New York Daily News
May 29, 2012
George Vujnovich helped save the lives of 512 airmen in 1944
The late George Vujnovich, of Jackson Heights, Queens, seen here after he was awarded the Bronze Star in October 2010. Vujnovich is credited with leading a mission to rescue 512 U.S. airmen shot down over Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia — the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines in any war.
A Queens man who coordinated the largest air rescue behind enemy lines in American combat history has been posthumously inducted into the state Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame.
George Vujnovich, a retired small business owner from Jackson Heights, was awarded the Bronze Star in 2010, 66 years after the conducting the rescue. He died in late April at the age of 96, shortly after state Sen. Jose Peralta informed him of the induction.
His daughter Xenia Wilkinson said she was proud to accept the distinction on her father’s behalf.
New York State Senate
State Sen. Jose Peralta presents a certificate of induction into the state Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame on May 22 to Xenia Wilkinson, whose late father George Vujnovich received the Bronze Star in 2010 for conducting the largest air rescue in American combat history.
When Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) reached out to Vujnovich’s family about his induction, he had already fallen ill, and would not have been able to make the Albany ceremony on May 22.
The 1944 rescue mission, organized by CIA precursor OSS, resulted in the rescue of 512 U.S. airmen in what was then Yugoslavia. It was kept under wraps by the federal government for over 50 years.
Still, Wilkinson said her father was thrilled to have the mission recognized before he died.
“That he was able to survive long enough to get that honor and to be able to talk to the press was just unbelievable,” she said.
One of the airmen rescued in the operation recalled a telegram he received form a bike messenger after abandoning his plane and enduring a 15-day foot trek through Yugoslavia.
“We were dancing in the streets when we heard we were being saved,” said Tony Orsini, 89, of Iselin, N.J. “When we got back, there was George to welcome us back with a big grin on his face.”
Orsini said the two men kept in touch over the years. Wilkinson said Orsini was one of the last people to speak to her father before his death.
Vujnovich’s choice as a nominee was obvious, Peralta said.
After a tip from Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), who presented Vujnovich with the Bronze Star in 2010, Peralta said it became clear Vujnovich “had an outstanding history that would be very interesting to read.”
Vujnovich was one of 54 veterans inducted at this year’s ceremony.
Among them was fellow Queens resident and Bronze Star recipient Jerry Kril, who was recognized for his service during the Vietnam War and his contributions to the Astoria community.
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