ever knew how desperately we were trying to help him.

Well, Arthur, my friend, you can rest easy, for I firmly believe that if he didn’t know then, he surely knows now. And he is as grateful to you as you are to him.

It is July 17th, 2009. This is the day that the life of General Draza Mihailovich ended, taken from him. As I complete this essay, this tribute really, I am abundantly grateful for the legacy he left us. They could not take his soul. They could not destroy his spirit. His legacy remains as strong and as true as his moral certitude was that day in May of 1941 when he refused to surrender and took to the hills of Ravna Gora in Serbia, lighting the flame of the fight for freedom that continues to inspire all of us who understand its value.

I issued myself a challenge – to come up with one single word to describe how those events of June 17th and 18th, 2009 at the “Forgotten 500 - Lest we Forget - Reunion” in Michigan have left me feeling. That was indeed a challenge, so I was surprised that it came to me so quickly.

How fortunate I am to be Serbian. How fortunate I am to be the daughter of a Chetnik freedom fighter. How fortunate I am to have been born and raised and to live in America. How privileged and honored I am to have known the people I have met through the years. “Rich” is how those events made me feel. “Rich” is how they will always make me feel.

Wealthy beyond measure.

Long live General Mihailovich.
Long live Serbia.
And May God Bless America.

Dedicated to all those Serbian men, women and children who fed, sheltered and protected the Americans who fell in their midst in 1944. Because of them, every single one of those Americans who had fallen behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia survived the war to return back home.

Aleksandra Rebic
July 17, 2009


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