Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The greatest rescue you’ve never heard of - Commemorating the 75th anniversary of Operation Halyard / "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" Nov. 24, 2019

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 24, 2019
Milana "Mim" Bizic

The greatest rescue you’ve never heard of - Commemorating the 75th anniversary of Operation Halyard

Though scarcely noted in the United States, Sept. 15 [2019] marked the 75th anniversary of the rescue of more than 500 U.S. and Allied airmen from behind German-occupied lines in Pranjani, Serbia, orchestrated by Yugoslav Army Gen. Draza Mihailovich and his Serbian Chetniks, as well as loyal villagers.

A military ceremony, held jointly by U.S. and Serbian Chetnik forces, occurs on Sept. 6, 1944, in Pranjani, Serbia. (Photo: Public Domain)

The airlift operation, the largest such rescue in American history at the time, was conceived in response to the failures of Operation Tidal Wave, a 1943 air attack on the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. The refineries there were critical to the German war machine. But the raid was costly for U.S. forces, as 53 planes and 660 airmen were lost. Others, with limping airplanes, tried to make it back to an Allied base in Italy. Many of these weakened planes were subsequently shot down over Nazi-occupied Serbia.
The Serbs, however, loyal to America in both World War I and World War II, found the downed airmen and worked to hide them for months, offering them beds and food when such commodities were in short supply. During that time, Milhailovich collaborated with American forces, including the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. 15th Air Force and even the famed Tuskegee Airmen, to concoct the daring airlift, allowing the saved airmen to return home to loved ones and raise families.
But the heroic event, known as Operation Halyard, was, for geopolitical reasons, covered up for many years. One of the greatest rescues in our history was hidden and forgotten.
After the war, Mihailovich, a royalist Chetnik, was arrested by the forces of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito. Mihailovich was tried and convicted of high treason and war crimes, and later executed. Hundreds of American pilots were willing to testify in his defense, but they were not allowed. Many tried to share their accounts in the newspapers but, in the years since, the events of Operation Halyard and the heroics of those involved have largely been forgotten in the United States.
Personal connections
For several years, I have tried to travel to Pranjani, Serbia, for commemorations of the Halyard mission. For me, the operation carries much personal significance.
I learned about Operation Halyard when I was just 7 years old. My father, Milan Karlo, had published a diary of OSS Capt. Nick Lalich, which documented the mission. Meanwhile, George Vujnovich, one of the central heroes of the event, as detailed in Gregory Freeman’s book “The Forgotten 500,” grew up right across the street from my father on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
As a child, I loved comic book characters like Superman, but these people were my real-life heroes, average Americans who played important roles in saving the lives of others.
Over the years, I was also fortunate to meet many of the rescued airmen. Among them were Dick Felman, Clare Musgrove, Curtis (Bud) Diles, Milton Friend and Moon Township’s Carl Walpusk.
With the 75th anniversary looming this past September, I reached out to Valerie Gaydos, my state representative. Only a few weeks before the event, I had read an interview with Ms. Gaydos in which she identified “The Forgotten 500” as her favorite book. She told the interviewer that she was intrigued not only by the rescue itself, but also by the many Pittsburgh connections.
I called her and told her about the upcoming commemoration of the mission’s 75th anniversary. I asked if she’d like to go and, to immense joy, she agreed. We had less than three weeks to plan, yet we managed to raise thousands of dollars for the Halyard Mission Foundation, which aims to increase awareness and education of the event. And, before long, we were off to Serbia.
Touching down
Our arrival in Belgrade was something of a family reunion for me, as I met with relatives whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Without much care for our rest, we hurried off to catch as many sights as possible. This included a visit to the University of Belgrade library, where the Halyard Mission Foundation held a reception highlighting many awe-inspiring photographs taken during the rescue. (Interestingly, the library is one of only three in Europe that Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie funded after World War I.) Members of the U.S. Air Force Band were on hand to perform both Serbian and American tunes.
The next morning, we left in two vans for Pranjani, our final destination. Our travel party was an eclectic mix of family, academics, military personnel, press and people with connections to the Halyard mission. Among the group was Ted Byfield, son of rescued airman Floyd Byfield. Ted proudly wore a replica of his father’s jacket everywhere we went.
As we traveled down the highways, passing thick, dense forests, I couldn’t help but note to my fellow passengers, “No wonder they could hide those airmen! Who could find them in these Sumadija woods?”
Along the way, we stopped at the Jevtovic Bed and Breakfast in Sremski Karlovci. There we met up with several more people traveling to the event, including family members of the late Charlie Davis, a bombardier who was rescued and taken in by Manojle Jevtovic and his family, forging a lifelong friendship in the process.
Support and sacrifice
We arrived at the Pranjani airfield the next morning, around 9:30. It was both odd and thrilling to hear the Serbian military band practicing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd began to fill out and, at 10:00 a.m., Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic arrived and the ceremonies officially began.
Beautiful wreath-laying ceremonies took place, followed by remarks from the dignitaries present in recognition of both the partnership between the U.S. and Serbia, and the sacrifices and support the Serbian people made for the Allied airmen. During Operation Halyard, over 8,000 Serbian Chetniks (Serbian citizen soldiers of the Homeland) surrounded the area around Pranjani, protecting the airmen from German patrols. “Instead of being killed by German patrols,” explains U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kirk Smith, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, “the airmen received a hero’s welcome from brave Serbian families.”
John Cappello, founder and president of the Halyard Mission Foundation, noted that the operation would not have been possible without the “selfless support of the Serbian people, who cared for the aviators and built a runway to make the rescue possible.”
Mr. Vucic began his remarks by noting that the event brought the U.S. and Serbia much closer to each other. “We speak about the heroic moves from Serbian ordinary people and American, Canadian and British pilots in 1944. We succeeded in making terrific links between our two nations and I hope that we will be able to renew and revive this friendship.”
His remarks were echoed by Kyle Scott, then-U.S. ambassador to Serbia, who told the crowd, “Operation Halyard is an example of how ordinary people can rise to greatness, of what can be accomplished when we commit to goals which are greater than ourselves.”
But lessons about the importance of the event came off-stage, as well. I was pleased to meet with Miodrag Nikitovich, who was only 13 years old when two U.S. pilots came to stay in his family’s house. Mr. Nikitovich, a fine soul, gladly shared stories with me and others about the experience.
Proper remembrance

Afterward, we proceeded to the Church of the Holy Ascension in Pranjani for a memorial service served by Father Vojislav Rasilovic, who is an avid Steelers fan. And then it was on to the Ivo Andric School. Ms. Gaydos and I presented our gift to the Halyard Mission Foundation. And, during a lovely reception, we were afforded the opportunity to meet the great-grandson of Gen. Mihailovich.
At that reception, however, came the most poignant moment of the trip: The children and grandchildren of the Serbian rescuers, whose parents and grandparents had been viciously persecuted by Tito’s regime, received awards on their families’ behalf to commemorate their involvement in the rescue. It was with the greatest pleasure that I heard these “traitors” now deservedly described as heroes.
My dream of honoring the Halyard mission and celebrating those who had made it happen had come true. Efforts to educate the public about this critical event have a ways to go here in the United States, but it will be essential to remember and commemorate the sacrifice and heroism of those involved, who risked their lives to save so many.

Milana “Mim” Bizic is a writer and educator living in Moon. She was named Person of the Year by the Serb National Federation in 2008.


If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at ravnagora@hotmail.com


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