By Keith C. Epstein
The Plain Dealer Magazine
May 27, 1990
To the group of stranded American airmen he rescued during World War II, the Serbian guerrilla leader who once graced the cover of Time Magazine deserves a monument on federal land in Washington, D.C.
To others, including Croatian-Americans, he’s a villain who collaborated with the Nazis, slaughtered untold numbers of Croatians and Muslims, and thus deserves nothing short of infamy.
But to those whose decisions really count – officials at the U.S. State Department – Mihailovich’s war record is irrelevant. The fact is, he’s bad for diplomatic business. Always has been.
Today, with a fractious Yugoslavia sparring in a way that reminds experts of the ethnic unrest and communal unraveling during World War II, the chances of a Mihailovich memorial are slim.
“We can’t play national politics with Yugoslavia. The chances of Balkanization are too real,” says Jim Swihart, the State Department’s director of East European affairs. “It’s clear that to many in Yugoslavia, [building a memorial] would be a highly unfriendly act.”
“That’s what’s really sickening – our own countrymen are fighting us,” complains Richard L. Felman, who was among an estimated 500 U.S. fliers rescued by Mihailovich. “I fought two wars and now I’ve got to surrender to communist influence in my own country.”
Felman, a retired Air Force major, is waging a lonely battle for the memorial. He does so under the aegis of the National Committee of American Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich Inc. There’s even a letterhead, with the names of dozens of members and supporters, from Ronald Reagan to John Wayne. But mostly the National Committee of American Airmen rescued by General Mihailovich, Inc. is just Richard Felman, who has time on his hands and a P.O. Box in Tuscon, Arizona.
The story of the isolated historical figure, Mihailovich, is more than a footnote to a war that gripped the globe, more than a story of a retired American airman’s lonely attempt to come to terms with the price of his survival. The dispute illustrates how old ethnic sensitivities can erupt into bitter modern-day controversies that tie the political system in knots. Moreover, it shows how Washington’s foreign-policy concerns sometime outweigh the search for historical truth.
State Department officials say their actions are motivated by a desire to hold Yugoslavia together at a time when the nation’s unity appears more threatened than ever. According to Joseph Rothchild, an Oxford professor and author of a book on the political history of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia’s “always fragile interethnic balance is more precarious today than at any time since the end of World War II.”
In Yugoslavia, the signs of this disintegration are dramatic: Since the death, in 1980, of Mihailovich’s old civil war nemesis, dictator Josip Broz Tito, feuding has escalated. Leadership of a loose confederation works like a major-league pitching rotation, with leaders of six states taking turns at the helm. Prime Minister Ante Markovic, though strongly supported by the United States, is fighting an uphill battle because of these political problems and intercommunal violence. Most of the sparring is between liberal reformers, in Slovenia and Croatia, and conservatives in Serbia. Last March Slovenia declared economic independence from the central Yugoslavian government – demonstrating that four decades of domination by Tito, who was Croatian, and centralized communism have failed to quench the fires of ancient ethnic grudges and grievances.
“The last thing we want to do,” explains a State Department official, “is feed those fires.”
July 9, 1944. After a dawn bombing run on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, the American B-24 Liberators head back for the base in Lecce, Italy. Some of the fliers in 1st Lt. Richard Felman’s bomber are thinking about lunch. Some are talking about Italian women. It is 11:00 a.m. They are 20,000 feet above a brutal Balkan civil war.
Suddenly, a group of Nazi Messerschmitts looms on the horizon. Battle ensues. This is why Felman’s group calls itself the “Never-a-Dull-Moment Crew.” With a deadly rat-a-tat-tat, Felman’s plane is pocked full of holes. A gunner dies. The plane leaks gas. Amid flames, Felman and 10 others bail out, scattered by the wind. Felman lands alone in a cornfield, sees people running toward him, then spots the blood on his leg. Some shrapnel stays with him for life.
At first, he understands nothing of what these people say, or who they are. They take him to a small house, dab his wounds with slivovitz – plum brandy. Then these men – and Felman – drink, and drink, and drink.
“There I was, in the middle of a war zone, with who know who, getting drunk.” Next day, a man took Felman to a small chapel. There they prayed, side by side, without saying a word.
“The State Department’s doing what’s expedient, not what’s right,” argues Milton R. Copulos, a former researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. In his spare time, Copulos chips away at a scenario for a movie about Mihailovich. He sees drama in the story, but believes there’s also a troubling moral when well-meaning citizens, in their quest to say thanks, are later over-ruled by the niceties of international diplomacy.
“We set bad precedents when we oppose legitimate actions of U.S. citizens on the basis that it might upset some foreign government,” says Copulos. “Besides, the worst that would happen [with government sanction of a Mihailovich statue] is that it would be a minor embarrassment to the United States.
Dusan Zupan, a Washington correspondent for Yugoslavia’s Tanjug News Agency, says. “There’d be a very negative reaction, even in Serbia. It would not be a friendly gesture.” But even Zupan has better things to do than follow a controversy in Congress about building a statue. “I don’t write about it. It’s just not that important.”
Instability is hardly a new development in Yugoslavia, but the area once called the “powder keg of Europe” can still make the rest of the world edgy. After all, it was a local event – an assassination in Sarajevo in the name of Serbian nationalism – that triggered World War I.
Maps are deceptive; on it, Yugoslavia is the size of Wyoming and the biggest nation in southeastern Europe. In reality, it is home to two alphabets, three major religions, three main languages and, as the country’s politicians like to say, 23 million contentious people.”
Since Tito’s death [May 4, 1980], more people are discussing Mihailovich in the press and in speeches. But the discussion usually centers on Mihailovich’s ideas for Yugoslavia rather than his wartime deeds. And the new Yugoslav government’s attitude seems to have changed little. Warns Branislav Bajovic, first secretary at the Yugoslavian Embassy: If there is any significant move involving federal ground [in Washington, D.C.] the Yugoslavian government would be pretty upset.”
Diplomatic considerations aside, just what is the truth about this Ollie North of Serbo-Croatian relations?
The record – including reports from spies and special observers sent by the Allies, some of whom may have been trying to engineer Mihailovich’s downfall – is murky. However, many historians believe Mihailovich failed to consistently to the Allies’ bidding, thus engineering his own demise. During the war an English officer reported to higher-ups that Mihailovich was “reluctant to risk reprisals” from the Nazis. Initially, the British considered him helpful, but Churchill turned elsewhere – to Tito – after concluding Mihailovich had made pacts with the Nazis.
“He did save some people – American fliers,” explains John Russell, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations. “But he didn’t do many things to thwart the Nazis or the fascists in Italy. He turned his back on the Nazi movement and was more concerned with his own Serbo-Croatian battles.”
But a clear picture of Mihailovich’s role in the civil war within the world war is hard to obtain, and possibly clouded by the tricks of spies. Felman and some historians argue that such conclusions are based om a distorted historical record that covers up skeletons in Tito’s own closet, including the firing on Mihailovich’s troops from behind while Mihailovich was sparring with the Nazis.
Then again, many assert it was more the other way around – Mihailovich firing on Tito’s people. “We shall never forget the atrocities…which outweigh the good…in saving the lives of a group of American airmen,” says John P. Plesh, national secretary of the Croatian Fraternal Union of America. In congressional testimony, his group submitted long lists of villages, and next to each village name were notations such as “24 people taken to the forest and killed” and “32 thrown live into a precipice,” or simply “one thousand people.”
Tito’s attitude toward Mihailovich was cleazr. In 1946, following a controversial trial from which American airmen were barred as witnesses, he had his rival executed by a firing squad.
There was a separate, well-publicized but mostly symbolic hearing on this side of the Atlantic that exonerated Mihailovich. The late Frank J. Lausche, then Ohio’s governor, served on the committee that organized the hearing. In 1976, in a foreword to a book about the guerrilla leader, Lausche, who was of Slovenian descent, confided: “I bow my head in shame whenever I think of the terribly mistaken policy that led the Allied leaders to abandon General Draza Mihailovich.” In 1980, Mark Wheeler, a history professor at the University of Lancaster in England, concluded: “Mihailovich was not guilty of all, or even many, of the charges brought against him.”
More clear was this simple fact: Over the years, the United States had a strategic interest in keeping Tito happy. By force of personality, political mastery and defiance to the Kremlin, he managed to keep Yugoslavia in one piece. Even when Harry Truman awarded Mihailovich a high honor – giving him the Legion of Merit posthumously in 1948 for “undaunted efforts” in rescuing the American airmen and for being “instrumental” in the Allied victory – he did so secretly.
Twenty years passed before the award was declassified and made public.
To Felman, the issue of a monument in the city of monuments – to Jefferson, the Vietnam War, now to women in the military – is all-consuming. He has had a victory or two. In 1984 he persuaded the Encyclopedia Britannica to clean up its entry on Mihailovich by removing a reference to his “occasional collaboration” with the Germans. But still the monument eludes him.
“Sometimes I waver,” he acknowledges. “I say, ‘Felman, go on with your life. You can’t fight City Hall, in this case the State Department.’ But I saw Americans killed. I fought two wars. The reason we spend trillions for defense is so a fallen nation won’t interfere with our internal affairs. Yugoslavia’s making a damn sucker out of us.”
People have the impression that Congress can grapple with some of the weightiest issues of the day, but the Mihailovich controversy has proven too much. It dogs some politicians year after year – and leaves many straddling the fence. Even George V. Voinovich, the former Cleveland mayor now running for governor, delicately dodged the issue. It may be the result of an inner struggle; some of his ancestors were Serbs and some were Slovenians. At any rate, in 1985, Voinovich told Felman that “any issue which creates discord or divisiveness is out of the frame of my goals to promote harmonious unity among my fellow citizens.” Thus, said Voinovich, he was not going to “get involved.” A few years ago, Rep. Frank Annunzio, D-IL, put it more bluntly: “I don’t want to get caught in the middle of an ethnic fight.”
In 45 years of lobbying by the airmen, and counter-lobbying by Croatian-Americans, the issue has never come up for vote by the full Congress. The Senate passed bills in 1976 and 1977; both died before reaching the House floor. “It’s bigger than Congress,” says Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-20, of Cleveland. “The State Department has tremendous clout.”
Last June, Rep. Philip R. Crane, R-IL, whose constituents include many Serbians and in whose office “Mihailovich” is almost a household word, urged Secretary of State James A. Baker III to agree to the monument. Given events in Eastern Europe and “the present climate of openness” in which even the Soviet Union has admitted mistakes, Crane and 10 other congressmen argued it was time “finally to acknowledge an Allied hero.”
It wasn’t time.
Usually, the response from Congress is more like that of Rep. Dante Fascell, D-FL, who wrote Felman last February that too much was at stake – “not only the sensitivity of the Yugoslavian government, but…ethnic groups in Yugoslavia and the U.S.” Felman says of that letter: “I’m still throwing up.”
Back to the summer of 1944. The Nazis ferret out the downed American fliers, whose numbers are growing every day. But the mountainous area, about 60 miles southwest of Belgrade, without many roads, with too many hideouts, and with a messy civil war going on, is not the kind of place you send messages first, then troops. So the Nazis send a message. The message goes something like this: Turn over the American fliers or we’ll burn down a nearby village, Pranjane, and kill all 200 men, women and children there.
By now Felman has met Mihailovich, who strikes him as a kind, cautious man. At 51, the guerrilla leader has reached his prime. He is tough, was active in political bodies, was sent abroad on secret missions as a military attaché; but he also knows how to play the mandolin. Still, war is his trade; he entered the Serbian Military Academy at 15.
The Americans suggest they turn themselves in to spare the lives of the villagers. Mihailovich pauses, shakes his hand, as Felman remembers it.
“We have a saying,” intones the Serbian guerrilla leader. “Bolje grob nego rob.” He is speaking through a translator, a woman schoolteacher who knows Serbo-Croatian, French and English. “He says, ‘We have a saying: Better a grave than a slave,’” she explains. “If we return you and you do one more mission and drop one more bomb, that’ll do more for the cause of freedom than our 200 men, women and children can do. Freedom has a high price.”
The next day, while Felman and his colleagues are safely tucked away in farmhouses in the hills, the Germans torch the village.
For the next five weeks, Felman can’t get the idea of the those flames out of his mind. They stay with him even now. “I still get tearful about it,” he says in Arizona in 1990. “Why am I doing this, fighting for this memorial? Maybe it’s not Mihailovich exactly. Maybe it’s for the 200 women and children. Who knows?”
August 1944. With daily bombing raids, mostly into Romania, of 500 or more planes, the American airmen sequestered in the hills now number close to 250. Mihailovich has a radio transmitter, but the fliers know no secret codes. So their frantic pleas for help are little more than hopeless messages sent into the air. The Allies would be doubtful of any messages without a code, they knew. How would the Americans or British know it wasn’t a Nazi trap? Still, the fliers tapped away at the radio. It goes on for five weeks.
In the end, perhaps they owe their lives not to Mihailovich, but to a bartender whose name Felman can no longer recall. The message goes something like this: “Italy: United States Air Force. We are about to devise a code. For the letter ‘A’ we will use the first initial in the name of the bartender at the officer’s club in Lecce.” It works. They are told to light flare pots to identify their location. Four nights later, at about 10, there’s the buzz of an airplane overhead. Within the hour, an intelligence officer, a team of radiomen armed with transmitter code and a plan, land on a chicken coop. Amid the squealing of chickens, there’s much rejoicing of fliers.
Mihailovich’s guerrillas, known as Chetniks, make a runway out of a cow pasture. They tear down trees to make room, then line the runway with flare pots to light the way. On August 9, the C-47 transports start rumbling in – and, as quickly as possible, out again. Plane after plane, 20 airmen to a plane. The fliers strip, leaving their clothes with the ragtag Chetniks and needy peasants. And, in their underwear, they fly to freedom.
The Mihailovich memorial is one of those topics, like making the District of Columbia the 51st state, that never goes away. Obligingly, members of Congress have shaken the requisite number of hands and inserted letters from the airmen and the Croatians into the Congressional Record, which generally impresses constituents but isn’t necessarily a record of what really happens in Congress. They have introduced legislation knowing it would go nowhere. Every now and then, they even hold hearings.
The last one was in 1985. Oakar conducted it. Then chairwoman of a subcommittee on libraries and memorials, she found herself having to bang the gavel repeatedly to restore order as witnesses bickered among themselves. This doesn’t happen too often in the subcommittee on libraries and memorials.
Monuments have been proposed for naturalists, anti-war demonstrators – even housewives and dogs. But in a capital already overflowing with 113 memorials and plaques, most interest groups have little hope of securing a choice location.
Felman had no illusions. “It was nothing but a token hearing,” he complains. “It’s disgraceful. Half her constituents are Serbian and half are Croatian. I suppose that’s what a politician does.”
“If he’s bitter,” responds Oakar, “I can understand that. But I think he was bitter before I met him.”
She now offers a compromise. The federal government has excess land, some of it off the beaten track and some of it rather unkempt. But it is federal land in Washington. And so, Oakar advocates this solution: She wants the government to sell some of this excess land “at cost” to Felman’s group. Members get their memorial, which if not next to Jefferson, would at least be in Washington; the Croatian-Americans will be mollified; and the State Department could say the statue isn’t on federal land.
“A compromise should be worked out,” she says. “I see this as an issue that does not relate necessarily to the politics of Yugoslavia. It’s an issue of soldiers, American veterans, whose lives were saved. They’re not interested in the politics of whose side you’re on in Yugoslavia.”
Keith C. Epstein
The Plain Dealer Magazine
May 27, 1990