Journey to Serbia: Remembering the Halyard Mission

Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson at Pranjani, Serbia September 2014
Photo: Olga Caric
Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson at Pranjani, Serbia September 2014 Photo: Olga Caric

Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson at Pranjani, Serbia September 2014
Photo: Olga Caric

Aleksandra’s Note: I had the privilege of knowing this gentle soul, O.S.S. Agent Major George Mane Vujnovich, personally, and as is typical of truly great men, he was kind, always humble, and beloved and respected by family, friends, and all those who knew of the great things he did in World War II. He was the leader in Bari, Italy of the Halyard Mission Rescue Operation that saved over 500 American airmen from behind enemy lines in the Nazi-occupied Serbian lands in the former Yugoslavia.

George Vujnovich, an American Serb, was born on this day, May 31, in 1915 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and died at the age of 96 on April 24, 2012, in Jackson Heights, New York, a year and half after having received the Bronze Star in 2010. His personal life story is well-documented in the 2007 book “The Forgotten 500” by Gregory Freeman.

Today I highlight the visit of his beloved daughter Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson to Serbia for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Halyard Mission. She made this journey on behalf of her father and his memory in September of 2014, and has shared her memoir with me, along with photographs taken of the events by her cousin, Olga Caric. The photographs are posted in random order.

Many thanks to Xenia Wilkinson for sharing her moving memoir of this special commemoration of a great, historic event that has lived on in the hearts and minds of all who appreciate what General Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik forces did for the Americans in the difficult days of 1944.

Happy 100th birthday, George Vujnovich. You and your legacy have not been, and never will be, forgotten.

Memory eternal.

Sincerely,
Aleksandra Rebic
May 31, 2015

Halyard 70th Anniversary Serbia Sept. 2014

Halyard 70th Anniversary Serbia Sept. 2014

By Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson
When my friend, John Cappello, told me that he and his partners in Serbia were organizing a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the rescue of over 500 US airmen who parachuted behind enemy lines in Serbia during World War II, I decided that I should attend to represent my late father, George Vujnovich.  On September 22, I traveled to the region where General Draza Mihailovich’s resistance forces and local farmers saved hundreds of American airmen from capture by Nazi forces in occupied Yugoslavia.

The OSS Halyard Mission of 1944 was an integral part of my family’s life.  I grew up with stories about the downed American airmen, the great Serbian resistance leader, General Draza Mihailovich, the OSS team that organized the rescue and evacuation of the airmen, including my father, our gallant friend Captain Nick Lalich, the courageous Captain George Musulin and so many others.  The memories came flooding back as I flew from my home in Washington, D.C. to Serbia.  I reread “The Forgotten 500” by Gregory Freeman on the plane to review the amazing stories of the participants in the Halyard Mission.

My father attended the first commemoration in Serbia of the Halyard Mission in 2004. The commemoration was sponsored by then Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.  Following the revolution for democracy of 2000, Serbia was finally able to commemorate the rescue of the U.S. airmen by the forces of General Mihailovich, who was tried and executed by the communist government in 1946.

Having lost my father in 2012, I decided that it was my turn to represent him at a ceremony that meant so much to him.  My husband and daughter were not able to travel to Serbia with me, but Olga Caric, my accomplished young cousin from Novi Sad, agreed to join me at the commemorations and act as my interpreter.

Arriving in Belgrade, I had dinner with Michael Djordjevic, the founder of the Serbian Unity Congress, and his charming wife Marie, who had arrived from San Francisco.  They agreed to change their schedule and attend the commemorations in Pranjani – the site of the 1944 evacuations of the American airmen from a clandestine airfield.

My cousin Olga arrived from Novi Sad and we traveled south by van to Pranjani.  With us was an American family from Virginia – the Hudspeths, including the daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter of one of the rescued U.S. aviators.  Charles Davis was the navigator of a bomber plane that was shot down in 1944 during a bombing mission to the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania.  After parachuting into Yugoslavia, Davis was rescued by Serbian resistance forces and sheltered by a local farmer in the Pranjani area.  Barbara Davis Hudspeth, her husband Bob, and her daughter Vicky never forgot the sacrifices made by Charles Davis’s Serbian rescuers – the Jevtovic family – and they have maintained a friendship with them that has spanned three generations.

As we entered the mountainous region of southern Serbia that was held by General Mihailovich’s resistance forces, we traveled back in time, observing forests and valleys dotted with small farms and villages, graced by simple wooden Serbian Orthodox churches. The landscape lent itself to guerrilla warfare and the local population actively supported Mihailovich’s resistance forces, although they were suffering from severe wartime shortages of the most basic necessities. German forces occupied the cities and towns in the vicinity.

After driving through dizzying hairpin twists and turns, we arrived at the Jevtovic ranch near Pranjani.  Our host, Zoran Jevtovic, greeted us warmly, and offered us the traditional slivovitz (plum brandy), although it was still morning. The ranch is on a plateau overlooking a lovely green valley. Zoran is a successful banker whose labor of love is the family ranch, which he has expanded and remodeled while maintaining its traditional rural Serbian style.

On a living room wall were photos of Charles Davis’s three-generation family taken many years ago, and showed Vicky Hudspeth as a little girl. The photos were especially poignant because we learned from Zoran that Tito’s Partisans killed his grandfather when they occupied Pranjani several weeks after the Halyard Mission evacuated the American airmen.  Other local farmers who had sheltered U.S. airmen met the same fate.  The bitter civil war between loyalist and communist resistance forces to decide the postwar future of Yugoslavia took many lives of our allies.  Charles Davis and his family never forgot the sacrifice of the brave people who sheltered them behind enemy lines despite terrible risks to themselves.

It was time to leave for Pranjani – just three kilometers down the road.  As we entered the town, it seemed that the entire population came out to greet us – schoolchildren, older people, and local officials.  We gathered at the secret airfield, where the C-47s had landed in 1944 to evacuate more than 500 airmen.  At the site, I realized how much work it must have required to clear the huge field.  Local farmers, Serbian resistance forces, and American airmen worked together with their bare hands and a few simple farm tools to make this piece of land into a clandestine airfield.

On the grassy Galovica meadow – the site of the wartime airfield – two black marble plaques, one in Serbian and the other in English, commemorate the Halyard Mission. The plaques were placed in the airfield ten years ago by Vuk Draskovic and representatives of the American Embassy.  Charles Davis, Clare Musgrove, Arthur Jibilian, and my father, George Vujnovich, attended that ceremony.  These four veterans have since died and the few surviving rescued US airmen are in their 90’s and seldom travel.

But they still remember.  Rescued airman Tony Orsini told me just before I traveled to Serbia that General Mihailovich and my father are his heroes and sent a message that he will be with us in spirit at the commemorations in Pranjani.

Officials who spoke at the commemoration ceremony included Professor Oliver Antic, adviser to President Tomislav Nikolic; Gordon Duguid, Deputy Chief of Mission of the American Embassy; and Aleksandar Vlajkovic, Foreign Ministry liaison with the Diaspora.  Professor Antic quoted the citation that accompanied the Legion of Merit, which President Harry Truman posthumously awarded to General Mihailovich in 1948.  In addition to commending Mihailovich for the rescue of the US airmen, the citation states that “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.”  It was only after communist rule ended that the contributions of General Mihailovich and his resistance forces to the Allied cause have become subjects for open discussion in Serbia.

After a wreath-laying ceremony, I was interviewed by the Serbian press.  My cousin and interpreter, Olga Caric, did an outstanding job, as my Serbian is too rusty for press interviews.  I explained that I traveled to Pranjani to represent my father and other members of the OSS Halyard Mission – all of whom have died.  They never forgot about the Halyard Mission and transmitted their stories to their descendants.  I told them about veteran airman Curtis Diles who died earlier in September, and was buried with both the American and Serbian flags and a spoonful of earth from the Pranjani airfield.  His children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who attended his funeral will not forget.

The press especially liked the story (told in “The Forgotten 500” by Gregory Freeman) of the cows that saved the secret airfield at Pranjani from bombing.  After working night and day with bare hands and simple farm tools to clear an improvised clandestine airfield in Pranjani, the airmen, local farmers and resistance forces were dismayed to see German reconnaissance planes flying towards them. They hid in the woods as the planes surveyed the cleared airfield and feared the worst – the field would be bombed and made useless. The German planes returned to observe the airfield for a second time, flying at a lower altitude, whereupon a small herd of cows entered the field and began to feed on the newly cut grass. Bored with looking at cows, the planes turned and departed, thus saving the airfield from destruction.  A journalist whose father was an Orthodox priest solemnly declared that God had sent those cows.

After the ceremony, we attended a blessing at the local Serbian Orthodox Church.  Next to the parish church was a simple wooden church – the original village church built in the eighteenth century by local farmers.

At the town’s school, children greeted us at the door with traditional bread and salt, while a brass band played to welcome us.  We were invited to a “snack” before lunch, a groaning board of delicious Serbian meat and cheese dishes, accompanied by local brandy. Thus fortified, we visited the school’s sports center, which was funded by the U.S. Embassy through the Defense Department, in appreciation for the wartime rescue of the U.S. airmen.   This project was the result of the hard work of many individuals under the dedicated leadership of Lt. Colonel John Cappello while he was Air Force Attaché at the embassy.

We watched a spirited soccer match at the sports center between the Pranjani and American Embassy teams. Most of the American Embassy team members were very tall, and we found out later that through a miscommunication, the Embassy had asked its basketball team to participate in the soccer match!  Pranjani won, 5 to 4 – not a bad showing for the embassy’s basketball team.

Back at the Jevtovic ranch, we enjoyed a delicious Serbian feast, including typical dishes of mushroom soup, assorted grilled meats, sauerkraut and baked beans, and apple pastries. Zoran showed the Hudspeth family the room where Charles Davis was sheltered seventy years ago.  With warm farewells to our generous hosts, we headed by to Belgrade.  Our van broke down along the way, but we reflected that this was a minor challenge compared to what the American airmen faced when they parachuted out of their burning planes into an unknown land occupied by the Nazis.

The next day, the organizers of the Halyard commemorations – John Cappello, and documentary filmmakers Daniel Sunter, Bojan Dragicevic, and Igor Sunter presented a photographic exhibit of the Halyard Mission in an elegant reception hall of the General Staff Headquarters in Topcider, in Belgrade.  The exhibit was by invitation only, because it was held in a secure military facility. The organizers plan to move the exhibit to the Military Museum in Kalimegdan Park in central Belgrade, which is open to the public.

Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic attended the exhibit and spoke with all of the visitors from the United States.  He emphasized the importance of public awareness of this story of wartime cooperation between the United States and Serbia during the Halyard Mission.

Later that evening, we had dinner with the Hudspeth family and the organizers of the commemorations at the traditional Belgrade restaurant “Vuk.”   We expressed our deep gratitude to the Serbian and American organizers, who, without government sponsorship or funding, dedicated themselves to researching the history of the Halyard Mission, organizing and financing this important commemoration and exhibition, and producing a soon-to-be released documentary film. They have established a non-profit Halyard Foundation in both the United States and Serbia, and I look forward to working with this talented and dedicated team.  We hope that others will join us in keeping the history of the Halyard Mission alive.

Xenia Vujnovich Wilkinson

October 2014