66 years after D-Day, Boynton veteran recalls act of kindness / Milton Friend remembers General Mihailovich on the anniversary of D-Day
THE PALM BEACH POST
June 6, 2010
66 years after D-Day,
Boynton veteran recalls act of kindness
BOYNTON BEACH — Milton Friend expected his D-Day mission to take eight hours, but it ended up taking 66 days.
Sixty-six years ago today, Friend – then a 21-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the Army Air Corps – was part of a diversionary mission over Romania designed to draw German fighters away from northern France, where Allied troops stormed the Normandy beaches in the largest amphibious assault in history.
“It worked. They attacked us,” says Friend, an 87-year-old native of Passaic, N.J., who now lives in Boynton Beach.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Friend was navigating one of 800-plus B-24 Liberator Bombers on a raid of the heavily guarded Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
Moments after Friend’s B-24 bombed a nearby city’s railroad yards, a pair of German ME-109s came gunning for the Americans.In a single pass, the notorious Nazi fighter planes hit the No. 4 engine of Friend’s plane. The right wing caught fire – it was curling up, turning to ash 16,000 feet off the ground.
For the 10 men inside, it was as if a short fuse had been lit. Because the gas lines on a B-24 were located in the wings, the planes “had a reputation for blowing up,” Friend says.
The pilot gave the order to bail out. Now 13,000 feet over Yugoslavia, they jumped.
Friend was in free fall for almost 2 miles above the Earth, waiting till he could clearly see treetops and roofs before he pulled his ripcord. When he did, the two ME-109s came back, buzzing him close enough that he saw one pilot’s face. They held their fire.
In the silence that followed, Friend says, “I looked up in the sky and said, ‘Thanks, God.’ ”
Friend and the surviving crew members (the nose gunner did not make it) were rounded up by Serbian townspeople and, under the protection of Chetnik soldiers, were hidden from Germans in the mountains of Yugoslavia.
The Chetniks were a guerrilla group led by Gen. Draja Mihailovic, a man whom Time magazine in 1942 had called the “sole defender of freedom in Nazi-occupied Europe.”
By 1944, Great Britain and the U.S. had thrown their support behind Marshal Tito’s Partisans, but the Chetniks remained friendly to American servicemen.
“They said they would lay down their lives for us,” Friend says.
And the Serbian peasants the Allies met during those weeks in Yugoslavia “would welcome us with open arms. They’d give us their beds. They shared their food.”
On Aug. 9 and 10, 1944, Friend and roughly 200 other American airmen were flown to safety from a Chetnik-built air field in the hills of Serbia.
Referred to as the Halyard Mission, the rescue was the largest airlift of Americans from behind enemy lines during World War II.
Back in Italy, Friend was reunited with his identical twin, Murray. Like Milton, Murray was a navigator in the Army Air Corps, and both brothers went on to long and distinguished careers with the Air Force.
Friend figures that the twins probably had more combined combat flying time, in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, than any other American family.
In 1969, Friend retired from the Air Force and went to work at the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service.In the decades that followed, he and other rescued airmen tried to spread the word about how Mihailovic had saved the lives of more than 500 American airmen in 1944.
Mihailovic and the Chetniks “did everything they could do because we were Americans,” Friend says. “And they weren’t treated like they should have been. It went in one ear and out the other.”
Indeed, Tito would eventually arrest Mihailovic on charges of war crimes and treason, and have him executed as a traitor in 1946.
Monuments and plaques commemorating Mihailovic have been unveiled in many major U.S. cities, but “we couldn’t get him one in D.C.,” Friend says.