BY MATT MANNING • Staff writer • March 23, 2010
Arthur Jibilian in 2009 / News-Messenger Photo
FREMONT -- A local war hero and lone surviving member of 1944's Operation Halyard has died.
Art Jibilian, 86, has been battling leukemia since July 2008. He died Sunday afternoon.
Jibilian, a radio operator, was nominated for the military's highest honor for his actions during five months in 1944, helping to rescue hundreds of people from a German-occupied area in Serbia.
Jibilian was one of three Office of Strategic Services agents who parachuted into central Serbia in August 1944 to rescue what he thought was 50 downed airmen.
"We didn't find 50," Jibilian would later say. "We found 250."
Over the next six months, Jibilian constructed a landing strip and coordinated evacuation flights and medical help at night as the people in the Serbian village housed and protected the soldiers under the leadership of Drazha Mihailovich -- leader of the Royal Yugoslav Army.
His daughter, Debi Jibilian, said the family plans an event Saturday in Fremont, though funeral plans have not been set.
"It's going to be a celebration of his life," Debi Jibilian said. "This is his home, and this is where it'll be."
Debi said her father lived for 18 months after doctors said he had two weeks left.
Instead of battling for his life, he fought to clear the name of a man who helped save him and his fellow colleagues in the mission -- Drazha Mihailovich. Jibilian revisited Serbia on several occasions, speaking to crowds and praising Mihailovich, who had been labeled as a "collaborator" with Nazis and was executed.
The mission was documented in Gregory A. Freeman's 2007 book, "The Forgotten 500."
"With the passing of Arthur Jibilian, our country has lost a true American hero," Freeman wrote in a statement to The News-Messenger. "Arthur's brave work in rescuing downed American airmen in World War II must never be forgotten, and I am honored to have known him.
"He was the quintessential American hero -- humble, modest, quietly proud, but ferocious in seeking justice."
Jibilian was set to received the Golden Deeds Award on April 17 from the Exchange Club of Fremont.
He received a congressional honor for his duty in 2008 from U.S. Rep. Bob Latta. Latta on Monday gave a speech on the floor of Congress to honor Jibilian.
"They have yet to receive a military/government recognition for their actions," Latta said. "I will continue to work on this legislation to honor this exceptional American with the recognition he deserves."
Freeman said "The Forgotten 500" has been optioned for a motion picture by Dana Maksimovich, who co-produced Oscar winner "Crash" and "In the Valley of Elah."
"We're excited about the prospects of seeing 'The Forgotten 500,' on the big screen," Freeman said.
Jibilian also was a strong supporter of making a major film about the WWII story.
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