GREAT GENERAL DRAZA MIHAILOVICH
ON AMERICA'S MEMORIAL DAY
Taking to the Ravna Gora hills of Serbia 75 years ago in May of 1941 with only a handful of men to mount the first real resistance to Hitler's occupying forces in Europe was impressive. The guts it took and the resolve necessary for these men and their leader to initiate such a courageous act against the Nazi war machine that in 1941 appeared to be invincible seems almost inconceivable now. But it was real, and the magnificence of it has withstood the test of time to remain one of those pivotal moments in history when men stood up against monsters and said, 'No, you will not win.'
For many years now, I've been sharing the story of General Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik freedom fighters, and my father has been telling it for much longer than that. It's a story that begs to be told. It's the story of a distinguished Serbian military man who led the first real resistance in occupied Europe against Adolf Hitler during World War II and who, for the duration of WWII, remained true to the fight for freedom for his people and his nation. It is the story of a Serbian leader who was and remained a loyal ally of the great democracies despite the terrible betrayal that would be perpetrated against him. It is the story of a man who in his short lifetime of 53 years became a martyr and a legend who has been gone for 70 years now and for whom there is still no gravesite in his homeland.
The story of his mortal lifetime came to an end on July 17, 1946 when after a phony communist trial in Belgrade General Mihailovich was mercilessly executed. No remains were to be found or properly buried so that there is a marker in Serbia signifying the existence of a man who lived and died for the honor and survival of the people and country he loved, as well as for the success of the Allied cause he remained faithful to until the end of his life.
That day in July a new story began, the story of his immortal legacy, and it has been going strong for 70 years. That is the story of making sure that the legacy of General Mihailovich is made known for what it truly was and that the historical record properly and honestly reflects that legacy. That is the story that continues to be told as we reach the 75th anniversary of the Third Serbian Uprising and the 70th anniversary of the General's passing in 2016.
For these 70 years since his death those who have known and understood the value of character exemplified by General Mihailovich, in his actions against the enemy and his faithfulness toward his people and the WWII Allies, have kept his memory and legacy alive throughout the world. I've known many of those people personally through the years, and though many of them are gone now I'll not forget their passion and dedication to keeping this legacy alive. No one truly dies unless they are forgotten, and all of us who appreciate just how great a man General Mihailovich was and what made him a truly heroic figure in history must never allow him to be forgotten. Now that so many of those who lived that history and who fought alongside him are gone, it is up to us who have come after them and who know their story to keep that legacy alive. We must. We owe it to them, and most of all, to him.
Each one of us who knows the history of World War Two and appreciates the role that General Mihailovich played in that history has our own thoughts about what made him great. Mounting the resistance against the Nazis in the Spring of 1941 and maintaining it despite the terrible German reprisals and the overwhelming obstacles and pressures that the Yugoslav communists and the Allies burdened him with, as he fought to remain true to the cause, is paramount. However, for me, there is something else that stands out and has become an even stronger indicator of who he was and why he is deserving of the honor and recognition that is bestowed upon true heroes. It's that thing that makes me proud to be a member of the same nationality and ethnic background as he was.
General Mihailovich remained a faithful ally. The Allies did not remain faithful to him. Over a period of time, as he struggled to maintain the fight for freedom in his homeland and at the same time remain a worthy and loyal ally of the great democracies, he would be betrayed and abandoned by those who had promised assistance but who would leave him to the wolves that would ultimately take his life. Even as he watched the betrayal unfold and came to know that he had been abandoned by the Allies, he remained loyal to their cause, but not only that. He remained loyal to them.
Even after the betrayal was complete, and he was left on his own against the Nazis and the Communists, General Mihailovich and his people would perform acts that were beyond honorable and that almost defy the imagination considering how self-less and forgiving those acts were.
Many Allied military personnel, most of them Americans, found themselves stranded in the Nazi occupied parts of Yugoslavia in 1944 after the Allied leaders had turned their backs on Draza and his Serbian people. General Mihailovich could have left them to the wolves in retaliation, but he did not. Instead, throughout 1944, he oversaw and enabled the evacuations of hundreds of Allied personnel, Army Air Force airmen who had been shot down by the Nazis and who had landed by fate on Serbian territory that was occupied by the enemy. All of the evacuations were successful. Not one man was captured. Not one man was left behind at the mercy of the enemy. All were fed, housed, protected, and evacuated to safety to return to their homes and families and to go on with their lives. They all lived to tell stories about the war and about the man who had saved them. Many of them would spend the rest of their lives dedicated to telling this story and fighting for official recognition of the man who had made their survival possible. Many of them would have children and grandchildren who would not be alive today had it not been for General Mihailovich and his Chetnik freedom fighters and the Serbian people loyal to them.
The fact that General Mihailovich had several options is what never ceases to amaze me, and what lies at the heart of his story are the honorable choices that he made. He could have turned his back, justifiably so, but he didn't. He did the honorable thing, that unselfish thing, that reflects a "sacredness of obligation" which only true men of character, men of greatness, carry within them no matter what the circumstances are. General Mihailovich was a Christian. I can only hope that when God saw all that the General did that He was pleased.
Through the years I have had the privilege of coming to know personally some of those WWII veterans that are part of this great story, both Allied and Serbian, and to call them my friends. I never grew tired of their story. And now that so many are gone, it's up to us to keep telling that story. We must. That is our sacred obligation.
Progress has been made. Serbia has begun to slowly officially recognize the worthy legacy of the son whom she shunned for too long. The Legion of Merit Medal awarded to General Mihailovich posthumously and secretly by the United States in 1948 finally made it home in 2005, where it belongs. Though the old organizations established years ago continue their remembrances and celebrations of his life, new organizations have been established in his memory. Many throughout the world share the legacy via modern social media such as Facebook. Last year, in May of 2015, after a long, arduous legal process initiated in 2006 by Serbian patriots in the homeland, General Mihailovich was officially "rehabilitated" - a verdict that dismissed the original sham of the "guilty conviction" of 1946. There have been more examples of progress, and there will continue to be more progress in the process of vindication.
As the old guys pass on, and with them their memories, it's up to us survivors to continue maintaining the goal of securing for General Mihailovich the official recognition and place in history that he deserves. They did all the hard work. It's up to us to make sure that it was not in vain.
My father has never given up. For 70 years he has remained faithful to the cause that he fought for as a young man, a kid really, and has never wavered. His passion has been passed on to me, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know the Mihailovich story and to be part of carrying on his legacy. It's in my blood now. I'm confident that all of us who share that same passion will maintain the same faithfulness to the cause that our fathers and grandfathers did.
I know the day will come when General Mihailovich is given his proper due and his rightful place in history is permanently established with all the honor that he deserves. He was and remains a true soldier, an honorable leader, a faithful ally, and ultimately a decent human being who never turned his back on the sacredness of his obligations. That, by any measure, is what makes a man a great man.
It is this kind of greatness that makes General Mihailovich a man I wish I had known, and a man that can never be forgotten. He was, and remains, an inspiration, and I thank God for making this great man a Serb.
Memorial Day May 2016
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org