General Dragoljub Draza Mihailovich
THIS WAS GENERAL DRAZA MIHAILOVICH
There is no grave site. There is no marker for his remains. It is as if they wanted to remove him not just from the earth but from the history of his country and the consciousness of his people. But they failed. Nowhere is this more evident than in those hills of Serbia they call Ravna Gora. And it is in those Ravna Gora hills where the true soul and spirit of Serbia can still be found.
July 17th is an important day for those who knew who he was and what he did. His name may or may not be familiar to you, but he may have been as important a figure in history as those whose names are imprinted in the national consciousness. He was Yugoslavia's General Draza Mihailovich, a Serb, whose life was taken from him on July 17, 1946. He was only 53 years old. He didn't die during the war, killed in battle. Instead, his life would end in the time of peace. He was a true hero, and he may have been one of the last of his kind in a part of the world that so desperately needs people like him today. As a child growing up very far away from where he made his mark, I came to know who he was in a very personal way.
Draza Mihailovich was born at the end of April 1893 in the small town of Ivanjica in the western part of the Kingdom of Serbia. He became an orphan as a young child, losing both his mother and father by the time he was only seven years old, and would be raised in Belgrade by close relatives. Through his uncles Draza developed an early love for the military and it would soon become his life. He excelled at the Military Academy and was groomed to become an officer. His fate would be sealed by virtue of the timing of his birth. His destiny was to become a participant in war after war, beginning with the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, then WWI (1914-1918), and finally WWII (1941-1945) during which he attained the rank of "General" and his name and cause became known all over the world. To this day he remains among the most decorated military officers in history. General Mihailovich was the kind of officer any man would be proud to serve under.
He was a true believer in the ideals of freedom and democracy and wanted those ideals to be the hallmark of his beloved Serbia. He was not a political man, and this would prove to be both his great virtue and his undoing. He knew and understood his people and was loyal to both them and to the democratic Western Allies in whom he believed. When the Nazis attacked and occupied Yugoslavia in April of 1941 and her government and army surrendered, making Yugoslavia yet another in the long line of Hitler's successful conquests in Europe, Draza Mihailovich opted not to surrender, but to resist. With him he took less than 100 men into the hills of Ravna Gora, Serbia in early May of 1941 and began a successful guerrilla resistance that would be the first of its kind in all of Nazi-occupied Europe in WWII.
Mihailovich made his position clear to the Germans. When the Germans attempted an armistice, he was unequivocal: "As long as a single enemy soldier remains on our soil, we shall continue to fight...Our fighting spirit is based on the traditions of a love for liberty and our unflinching faith in the victory of our Allies."
The Germans did not capitulate or evacuate. Mihailovich was good to his word. Severe and cruel Nazi reprisals began against the innocent Serbian civilian population in order to stop the resistance. The Nazi order issued in September of 1941 was unequivocal: For every one German soldier killed, 100 Serbian civilians were to pay with their lives. For every one German wounded, 50 Serbian civilians would pay the ultimate price. Because he was a compassionate man who loved his people, Mihailovich was compelled to alter his means of fighting the enemy in order to spare the lives of the innocents. He and his fighters would prove very adept at the sabotage campaigns that were crippling to the Nazi war machine.
Mihailovich's resistance to the Nazi forces that had attacked and occupied his homeland would have far-reaching implications for the outcome of the entire war. The Allies, bigger and stronger than he and his guerrilla fighters would come to owe much of the success of the Allied campaign against Hitler to Draza Mihailovich and his Chetniks.
The most tangible legacy of the resistance initiated in Serbia by General Mihailovich and his Chetniks in May of 1941 against Hitler's war machine was this: Hitler would be forced to keep several of his divisions in Yugoslavia just to fight the guerrilla resistance that had by now grown in number and foiled his plans for an easy conquest of Serbia. The ultimate consequence of this would prove fatal for the German Army.
Because Hitler was forced to keep several of his divisions in Serbia, his plan for the invasion of Moscow (Operation Barbarossa) was delayed for several weeks in the spring of 1941. The delay proved to be critical. By the time the German forces were within reach of Moscow, the brutal Russian winter had set in, and that was a force the Nazis could not overcome. Had the German forces not been delayed by the Mihailovich resistance in Yugoslavia, Moscow may well have fallen and the course of history would have been much different. Do the historians highlight or even talk about this very significant aspect of WWII? No, not yet, and that is what needs to change.
As pivotal as this delay caused by the resistance was, in the eyes of those whose lives General Mihailovich and his Chetniks affected directly, a feat was later accomplished that was even more significant.
During the course of the Allied bombing campaigns of the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, Hitler's primary supply of oil in the summer of 1944, hundreds of Allied airmen were shot down over Yugoslavia by the Germans. Over 700 of these airmen, more than 500 of them Americans, would end up on Serbian territory, but behind enemy lines, because it was occupied by the Germans. These Allied airmen would be rescued and protected and 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 safely to their homes and their families as a result of a series of evacuations from August through December of 1944 now known as "The Halyard Mission" 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 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. Today, there are many Americans among us, both young and old, who owe their lives to this man.
The most significant aspect of these rescues was that General Mihailovich evacuated these hundreds of Allied airmen after the Allies had betrayed and abandoned him. For me, that will always be the measure of this man who personified honor in the flesh.
General Mihailovich would turn out to be a very 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, the Yugoslav Partisans with Marshal Tito as their leader, against whom Mihailovich and his Chetniks had fought as hard as they had fought against the Nazis, would prevail. In one of the worst cases of judicial travesty and miscarriages of justice, Mihailovich, after being captured by the Yugoslav communists, was tried by a kangaroo court in Belgrade on fabricated charges of collaboration with the enemy, declared "guilty" on July 15th, sentenced to death with no appeal, and executed by the communists on July 17, 1946. Though they valiantly insisted on being present at the trial and being allowed to give their testimonies as witnesses, not a single Allied airman who had been saved by General Mihailovich was allowed in that courtroom. I can only imagine the pain in their hearts when they heard the news that their living, breathing hero had become a martyr.
Two years after General Mihailovich's death, U.S. President Harry Truman, under the advisement of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, posthumously awarded Mihailovich the Legion of Merit in the rank of Commander-in-Chief, the highest combat award America 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
Unfortunately, this award would be instantly classified and remained so for 20 years. Why, you ask? Imagine how uncomfortable it would be to explain why your country was awarding a medal of such distinction to a man it had abandoned in war.
I learned about this man, Mihailovich, as a child growing up in my home in Chicagoland, far, far away from Serbia. 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, Rade Rebic. It would be through my own steps up the steep, snowy paths of the legendary 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, and his legacy has prevailed over death.
It is wonderful to know that in this modern age so many of us, both young and old, are committed to doing what we can to honor this legacy and keep it vibrant and alive. All Americans and freedom loving people need to come to know who this man was as well as the nature of his cause.
General Mihailovich did huge things much of the world doesn't even know about. He was a good man, a virtuous and honorable military officer, and a patriot who was willing to sacrifice himself for his people, his homeland, and the noble ideals he believed in. He was a decent human being - one of the few truly good guys in the badness that is war.
Happy Birthday General Mihailovich. Your life and your work were not in vain. Even if one day it is found, no gravesite can hold you, for your spirit and your legacy are eternal.
April 27, 2020
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