The American Airman and the Serbian Chetnik / Halyard Mission veteran Lt. Col. Milton Friend and Chetnik Nick (“Beli”) Mihajlovich meet for the first time 70 years after history was made in Serbia!
Aleksandra’s Note: One of the great highlights of the Chetnik Family Reunion at St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, IL on July 19, 2014 was the opportunity to meet Mr. Nick (“Beli”) Mihajlovich. Thanks to his daughter Danica, who was also present, the two of us met for the first time and I learned that Nick was seeking to meet the living Halyard Mission veterans so that he could share his personal story of having lived through those historic days in 1944 in WWII Yugoslavia as a young boy.
Through subsequent correspondence with Nick’s other daughter, Judy Mihajlovich, we were able to facilitate a meeting with Halyard Mission WWII veteran Lt. Col. Milton Friend of the USAF. Just one month after my learning of Nick’s quest, he was becoming acquainted and sharing his story with Lt. Col. Friend in person, and it turned out to be an incredible, meaningful day for both of them and their loved ones.
What follows is a unique Halyard Mission true story that I hope you will enjoy. The first is Judy Mihajlovich’s description of the August 2014 day she will never forget and the second is Nick Mihajlovich’s story. Many thanks to Judy for sharing this wonderful testimony with us.
Shortly after the day they spent together, Lt. Col. Friend shared with me how pleased and grateful he was for the unique opportunity to meet one of the Serbians he values so much and how much he enjoyed the day.
God bless the veterans, both American and Serbian, who kept their vivid memories alive all these years and for sharing them with all of us so that we may carry their legacy on. And thank you to them for never forgetting what General Mihailovich and his Chetniks did for the Allies in the hard days of 1944.
“An American Airman and a Chetnik”
By Judy Mihajlovich
A meeting that felt both historic and at the same time so very personal, watching these two men, who had never met before but shared an experience they both felt so passionate about, was electric!
On Wednesday August 20th we went to Boynton Beach, Florida so that my dad (Nick ‘Beli’ Mihajlovich) could meet with Lt. Col. (ret.) Milton Friend, one of the ‘Forgotten 500’. Along with my mom (Olga) we arrived at the home of Milton and Shirley Friend in a beautiful gated community in Boynton Beach. They greeted us at the door, Tata gave pink roses to ‘the lady of the house’ and then Milton came out and greeted us with handshakes and kisses. We were not in their home for more than sixty seconds when the two of them began to speak animatedly, so anxious to tell the other one their own story and at the same time ask questions they both had clearly thought about for a long time! Questions were flying between the two ofthem: “Where did you land when you had to parachute in? Do you remember the dates you escorted the airmen? What village are you from? Where were you hiding? What roads did you take?” and on and on and on…
Mrs. Friend (Shirley) and I were desperate to get them to pause…. to give us a chance to get our cameras and video set up! She’d prepared a beautiful lunch and the plan had been to sit down over lunch to get acquainted before the two of them would sit together to speak with each other, to share their experiences, to share their memorabilia and to ask questions they’ve wanted to ask of an airman and a Chetnik for a very long time. They had other ideas!
We eventually sat down to the lovely lunch Shirley prepared. Everyone shared their background and the two couples shared stories of their families. Milton was fascinated to learn my dad’s story of being the youngest of four brothers and becoming a young Chetnik when he turned sixteen; anxious to join the others in the fight for freedom. How he eventually escaped from the communists, going underground and finding his way to Italy. Never dreaming he would be able to immigrate to the United States…then the fateful day Svetozar Maravich arrived at the Camp with the list of those to be sponsored by the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States! Incredibly his name was on the list and just as Mr. Maravich promised…two months later he was on his way to America.
Milton told of his family’s military history. One of four brothers as well, he and his twin brother were both decorated Air Force veterans who flew countless missions in World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. Incredibly committed to protecting and serving our country, these brothers served in some of the most critical situations putting their lives in danger for decades.
We were struck and humbled by the display of Serbian memorabilia in their home. The photos of Draza Mihailovich…the Serbian flag…his sajkaca (Chetnik hat)!…the storyboards that showed his plane, a picture of the type of German bomber that attacked them…photos of Serbian villagers and airmen together… Countless articles written about his story where he praised the Serbian people endlessly for their courage and commitment to the wellbeing of the American airmen. The list goes on and on…
In 2010 the Friends [Milton and Shirley] traveled to Serbia so that Milton could testify at the Rehabilitation hearing for Draza. When my dad asked how he was able to do this when no one there really wanted to hear from Americans wanting to speak on behalf of Draza and the Chetniks, Milton replied, “No one was going to stop me!” After he testified, the Friends traveled across Serbia on that trip meeting people and seeing what they described as a ‘beautiful country’ from Belgrade to Oplenac and many points of interest in between. Shirley shared the story of their arrival. Landing in Belgrade she expected to collect their luggage and find their way to the hotel. But when the doors of the baggage hall opened they walked out into a complete frenzy! There were hundreds of people cheering and waving welcoming banners. The media was there and covered their arrival across all the news outlets. She said, “We were treated like rock stars!” My dad was bursting with pride hearing them tell this story. When she finished telling us about their trip she showed us a beautiful scrap book filled with photos of the people they met, the places they’d visited across Serbia and then she showed us one particularly stunning memento of that trip. A beautifully painted wooden icon of St. George.
Milton prepared a binder for my father. It included copies of news articles, photos and a copy of the story he has written about his own experiences and rescue by the Serbs. Every page reflects his love and respect for Draza’s Chetniks and the Serbian people in general. Along with the other ‘Forgotten 500’ he would love to see the real story of this great rescue brought to life on the big screen.
Milton lights up when he speaks of his meetings with Draza and the way he led the Chetniks to deliver every one of the airmen to safety. His own story began when he parachuted in on June 6, 1944 and landed high up in a tree. Two men and a young boy cut him down from that tree and hid him in the back of an ox cart and took him up into the mountains. He was kept alive and safe in Serbia for over sixty days before being rescued. Like the others he eventually arrived in Pranjani, the makeshift airfield the Americans and Serbians built together (without tools or equipment), where the planes could sneak in to rescue the airmen. He left Serbia on August 10th, 1944 (ironically my father’s birthday).
My father was not one of the men involved in Milton’s rescue but was responsible for helping nine other airmen in early July. On that day as a young Chetnik his village Commander asked if he knew how to go from their village of Godacica to Pecenog. When he described how he would make the journey the commander pointed to a group of men sitting near the municipal building and said his orders were to escort those men. When my father asked who they were the commander only replied they were ‘our allies’. He said, “I hold you responsible” and then he pulled out his gun, held it to my father’s forehead and said, “If anything happens to any of these men, this is what you will get.” With that as a sendoff, he took them on their journey and safely delivered these men to the next checkpoint on their way to Pranjani. He told Milton one of the men wrote something on a piece of paper but in a language he didn’t understand…he threw the paper away. He says this is one of the greatest regrets he has to this day. (I have attached his own short story to this note.) [See below.]
Over the years Milton has told his story to the media, given speeches to students and other organizations, telling the story of the events of seventy years ago with as much passion and love as if they’d happened yesterday. He says, “This was the greatest rescue of American servicemen in our United States history…by one of the greatest men…Draza Mihailovich, and his Chetniks.”
He says our friends are the Serbian people. Included among the small Serbian related gifts we gave them was a copy of the 100th Anniversary book of the St. George Serbian Church of East Chicago, Indiana. This book chronicals the history of the many families in our Church, several of whom fought the battle before immigrating. We wanted to show them that the younger generations continue to keep the history alive. He loved it!
Listening to this man speak about it all with such love and passion in his voice so impressed my father and mother and brought tears to my eyes.
Watching and listening to these two men speak with each other was an experience I will never forget as long as l live.
A young Chetnik’s story…
By Nick (Beli) Mihajlovich
April 6, 1941
Germany and Italy along with their satellites attacked the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and occupied it within just two weeks. I was 15 years old at the time. I enjoyed listening to old warriors as they proudly talked about past wars and now they were disappointed, confused, and some were saying this occupation would last forever because all of Europe was under Nazi occupation.
We did not hear even one gun fired, but the news was about capitulation and Germany mobilized their military; they were thundering on our highways from Kragujevac to Kraljevo heading south. Suddenly we heard an officer by the name of Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovich declared he would not recognize capitulation. Instead, he would continue to fight the invaders and his starting point was Ravna Gora (flat forest). He had a few officers with him that he dispatched to some locations throughout Serbia with instructions to organize and arm and most of all to train young men aged sixteen and older. I turned sixteen on August 10, 1941 and joined the training center above the village of Zimovnik.
Our village of Godacica was part of the Ravna Gora movement. The head of our local Ravna Gora organization was Commander Milorad Curlic, and the secretary was our school teacher (I have forgotten his name). Milorad was a very respected man and if he asked us to do something, we did it….no questions asked. One Saturday morning early in July 1944 I was with my cousin Dragisa and we walked from our staro celo to Godacica to find out our schedule for the following week. Most of the time our duties included guarding the roads around Godacica and other services. That day we met Commander Curlic, and he asked if I knew the village of Pecenog and if I were to go there what direction I would take. I explained the route I would take: through the village of Panjevac then Milakovac followed by crossing the railroad and highway to Pecenog. He said, “Very good. Do you see those men sitting in front of the municipal building? You are going to escort them to Pecenog.” I asked who they were and he only replied they were our allies. He then said, “I hold you responsible,” and he pulled out his gun, held it to my forehead and said, “If anything happens to any of these men, this is what you will get.”
There were nine of them, my cousin followed behind the group so no one would get lost. One was injured and limping so we had to walk slowly so he could walk using a piece of wood as a crutch. We walked a long time and then came upon wild blackberries beside the road. They were so sweet and we stopped for a few minutes so they could eat them. Then we had to go so I said “Hajde, hajde!” (come on let’s go!) They didn’t understand me, they just repeated my words until I had to yell “HAJDE, HAJDE!!!” and motioned for them to quickly follow. I was so afraid to take too long because we had to cross the highway which was patrolled by the Germans. We made it safely to the next meeting point. We met the next escorts in Pecenog. When I left the nine of them I saluted each of them to indicate I was leaving them with their next escort. One of these men found a piece of paper and wrote something on it. He handed it to me and I saluted them again and they all saluted back as though on command.
As Dragisa and I walked back to Godacica I looked at the piece of paper. It seemed to be an address but it was written in a language I didn’t understand. They didn’t speak Serbian and I had no idea what language they spoke! So never dreaming I would ever have the need for it, I threw the piece of paper away. This is my biggest regret to this day.
When we got back I reported to Commander Curlic that the mission was accomplished and the nine men were safely escorted to their destination. He said, ‘Thank you very much.”
I said, “May I ask who those men were that we escorted?” He said, “Yes, they are Americans and I could not tell you this before because if the Germans captured you they would have forced you to tell them everything about our secret airport at Pranjani.” The Americans were bombing the petrol fields and refineries in Romania which supplied fuel for the German military. This was happening throughout the spring and summer of 1944. On their return these airmen were forced to parachute into Yugoslavia when their planes were attacked.
We were Chetniks and we had our orders…to protect and save them at all costs and escort them to Pranjani.
Nick (Beli) Mihajlovich
To read about Lt. Col. Milton Friend’s story, please feel free to go to:
Marking the 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE HALYARD MISSION RESCUE OPERATION OF WWII August 2014 / Lt. Col. Milton Friend of the USAF, Halyard Mission veteran, desires American debt to General Mihailovich repaid.
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org